guest post: insight on strong heroines by rina blackstone bennet
I don’t usually do these things, you know. Write articles, I mean. Oh, wait. I’m supposed to introduce myself? I told you blighters I’m under-qualified for this position.
Well, hullo, mates. My name is Captain Rina Blackstone Bennet—you may have briefly heard of me; my author is known to brag about me around this lovely blog (that is what you call it, aye?)—but I insist you call me Rina. All my friends do. For that matter, so do a great portion of my enemies…but that’s inconsequential.
My point is that I usually spend my days pirating, so I’m unaccustomed to writing articles. I beg you to pardon any poor grammar. I’m a better shot than a writer—which is most assuredly why Grace has requested me to come on, since from what she’s told me, the purpose of this article is to equip you with the necessary tools to write genuinely strong heroines. I think the specific terminology Grace used was “strong heroines who aren’t feminists,” but you’ll understand that as I’m from the 17th century, I had never heard that word ‘til Grace spoke it.
But you’re not here for a thesis on my vocabulary. You’re here for advice. (If I think of it in those terms, I might actually be able to manage.)
Strong heroines are not only becoming rapidly popular (even in my era, for Shakespeare was quite fond of them), they’re also a requirement in certain stories and tropes. Not to mention, who doesn’t enjoy reading about an unconventional woman who defies all odds and comes out on top? Particularly one who’s twice as strong as her opponents and can out-smart a fox?
Of course I would, since I qualify as one. I’m perhaps not twice as strong as all of my opponents, but more often than not, I’m six inches taller. And a better shot.
But not all strong heroines are muscular and able-bodied. Neither does being strong necessarily mean being captain, if you know what I mean. Strength takes on many forms, and oftentimes we mistake physical strength, an assertive personality, or a manipulative manner as strong. Power and control don’t equal strength, and on that note, neither does a catty attitude. Strong heroines are everywhere—even the quietest, meekest women are usually the strongest—and you don’t have to rely on the obvious qualities or popular archetypes to create one.
the true definition of strength
(and different types of strength)
There’s no doubt that the dictionary can supply you with a point-by-point, solid definition of the word strength—and that’s all well and good, but I’m talking about strength as a virtue. Something you develop or long to possess.
True strength doesn’t come from the way your heroine acts or presents herself—it comes from who she is. Is she naturally smart? Inherently courageous and daring? Physically strong? Is she a natural born leader or a charismatic spokesperson? Is she calm and level-headed in stressful situations? Is she full of wisdom, experience, and good advice?
What kind of life experiences has your heroine gone through to give her or help her develop her strengths? Personally, I’ve been through many harrowing experiences—I’m a pirate, you remember—and I had to grow up quickly. Seeing death at every corner hardened me to many things, especially when I was instrumental in that death, but my strength doesn’t stem from my callousness. It comes from my determination to fight back, stand strong, and rise again. Even in grief, I pushed through another day, and each day I grew stronger. It’s that sort of mentality—that stubborn mindset—that develops true strength.
Not all strength is mental or physical, though. I like to think of there being four different types:
Strength of mind—intellect and logical thinking
Strength of body—physical condition and capabilities
Strength of heart—compassion and empathy
Strength of spirit—endurance, courage, and loyalty
Each type of strength is developed over a long period of time and carefully honed. Even the kindest people who seem weak-spirited or stupidly optimistic (no offense) have been through heartache, rejection, and depression—and because of that, they have emerged with a strength of heart that helps them understand and empathize with others. And, trust me, selflessly loving and serving other people is the most difficult thing you could ever endeavor to do. (Which is why I typically try to avoid being nice, but that’s irrelevant.)
Regardless of whether or not your heroine is physically strong or daring, you can utilize her talents and personality traits to give her a strength of mind, body, heart, or spirit—or, for a well-rounded character, all four. Consider a shy, submissive heroine. Is she compassionate toward others and always rooting for the underdog? Well, then she’s fiercely loyal and persistent, fighting for those she cares about like a true warrior—and that’s where her strength is found, in her love and faith.
I’ve known my fair share of women who feign strength through their words or attitudes, trying to be something they’re not, whilst in reality they are shallow creatures with no strength to their heart or mind. They seem to think their power, control, or own pride will sustain them. (But it won’t, of course.)
