This past semester, the amazing Monika and myself made a presentation on writing female heroes for a creative writing class we were taking. The class is over and I figured Monika’s hard work (she did most of the research) was too interesting to go to waste, so here it is below. I had to change things, obviously (from powerpoint to blog format), but in essence this is what we wrote. I will, I hope, do a few more posts on the writing side of the children’s literature world, because writing, rewriting, and editing is fascinating.
Dear classmates [and readers],
For us writers, characters can be difficult folk. Especially those that want to embark on a quest of some sort. You know, the hero types. They’re just not satisfied with simply staying at home and having a nice cup of chai, as much as you try to convince them that there would be a lot less hardship if they’d stay in their comfy armchair.
But then again, there would be no adventure. More importantly, there would also be a lot less character growth.
We’ll discuss items to consider when writing a female hero. We’ll start by looking at the hero’s journey and then analyze certain differences in regards to the heroine’s journey. We will then examine points to consider when writing a female character embarking on a “hero’s journey,” and finish off with recommended reads. Discussion questions are dispersed throughout.
Thanks for reading! We look forward to discussing this more with you in the comments.
Monika & Janet
The Hero’s Journey
Joseph Campbell (Hero with a Thousand Faces) articulates that there is a certain format that most hero journeys follow. Let’s have a look at Campbell’s formatting of the hero’s journey. For reference, we have added comparisons to The Hunger Games.
As writers, we introduce the protagonist of our story in their “ordinary” world. We indicate a mixture of setting and personal history, so readers can have a decent grasp on where this main character is in his life. Readers want to like their protagonist, so the hero is usually portrayed in a sympathetic light.
- Uncomfortable with some aspect of her life
- Under some sort of stress as a result of her environment
Oh hey, Katniss: Your Hunger Games parallel
- In The Hunger Games, we are introduced to Katniss’ world, an apocalyptic future where the poor are extremely poor. There is an annual reaping where children are selected to participate in the Hunger Games, murdering their adversaries until only one remains. We start the novel with Katniss seeking food for her family, a stressful situation as a result of her current world.
The call to adventure
BOOM! CHANGE! As writers, this is when we throw a wrench into our character’s life. This forces our protagonist to pull out of that armchair, ditch the chai, and evaluate where she is in her life. The hero has to finally face the fact that her life is about to radically change.
Oh hey, Katniss
- Katniss’ 12-year-old sister is chosen in the reaping to be District 12’s female tribute. Katniss volunteers to take her place as tribute.
Refusal of the call
Your hero isn’t too sure if she really wants to take this wrench you’ve thrown at her and run with it. She’s looking longingly back at the armchair. At this point, she may need an extra push from someone. As the Writer’s Journey puts it, your hero “is facing the greatest of all fears – fear of the unknown.”
Oh hey, Katniss
- Katniss doesn’t have a chance to “refuse” her call to action, but she does experience a huge flux of emotion when she is forced to say goodbye quickly to her family.
Meeting with the mentor
An individual with the word WISE stamped on his/her forehead now enters the picture. This WISE individual is full of advice to impart on his/her young mentee. It should be noted that the mentor will not make the entire journey with the protagonist. Your hero needs to make it on her own eventually!
Oh hey, Katniss
- Katniss’s mentor (though initially grouchy and petulant) is Haymitch, who helps her navigate the social workings of the Capitol and prepare for her entry into the Hunger Games.
Crossing the threshold
This is where the “ordinary” world is left in the dust. We’re entering the Special World, folks, and there are no take backs now. We’re committed as authors to taking our hero on the rest of his journey.
Oh hey, Katniss
- Katniss officially enters the Hunger Games. Run!
Tests, allies, and enemies
In this Special World, it’s good to have friends. But your protagonist, well, not everyone is going to love her. This is when life becomes a lot harder for your hero – she’s undergoing challenges and tests which are part of her training.
