Your Formula for a Kick-Ass Young Adult Heroine

Because New York Comic Con’s The Avengers panel was taking place at the same time as the “Girls Kick Butt: Strong Female Heroines in Young Adult Fantasy” panel Saturday evening, I figured that I’d have no trouble getting into the latter. That was where I made my mistake: The Avengers attendees were mostly male, which left all the women to cluster outside the room for an hour beforehand.

And why not, when the panel included fantasy author Tamora Pierce (The Protector of the Small series, the Beka Cooper series), Esther Friesner (Nobody’s Princess and other novels that reimagine ancient princesses like Helen of Troy and Cleopatra), and Caitlin Kittredge (The Iron Codex series)?

Tamora Pierce is my favorite fantasy author, the woman who made me first think I could make it as a writer. This was the second time I’d seen her in person, and she was as sardonic and smart as any of her protagonists. Because most of my adolescent friends never knew about her books, I’m used to explaining her work to people, but it turns out that she’s the idol for many of the convention’s female (and male) attendees, too!

During a lovely, insightful roundtable with the authors where they sang the theme song for ’50s TV show The Adventures of Robin Hood and gave no-nonsense advice on how to write YA books, we gleaned six rules for making a female heroine as kick-ass (“kick-butt” is too male, we decided) as Beka, Helen, and Aoife.

Draw from history.

You think of these authors as trailblazers, bringing us unprecedented female heroines, but there’s actually an astonishing breadth of ancient female heroes from which they drew their inspiration. Friesner models her princesses after warrior queens “who ascended through… sly methods”; Kittredge draws on the Greek goddess Athena, “someone who was brainy and wasn’t afraid to be strong”; and Pierce jumps all through history, from the Amazons to the women who disguised themselves as men to serve in the Civil War. “One of the bodies in front of the stone wall at Gettysburg was a woman,” she said.

Don’t be afraid to make her masculine.

One of the most fascinating questions was whether the ladies consider their characters intrinsically female, and what makes them so. “Aoife does have a lot of masculine traits for when the story’s set,” Kittredge admitted. “She’s good at math, she’s athletic… She’s actually socially awkward and doesn’t have very good manners. I think with her character traits, if Aoife had been a guy, she would’ve come off as a jerk. Her desire not to be pigeonholed and to go out and seek adventure outside of the roles she’s been told she has to play, is intrinsic to her character.”

Don’t be afraid to make her feminine.

“I like to show strong female characters who are also proud to be female,” Pierce said. “They like to wear dresses; they have a fondness for jewelry. [Another aspect is] not rejecting other women or women’s roles. Especially in later years, that became a really big one for me.”

Ignore orders from both sides.

Pierce discussed how upsetting it was for her, who grew up during the feminist revolution in the ’70s, to arrive at college and have women saying that “real” feminists were gay or celibate. (“I was neither,” she quipped.) This debate extends to her female characters, as mentioned above. “The whole point of what we did was giving every woman the power to choose how they wanted to live,” she said. “Not to present only restrictions on women, but to present the possibilities that come from being female.”

“The thing about being female,” Friesner said, “is that it makes us think there’s only one way to be female. I’ll bet there’s at least two or three, or six, different ways in this very room. There is no one female… Sometimes the biggest battle is ‘This is what you should be doing,’ handed down by the feminists or by the anti-feminists.”

Have a sense of humor!

Friesner shared how “Years and years ago I started editing the Chicks in Chain Mail books. When the first one came out, there weren’t a lot of males who submitted stories because they were afraid. They thought ‘The women are gonna kill us!’ The point of these anthologies was, we can take a joke. We can’t take a jab.”

Grin and bear it when it comes to hypersexualized heroes.

However, there’s a big difference between Chicks in Chain Mail and the scantily clad superheroes that NYCC attendees saw every day on the show floor. To this relevant question, Pierce answered, “I grind my teeth a lot, I speak against it. I’m not happy with it; I would be happier if people would do it less. I support independent comics.” (You can also push to make more respectable heroines in comics, like Pierce did when she worked on Marvel’s new White Tiger series in 2006.)


Natalie Zutter is a playwright, foodie, and the co-creator of Leftovers, a webcomic about food trucks in the zombie apocalypse. She’s currently the Associate Editor at Crushable, where she discusses movies, celebrity culture, and internet memes. You can find her on Twitter @nataliezutter.

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