Tough heroines

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“Boadicea Haranguing the Britons” by John Opie (1761-1807)

‘Tough’, ‘feisty’, ‘kick-ass’ – clichés, ironic or signposts? And, provocative question, would you apply them to men? Perhaps the first one and possibly the third, but I can’t remember reading about a ‘feisty hero’.

That aside, how do you recognise a tough heroine?
Boudica, queen of the British Iceni tribe – led an uprising against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire.
Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games – physical skill and strength of character
Eowyn from Lord of the Rings – fights for what she believes to be right
Jane Eyre – strength of will and character to survive challenges in her life


Violette Szabo GC

Or perhaps Violette Szabo – a true story immortalised in Carve her Name with Pride – courageous, understated, self-sacrificing
Lizzie Bennett – smart, witty, full of integrity to the point of recklessness, but honest enough to admit when she’s wrong.
Early Roman Cloelia who led the escape of hostages from Lars Porsena c.508 BC
Arya Stark from Game of Thrones – tough physically, mentally and emotionally

Some common themes here…

So how do you write a tough heroine?
Hanna_posterThe biggest challenge is plausibility. A completely accomplished all-singing, all-dancing toughie doesn’t work. Yes, this kind of operator needs to be strong, skilled and savvy, but her life will be much more than that. And she’s unlikely to have been born like that, unless genetically altered in a future far, far away. Even Hanna, (2011), the sixteen-year-old girl who was raised by her father to be the perfect assassin started as a ‘standard’ child. Readers need to see where she came from, what turned her from an ordinary girl into the book’s heroine. Usually she passes through a formative traumatic event but writers need to give hints about resilience, integrity and an ability to develop confidence as well as physical abilities. Undoubtedly, a strong female character has to have an equally strong will and a passion to drive through what she believes in.

woman-jogging-blur-1181363-sIn INCEPTIO, Karen starts off as an office worker, but we see from the first page that she’s prepared to stand her ground against people doing wrong, even knocking them to the ground when they’ve attacked her. Within the first chapters we know she goes to the gym, we’re with her when she jogs in the park; she’s outdoorsy and sporty. Her disrupted childhood with a barren and loveless adolescence has made her learn to protect herself emotionally, and question everything. She demonstrates signs of mental and physical toughness and resilience, even when living in a ‘normal’ existence, almost to the level of not feeling completely at ease in her own skin. So when she becomes an undercover operative, she already has many latent characteristics required.

Beware of bunny rabbits and kittens…
The second challenge is not falling into the trap of making a strong character have moments of unbelievable weakness. Doubt, a temper, love for movies, joking with colleagues, buying gifts for friends help to round a character out, but writers must not go too far into fluffy-bunny-land and over-compensate for the toughness.

despair_womanA military type will drink and swear – it’s the pressure of the job – but she will have the normal emotions of any other woman, although expressed differently. Karen/Carina under pressure often feels aggressive towards people who have hurt the people she cares about, but it’s her way of showing she cares. Other times she finds everything too much and we see tears and fears. But her habit of picking herself up and facing up to what has to be done has been her way of coping since the death of her parents.

Courage doesn’t come from ‘boldly going’, but from ‘boldly going’ when you are half scared to death and you’re not at all sure you’re going to get out of the situation without being killed.

What do you think makes a strong heroine?


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIO, PERFIDITASSUCCESSIO and AURELIA. The fifth in the series, INSURRECTIO, was published on 12 April 2016.

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