Oh hey, Katniss
- Katniss needs to survive, plain and simple. She needs to find water, food, and avoid the rest of the tributes. Everyone’s her enemy, except maybe that pretty boy, Peeta. But wait, no, he’s an enemy! He’s hunting her! No, no, actually he’s looking out for her. He saves her life. (That’s because he wants to make out with you, honey.) Katniss later allies with small and sneaky Rue of District 11.
Approach to the inmost cave
This is when the DANGER light begins blinking. Your protagonist is approaching the deep underground where the “object of the quest” is concealed.
Oh hey, Katniss
- Now Katniss has a dependent. Peeta is severely injured and literally cave-bound. Katniss has to tend her ally and deceive the Capitol about the nature of her and Peeta’s relationship, or the audience and sponsors will turn against her and support her enemies. She also needs to seek out medicinal aid for Peeta.
- The object of Katniss’ quest? To survive.
This is where you need to crush your hero. (Figuratively speaking.) Your hero needs to hit rock bottom, face the prospect that death is perhaps right in front of her. As the Writer’s Journey details, “this is the critical moment in any story, an ordeal in which the hero appears to die and be born again. It’s a major source of the hero myth. What happens is that the audience has been led to identify with the hero. We are encouraged to experience the brink-of-death feeling with the hero. We are temporarily depressed, and then we are revived by the hero’s return from death.”
Oh hey, Katniss
- Katniss and Peeta face their final enemy: Cato. To up the ante, Gamemakers also sic mutts on the final tributes. Katniss deals with the mutts and Cato… and then finds out only herself or Peeta can live. Katniss and Peeta decide to ingest toxic nightlock berries in a desperate bid to force the Capitol to allow them both to live, or, if not, to die together.
Seizing the sword, the reward
Your hero is alive! Hurrah! Now, she deserves some sort of cookie for surviving that hazardous experience. This is the treasure she’s been seeking this entire time, and now she’s able to claim it. The hero may also “settle a conflict” with her “shadowy nemesis” or be reconciled with a loved one as part of her reward.
Oh hey, Katniss
- Katniss is allowed to live! And so is Peeta! Thanks to ingenuity! (For Katniss, cookie = life.) Now they’ve been declared victors and are allowed to both go home.
The road back
Oops, the DANGER light is still blinking. No one is safe just yet, dear readers! As an author, you can insert a good chase scene here, because the bad guys are still out there and they’re not too happy with your hero.
Oh hey, Katniss
- Katniss parades around the Capitol, but President Snow is pretty ominous and a party pooper. His actions tell readers pretty loudly that Katniss is not safe, even though the Games are over.
We depart the Special World. A pretty major transformation has happened. Sometimes, there is a redux of the whole death-and-rebirth stage, to literally “resurrect” your character.
Oh hey, Katniss
- Katniss returns home to District 12, but her time participating in the Hunger Games has changed her life radically from here on out.
Return with the elixir
We’re back in the “ordinary” world, but never fear, the adventure was not for naught! The hero has to come back with something from this journey, or she will be forced to repeat said journey.
This something could be:
- A lesson
- A good story
Oh hey, Katniss
- This one’s interesting. Katniss does come home with a certain amount of knowledge and experience, as well as infamy. But in Catching Fire, she in fact repeats her journey, literally, back into the Special World.
Heroes versus heroines
We’ve now outlined Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” which is a useful reference for any tale of personal journey. But consider: How are female heroes different from male heroes? What are readers’ expectations when they read a female hero’s story versus a male hero’s story?
The writer’s angle: It’s important to consider reader expectations when writing any type of story – especially so you know how to surprise and interest your reader. So – how do you write a captivating female hero? What are characteristics “should” she embody?
Was your first thought that your female hero should be “strong”?
“I hate Strong Female Characters” by Sophia McDougall is a fascinating read regarding the less varied complexity of female characters. Here’s a brief excerpt:
“No one ever asks if a male character is “strong.” Nor if he’s “feisty,” or “kick-ass” come to that. The obvious thing to say here is that this is because he’s assumed to be “strong” by default. Part of the patronizing promise of the Strong Female Character is that she’s anomalous. […] Is Sherlock Holmes strong? It’s not just that the answer is “of course,” it’s that it’s the wrong question. A better question would be – “What is Sherlock Holmes like?” He’s a brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, polymath genius. Adding the word “strong” to that list doesn’t seem to me to enhance it much.”
