Modern heroines – kick ass or convincing?

When writing for adults I’ve been perfectly happy creating flawed, even unlikeable, main characters. I still like them! But it seems to me that in writing for children there’s a complex responsibility to writing heroes – and even more so heroines.

Ellen Page as Juno in the 2007 film Juno

Ellen Page as fast-talking quirky heroine Juno

Much as I love quick-thinking smart-mouthed lead characters, I think most people are only smart-mouthed in their heads. Me included. That witty put-down, that perfect quick-fire response? Half an hour too late. Always.

Katniss Everdeen heroine of The Hunger Games

Katniss, of course

Much as I love strong, skilful, intrepid heroines, I am not and never will be one of them. Me and most of us, I think. (I would love to write a thriller about someone who can’t drive and is useless at climbing over chain-link fences! But it may not even be possible…)

I have never like mimsy* good-girl heroines, particularly the needlessly self-sacrificing type, and I quickly tire of them being strikingly beautiful, too. I don’t think that’s a desirable role-model.

So, my choices about creating lead characters I, and I hope readers, can identify with – though not extensively and perfectly thought out – are going to be loaded with these thoughts, feelings, intuitions.

Currently my children’s repertoire is historical, slightly over-the-top, adventure stories. However exaggerated some of it may be, this world must have its own logic. The emotions, strengths and weaknesses of the main players have to be convincing. (Ok, for the sake of my argument I’m selectively forgetting a sprinkling of psychic powers.) When I began writing The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth I had the set-up, some of the twists and turns, and I knew that it needed to turn out well in the end. Somehow. And of course it was up to me to make that happen.

So, how do you solve a problem like Clemency? She’s small, unworldly, and isn’t used to speaking up for herself. She’s had a conventional childhood in colonial India: brought up by servants, educated by English governesses, and pretty much ignored by her parents. Privileged, yet neglected. And she has never kicked against this system, partly because before the start of the book she’s never known anything else. Then – due to the dastardly interventions of the author – she finds herself parentless, penniless, and far from home.

Clemency from The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth by Julia lee

Clemency, as depicted on the cover by Ross Collins

Writers are advised not to create passive heroes. They’re much harder to prise out of their difficulties, and readers find them unsympathetic if they’re too pathetic. But Clemency was already Clemency in my mind, and besides, just how kick-ass would a typical middle-class Victorian girl be? I couldn’t make her a superhero or give her a personality transplant. How could I turn her around without breaking the bounds of the story’s internal logic?

As events progress Clemency finds herself in deep and perplexing danger. She needs help. But I felt very strongly that I didn’t want a heroine who simply got rescued. However much I rallied the cavalry (almost literally) on her behalf I still wanted her in some way to rescue herself. She doesn’t start out with much in the way of resourcefulness, unlike some of the other young characters who have had to be self-reliant, persistent, and cunning, just to get by in life. Yet the working title of the book was originally The Wrigglesworth Rebellion, because I knew that eventually she rebelled against all that had kept her a quiet, polite, obedient Victorian child.

What could I do with her? When she was trapped, cold, lonely and hopeless, what could she do? What would I have done as an 11-year old? Cried, of course. Fallen in a miserable heap, probably, and never got up again. Not heroic at all. But falling apart at the seams wouldn’t be exciting or uplifting to read about, and I needed hope.

My lifeline came when I began to think about injustice. Clemency has been treated very unjustly, and I believe that all children feel very strongly about this. It might be personal injustice – remember how incredibly frustrating it was when your whole class was punished because of something one person did and wouldn’t own up to? Or it might be witnessing someone else being treated unfairly and feeling furious on their behalf. Children burn with a sense of injustice. And it’s helpful for girls and women to make use of their anger, even though they may be trained not to, rather than turn it inwards and feel depressed. Clemency gets angry – she can’t do anything yet but her burning rage stops her from dissolving into a waterfall of tears and actually physically warms her up when she most needs it.

From there I had my key to getting her up and active, finding her voice and answering back, running risks. And then discovering that, although it’s often scary, taking matters into your own hands is energizing and sort of fun. It’s certainly fun to write about.

There’s also a kind grown-up who Clemency meets early on, an expert on how children’s minds work and how adults often discount them. In the edits I was able to plant some more positive thinking into Clemency’s head from the encouraging words Mrs Potchard says to her about having ‘inner resources’. Not super powers, or some kind of unjustifiable ninja skills, just inner resources. A growing self-belief.

Throw in an increasing circle of friends and supporters, a happy coincidence or two, and a weapon I hadn’t even realised I’d placed there, all ready. Clemency had definitely become an active part in her story’s resolution.


