No More Heroines

red-sonjaI don’t like heroines.

If you’re familiar with my work, you should immediately know I mean the word heroine, not the concept of the female protagonist. I’ve written one fantasy novel (The Hum and the Shiver) and a series of short stories (The Firefly Witch) with strong, tough female main characters, and I try to make the women in my Eddie LaCrosse series the equal of that hero; in fact, I hope to take Eddie’s sidekick from Wake of the Bloody Angel, Jane Argo, and make her the hero of her own novel one day.

And that’s the word I like to use. “Hero” should be a genderless term.

If the story has a main character, that’s the protagonist. He or she can be weak, sniveling, backstabbing or dishonest, and still remain the protagonist. But to be a story’s hero, you need to be more. S/he strives to make him/herself and the world better; s/he faces his/her darkest fears and pushes past them. S/he can still fail–look at both To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch and Morgan from The Mists of Avalon–because it’s the striving that makes a character heroic.

Fantasy lends itself to heroes; in fact, there’s a subgenre called “heroic fantasy,” in which I proudly place Eddie LaCrosse (and I was tickled to have an Eddie story in volume 2 of the anthology series, The New Hero). But there’s nothing that requires that hero to be male, despite the cliche images associated with it. Sure, Conan is the first name that comes to mind when someone says “heroic fantasy,” but the Conan stories were written nearly a century ago. When he was adapted by Marvel Comics in the seventies, the creators knew that times had changed, took a minor character from an unrelated Robert E. Howard story, and created his female opposite, Red Sonja (whose latest comic incarnation will be written by Gail Simone).

And today, female heroes are everywhere. I’m part of the Facebook group The Heroic Fiction League, and female heroes are thick on the ground there, whether written by women (Violette Malan, who has her own take on this issue here) or men (Nathan Long even has his own Jane, Jane Carver of Waar).


And yes, these are heroes, not “heroines.” They don’t need their own, gender-specific term, because their gender is irrelevant. What matters is their strength of character, not their strength of their (literal or metaphorical) sword arm. As Jodie Foster says in the DVD commentary track on The Silence of the Lambs, “I think there’s something very important about having a woman hero, who’s a true woman hero in the most archetypal sense of the word, and yet doesn’t have to clothe herself in men’s clothing. She doesn’t kill the dragon by being mightier, she actually does it because of her instincts, because of her brain, and because somehow she’s seen something, some detail, that other people have missed.”

So I vote we abandon the term “heroine” and start calling everyone who deserves it, male or female, a “hero.” Who’s with me?

11 Comments on “No More Heroines”

  1. I don’t like the word heroine because the pronunciation makes it sound like an illegal drug. So I’m all about using hero as a genderless word. And you’re right about female heroes being thick on the ground these days. If nothing else, Joss Whedon proves that every outing. But I do wonder about the lack of female heroes who strive and fail. It’s almost as if the feminist movement has made it impossible to write about a failing female hero, as if they are not permitted to fail right now. Any thoughts on that?

  2. I would argue that the word “heroine” applies to a certain character type, and it is not the female hero. Unfortunately, the use of the term to refer to female heros leads to a misperception both by some authors and by some readers as to their expectations.

    1. As an arguable poster child for “heroine” writing – to the point that I don’t want to be on ONE! MORE! PANEL! about “strong female characters” at any con coming up in the next couple of YEARS, please – I do have a horse in this race, so to speak, and I absolutely agree, a “heroine” is (at least in my own head) a damsel awaiting rescue, to a point, rather than the protagonist of her own story. I don’t write “heroines”. I write people who happen to do protagonistic things while female. I like reading those, too.

      “Heroine” has two immediate mental connections for me. One is “A femal role model” – as in, someone saying that a female who happens to be on a higher rung, let’s say, of the ladder of one’s chosen life path is their “heroine” – someone to be emulated, someone who inspires them, someone who serves as an example and a guiding light. FOr instance, I might say that Ursula le Guin is my heroine. The other is the one I already mentioned, and believe me I know when the word is being used in this fashion – the “heroine”, the token female in a male story, the one who comes out with some cute and probably doomed kittenish expression of strength or courage and then gets swept away into a tower or tied onto the railway tracks by a moustachio twirling villain in the hopes that the “real” hero of the story will come riding to her rescue. One of these is positive; the other very much is not; but in point of fact neither clearly applies to the characrets in fiction I like to write and/or read…

      Just my 2 cents’ worth…

      1. Now, see, Alma, I’d say “Ursula LeGuin is my hero.” Because I don’t expect a “hero” to rescue me.

  3. Well put. I suppose the old way of thinking would have been: that’s pretty heroic … for a girl.

    Got a couple more books to add to my wish list too, after reading this. Cheers.

  4. Thanks for the call out, Alex! And I’m right there with you. I have occasionally used heroine in the past, but I’m going cold turkey and this time I really think I can quit.

  5. Yes! Not just yes, but oh HELL, yeah.

    I have a short story coming out next month in WHEN THE HERO COMES HOME 2, narrated by Vasilissa’s magical doll. She has a few things to say about heroines in the opening:

    I am Vasilissa’s doll, which is all you need to know about me.

    Do not misunderstand me. There is much to know, much that I myself have yet to learn. But this story is not about me.

    This is a tale of Vasilissa the Beautiful, the maiden who braved Baba Yaga and came away with the gift of fire. But do not mistake her for a hero. She’s a heroine, which is a different matter altogether.

    Heroines are cherished by their mothers, who die young, and ignored by their fathers, who remarry unwisely. They are beautiful and good, and they are hated for their beauty and goodness. When this hatred leads to abuse, the heroine quietly endures. Heroines, you see, are well behaved. They do as they’re told. Weed the garden, carry water from the well, go deep into the forest to fetch a candle from a murderous witch—it’s all the same to them. The stepmother commands, the heroine obeys. It is not in Vasilissa’s nature to complain, much less to do something as sensible as, say, setting the old bitch on fire.

    But you’d think the idea would at least occur to her, considering the torch she brought back from Baba Yaga’s hut. You’d think carrying a stick topped by a skull with flaming eyes would suggest any number of dark and satisfying possibilities…

Leave a Reply to SAMK Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *