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Monday, January 28, 2013

The Rise of the Heroine (ConCarolinas 2012 Writing Panel Notes)

Writing strong female characters can be a challenge, and that was reflected in the lively discussion that took place at this panel. Maybe it’s because Western society, while theoretically equal, is rife with double standards and mixed messages and no, being a girl still isn’t the same as being a boy. The diverse range of women’s issues out there means that these days, the female characters we write don’t go read without eliciting opinion. Here’s the topics and questions that came up at this panel.

NB: Three heroines (Anita Blake, Bella Swan, and Katniss Everdeen) drew a lot of discussion in this panel, and there were no clear-cut answers. Since each of those characters could be the topic of hours of discussion on their own, I’m going to focus on the other points that arose.

The Rise of the Heroine

Authors: Faith Hunter, Misty Massey, William Hatfield, Eliza Gayle, Diana Bastine
(Moderator: Betty Cross)

Question: How many kinds of heroines are there?

Answer: How many kinds of women are there? As many types of heroines as there are women.

Examples of Heroine Types
- Woman warrior
- The Moral Teacher
- The heroine in spite of herself, who carries on in the face of a shocking encounter
- Someone who’s a heroine who rises to the occasion and does what needs to be done (e.g. Luna Lovegood)
- A raging granny (e.g. the woman who survived losing her family to yellow fever, the potato famine, lost her business in the Chicago fire, and then organized the coal miners)
- The reluctant heroine: the one who fights because she has to. The reluctant heroine is one who doesn’t have every resource available, she just has to use what’s at hand to save the world. (e.g. Rosa Parks – she never intended to be the beginning of a movement, but she got sick of the way things were and rose to the occasion)
- The stealth heroine – rises to the occasion as needed, not just contributing, but guiding (without taking over).
- This list is not exhaustive.

The Message
 - Every character sends a message to readers, from Bella Swan to Katniss Everdeen.
- When bodice-rippers were okay, we were teaching that it’s okay to be abused as long as the man falls in love with you.
- Are we raising a generation of women where they think being stalked is sexy? Eg. Edward, Angel, Spike
- Regardless of the message you send, it’s important to be aware of what you’re trying to say.

Common Issues
 - Women are central to a lot of relationship entanglements.
- Avoid making your heroine super, she has to do things wrong, make mistakes.
- Make sure to tone down the hero. If the male romantic lead is too strong, people will think he’s stronger than she is, so it can help to make the heroine look even stronger.
- Also, tone down the heroine so that they’re not super-woman.
- Avoid making your heroine super. She has to do things wrong, make mistakes.

Question: One common character criticism is, “She’s not strong, she’s a bitch.” How do you avoid this criticism? Not every strong woman has to be a bitch. But if you give them flaws they’re suddenly weak. How do you walk that fine line? 
 - Keep the character human. E.g. To increase likeability, find and show weaknesses in the character that demonstrate that she’s human and has a heart.
- This really is a fine line. The heroine can’t be too hard. She can’t be too bitchy or too weak. A good editor can really help.

Examples of great strong heroines
- The Heinlein Juvies had strong, smart heroines
- Eve Dallas (JD Robb)
- Stephanie Plum (Janet Evanovich)
- Cyllan from Louise Cooper’s Time Master trilogy (Intiate, Outcast, Master)
- Cat Murphy from Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series 
- Once Upon a Time (Fantasy): the premise is that they’ve taken fairytale characters and made them function in the real world – and it’s the women rule the game. All the women have different personalities/stakes.
- Babylon 5 (Sci-Fi): Delenn, who transforms herself to help forge peace between the Minbari and humanity

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