McDougall continues, ending her article by adapting a poem by performance artist Guante to state what she wants for female characters:
“I want her to be free to express herself.
I want her to have meaningful, emotional relationships with other women.
I want her to be weak sometimes.
I want her to be strong in a way that isn’t about physical dominance or power.
I want her to cry if she feels like crying.
I want her to ask for help.
I want her to be who she is.”
The writer’s angle: When writing a female character/hero, it’s easy to follow certain tropes – your female hero will be “strong,” she will be “fearless,” she will be “tough,” she will be “independent,” she will be “witty.” We’re not saying she can’t be some of those things – but consider, if she’s all of the above – brave, cool and without fault – is your female hero a complex character? And if she’s not a complex character with faults, is she going to be relatable for readers? And if she’s not relatable, will she be a compelling character?
We’re going to examine a few ways that we as writers can write female characters who are more than one-dimensional heroes or love interests. We will look at a couple of examples of how female heroes have been portrayed over the past few decades, what authors have done well in terms of female characterization– and what we can do better. But first, let’s have a quick peek at Maureen Murdock’s “The Heroine’s Journey.”
The Heroine’s Journey
“Maureen Murdock’s groundbreaking book, The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness … was written as a response to Joseph Campbell’s book on the hero’s journey… Maureen, who was a student of Campbell’s work, felt his model did not address the specific psycho-spiritual journey of contemporary women.” http://www.maureenmurdock.com/heroine.html
Due to time [and space] constraints, we will focus on the “separation from the feminine,” and “identification with the masculine and the gathering of allies” for our discussion of the Heroine’s Journey. If you are interested in this cyclic journey, though, we highly recommend you read Maureen Murdock’s “The Heroine’s Journey” for further insight on particular characteristics of a female character’s personal journey.
Separation from the Feminine
To distance herself from her mother and the motherhold on her, a woman may go through a period of rejection of all feminine qualities distorted by the cultural lens as inferior, passive, dependent, seductive, manipulative, and powerless.” (Murdock, p. 14)
[Random nerdiness from Janet: “feminine qualities distorted by the cultural lens as inferior (etc)” – I think this includes gendered titles for the same occupation. Why is a male hero a hero, and a female her a heroine, or a male actor an actor while a female actor is an actress? In 15th century England, a person who sewed for a living was called a sempster (among other titles) regardless of that person’s gender. It wasn’t until the 1600s that a male sewer was called a tailor, and a female sewer a mere seamstress. Guess which occupation was more socially valued and more financially rewarding?]
Oh hey, Katniss
- When we first meet Katniss, she’s a hunter and eschews the stay-at-home “woman” role. She dislikes and mistrusts her mother, whom she sees as weak. Instead, she is devoted to her dead father.
The writer’s angle: Early attempts to write female heroes often ended up with what was basically a male hero, who had a few “feminine” qualities (or “inconveniences,” such as breasts and menstruation) tacked on. When writing a female hero, part of her personal journey may include an initial rejection of “feminine” characteristics.
Consider Alanna from The Song of the Lioness series by Tamora Pierce. Alanna’s strength is demonstrated by stubbornness and physical toughness. She disguises herself as a boy so she can train as a knight rather than learn to be a proper young lady. When Alanna decides to abandon her dream of becoming a knight, her mentor-servant-friend, Coram objects. “But I thought I’d raised ye with somethin’ to ye. I didn’t think I was bringin’ up another soft noble lady.” (p. 43, Alanna: The First Adventure) Alanna rebels against being thought of as “just” another “soft noble lady” and gives her training another go.
Consider Kel from The Protector of the Small series by Tamora Pierce. Unlike Alanna, Kel does not need to conceal her sex in order to train as a knight. “Kel had no interest whatever in ladylike arts, and even less interest in the skills needed to attract a husband or manage a castle.” (p. 12, First Test) The series supposedly puts forward feminist ideas, but does it really? “She was a girl; she had nothing to be ashamed of, and they had better learn that first thing” (p. 32, First Test) – yet in later books, Kel is horrified when puberty makes it physically obvious that she is female.
