The days of the stereotypical helpless heroine of the romantic Gothic novel are long-gone — well, except for characters like the passive, doe-eyed Bella Swan who succumbs to the sexy vampire Edward in Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight… OK, so maybe those days are not long-gone; the helpless heroine waiting for a man to save her (or suck the life out of her) continues to be a pervasive meme in literature no matter how much I sigh and roll my eyes. The problem is, writing a strong female character is rather frightening. Having a mind of their own, strong female characters often take on a life of their own — Watch out!
But what is a strong female protagonist?
Here’s what she is not: “Feisty.” “Spunky.” Has “feisty” or “spunky” ever been used to describe a man’s character? OK, maybe if he’s ninety-six years old, in his dotage and charmingly irascible to the attendants at the nursing home. “Feisty” and “spunky” are diminutives of STRENGTH — which in many cultures is considered a male trait, exclusively. Yet strength — whether physical, mental, emotional, moral, or spiritual — isn’t exclusive to the Y chromosome.
We all know women are strong — we know it first-hand — so why do some of us have a hard time showing their strength? Are we afraid we’ll make our male protags seem weaker by comparison? Are we afraid of alienating male readers?
Writers, is your main femme strong? Is she potent? Tough? Tenacious? Resilient? How is she strong? What are her weaknesses that undermine her strength? How do you balance these to create a human being in full without devaluing your male protag?
V.E. Ulett writes historical fiction set at sea during the age of sail. Her trilogy, Blackwell’s Adventures, is “a story of honor, duty, social class and the bond of sensual love,” says Joan Druett. nautical historian and novelist who knows very well what it was to be a strong, sea-going woman in any age. Ulett writes with gritty candor about topics some historical novelists avoid. I asked her to tell us more about her female protag’s strengths and how she drew upon them. Was there historical evidence for a woman of her time having this particular trait? Do any women today exhibit this fortitude?
Mercedes was raised on the Spanish settled western coast of America, in her youth Mercedes fought with swords, sailed on ships, and found the love of her life. In Blackwell’s Homecoming Mercedes faces illness, aging, and cultural divides while still passionately attached to Captain Blackwell and their children.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that everyone’s life has been touched by cancer and other grave illnesses. In historical fiction, in fiction writing in general, we make choices about what to leave in and what to edit out. A constant balancing act between credibility, perceived accuracy, and entertainment value. In my novel, Blackwell’s Homecoming, one of the main characters has breast cancer and endures a mastectomy under early 1800s surgical conditions.
Both breast cancer and the possibility of surgical treatment were known in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as movingly depicted in the HBO series John Adams, and more to the point of this post as described by Madame D’Arblay in a first hand account of her surgery in The Diary and Letters of Madame D’Arblay. Madame D’Arblay, or Francis Burney, is a literary hero of mine, for her valuable seven volume Diary and Letters and her novels. When I wrote my scene of a character undergoing this operation, I turned to Madame D’Arblay’s letter to her sister, describing her experience, as a guide in capturing the patient’s or sufferer’s perspective. Madame D’Arblay’s letter was the inspiration for the surgical scene I wrote, though I didn’t flatter myself that I could create anything so moving, so graphic, or so well told as Madame D’Arblay’s account. She was a remarkably intelligent, brave, and incomparable woman and writer. Madame D’Arblay recovered from the surgery, living to the age of 88.
A couple of the pre-publication readers of Blackwell’s Homecoming let me know how uncomfortable the surgical scene made them. One commented that I might lose readers who would go no farther than the mastectomy scene, especially men of a certain age. It was hinted the scene was an instance of when it might be better to tell rather than show. Nothing will get an author’s attention faster than the suggestion we might lose readers, so I was given serious pause. What to leave in and what to take out?
How to balance the sensibilities of readers who may have had direct painful experience with cancer, with a desire to depict the courage, both physical and in strength of mind, of a woman undergoing the trauma. I was also very much concerned with whether it diminishes the strength and honor of women to have their events, however dreadful, pushed off-stage. I turned to Madame D’Arblay’s account, where she describes how difficult it was to relive the surgery in recounting it for her sister.
“I have a head-ache from going on with this account! and this miserable account, which I began 3 Months ago, at least, I dare not revise, nor read, the recollection is so painful.”
After her husband Alexandre D’Arblay includes a note to Fanny’s sister Esther and their family with her account, Madame d’Arblay concludes in part, “God bless my dearest Esther—I fear this is all written—confusedly, but I cannot read it—and I can write it no more, therefore I entreat you to let all my dear Brethren male and female take a perusal—”
I left the surgery scene in my novel, however uncomfortable, because I believe this is how to depict strong female characters, by showing what women have survived and overcome.
A woman’s fortitude — it’s more than a pink ribbon and a month of awareness.
Eva Ulett is the author of Captain Blackwell’s Prize (book 1), Blackwell’s Paradise (book 2), and Blackwell’s Homecoming. To find out more about the Blackwell’s Adventures Trilogy visit veulett.com or the publisher’s website Old Salt Press.