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Saturday, April 26, 2014

The "Strong Female" Fairy Tale... — guest post from Elizabeth Blackwell, author of While Beauty Slept

Elizabeth Blackwell, author of the recently released While Beauty Slept, joins us today to talk about the struggle to find a balance between writing a "strong" character and a traditional one — and what a "strong" character means to her.
Check it out below, and let us know your thoughts in the comments!
And keep an eye out for a giveaway of a signed copy of While Beauty Slept, 'cause it's coming up soon in FTF!

The “Strong Female” Fairy Tale—How Much is Too Much?

Modern readers love a kick-ass female heroine (see: Katniss in The Hunger Games; Tris in Divergent, etc. etc.). Disney’s gotten the memo, too: Merida in Brave and the sisters in Frozen are much better at determining their fates than poor, wimpy Snow White. The beauty of reinterpreting fairy tales is that you can tell a traditional story with a modern spirit, creating strong-willed heroines who challenge and rewrite their own destinies. In fantasy, you can play by whatever rules you want.

But if you take a historical-fiction slant—as I did with While Beauty Slept—there’s an additional challenge.
No reader today would sit through a story about a beautiful, perfect princess who falls asleep and waits for a prince to wake her up. (I can already imagine the furious comments on GoodReads.) But if you’re going to write about a princess within a historical setting, it must feel true to life, and that means accepting certain realities. In medieval times (the period in which I set While Beauty Slept), princesses were sheltered. They had no control over who they married or where they lived. In those pre-feminist days, they weren’t encouraged to speak their minds or be independent. They were decorative figureheads, and not much more.

What’s a writer to do? You have to create a character who is compelling to modern readers, but also true to the times in which she lives. How do you make a princess appealing without betraying what her life would have actually been like?

The solution is to find a middle ground: a princess who shows her personality not with grand, unrealistic gestures but through small declarations of independence. A princess who has opinions but shares them only in private, with a trusted confidante. While Beauty Slept’s narrator, Elise, is a royal servant and in many ways the opposite of what we think of a “strong” heroine. She doesn’t protest her role in society or lead a revolt or charge into battle. But I’ve discovered, in my own life, that there are many ways to be strong. Elise quietly subverts other’s expectations. She knows that keeping a secret can be the key to holding power. And when she is tested, she finds strength within herself that she didn’t know she had.

Being strong doesn’t always mean being tough and loud—and that goes for real life as well as literature.

Elizabeth Blackwell is the author of While Beauty Slept (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 2014). Find out what else she’s up to at elizabethblackwellbooks.com or Facebook/elizabethblackwellbooks.

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  1. "...There are many ways to be strong." -- yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. I love it when this is remembered and shown. If I had to name one kind of diversity I'd like to see more of in fiction, it's diversity in character strength, particularly for the females who, in discussion, seem to get rather harshly divided into only two groups: Aggressively kick-ass (*the masses cheer*) or anything else/therefore lesser (*the masses jeer*). We can do better than that.

  2. Yes! This, exactly. I get tired of the modern equation that physically-talented heroine = strong heroine. As you said, there are many ways to be strong, and I think it's especially important to young women that we explore and show all of them. Telling girls that they have to be physically aggressive or strong in order to be worthy is JUST as bad as telling them they have to be physically beautiful to be worthy. Sure, one requires dedication while the other is a happenstance of genetics, but they both imply that the body is more important than the intellect. And in fairytales, the beauty is physical, and in being meek, innocent, and obeisant. Well done to Elizabeth for creating a heroine who is realistic for her era, but also relatable to ours!

  3. I really thing Sleeping Beauty would be a hard one to retelling. It is one of my favorite Disney movies, but literally it is more about the fairies than princess Aurora. I love the ending line to this one. You do not always have to be brave, loud, and strong. There is a way to rule your kingdom with grace and charm and still never be the princess that needs to be rescued. Thanks for posting this Elizabeth. Something to think about for sure.

  4. "Being strong doesn’t always mean being tough and loud"... Yes! Yes! Yes! I totally agree with that statement. Don't get me wrong, I love a good kickass heroine, but we more books with quiet, strong heroines. I think it shows a certain kind of strength when the heroine has to ask for help because she can't magically do everything or solve every problem. I love intelligent females who have more brains than braun and are fully comfortable with that. I think that this is why I love Briar Rose by Jane Yolen so much. The female characters in that book are a different kind of strong and I love it. I'm going to have to pick this up!

  5. Thanks for the great comments. It's so reassuring to hear there are others out there who feel the same way as me! I have nothing against "alpha heroines" at all (love me some Katniss), but they don't fit every kind of story. As mentioned above, it's all about allowing some diversity in our female characters.

  6. I completely agree! Heroines can totally be strong without it being abou physical strength.


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