Weakness & the Heroine

So, I've finally gotten around to watching The Vampire Diaries season premier. Early on, Elena is asking Damon how they'll make a long-distance relationship work and kissing him goodbye on her way to college. For whatever reason, it reminded me that there are people who think Elena is a co-dependent weakling. Not something I agree with, I've always liked her and thought she was reasonably strong considering all of the people in her life are vampires who're more powerful than she is (at least until she is, too). As a writer, though, this brings up certain issues for me. Particularly since I spent the whole process of thesis writing examining this exact problem.

That is, the issue of strength in heroines. Particularly Gothic, romantic and postmodern heroines. Elena is definitely a postmodern Gothic heroine. Like Bella and Sookie and Buffy, except she's more likable than any of them. As a writer, the issue now becomes how to balance strength with humanity. If a heroine cries, for example, is she automatically labeled weak?  What if the circumstances she's crying about are completely reasonable issues, like the death of a loved one or the loss of everything they have. If she's meek and ladylike does that make her a weakling? What if meek, ladylike behavior is a a defense mechanism? What if she uses it as a shield to hide something she couldn't want anyone else to know. Does motivation matter?

Notably, in The Mysteries of Udolpho the heroine, Emily St. Aubert, is constantly feinting--often a conveinient times--and women who read the story regularly complain that she's a weakling because she's constantly losing it. But consider the following scenario and tell me if you wouldn't be afraid, too...

You're 17 years old. Both of your parents are dead, so you're shipped off to live with your aunt who actually hates you. She hates you so much that she literally steals your wedding day to marry a creep who drags the both of you away to an abandoned, dilapidated castle in the middle of no where. You're constantly tormented. The new uncle, who is now holding your sick aunt hostage and refusing her medical care, promises to protect you from rape and torture, but only if you'll give him all of your worldly belongings. Oh, top that with his attempts to marry you to a broke stalker, while refusing to allow you to see your boyfriend. But he doesn't exactly protect you, so you're being chased around by his rapists employees. The whole time falling on dark passages and what seems to be dead bodies stashed away.

You would be scared, too. If she cried, or fainted, maybe she had good reason. Maybe she was a scared teenager and was reacting the way any scared teenager would? Maybe she's more human than readers are willing to accept. But why are we unwilling to accept it? Why can't women in books be closer to human than superhuman? Why do they have to put on a brave face and suffer in silence to be real "feminist" heroes?

Why am I rambling on and on about this?

Well, I've run into this problem. My heroine is a regency era lady. She lived her whole life in the country. She has a secret she wants to keep, she's got some unfortunate issues that make her a less than perfect prospect for the gentlemen of the ton. She's just suffered a loss and is about to lose more and, well, she's sensitive and overwhelmed right now. But, if she cries or feels overwhelmed and loses it, does that make her weak? I'm feeling like she's could be misinterpreted as weak, but I'm also not certain how to fix it. The responses she's having are human and natural. But does it translate to the page or are her responses going to be interpreted as weakness? I don't actually know. For now, I can only keep writing and hope that if she comes across as weak,  I can make some adjustments later.

I just don't know how to make her anything but human. Hopefully that's enough. Food for thought, anyway.

5 comments

  1. I think if you add some anger into your heroine's grieving, it can make her look less weak. My heroine has broken down into sobs exactly once in my WIP so far, but I added some feelings of pissed-off-ness to her grieving, which I think helps deflect from that 'damsel in distress' image and makes her more relatable.

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  2. Thanks, Jodi. I think I might try to find a way to do just that. The problem is, so far, she's not angry, she's just sad. I'm going to work on it. :)

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  3. Well, along those lines, as long as your heroine is rising to the occasion and showing strength in other areas, I think there's plenty of allowance for her to grieve as much as she needs to over her current loss. It's when the heroine is perpetually whiny or mopey that it gets annoying. An example that comes to my mind is Meg Murray from "A Wrinkle in Time." I loved that book as a child/teen, but got so tired of the heroine's whiny, woe is me attitude. Also, Bella from Twilight. She is so mopey and depressed through SO MUCH of the story line, you feel like slapping her silly sometimes. I personally prefer a [mostly] happy protagonist, such as Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. Characters like that are able to navigate through the highs and lows of life with such charm and lively wit that even when they ARE sad, they don't come out as weak.

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  4. In general, so far, I think she's coping pretty well, all things considered. She's only broken down once, but I'm only 12k in. That said, the way I have it plotted from here out, she'll only grow stronger and more certain. And you are SO right about Bella! I was fairly unkind in my assessment of her in my thesis. She has no self-direction, she relies on Edward to think for her, without him she's completely unable to even function, and he has to be her moral compass. In a word, she's WEAK!!

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  5. Oh, dude, I found a place where my heroine bucked up and found the courage to get angry! You would be so proud! LOL

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