This is a guest post by Elle Morgan.
We all love our haloed heroines, our femme fatales, our underrepresented underdogs. They bloom through the cracks of literature and wiggle past the hundreds, and hundreds, and…oh, you have got to be kidding me. Not another…
Another white male who has come along to ‘save the day’! He has his superhero spell-checker! Hang on just one second while I get all my imaginary heroines on speed-dial to sort this nonsense out.
Hey! Dude! This is a female-only zone! There’s no room for you on this team! There’s no ‘man’ in ‘woman’, is there? No ‘hero’ in ‘heroine’…
Oh, alright. Just pass me the dictionary, then, and go sit at the back and be quiet.
This is a guide to writing your best heroine yet. Whether it’s for a literary bildungsroman or a young adult romance, knowing how to transition a young woman into, well, womanhood can make your female characters’ history believable and multi-layered.
I think of writing this as like writing about a flower, in the process of blooming. Or like Beyoncé, in the process of writing about her pain.
So, I’ve come up with three stages of this flowering process that you can apply to the characterisation of womanhood.
Stage One: Adversity
Let’s start with Adversity. Your character needs a trial to shift through, some homeland to leave or community that’s just not working anymore. Can you think of somewhere that’s so familiar to your character, so old or wrong for them, it sends them backwards?
A relationship, maybe, or place? It needs to be something that prevents them from achieving their goal: reaching womanhood.
Write that down.
If you can’t think of anything, try and remember the last time you were challenged by a person or a place that made you feel too young, too inexperienced, too small. Too much of a wrong fit.
A good example of this is seen in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, when the main character, Ifemelu, knows it’s time to leave America, and go back to Nigeria. Her surroundings aren’t working—she feels half of herself, subdued.
We see her discomforted by the fact she has to travel too long on the train for a simple self-care task, of getting her hair braided. That’s not on—her surroundings should be holding a space for her.
What does this character need? Well, she needs a nurturing environment to grow into a woman, to love herself, and not get held back by obstacles that remind her that this is a second home. She needs spaces that are inclusive and welcoming.
What does your character need? What is it about the place they’re in, or people they’re with, that is lacking? Have a think, and write it down.
Stage Two: Ancestry
Now, let’s move onto Ancestry. You need to know where your character is coming from emotionally—who does she look up to as a role model? Is she close to her family? Are they flawed, and does she have to advise them? Are they adult-like, able to guide her?
Your character needs a past, with connections, because she needs roots that anchor her somehow. Is she close to her friends? Does she have supportive females in her life? Are they able to help her in her journey to womanhood, and what’s her role in their lives?
If you were feeling really mean, you could add adversity here too, and choose to write in characters who deliberately stop yours from flowering. Even if it’s well-intentioned prevention, which can be even more interesting to write—there’s nothing queerer than the way folk work, after all.
If we think about someone like Misty Copeland—who turned her memories of reaching womanhood into a book—what does she have to face, to become a successful ballerina?
She faces a lack of support from her mother, and various attempts to stop her, to bring her back to normal life. But Misty can’t go back. Being a ballerina is a part of her nature—her identity. She chooses to stay with her adopted family, rather than go back home.
In Misty’s case, she has the opposite problem to Ifemelu. Ifem can’t wait to return home, with her intellectual experience gained, and her problems solved, whereas Misty knows that to become a success, she must take the road of the individual, and carry on far from home.
Stage Three: Identity
The last phase into womanhood is Identity. If all things go well, you want your character to merge these problems, adverse experiences, and life lessons, into one coherent identity at the end of your story. What does she have to do to achieve this?
In Zadie Smith’s NW, the young girl Keisha changes her name to Natalie to become a lawyer. She pretty much tries to rewrite her roots, which makes for an interesting, complex storyline, because of course, her old identity leaks through.
In a different vein, Beyoncé forgives Jay-Z in Lemonade, after integrating all of her furious, radical songs and parts of herself into one beautiful, independent, strong woman.
And in Americanah, without spoiling the novel, Ifem manages to reunite with her old life and sew herself back into the rich tapestry of friends and family. It turns out that her ancestry is still a huge part of her identity, and her development would have been stunted had she tried to grow into herself, anywhere but at home.
How heartwarming is that?
We see the opposite in NW—Keisha must escape her close-knit community in order to ‘become someone’, or become her real self, due to the negativity at the roots holding her back.
Which situation will you put your character in?
Will they have to return, to develop, or leave completely?
Hopefully these three stages will have outlined for you a rough sketch of what your female character should go through to attain the spiritual and emotional maturity complex enough to hold a reader’s attention. Have fun creating!
Elle Morgan is a 23-year-old Creative and Critical Writing MA student at the University of Sussex. She writes on the Jazz Age and keeps a book review blog: ellemorganstudies.wordpress.com.