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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Tomboys, bad girls and everything your mother taught you not to be

Sure, anyone can write a tough heroine. But not everyone can do it effectively and make it believable. That’s the key. Writing a tough heroine isn’t as easy as you’d like to think especially in a historical, number one because women simply didn’t act like that back then. And number two, women have certain disadvantages that we must overcome. Not that it can’t be done, we just simply have to work harder at it.

There are always exceptions throughout history and often these women were ridiculed and made outcasts. Let’s look at some examples that most people don’t know about: Freydis Eiriksdottir who took part in an expedition to Vinland, defended herself from Skraelings using a sword while heavily pregnant is described in Eirik the Red's Saga. In 1297 the Countess of Ross, led her own troops during William Wallace and Andrew de Moray's battles with the English. Dr "James" Barry did a degree at Edinburgh Medical School. She joined the British Army in 1813 and became the Surgeon General. Her gender was not discovered until after her death in 1865.

So let’s take a look at what makes a tough heroine and how to make her believable.

First off, everything you put into your story has to have a reason. The same is true with having a tough heroine. You can’t just make her tough because you want her to be. For instance, in my western, The Devil’s Daughter, my heroine was forced to be a criminal at the tender age of four years old. She grew up amongst her father’s gang and that’s all she ever knew. So give them a reason to be who they are.

Second, whether we want to admit it or not, women have certain disadvantages when it comes to fight scenes. We’re smaller, our upper body strength is lacking and as such we need to overcome this in other ways. I’ve taken a few defense courses and I recommend that every woman do so. The first thing they teach you is a woman’s strengths are in her mind and her legs. Use them.

A woman simply cannot go one on one in combat with a man unless she’s China from WWE, which honestly, isn’t the type of heroine I’d like to imagine. Due to this, we need to make up the difference in other ways. Put something in your heroines hand and it’ll even the odds a little. You’d be surprised how much strength you can have with a stick against an assailant.

It doesn’t take that much strength to pull a trigger. That being said, if you’ve never done so before, I recommend going to a shooting range at least once. It’s difficult to write about guns without having ever fired one. Another thing to remember when writing about historical guns is our technology is far more advanced than it was a hundred years ago. Firing a weapon in the west would’ve had a little more kick back than we do now. It’s a unique experience and it’ll put a little realism in your work. You’ll learn that you don’t pull the trigger, you squeeze it. It’s a slow gentle movement because aiming needs to be done carefully.

Hefting a sword is an experience as well. On average a broad sword can weigh approximately three to ten pounds. While that doesn’t seem heavy at all, try picking up a cricket bat or a baseball bat which is approximately two pounds and wield it like a sword for twenty minutes. Another thing to remember when writing historical swords, some were slashing and hacking weapons and other’s were designed to pierce instead. I plan to write a blog soon on the differences of historical weapons, I hope you’ll join me for that one as well.

Being tough isn’t always physical either. It’s a mental achievement. It’s surviving a crisis and remaining calm. It’s a confidence in yourself that you never knew existed until you were forced to see yourself through different eyes. These are the traits that make a woman tough.

So remember these few things when crafting your intriguing historical heroine and remember there were exceptions to every rule in history. So what else have you noticed in stories with strong heroines and thought, that just doesn’t sound realistic? And what stories have you loved and why?


  1. Tough can mean a number of things. And, for me, strong might be a better word. In fact, the only one of my heroines I can see brandishing a broadsword is my battle-born, warrior witch. But she is in a class of her own.

    The rest have to be strong in different ways and in how they carry themselves. When I first read your blog I thought - Aside from the aforementioned witch, none of my heroines are tough.

    And that is true from the outside. They fit society's view of women for the most part. But it's what's inside that distinguishes them. I don't think I've ever written a heroine who blindly does what she's asked. I write about smart women, who know what they want, and go about getting it.

