Not too long ago, a colleague of mine was very excited to tell me that he was writing a book. When I asked him what it was about, he immediately confessed to not writing female characters. He said that they were problematic, dramatic, and just got into too many romances that distracted his male characters from being successful.
He wasn’t a historical fiction writer, but his mindset on female characters happens to be how a lot of historical fiction writers treat the female characters they choose to include. Nobody’s a saint, and nobody wants to write or read a Mary Sue. But women want real representation in fiction. We want characters that are more that just stereotypes of who we are. This isn’t just a rant for male writers, though. Listen up, ladies. You might also be degrading your own sex in historical fiction.
So let’s fix that.
She’s a “Product of Her Times”
We’ve all heard someone say it, “Don’t judge her too harshly, she’s a product of her times”.
If a few of your female characters are ruled by the society they live in, that’s understandable. In fact, that’s realistic. But the bottom line is that we often write fiction about great, world-shaking, life-changing people, and men weren’t the only ones changing society. No matter what time period you’re writing in, I guarantee you that there were a couple of women who weren’t products of their times.
Not every character (not even your lead!) has to do something amazing with her life. But being a head-to-toe stereotype of the times isn’t real. The little room you have for character development is stifled by the fact that these characters are the physical embodiment of their time and nothing else. Let’s make room for some fresh faces in fiction.
How to fix this:
Give yourself the creativity to dream big and write about someone with big dreams and big ideas. No matter your gender, ask yourself if you’re a product of your times. Are you a stereotype of today? Do your interests and thoughts on moral issues all follow a standard code or do you and your friends commonly disagree? Give each of your characters unique beliefs, ideas, and moral codes. These characters don’t have to be mega-progressive, but maybe they believe a few unexpected things.
She’s a Damsel in Distress
Once again, having damsel-in-distress characters isn’t a bad thing. Having an entire flock of the precious little lambs is when things start to become a problem. Here’s some shocking news—not all historical women needed or even wanted to be saved. Some of those brave ladies saved themselves.
One of my favorite examples is Pride and Prejudice. Darcy does save Lizzy Bennet near the end by settling things with Mr. Wickham. Despite this, Lizzy does not cower helplessly throughout the novel, waiting for Darcy’s assistance. Instead, she proactively goes about her life, attempting to solve problems in the way she knows how. And need I remind you that this brash and determined heroine was written by the ever-so-determined Jane Austen who wasn’t exactly a “product of her times” either. Writing was a little gauche for women, so she secretly penned most of her novels, often hiding entire manuscripts from her family.
How to fix this:
Your female character can be saved, but don’t let her wait around to be saved. Have her do something in the meantime to better her situation. You can even have her save the hero herself. Everyone needs a little bit of saving sometimes, no matter their gender. That’s a heck of a lot more romantic than cowering.
This isn’t a problem localized to historical fiction. It bleeds into just about every genre. Apparently, women just don’t like other women. Despite women in real life forming lasting and healthy friendships with each other, the rumors still persist.
Having an entire cast of women that demonize each other only affirms the male character’s seriousness and heroism and that kind of grinds my gears.
How to fix this:
While fighting is fun to write about, make sure your men get in on the action a little. Let them bicker. Let them gossip. Like, Have you seen that stained cravat that Phineas was wearing? How uncouth!
If you want to include a gossiping group of mothers or jealous girls, that’s fine. These people exist. Just remember to balance them out with some women that aren’t catty because that’s just exercising good diversity.
She Hates Needlework
I have a problem. Big problem. A big ‘ole problem with these angsty fighter girls who think they’re a hot slice of pie compared to everybody else. I see it a lot in historical fiction, especially when women in the story take on generally male-coded roles. These can include being in a position of power, fighting, doing physical labor, or earning a job title that doesn’t normally go to women. Once in male-coded work, female characters often look down on others who do female-coded work.
Sorry, but no matter how boring it might sound, somebody has to cook, sew the clothes, and feed the animals. Work that women traditionally have done throughout history is just as important as that of a man.
How to fix this:
Making a female character feel important just because of her ability to do male-coded work just belittles your other darling characters and doesn’t make your protagonist look any more important. So guess what? It’s a-okay to let your female fighter miss the days of needlepoint with her mother. It’s perfectly fine to make her admire her friend Alice’s ability to sew an impeccable dress in under an hour. It’s even alright for your character not to voice an opinion because equality doesn’t need compensation.
She Exists to Strengthen a Male Character
A point before I go any further—each character with a substantial role should grow in either an upward or a downward trajectory. Creating a flat female lead with hopes that your round male lead can use her as the stepping stone to success is leaving you with little room for reasonable character growth and the remains of a trampled female lead. We want neither of those things.
And wipe that horrified look off of your face. People do this. A lot of the time, they do it without realizing it. They utilize female characters as a catalyst of growth for their starring male lead to really shine. Men should not gain success because of women’s failures, nor should it work the other way around. Men and women should be successful and strong on account of their own merits.
How to fix this:
Luckily, male characters don’t need flat female leads to highlight their growth. If a character’s growth is substantial and meaningful, then they can each shine for themselves. Moreover, a healthy romantic relationship should help both characters become stronger together. That’s the beauty and the fun of writing romance. Double the character growth. Triple the shine.
It’s important to note that interacting with other characters, even flat members of the cast can help main characters grow If your main character is growing the most because he is saving a weak female character, especially a lead, then you might want to give his development more meaning.
Ask yourself if your female lead is round or flat. Next, if you’ve included what you intend to be a healthy romantic relationship, assess whether it is meaningful for both characters. Is it a place of growth or is one character getting more out of it than the other? I’m certainly advocating for women, but if a male romantic lead is getting jipped out of character development, pay some attention to him too.
So here’s to hoping that that one writer I met finally broke down the barriers of his own prejudice and started writing some awesome female characters that jump, kick, sew, and preach with the best of them. Diversity is more than just race and sexuality. Diversity is about filling your story with real and unexpected people. Sure they have plenty of flaws, but they’re not caricatures. Leave those for the sketch artists.
What other representations of women in historical fiction do you wish you could see done differently? Let’s talk about it!