Don’t let your heroine fall into the pit of self-importance and feminism, where her strength comes from her attitude instead of her actions. Carefully examine who your heroine is at heart—and what traits come through in tough situations—and you’ll begin to see where her strength comes from.
putting the “show, don’t tell” rule into play
(and ways strength can be displayed)
Grace has recently introduced me to a popular writerly term, “show, don’t tell.” She had to explain it to me, of course, but once I understood the definition, I knew I had to share with you my take of it.
Grace has not-so-politely informed me that my point-of-view is probably the most “telling” she’s ever written…and apparently that’s a bad thing, so I’ve got some work to do showing my emotions and whatnot. But I’ve found showing/telling can be used in other ways.
In this case, I’m referring to showing or telling your heroine’s strength, through reputation and rumors (or description and dialogue, for you writers.)
I’m a boastful woman, I’ll admit it. I’ve built up a reputation I am very proud of simply by using strong language and a forceful attitude. People have spread rumors about me that far surpass what I’m actually capable of. For example, you might have heard that I’m the most ruthless and successful female pirate captain to ever plunder the Seven Seas. As much as I’m loath to admit it, I’m not. (I’d give that title to Grainne O’Malley, actually.)
What I mean to say is, I have been telling my strength rather than showing it. Because of my frightful appearance and idle threats, I’ve set up extremely high expectations for myself.
Or maybe that was Grace’s fault. After all, the very first sentence of Held Captive’s summary is: “Captain Rina Blackstone is the most notorious female pirate to ever plunder the Seven Seas and the fiercest captain to ever sail the Atlantic.” She basically set me up to fail.
Whatever you do, don’t do that to your heroine.
Don’t give her a reputation she can’t live up to and don’t make her appear to be more than she is. You must show how strong she is rather than rattling on about it. “Mary was a strong, capable woman, blah, blah, blah, blah…” is not going to cut it. Your readers are not going to believe you unless you display her strength through her actions in the story.
Eventually, I would say Grace came to understand that as she began to portray my strength through my frequent success in sword fights - er, actions, I mean.
Or perhaps it was simply through the way I always bounce back. Even after my uncle was murdered before my eyes, I persevered. I held on. True, I have struggled considerably through the years - from the nightmares that plagued me for months to the drink I oft turned to - and I may fall. But I always pick myself up again, dust off my breeches, and keep on fighting.
Another way strength is told of is through dialogue. Other characters remarking on your heroine’s strong suits and personality can be a great way to build her character—but only if you’ve already established it to your readers first. Introduce Mary (or whatever her name is) to your readers, showcase her strength, abilities, and willpower, and then have your other characters acknowledge it.
For instance, the first two chapters of my novel (‘tis a lovely book, by the way; you ought to read it) set the stage, showcasing my physical prowess, my mental capabilities, and my endurance through careful description (and mayhap a little bit of telling, but Grace still hasn’t admitted to that). Then, Chapter 3 uses dialogue to confirm or solidify the facts.
I particularly like what my friend Charlie said about me (he’s always so kind). ‘Tis simple, but it leaves a lasting impact on Xavier, the hero of the book (or, in other words, my future husband). “Rina, she ain’t like the ladies ye’re with on land. She ain’t one t’ be messin’ with.”
Sometimes, though, your heroine isn’t big and tough from Chapter 1. Sometimes, becoming strong is a slow process. Don’t pressure yourself to show her strengths immediately in the story. She can still be in that process of growth, or her strength can be hidden until the time comes to show her true colors. Give your character—and your readers—time to grow into her strengths and push past her weaknesses. It’s what she does in the end and how she reacts to the worst of situations that make her strengths apparent.
A particular method you ought to try (or, at least, Grace told me it worked well; I don’t suppose I would know, would I?) is to put your heroine in a trial situation—a small problem or breakdown early on in the story that can act as a precursor or foreshadowing of the climax. That way you can test your heroine’s reaction to strenuous situations and give your readers a taste of her strength. It can be anything from a confrontation with her brother or a mishap at her job—whatever it takes to show her inner will.
Wait. What’s that you say? Oh. Well, I suppose this is farewell. Grace has just informed me that the final section of my—er, her article will be about strong heroines in fiction. I don’t read…so I’m most assuredly not an expert on that.
Anyway, here’s to hoping my rambling was of some service to you! It’s been a pleasure, luvs.
unconventionally strong heroines to emulate
(and how they succeeded)
Well, I’m back! I know Rina can go on, but hopefully she was able to cast a new light on strong heroines. I’ve sent her back to her ship so I can wrap up this post with a few of my favorite strong heroines and how they succeeded in being tough and capable without being feminists.
