Okay, then. I promised a post on this. If you didn’t read the linked article from Friday’s post, you can go do that now. Or, not. It’s not a surprise to anybody that well-rounded, non-stereotypical female characters are mostly absent in the starring role, whether we’re talking about books, movies, TV, or whatever.
As a kid, I read lots of books with female protags. I don’t remember thinking these characters were inferior to their male counterparts. I also never questioned if they “should” be doing or saying the things they were doing and saying, or if those things were more appropriate for men. I sort of took the world as it appeared to me and didn’t try to read nefarious meanings into things.
Well then, of course, I grew up. What a shock that was.
Written for Their Time
But let’s talk about a hero of my innocent youth: Nancy Drew. She had all kinds of smarts, was a strong leader, fair, and good. I don’t remember her ever asking for permission for anything. It’s true, she WAS dependent on a man (her father) for her support, but hey, she was only 18 years old. She had a boyfriend who occasionally helped out with mystery solving, along with her two girlfriends and their boyfriends. But Nancy ran the show. The guys never showed up and took over for the ladies. They were strictly sidekicks. I don’t think they were even in every book.
It’s true, no one actually dated, and everyone was unfailingly polite. There was never a mention (that I remember) of anyone going to college or having a job. The books were sort of unrealistic in that way, or maybe my memory is hazy. Everyone was also white, good looking, and wealthy. This was the early 60’s and written with 60’s sensibilities. I believe the series continued to be written for many years. Maybe they improved.
Anyway, as a hero, Nancy rocked. She saw what needed to be done, and she did it. Or delegated. She understood the strengths of her people and she let them use those strengths. She never apologized for being a woman or even for being young. For me, this was very empowering. I internalized that, whether I realized it or not. So I grew up confident in my abilities. Sadly, I didn’t have a script to follow, and neither did the people around me. Especially the people around me. If they’d only known their lines, things would have gone a lot better for me back then.
Writing Female Protagonists
Of course, in thinking about all of this, I decided to go back and look at my own writing. Now, I do have female protags and I think they’re pretty strong characters. It’s important to me that I write women who live full lives and have equal status in the world. But each character is different and has to come to this in her own way.
Casey – The Time Travel Journals: Shipbuilder
Casey was my first female character and she’s part of an ensemble cast. But she has a real battle to wage for equality. We don’t meet her before the accident that takes her back in time to 1906, but she makes it very clear who she was and who she expected to be. Born in California in the late 20th century, she had no doubt of her equal status with men. It was in her blood and bones, and there was nothing Edwardian Ireland could do to convince her otherwise.
Shipbuilder was mostly about Thomas Andrews, and Casey’s story is wrapped up in his. The book ends at the resolution of the Titanic sinking. But if I had a chance to write about the rest of Casey’s life in the early 20th century, we would see that she never backed down. Women were fighting for equality, dying and imprisoned in that battle, and our Casey would be right at the front, not just leading the charge, but with knowledge of how to make the fight better and more inclusive of ALL women, of any race, nationality, or sexual orientation. She would have confronted the Church and the government about the Magdalene Laundries, and insisted that women’s equality included the right to say NO to forced sex, and even the right to choose whether to bear a child. She would join the fight for better wages and working conditions for men and insist it applied to women too.
Oh, our Casey had red hair for a reason. She was a firecracker. If I ever get around to finishing the third book in this series, you just may get to see some of this.
Moira and Sarah – The Time Travel Journals: Bridgebuilder
Sarah is one of my favorite characters. She’s Casey’s granddaughter, born in an alternate universe changed by the presence of time travelers. In 1980, Sarah is an engineer like her grandfather was, except she builds spaceships rather than ocean vessels. Thanks to her grandmother, Sarah never had to fight to get a science education or a job just like a man with her degree would have. It’s just the way the world is.
Sarah is happiest when she’s tinkering in the lab, figuring out how to create working machines. She’s MacGyver with overies, a hacker of chemicals, computers, machines, and neutrons. More than her male co-characters, Sam and Andy, Sarah is the real “bridgebuilder” in this book, the person who builds the machines that do what Sam or Andy want them to do.
Moira, on the other hand, has to fight for every step she takes. She’s a 17-year old school girl in the first universe, living on an unstable Earth in 2080. Much of the planet has become uninhabitable for humans. Governments have fallen apart, puppets of religious leaders and war lords. As the step-daughter of a politically powerful and violent preacher, Moira is destined for early marriage and a lifetime of beatings and bearing children. It doesn’t matter that a teacher called her “the next Einstein or Hawking.” On this Earth, women do what men tell them.
I know that seems excessive and perhaps it makes the story sound cliché-ish. But I’m only extrapolating from the rumblings of many of today’s religious extremists. Hey, I’ve been a religious extremist. I know the kind of world they want to see, and it’s a writer’s job to explore what life can look like if we follow certain paths.
Moira needs a lot of help to escape her prison, so she is not your usual, strong, kick-ass heroine. But this is what happens in real life. Moira doesn’t have super strength or a top-notch talent with deadly weapons, or even great courage. She does have a brilliant mind, intense curiosity, big dreams, and tenacity. And she has people who love her and see her potential. Some of those people put their lives on the line to help her, but here’s the thing: she doesn’t let them down. Even with help, the only way to escape a prison is to make the effort, and take the chances you get. And the best way to stay out of a prison is to build a new life, and Moira shines at that. She’s got her eyes on the stars and she’s not stopping until she gets there.
Oy, look at the time, and I’ve only covered two books! This is longish, too, so I’m going to publish it and give you a part 3.
Who are your favorite heroines? What do you look for in a good female protagonist?