I have been reading this book – Heroines, The Bold, The Bad and The Beautiful by Jessica Ruston – and it has made me think about the great heroines of literature, and what makes them so. I think the term “heroine” can be confusing, as in essence, it conjures up an image of something that is merely the female equivalent of a hero. And when most people think of heroes (in fictional stories), that in turn leads them to an images of physical strength, bravery, helping those weaker than them, defeating evil and quite often saving the entire world. Before you point this out, I know not all literary heroes fit this description. But, taking the word hero at face value, I asked myself when I last read a book in which a woman defeated evil and saved the world? When do female fictional characters ever do such a thing without the help of a man?
So a heroine, to me, is something different. She may have strength and bravery, and she may defend. But if you write her like you would write a hero, it just isn’t going to work. A heroine’s strength can be seen in a variety of ways. Perhaps she stands up for herself, or perhaps she has the conviction to know what she wants (or doesn’t want). She might be bold when required but quiet when needed. A heroine can take many forms – two characters that seem like complete opposites can have similar qualities. I try to give the female characters in my own work a sense of confidence and self belief, but also make them humans who make mistakes. They don’t always have all the answers, but they try and find them out for themselves, instead of relying on men do to so for them.
Here are some of my favourites:
- Jane Eyre: she knows her limits and doesn’t think too much of herself while totally understanding her place in the world.
- Katniss Everdeen: She is strong because she needs to be, looking out for those weaker than her even when feeling weak herself.
- Pelagia: Headstrong woman who learns to live without her love, though she never forgets it.
- Lyra Silvertongue: Never questions whether or not she should do the right thing, even when it puts her in danger or means she will lose someone she cares about. Uses her words as weapons.
- Lisbeth Salander: Scarily vengeful but stands up for justice. Has belief in herself.
- Jo March: Has the confidence to take charge and makes sacrifices for her family. Doesn’t settle for a man she doesn’t love even though it would be expected for her to marry.
- Matilda Wormwood: Sticks up for herself the only ways she knows how, to triumph over adversity.
None of my favourites, however, manage to get to the end of their story without including love/lust/marriage/a resolution of some kind of their relationship with a man (except for Matilda, but considering she is 6, it would be a bit creepy if she did). Perhaps heroines just need heroes, and vice versa, in some form or another.
What do you think? Who are your favourite literary heroines?