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Fictional heroines: Why they matter

Updated: Jun 21, 2022

We’ve all heard the phrase “behind every great man is a great woman.” First coined in the 1940’s, the slogan was adopted by the feminist movement a couple of decades later and adapted in many ways since. Today – International Women’s Day 2022 – I’d like to suggest another tweak. Ready for it?

“Behind every great woman is a great (fictional) woman.”

Of course, not all the women who inspire others are fictional – far from it. And sadly, not all girls have access to books. But for many, many girls, fictional heroines blaze a bright trail to follow. They demonstrate positive qualities that they, soon-to-be-women, can emulate as they struggle to solidify their own identities.

Fiction moves readers on an emotional level, creating an impact that reaches far beyond intellectual understanding. According to psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley, stories “train us in the art of being human.” Oatley goes on to say, "we can start to extend ourselves into situations we have never experienced, feel for people very different from ourselves, and begin to understand such people in ways we may have never thought possible."

Fictional heroine Sam with her flashlight at night
Fictional heroine Sam with her flashlight at night

Girl power in middle schooler books

From classic fictional heroines – like Alice in Wonderland – to modern day protagonists, these heroines have traits in common. They’re often described as strong-minded, independent, plucky, spunky, and courageous. They stand up for themselves and for others.

It’s not surprising that these are the traits that are important, considering that girls must figure out how to succeed when the odds are often stacked against them. (Just as women in real life must do.) Fictional heroines must break free of stereotypes demanding that they be “nice” rather than assertive, “compliant” rather than bold, “followers” rather than leaders. They debunk the “princess” image that defines them as pretty, helpless creatures in need of a prince to rescue them from an imprisoning tower (and potentially introduce them to a different kind of captivity.) Heroines tell girls that they can be their own heroes, active agents making a difference in the world.

My fictional heroine: Sam

Even before I put pen to paper, I knew that Sam would be a girl, for all the reasons I’ve already touched on in this post.

And I knew what kind of girl I wanted her to be. I did not want her to be wimpy, but nor did I want her to be a superhero, imbued with special powers unavailable to the average girl. I wanted her to have fears and flaws, to struggle in situations that were not easy or obvious. I wanted her to be purposeful and courageous but also willing to be honest and vulnerable. So, I graciously gave her some of my own flaws to round out her character.

What makes Sam a little bit different from some other heroines is that her battle ground is the environment. Greta Thunberg is her rock star heroine (even though Sam herself was created when Greta was still a toddler and not the global activist she is today.) Sam’s quests are centred around protecting the world’s water, battling destructive forces, and respecting the needs of animals. She feels a sense of urgency and she’s willing to be uncomfortable to make a difference.

The Secrets of the Under-Under World books join a growing rank of climate fiction (Cli-Fi) books.

Celebrating girls, both IRL and in fiction

Today, we celebrate women and girls around the world who make a difference, big or small.

Stories are a big part of the education system. And education is a critical factor in providing opportunities for girls. It’s long been understood that the education of girls is key to fighting poverty, improving economies, and even combating climate change. Many not-for-profit organizations specifically support girls – including one of my favourites, I-Plan “Because I am a girl.” And of course, Malala’s own intiative: “Malala Fund is working for a world where every girl can learn and lead.”

Happy International Women’s Day 2022!

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