Friday, July 12, 2013

Not All Heroines Are Katniss Clones

It has come to my attention that I was very, very lucky growing up. In my middle school library-- a place I escaped to often in those years-- there was no shortage of heroine-centric fantasy novels. It was there that I was introduced to Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley, who are my idols and favorite authors to this day, as well as writers in various genres who were not afraid to make strong women and girls their protagonists. It was not until later-- much later-- that I found out strong female characters (SFCs) are not the norm, so much later that I had already written several manuscript drafts about them. 

I just found this sweet old-school copy of The Woman
Who Rides Like a Man
 by Tamora Pierce at a used bookstore. Alanna
is DEFINITELY a strong heroine! 

Lately, we’ve seen a surge of interest in kickass girls, in large part because of the popularity of The Hunger Games and Katniss Everdeen. And, no doubt about it, Katniss does kick ass, and she’s an interesting, flawed character. But I think it’s important for us all to remember that our SFCs don’t have to hit quite Katniss’s level of badassery (although it’s always cool if they do). Strong Girl shouldn't be some type of cookie-cutter designation: being “strong” doesn’t automatically equal physical toughness, aggressive/abrasive personality, and skill with deadly weapons. Smart girls are strong (Hermione!). Hardworking girls are strong. Opinionated girls are strong. Independent girls are strong. Determined girls are strong. There should be no absolute dichotomy between the Katniss Everdeens (or Xenas or Lara Crofts) and the empty-headed, helpless, sexualized princess-- instead, there are shades of gray in between, and there are countless ways to fall on the Katniss end of the spectrum.

Although this is good too.
So before you strap a sword onto your heroine’s hip, think about her as a character and about the story you’re trying to tell, and make sure you’re not doing it just to make her seem strong. FYI-- it’s not about the sword, or the bow, or the boxing gloves, or whatever. It’s about who she is as a person: her convictions, her attitudes, her experiences, her choices. If she’s a sword-swinger, fine, but if not, don’t despair. Every woman has different strengths and weaknesses, and every character should, too!

How do you create SFCs, then? Making sure they are three-dimensional, interesting, and realistic is a good start. The Bechdel test is also helpful. Read this cool Kate Beaton comic lampooning some common attempts at SFCs. And share your own tips and thoughts below!


  1. I admire both authors you admire, along with Shannon Hale. I decided not to make my main character excel at the sword or archery. I didn't want her to be Katniss. Instead, I wanted her strength to be shown in the choices she makes--doing what no one else will do. When called upon to fight, she fights. But when utterly betrayed and hopeless, she never gives up.

  2. Love this post! I'm a Katniss fan, but I find it a bit bothersome that she's the definition of a strong female character. There are others out there, many actually, and some much more realistic. I've been saying for a long time that there are different ways to be a strong female so... we're in agreement :)

    I'm not familiar with those authors, but I will look them up.