In classic works of literature, there’s almost always “that woman”. In Bram Stoker’s DRACULA, it’s Mina Harker, who is assumed by every male character to be frail and weak-minded, when in fact she is the backbone of the story and her narration reveals her enormous strength. Stoker was aware of this in his writing — while the men struggle and buckle under various stresses, Mina remains steadfast and sane (except for that minor demonic possession thing).
In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A SCANDAL IN BOHEMIA, Irene Adler is even referred to as “the woman”. She is taken to be average, but proceeds to outsmart the great Sherlock Holmes in a fabulous unexpected ending.
In Agatha Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, Vera Claythorne survives 230 pages to be the last person standing on Soldier Island.
In more recent literature, P.D. James shows us that women can be as daring and cold-hearted as men. In Philippa Gregory’s THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL, Anne Boleyn is portrayed as unyielding, ambitious, and formidable — whether or not she’s likeable, she is a powerful woman.
Morgana, Eowyn, Elizabeth Bennett, Mary Lennox, Jo March, Scout Finch, Esperanza Cordero, Hermione Granger, and, although she wasn’t originally a literary character, she’s worth mentioning — Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s been going on for a very long time right under our noses, these amazing women showing us what they can do, and today literature not only recognizes it —readers crave it.
But for authors — how to create that nuanced woman? Avoid the “Mary-Sue”, for those of you who are familiar with the term (the woman who is strong and beautiful and perfect, and detestable because of it)? It’s not actually that hard once you consider what a strong woman really is.
A woman is strong when she knows what she believes. Not when she lambasts others’ beliefs or shoves hers down readers’ and other characters’ throats, but when she herself knows, and that’s enough. Her beliefs and her philosophy will come through to readers not because she gives us the scoop on repeat, but because those philosophies are part of her DNA.
A woman is strong when she isn’t afraid of fear and vulnerability. Strong women are people; they’re imperfect and they know it. They embrace imperfection, and aren’t scared of messing up. Let your female characters make mistakes — that’s something a “Mary-Sue” never does, and it makes a world of difference in allowing readers to relate to and even admire your characters.
A woman is strong when she knows her inner beauty. That sounds vague and metaphysical, but it isn’t. Your female character doesn’t have to look like Liv Tyler to be beautiful. She doesn’t have to make men’s jaws drop. Because the point of this character probably isn’t to prove that she can pick up dates in bars. That’s not why men or women will be interested in her. If she has confidence and accepts herself, others will accept her too. It’s not about her face; it’s about what’s behind her smile.
I write young adult fantasy and adventure. Strong female characters are almost a must in this genre. My first novel, LEGACY, centers around Princess Alera, who lives in a patriarchal society and over the course of about 400 pages she discovers her strength. Alera’s narrative tells the book’s plot, of course, but also her journey as a person from insecurity and girlhood to the realization that she is imperfect — and perfect because of it.
The key, I believe, is in revealing a character’s humanity. Whether or not I achieved this, I can’t say. But every day I am surrounded by remarkable women who are challenging themselves and the world’s concept of equality, and gaining ground with each passing moment.
Happy International Women’s Week!
Cayla Kluver is the author of LEGACY, the first book in a trilogy which will be published starting in July 2011 by HarlequinTEEN. Her books have also sold in sixteen foreign countries. She loves literature of every form, and gives you the scoop on repeat at her website, www.caylakluver.com.