*Mimsy is not in my dictionary or thesaurus. Who cares? It’s a good word.

12 thoughts on “Modern heroines – kick ass or convincing?

    • Yes. I’ve also found from working with families in difficult circumstances that parents can speak up for their child’s needs despite being much more diffident about speaking up for themselves.
      I have to add that Clemency was mainly cross on her own behalf and hardly waving a flag for injustice, though she does learn to stand up for poor Poll, too.

  1. I agree, it is hard at times making a child the engine driving their own destiny. I also agree that ‘kick-ass’ is only one character trait and that we need fully rounded female characters in our books. I found Katniss in the Hunger Games full of self-doubt, though, and at time she wondered if she was even likeable. I also think the most kick-ass thing she did was volunteering for her sister. This point may get lost in the reader’s mind amid all the fight scenes later.
    One of the joys of writing the Rescue Princesses series (where the girls use ninja moves in a way that’s completely justifiable in the world of the story) was creating a group of girls who are all very different people and letting them interact. I think sometimes there’s a temptation to look at stories with sci-fi or fantasy elements and assume the fantastical aspect of the book is all there is to the story, particularly if realism is more your cup of tea.

    • Hi, Paula. Thanks for commenting. I agree, it’s about finding what fits with the setting of every story, what the constraints and freedoms are of the world you’ve created. Personally, I wouldn’t mind a few ninja skills myself! Because I had a few incredibly cruel and selfish characters that Clemency had to deal with, I was a bit challenged at first as to how she could stand up to them and where were the limits of credibility around her character and behaviour.
      As for Katniss, her self-sacrifice is entirely believable, and she does it almost before she’s realised. I really enjoyed the establishing section, early on, when she is using her skills – and daring – to hunt outside the perimeter and bring back food for her family and community. I’ve always liked to imagine I could do something like that if need be, but again, the high chain-link fence would defeat me!

  2. Well, I certainly wouldn’t last long in Panem either! My challenge with my new project (which I can’t divulge yet) is that my lead character IS quite gung-ho and I certainly don’t want that trait to overshadow the rest of her.
    I haven’t read your book yet, Julia, but I shall hunt it down and find out more about Clemency!

  3. Needlessly self-sacrificing is awful, but lately I’m rethinking self sacrifice. It’s true that readers probably don’t much like someone terribly pretty and good, but I’m very bored with kick-ass girls. I feel as if any admirable feminine quality that actually exists is being removed from society.Instead of mimicking male superheroes I wish we found the traits women possess more appealing. I love your Clemency ideas.

    • Hi. You make some very interesting points, especially about our need to find female traits more (dramatically) appealing. I’m not that keen on male superheroes, let alone females having to acquire their traits in order to prevail. I wonder if anyone has written a story climax where someone negotiates a clever outcome? Now that I begin to think about it, I’m sure there’s comic mileage in using a combination of traditional female skills as a story solution. Now you’ve got my brain whirring…

      • I’m working on a novel set in the late 19th century and the main young lady will prevail by using the traits we now look upon as old fashioned.It’s challenging to really embrace what many women DID embrace back then. Not everyone wanted to be sullied by the vote or to join the “rough and tumble” workforce outside the home. I won’t make her an early version of Betty Crocker–she’s flawed and foolish, but there’s no modern toughness about her either–she’s wise but gentle–a real challenge to make her likeable 🙂

        She’s sort of a tribute to Anne of Green Gables but unlike LM Montgomery I’m going to make her adult life interesting to me. The later books of the Anne series were disappointing because I got the sense that LM’s womanhood was less than satisfactory.

        Trying to decide how I feel about womanhood is more and more fun all the time.

      • It’s a tough one, trying not to apply modern-day behaviour and opinions to historical characters, especially heroines, or not too much, because we want them not to be shackled by the mores of the day. Fascinating what you say about the challenge to make your main character ‘likeable’ because she’s a young woman of her time. That says a lot about us, doesn’t it, not all good? I’ll look forward to hearing more! Have you written any posts about this specific issue?

      • A lot of posts have to do with comparing the modern against the Gilded Age so there’s plenty to say about women and men and how I think they related to each other and the world, but recently I wrote for another blog by a fellow writer about this very subject:

        Sometimes I think we tend to imagine that because we like something now that it must be better than what people liked in the past–I find that endlessly interesting.

  4. Speaking a s a male reade, while I want the lead female to win out in the end, it’s no fun to engage with the character if they don’t have flaws, foibles or failings which they have to overcome as much as adversity or an adversary. (The only exception to this is the fabulous rough diamond that is Dido Twite.)

    It’s the same for me where heroes are concerned: I’ve always preferred a human like Batman to Superman, for example.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s