Black Widow from The Avengers. I think we can all agree that Black Widow is one of pop culture’s strongest heroines—she’s an international super spy, a martial arts master, and just an all-around tough cookie. No one can break Natasha Romanov. What strikes me as Nat’s best trait is that she’s genuine—she’s not out there to prove herself to somebody or best the boys. Being strong is not her purpose—it’s utilizing her strength to help others and make up for her past. Give your heroine a purpose, and not one that’s shallow or selfish—and don’t forget to give her moments of vulnerability, because let’s admit it—even Black Widow has a heart.
Esther from the Book of Esther. Here’s a real-life example for y’all: Queen Esther. Unlike the fictional heroines we’re accustomed to, Esther’s strength didn’t come from her body or mind—it came from her heart and spirit, which were fortified by the Lord. Instead of using brute force or cunning schemes to save her people, she put her trust in God and His will and did something outrageously courageous—but not because she wanted to prove herself or undermine the authority of her husband, the king. She did it out of love for her people and duty as a Jew. That right there is not only the truest form of love, it’s also the truest form of strength—sacrificing your life for those you love. A heroine with that kind of strength is the kind of woman—the kind of person—we should all aspire to be.
Scarlett Marley from Ignite. Of course, I have to throw in a plug for one of my friends. The lovely Jenna Terese’s debut novel, Ignite, features a strong heroine who’s not strong in the conventional manner. Her strength isn’t physical or mental—and, like all imperfect humans, she fails to be strong at many times. In the end, her strength is displayed by her willingness to learn from her mistakes and do what’s right against all odds. Don’t forget that even strong heroines are humans too—and humans fail.
Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. You may not have heard of this particular heroine—who am I kidding? Haven’t we all? Elizabeth Bennet is one of classic literature’s most popular heroines—and for good reason. She is a strong woman in many ways in an era where women were often overlooked. But, unlike the feminist heroines our modern era is promoting, Elizabeth’s strength wasn’t assertive. There were times it wasn’t even channeled at the right thing. Her strength was in her convictions and opinions (however wrong they might have been), her loyalty toward her family (or at least the good portion of it), and her ability to stand up for herself and her beliefs at all times. Sure, she had her faults and let’s just say that she didn’t always believe correctly—but she was always firm without being aggressive (except for that one time when she, you know, turned down my lovely Mr. Darcy’s proposal…). Remember that true strength will not waver in the face of adversity or conflict—instead, your heroine should stand firm come what may.
Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind. Scarlett differs from most of the aforementioned heroines—she’s not physically strong like Black Widow; she’s not selfless and sacrificial like Queen Esther; she doesn’t learn from her mistakes like Scarlett Marley; she isn’t loyal like Elizabeth. In fact, Scarlett is basically an anti-heroine and could very well be the true villain of the story. And it’s because of her worst qualities that she’s so tough. She’s self-serving, presumptuous, progressive, unfaithful, and a whole host of other adjectives that don’t look good on anyone’s resumé. And sometimes our heroines are anti-heroines with selfish motives, which is where we can learn from Scarlett. She possesses strength of mind and spirit—ambition, quick thinking, and dogged determination that could change the world for the better if only she’d set her mind to it. Don’t shy away from imperfect heroines whose strengths are used against others instead of for them. These are the flawed, real humans who accurately portray the way Satan corrupts our God-given talents, initiative, and strength, and uses them for evil. And even if your heroine’s intentions are good, you can take a page out of Mitchell’s novel to help you write a heroine full of perseverance in hard times. I think Rina would approve.
time to write!
I think it’s time I close this message. You do remember Rina’s advice, don’t you? Remember that your heroine’s strength must come from her actions—not her sarcastic quips or disrespectful attitude. Trying to make your character seem strong rather than showing that they are only serves to make them appear self-important and inauthentic. Utilizing all of their varying qualities—optimistic outlook, loyalty to their family, love for orphans, survival instincts, undying persistence—will give them a strength unmatched by physical capabilities. The body will deteriorate before long, but what will be left is a strong mind; and when the mind is gone, what remains? A strong heart. True, lasting strength comes only from the heart.
How do you notice strength in characters or real life people? Is it their reactions to stressful situations? The way they treat others? Their quick thinking? Who are some other heroines who are unconventionally strong but also real? Let me know in the comments below!
Make sure you stay tuned for more posts on writing strong heroines! If you have any other post ideas or writing questions, feel free to leave them in this form HERE!