I’m excited to feature a guest post today by my agency mate, Jeannie Mobley, who is one of the sweetest and funniest authors I know. Her newest book, Searching for Silverheels, just released last week! Here is Jeannie’s advice on creating strong female characters in historical fiction.
When Anna asked me to drop by and talk about strong female characters, I said, “Sure! I’d love to.” Then I sat down to write the post and thought, “Wait. What do I know about strong female characters?!”
So I did what all strong female characters do. I panicked, ran away, and hoped the post would write itself. When it didn’t, I waited for the Strong-Female-Character Fairy to drop by with her magic wand and *ting!* bestow a brilliant flash of knowledge upon me which I could then pour out onto the page. I even left the windows open for her. No luck. Stupid fairy.
So, with a deep sigh, I realized I was going to have to push through and find the answers to my dilemma within myself. Resigning myself to hard work and perseverance, I sat down at the computer to really dig in and think about what constitutes a strong female character.
The silly thing about my panic is that I’ve thought plenty about this before. In fact, the reason Anna suggested I come talk about it is that my newest book, SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS revolves around the theme of what makes women strong. It’s a theme I’ve been particularly interested in as a writer of historical fiction, because let’s face it, in the long and glorious history of the English language, in which phrases like “the weaker sex,” “you throw/run/scream/cry like a girl,” and “man up,” abound, the phrase “strong female” has been something of an oxymoron. It is significant, I think, that nobody is asking advice about how to write a strong male character.
And yet down through the centuries, hidden behind all those linguistic insults, women have been scrubbing laundry, feeding big households three square meals a day, surviving high infant mortality rates and the toll it took on their bodies, keeping the home fires burning while sending their sons, husbands and brothers to war, raising kids when their men walk out on them, plowing and harvesting the fields right next to their husbands, standing up for their rights in powerless situations….
Frankly, being the weaker sex has been damn hard work.
And yes, over those years there have been ladies whose entire job was to sit and embroider cushions, smelling salts at hand, while their husbands were slaving away at the billiards table. But in the grand scheme of things, women haven’t exactly been slackers, whether or not history has valued their labor and their emotional strength.
So when I set out in SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS to write female characters who were debating the truth behind a legendary Colorado woman, I didn’t think about how to make my women strong. I only had to think about how to highlight and celebrate all the ways that women already are strong.
One of the difficulties I faced, however, is that history has not only masked the hard work of women, but it has shaped our very idea of what constitutes strength around the ideals of masculine strength. A strong man is a stoic man, history tells us. A man who can hide his feelings or perhaps doesn’t even have them. A woman, on the other hand, is the “weaker sex” with her effusive motherly love, empathy, and nurturing behavior. But whose to say that being nurturing, loving and empathetic, pouring yourself into the well-being of others, isn’t strength too? Why as a society do we define hiding emotion as “strong” and expressing emotion as “weak?”
While writing SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS, I spent some time in the historic cemetery of the town where the story is set, and saw this grave marker. It is a four-sided monument, inscribed on all four sides. On each side is the name of a child, ages 9, 7, 3 and 8 months, 1 day. All dead of an infectious disease within a two week span in 1888.
You think being a mother doesn’t take enormous strength?
So, here’s what I’ve learned about writing strong female characters. Write real female characters. They don’t have to be tom-boys to be strong. They don’t have to reject the feminine and embrace the masculine (although they can if they want to.) They can be pretty or plain, they can like boys, they can curl their hair and worry about their appearance. They can even be gushy or giggly or flirty. Because the world is full of real girls and real women who do all those things.
Make them real–with loves and doubts and fears. Then put them in a sticky situation and let them find their own way out of it. Let their traits, feminine or masculine, silly or serious, be their strengths to get them through. Because strength can take a lot of forms. But if you let your characters find the answers within themselves, and the strength of will to act on those answers and succeed, you will have written a strong character. And if you’ve given them traits that girls have, really have, then your readers will see themselves in the book. And if you have written a real girl, whose actually girly, and she has the strength to succeed, then you have sent a real girl reader a message that she can be a girl AND be strong. She doesn’t have to emulate a man. Being a strong female is not an oxymoron!
So go on, give it a try.
Let a mother’s overwhelming love for her children turn her into a hero.
Let a suffragist’s sense of injustice drive her to acts of personal sacrifice.
Let a young, romantically-minded girl realize for herself that her own opinions matter more to her than the attentions of some handsome, dominating young gentleman.
(Um. Actually, before you do all of the above, you might want to read SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS first. Just, you know, so that our books don’t look exactly alike.)
Love, hate, beauty, ugliness, wisdom, intelligence, grit, passion. There are so many traits in the world that can–and do–make people strong. People of every sex, color, race, creed. Give those traits to your female characters, turn them loose in the world, and let them soar.
And for God’s sake, someone make a T-shirt that says “Being a strong female is not an oxymoron!” (And cut me in on the profits.)
Jeannie Mobley writes middle grade and YA fiction. Her debut novel, KATERINA’S WISH (Margaret K. McElderry Books), won the 2013 Colorado Book Award, is on the 2014-2015 William Allen White Award Master List, and represented Colorado at the 2013 National Book Festival. Her second novel, SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS, released September 2, 2014. When not writing or reading fiction, Jeannie is a mother, wife, lover of critters, and a professor of anthropology. Jeannie is represented by Erin Murphy of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.