    Knowing you are, standing up for yourself, and not being pushed around - for me, that is a tough heroine, regardless of the time period. No broadsword needed. ;)

  2. Exactly, like I said being tough isn't always physical either and it's very much a mental achievement. There are many heroines I've read like this and the author has done a phenomenal job with it, yours included Lydia. I loved all of your heroines and had a blast reading them. But I've read sword swinging heroines from published authors who just didn't come across as realistic to me. Many often forget that women are limited physically so it's important to make up for our lack of upper body strength.
    I love all "strong" heroines, but tough and strong to me are two different things like you said. So I was focusing more on the writers who do write the sword swinging heroine and how to do it realistically.
    It's a balancing act of being able to weild weapons and still remain true to our feminine nature. =)

  3. I love tough heroines. I try to make all my heroines break away from the mold of ever sitting back and allowing things to just keep happening to them. They make things happen. That being said, I have always loved the heroine in Julie Garwood's story, RANSOM. She is touch in mind and body. She rescues a boy from falling off a cliff, even though she is petrified of heights. She takes several punches and kicks from the villian to protect the same little boy. She does a thousand things like this throughout the story, but it is her strong spirit I love the best. When faced with having to defy her husband and possibly never seem him again to save her beloved uncle, she gathers her courage in herself and the choice she is making and charges into the fray of the battle to save her uncles. Of course, it all works out in the end, and I love this best of all.

  4. Melissa,
    You are so right-on in making this type of character believable. This isn't a book, but I've always had trouble believing in Kiera Knightly's ability to fight as she does in "Pirates of the Carribean". She's just a little thing.

    Now, in Terminator 3, Linda Hamilton pulls it off pretty good. First of all, we see her training and building up her muscles. Plus, she uses weapons and her mind. I'm put off by her single-minded thinking in the film, but hey. I've never had an android come back from the future to kill my son, so who am I to judge?

    I may never write a tough heroine, but if I do, I definitely want to make her as believable as possible, and I know where to come for advice. Great topic. :)

  5. I enjoyed the post and I think the most important thing you said was give her a reason to be this way and make it believable.I tend to like a heroine who fences and have used that in a novel still in draft form. I've had a heroine that is good at archery. Both of these weapons are easier for a woman to manipulate, at least in my opinion, and something I've done myself.

  6. You know, Julie, I love Julie Garwood but I've never read this partcular book. I'm going to have to pick it up now lol.

    And Michelle those are two excellent examples right there. I had a hard time believing Kierra Knightly as well because she just all the sudden was able to pick up a sword and wield it with no training. That to me smacked of what I like to call "God author" which refers to authors who play God and do things just because they want to.

    And while you may not have liked Linda Hamilton's character it was a well developed character. I really enjoyed her. Those are exactly the type of women I enjoy writing about. She had a reason to learn defense and she did it with purpose. Great characterization.

    And Amy I want to read that story lol. You'll have to pull it out and let me read it because fencing is the one thing I want to do but have never done before. I'm thoroughly facinated with it. I think a woman can do anything she puts her mind to but she really needs to have a reason and we need to show how she made that happen. I'm glad you all stopped by!

  7. Melissa, this is a very interesting article. Like you, I find sword-wielding heroines somewhat less believable. I've taken part in medieval reenactment where I did some sword-fighting and some staff-fighting. My, I was out of breath after 2 minutes in the beginning.
    Then I found where my strength was - the longbow. Now there's a skill a feisty heroine could have easily acquired.
    I like strong-minded heroines who use their brains rather than try emulate their men. A heroine who can take much bad luck and is still able move forward is imho a tough cookie.
    I'm looking forward to your post about historical weapons. I'm always keen to learn new tricks... :-)

  8. Steph, I'm so glad you like it. I would love to have tried a longbow or archery in general. It's one of the things on my to do list lol. I'll have to pick your brain one day about it.
    It's taking a bit longer to try to compile that much information on weapons than I first imagined. So it may be a week or two. I really can't wait to get some responses to it and compare notes so to speak. Anyway, thanks for stopping by and joining us, I really enjoy your responses anyway, you always have great comments! Have a great rest of the day!