Monday, January 9, 2012

Kick-Ass Heroines

Juliet Capulet: for centuries, the heroine of Shakespeare’s tragedy has been defined in terms of her relationship to Romeo Montague. She is the pursued, the beloved, the object. He is active, the pursuer, the lover. The most decisive thing Juliet does in the play is commit suicide. She doesn’t even get first billing in the title.

Along came Stacey Jay, whose paranormal young adult novel Juliet Immortal cast Juliet Capulet in an entirely new light. Suddenly, Juliet had a personality, a consciousness, thoughts and opinions and the ability to tell her story in her own words. According to this Juliet, Shakespeare got it wrong - way wrong. Although she loved Romeo when she secretly married him, but by the end of their honeymoon night, Juliet had good reason to hate Romeo Montague forever. They were not dead by their own hands, but rather given an immortality in which Juliet was a sort of cosmic bodyguard, sent through time to save pairs of lovers whom Romeo would try to rip apart.

Jay allowed Juliet a full range of emotions above and beyond fawning over a hot guy. Her Juliet has pent-up rage, even murderous impulses, tempered with a basic goodness and sense of duty. She has little reason to believe in true love, yet it’s the very thing she’s sworn to protect. She’s complicated. She has better days and worse days. Her emotions are realistic.

This is not to say that female authors can write a kick-ass teenage heroine better than male authors can. Consider the examples of two fictional teenage girls forced to become warriors when war broke out in their once-peaceful homes. One is Scarlett O’Hara, heroine of Margaret Mitchell’s 1930s masterpiece Gone With the Wind.

Before the Civil War broke out, Scarlett’s biggest concerns were boys and parties. She’s a smart young woman, but thinks it’s “cute” to play down her intelligence. For a while, she saw the war as the dreadful thing that forced her to be a nurse and wear widow’s clothes when she only wanted to wear bright colors and dance. Once the Yankees burned Atlanta, something inside her snapped. Scarlett’s fierce determination to “never go hungry again” hardened her. Some might say she went from a thoughtless young woman to a heartless one. Love her or hate her, by the middle of the book, Scarlett will do anything to survive.

Scarlett’s more modern counterpart is 17-year-old Irena Zaric in Scott Simon’s novel Pretty Birds. She loves to play basketball, hang out with her friend Amela, sneak around with boys, listen to Madonna and watch Johnny Depp movies when the Bosnian Civil War hits her home of Sarajevo. Like Scarlett, she’s forced to starve. Her family lives in the ruined remains of her grandmother’s apartment building, where they crawl on the ground like crabs to avoid becoming targets for snipers.

Like Scarlett, Irena makes a hard decision to survive: she becomes a sniper herself, learning how to use a rifle. She shoots at the teenage boys, classmates only days before, who have become soldiers. She kills young women not unlike herself, only they happen to be Serbs and she is a Muslim. Still, she never becomes heartless. The one thing Irena will never do is betray a friend.

Written seven decades apart, one by a Southern belle who wrote to avoid boredom while recovering from a broken leg and the other by a Chicago journalist who witnessed the war firsthand, these very different novels tell the same story. To write a kick-ass heroine, you must capture all sides of her, the good and the bad. If everybody loves her all the time, why is she interesting? The reader needs to know what makes her angry, what can push her over the edge, what she hates as well as what she loves...and who loves her. To write a kick-ass heroine, you first have to discover the human being.

Images: Juliet by John William Waterhouse is in the public domain.
Retouched photo from
Gone With the Wind is in the public domain within the U.S.


Amy Neftzger said...

Found your blog through the blog hop and started following - looking forward to reading your posts!


Michelle said...

Both Sound interesting. I wish I had time to read anything for pleasure! I'm gonna have to start taking time for pleasure reading again.

Erin O'Riordan said...

Here, a dad debates whether the Disney Princess franchise or the films of Studio Ghibli represent better female archetypes for his young daughters.