The Female Protagonist
The moment was made indelible; one of those I’ll never forget. The Lord of the Nazgul is confronted by a knight ready to do battle and he scoffs that no living man might hinder his progress. The knight in turn proclaims that the Lord of the Nazgul will be hindered and that he looks upon a woman – Eowyn, daughter of Eomund, a Shield Maiden of Rohan – who does a great job of hindering. I first read Tolkien’s The Return of the King in the summer of 1969, when I was sixteen; it was also the summer I first read Pride & Prejudice and Jane Eyre, saw Ingrid Bergman’s performance as the title character in the 1948 movie, Joan of Arc. Finally, there was Katherine Hepburn’s Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter and Juliet in Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet. I also read Far from the Madding Crowd for the first time and found in Bathsheba Everdene a soul sister (Several decades later I would discover another Everdeen, Katniss, and add her to my panoply of heroic women!). In a time when the gender barriers were bending or being removed, women started demanding equal pay and equal rights, I was reading about and being entertained by heroes that happened to be women. It was the season of powerful women.
What constitutes a strong female protagonist?
In this reader/writer’s mind, several characteristics have to be present in the writing: Independence in thought, action, word, compassion, intelligence, vulnerability (yes, that) in the context of the story’s period. I discount heroines that sound and act like 21st Century women in settings other than our century, unless of course, it’s a parody and the comparison and/or use is intentional. My favorite strong women don’t throw their hair around and clench their fists defiantly unless they’re going to act immediately – wait; none of my favorites do that.
Women I relate to act and behave as much as they have to in the context of their time, but show independence and defy social norms. Alienor of Aquitaine surely did that, as did Joan of Arc, and another Eleanor -- Roosevelt.
I could spend a day and a year listing all of my favorite heroines real and fictional. What I decided to do at an early stage in my own writing was have those character types in my own work. Serafina Giustini, the female protagonist in The Legacy, is a survivor in fourteenth century Tuscany. She lives by the rules in the male-dominated society of the middle ages, but bends them when she has the opportunity and fights back – e.g., when she is forced into a political marriage as so many of her contemporaries, she bargains for the right to marry whomsoever she chooses if and when her bridegroom predeceases her. This was not an uncommon arrangement in Italy. Joanna Fletcher, the companion of George Ascalon in my novel, Armor of Light, is a woman who has been used, abused and made to suffer at the hands of King John due to her father’s political machinations. From that abuse comes an inner strength that George draws upon. George’s sister Petronelle is defiant and rebellious in the face of custom. Would an earl’s daughter walk away from her bridegroom on their wedding day? That’s a good question – we have no records of that happening in medieval England, but then again, the chronicles are mostly silent when it comes to the acts and deeds of women of the time, unless that she happens to be an extraordinary woman like Alienor of Aquitaine, Queen of England and wife to Henry II, mother to Richard I and John. Petronelle did walk away in order to serve her brother’s cause and we see her evolve painfully and slowly to maturity.
I also borrow on my own reality when I write of women in my stories. My own mother, Jeannette, died when I was fifteen, but she was a woman who, in a time when women didn’t divorce and make lives for themselves, did just that. She also took up upholstery and carpentry, played baseball and she raised six children alone while holding down two jobs. I was always in awe of her – a tall, quiet, woman with large brown eyes, abundant dark curling hair that she wore to her shoulders, and a low voice that was musical. She was an accomplished musician. I have to admit a lot of my mother is in the DNA makeup of my female protagonists, especially the modern women, Violet and Alice. I also borrow from my eldest child, my only daughter, in whom I see a lot of my mother – and myself. I inherited my mother’s large eyes, dimples, her wit, and a lot of her talent - unfortunately, not her height. My life after my mother’s sudden death in 1969 took a turn it may not have taken, for I found myself in a state of independence, being watched over by a sister who had just turned 21. You can see that interesting and loving relationship between Alice and her brother, Denny, in the “Midwinter Sonata.”
The women I write of and draw inspiration from are women who have failings. They make mistakes and pay for them. They struggle and find themselves victorious at one moment and on the losing side the next. Alice Martin of the “Midwinter Sonata” series that began with Tallis’ Third Tune, has problems with men, as does Violet Ellison from A Knight on Horseback. Both refuse to be victims even though they are victimized. Their mistakes are stupid, but when haven’t we made those stupid mistakes – choosing the wrong man because he was Mister Right Now instead of Mister Right and discovering too late what the consequences might be? Or having the courage at the time to walk away?
Stories with women like these are the books I return to time and again. I joke that when I finally grow up I want to be like my lady heroes, both real and imaginary. I invite you to look in your own library and in your own writing to find such inspiration. You may be as surprised as I was to discover how they might just have qualities hidden inside your soul.
May your reading and writing paths take you on interesting journeys.
All the best,