Thursday, March 4, 2010

Heroines--Oh How They've Changed

It's been a while since we've seen a heroine like Elizabeth Bennet--strong-willed but gentle, respectful but with a mind of her own. Instead, quite a few fantasy and science fiction novels today portray their heroines as Xena--an in-your-face woman who don't take no crap from nobody. Though Xena may have been strong physically, she lacked the one thing that gives every woman her true strength--femininity. Instead, Xena was just a man with boobs.

And that's the trend I've noticed with a lot of books in general, but with speculative fiction especially. Instead of portraying real women and highlighting their real strengths, writers tend to describe these badass girls in tight war gear, kicking the toosh out of every man that challenges them. And that get's boring. And quite frankly, it's not realistic.

I've mentioned a few times on this blog that I served in the military. Well, I learned a few things during my service. One of them may or may not seem pretty obvious: the average man is physically superior to the average woman. It's true. The U.S. military accepts this fact and has taken it into consideration when designing the PT tests. The female's test requires less push-ups and a slower run time than the male's. However, women are better sharpshooters and are better able to handle the mental strain of war.

Face it ladies, if you were to go up against a man of equal or greater body size and expertise in fighting, you would probably lose. A man's body is designed for physical combat; a woman's is not.

But don't get me wrong. I am by no means saying that a woman, and your heroine, is or should be weak. Quite the contrary. There's nothing unrealistic about a woman being trained for combat and excelling at it, but author intrusion rears its ugly little head when the heroine is up against a group of baddies that she has to battle all by herself, all of them just as well-trained as she is and she beats them without breaking a nail. This isn't real and you've run the risk of losing the reader.

Enter Ultraviolet. This movie was about one thing and one thing only: a gorgeous unstoppable woman, the picture of perfection. And it was stupid. I mean, come on. If you clicked the link, you would have seen this woman just dodge the unceasing rounds of about 6 gunmen who are three feet from her. And yet for all this physical beauty and superpowers, she lacked femininity. If you replaced her with a gorgeous man, the character would have been exactly the same.

You want a real heroine that real women can connect with and wish to be like? Give her real strengths and weaknesses. Make her a superhero, but don't make her unstoppable. One thing that women all over the world have in common is that probably more than anything else, we want to make an emotional connection with someone else (it doesn't have to be a romantic one, either). It is our greatest strength and weakness. A real woman isn't like Xena--a cold, unfeeling person who thinks nothing of killing dozens of men at a time. We feel, we form attachments, and we make stupid decisions because of them.

Terry Goodkind is probably my favorite modern author because of this. All of his female characters are amazingly strong, but they all are the picture of femininity. The Mother Confessor, the most powerful woman in the Midlands, able to subdue even the most powerful wizard with a touch, is described as graceful and regal. She wears a flowing white dress and keeps her hair long. The Mord Sith, women trained from childhood to torture prisoners and able to withstand pain that could kill any other person, are motherly towards Richard, the MC.

This is what we writers must do when forming our characters. We can make them strong, the strongest person to ever live, but we must make them real.

~Emily White


  1. Every word of this is true. So many of the female characters we see these days in films and books are not realistic because they're not women. They're fantasies.

    That's one of the reasons why I LOVE Laura Kinsale. She writes romance books that stand out in my mind as masterpieces because all of her characters are real, especially the women. They're strong and they have their talents but they're still women and they're real, with flaws and weaknesses and fears. They cannot be put in the position of a man and be counted on to behave the same way because they won't.


  2. Thanks, everyone! This is something that I feel very passionate about. I'm glad it resonates with you as well.

  3. Oops. I meant crunches. xD I meant I can do more crunches than them in 30 seconds than they are able to. My bad. I got a bit distracted with someone else. x.x Talking about video games and writing this probably wasn't the best choice.

  4. Rereading the blog, I guess what got me in a rant was the whole saying women who are like Xena do not have a feminine touch or aren't real women. That may be so that she does not have a feminine touch, but maybe that is her weakness. Some women have gone through hardships that make them cold, unfeeling type of woman. Not having that feminine touch, that feminine feel is a vulnerability to a woman. It just depends how the writer wants to go with a woman.

  5. Abigail, I love that you are so passionate about this stuff. And don't worry about leaving lots of comments. The more, the merrier!

    I will say this, though. I think you might have missed some of my points. My fault, not yours. I should have brought them out more. For example, I never said that women cannot be physically strong and kick the butt out of people, but were a woman to go against a man of equal or greater strength and expertise with the same sort of weapon, she would struggle, and likely lose (it's simple physics). My problem is seeing all these characters beat the crap out of somebody without breaking a sweat and then walk off to do the exact same thing somewhere else. There's no pause to show the human side.

    Women, despite how they're trained and raised, will always retain a hint of femininity. My roommate in Iraq was the stereotypical "butch" woman in the military, but she was very sensitive and loving. She intimidated many of the males with her strength, but she also formed close bonds with them. She was a strong woman, but she was a woman.

    There is nothing unfeminine about strength (many women are superior to men in many things--crunches being one of them, due to muscles needed for labor), and I never intended to give the impression that I thought so. Reread what I said about Terry Goodkind's female characters.

    Xena is a flat character. There is nothing about her that makes her special. She's strong and that's it. That's the trend I'm seeing with a lot of writers today. They want to make a strong female character so they make her the best at everything, but that doesn't excite readers. What excites readers is a real woman (or man) perhaps kicking the butt out of the baddies, but right after having a real human moment with another character.

    Find out where women really do excel (for example, the crunches thing, sharpshooting, and mental stamina) and use that. Don't enhance a woman's abilities to the point where it's not real. A woman would have to be pretty strong to be able to lift and wield a battle axe or broad sword, and yet I see a lot of these characters described as slender little vixens picking them and swinging them like they're feathers. Not reality.

    I really am very happy that you get so passionate about this! That's what I want--people just HAVING to weigh in on something I said. Keep doing it!

  6. Emily, I think the only reason why I might have missed some of your points is because the last time I saw Xena, I was like six years old. xD

  7. You raise some excellent points and I agree that the tendency in film and literature lately has leaned away from realism. Give me a flawed hero...male or female...anyday.


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