The writer’s angle: Should your female hero have to reject “femininity” in order to be a “strong” warrior? What are ways that a female hero can retain “masculine” characteristics and not lose her identity as a woman?
[Originally, we analyzed a lot more books, but our presentation was already running over, so we cut it back. I would recommend anyone interested in comparing male and female hero journeys to consider Meredith Ann Pierce’s The Darkangel trilogy, which tells a very unusual, mythopoetic story.]
Identification with the Masculine – female characters who are strong
What does it mean when we label a female character as “strong”? We might initially think that pertains to physical strength. But there is a line between physical strength and simple violence. Karate skills and shooting people does not make anyone “strong.”
“Strong” female characters with great physical strength are often described as “atypical” – that no other woman could do what she does, that her “toughness” is the exception that proves the rule. This tactic appears to bolster how heroic a particular female is, but instead reinforces sexist stereotypes.
For your female hero (or male hero!), consider how you can make her strong in new, compelling ways. What about emotional strength? Does she know how to comfort a small child whose mother has died? How about mental strength? Is your female hero quick with numbers?
Gathering of Allies
Your female hero needs friends. But think of your favorite novels with female protagonists. How often does the female protagonist have a close friendship with another woman? Positive depictions of sisters and female friendships are relatively rare in novels, despite their prevalence in real life. Oftentimes, these female friendships are forgotten in wake of romantic connections.
(Anne of Green Gables: Anne Shirley and Diana Barry – female friendship, yo. The Anne books are another great series to check out, not because Anne is a hero (at least not in the technical sense), but because of the character development, female relationships, and because despite being quite episodic, the series does have a satisfying arc.)
Consider the Abhorsen series, Code Name Verity, and Rose Under Fire. Sabriel and Lirael, the protagonists of Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series, are women who protect the Old Kingdom from the Dead. They face physical and magical trials, find/create families, and form enduring friendships. Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire (by Elizabeth Wein) focuses on the trials endured by young women in World War Two, and on the friendships that enable survival under impossibly harsh circumstances.
The Writer’s Angle: Consider how your own friends have carried you through painful situations. Have you endowed your protagonists with equals, peers, friends who make them laugh? If you’re writing a female character, does she have meaningful relationships with any other female characters? Given that heroes gather allies yet typically face their enemies alone, how significant a role do you think friends do (or should) play in a novel’s narrative?
Should your female hero be flawed? Simple answer – yes. No one is perfect (even Mr. Darcy didn’t have it all together), and this should be reflected in your female hero. However, surprisingly, flaws in a female character aren’t nearly as well explored as flaws in a male character.
- Alanna (from Alanna by Tamora Pierce) is repeatedly described as having a temper, yet she never loses a friend or causes difficulty for herself because of her outbursts.
- Lirael (from Lirael, the second book in the Abhorsen series by Garth Nix) suffers from loneliness and extremely low self-esteem, which lead her to attempt suicide, yet when she finds her role in the kingdom she accepts it with surprisingly little difficulty.
Consider two of our favorite female protagonists:
- Lyra, the protagonist of The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, is a sneak, a thief, and a liar. These traits allow her to survive.
- Is Katniss a perfect character? Is she unlikeable in certain instances? Does this make her a more compelling character?
Physical appearance: should your female hero be physically appealing? Many commercially successful YA novels hinge on an attractive female protagonist – is this a necessary aspect of your female hero? I think we can all agree the answer should be “no,” but what does the literary market want?
Just for Fun
Some picture books with compelling female protagonists :)
- The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch
- Olivia and the Fairy Princesses by Ian Falconer
- Madeleine by Ludwig Bemelmans
Thanks for sticking with us to the bitter end.
Hypothetical cookie for you.
Seriously though, we’re looking forward to discussing this further! Thanks for reading.
– Monika & Janet