Strong Female Characters: Or How I Completely Changed the Tone of my Writing

  

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Florence Nightingale revolutionized nursing

  I am on a small writing roll as of late. I get a little time and I manage to sit down at my laptop. The miracle lately is that I actually get to write. The process is still slow going for me, but at least I feel like I may be getting somewhere with my projects.
     I’m currently working on three writing projects (well, four, if you count this blog); the first is a direct sequel to Mademoiselle Durand and the Pirates, no real final title yet, but I have a couple potentials; A mystery set in the same reality as Mademoiselle Durand, but with some different characters; and a Science Fiction piece that I have been alternately writing and abandoning since about 2007.  All three projects have a couple things in common: First, they are all progressing so slowly. Second, I rewrote several sections.
     To be fair, it was actually Mademoiselle Durand and the clichéd that received the rewrites, not so much with the current story featuring Bernadette. The final story bears almost no resemblance to the original story I had outlined and partially written.
     The reason is not a good one. In the original outline, Mademoiselle Durand was a damsel in distress; the main character in the piece was younger male character that resembled Monsieur Mercier, and the story was a straight up pirate adventure. Steampunk was not at all a part.  The story itself was pretty standard – pirate invades ship, kidnaps young lady, heroic captain saves the day and wins the heart of the damsel. But it felt too clichéd. 
     I did what I used to do all the time; I set the story aside and waited for some other form of inspiration to strike. It struck much sooner than expected. It also pushed me to finish a project. I was going through my to be read list on my Kindle, and started reading Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series. I had read some steampunk before, but this story actually gave me some ideas. Why did Mademoiselle Durand have to be a damsel in distress? Why couldn’t she be a tough, ass-kicker?  Soon after I began reading more Steampunk books, including Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series. I realized that I could change the story around a bit, and make something  different of my pirate story.
     Reading these two authors helped me get over one of the problems that had been plaguing this particular story. Bernadette had potential to be interesting – a french expatriate with a mysterious past. The big questions I had as the author were why was she on the ship? And how could I make her a more active part of the story?
     The Steampunk genre helped me to craft a story around her. I found her more interesting than the male lead, anyhow. A heroine in a Steampunk story can do things that were frowned upon in actual 19th century society, while still holding on to many of the trappings of “proper female behavior” that was expected of them at that point in history. I hold this idea with me even as I am working on my current projects. To prepare myself, I knew that I would need to learn more about some of the actual women of the 19th century, and how they rebelled against the ideas of what a woman should be capable of doing.

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Nellie Bly exposed injustices through her investigative journalism.

     I read up on 19th century women and the contributions they made to society. The suffragists and their fight for equality. I read about Florence Nightingale, and her contributions to medicine and the nursing profession.  Nellie Bly, whose investigative journalism brought about change not just in the world of mental health, but for women’s rights as well as the rights of the working men and women. Marie Curie, though she was born a bit outside of the timeframe of my story, and her contribution to our knowledge of radioactivity. These women were all raised in a society that told them their place in the world was as a wife and mother. They each fought back, in their own way to show that they, and indeed all women, are so much more.

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Marie Curie helped shape the study and use of radioactive materials

     I tried to imbue my main female character with some of the aspects that made each of these women great. Granted, there is only so much you can accomplish in a 28 page short story, but these ideas have spilled over into my other stories, as well as my in progress sequel.
     I may end up doing a post or two on some of these ladies, as they served as inspiration for all of the female characters in my upcoming stories. I find their place in their respective society and in history to be quite fascinating. For the writers, when you are creating strong characters, male or female, do you look to any real people, either in your own lives or through history as inspiration?

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4 thoughts on “Strong Female Characters: Or How I Completely Changed the Tone of my Writing

  1. For me, the challenge has been making my female characters integral. When my wife pointed out to me that I wasn’t including decent female characters, I was determined to fix it, but they started out in peripheral roles. It’s taken a mental shift to get to the point where I make sure the central characters are as often female as male, but I’m getting there.

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  2. Thanks for the wonderful posts. I find myself on the fence here. I write with both male and female main characters, and until now, I haven’t really thought about fairness or equality. I have a task or role for a character to do, and I just pick one whom in my mind is the most suitable and capable. I guess, the perception of gender and role are linked in my mind. In turn, I have written using strong and weak men and women. For me, using gender can make a scene sharper, scarier, heartwarming, sadder, etc.

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    • Sarah, I like that way of thinking. In general I my stories tend to have a decent mix of male and female. This story did stick with me though, as I was originally doing a slightly more historical fiction project. I liked the character, and felt she was being underused. So, reworking it into a steampunk short story worked out better. I always want to improve as a writer, and this project was learning experience.

      I want to be able to write the types of female characters that my nieces can one day read about and enjoy.

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      • If I remember correctly from the acknowledgments by CS Lewis, he wrote a book for his niece, and he gave us some very strong females…so, great minds think alike, eh?! 🙂

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