‘We’re still telling those old tales with princesses as prizes, so perhaps the revolution isn’t over yet’
Lari Don: Why I Write Strong Girls
A maiden is tied to a rock, weeping prettily as she waits to be eaten by a sea monster, then a hero swoops in to kill the monster.
A princess is offered as a prize, along with half the kingdom, to any hero who can slay the local dragon.
A girl ignores her mother’s advice to stay on the path, is eaten by a wolf, then cut free by a man with an axe.
I loved these stories as a girl. I thought those roles were the natural place for girls in fairy tales and legends. But I wanted more for myself, so I read Nancy Drew, I watched Wonder Woman, and I realised I could imagine my own stronger girls.
Now I write strong girls.
I write fantasy adventures for 8-12 year olds, with female protagonists who don’t sit about crying prettily waiting for heroes to save them. I write male characters too, just as brave and smart, flawed and foolish, as the girls. I try to treat my characters (whatever gender, race or species) equally. But in the end, it’s always my child characters who solve their problems, rather than waiting for a passing adult to intervene, and it’s always my female protagonist who saves herself and everyone else, rather than relying on a hero to defeat the monster.
That’s why Helen’s musical skill defeats the fairy queen in Wolf Notes and why Molly’s speed saves her friends in The Shapeshifter’s Guide to Running Away.
In my novels the girl defeats the monster, partly because she’s the main character, so that’s the satisfying way to end the story, but also because I’m still the child who read those fairy tales and wondered if girls could have other roles too.
And I’m not content to settle for weeping, waiting and weddings as the only jobs girls can have in fairy tales. Traditional tales are the wellspring of our culture. If the most popular stories are about passive girls, then boys and girls of every generation have to recognise and resist that message in order to grow up with any expectation of equality.
So I try to look beyond Victorian fairy tales with girls as passive recipients of heroism, and search out older stories with active and confident girls: the Sumerian goddess of war, the Chinese girl who defeats a seven-headed dragon, the little girl in a red cap who escapes from the wolf all on her own…
I don’t just write for girls. In fact I don’t write for girls at all. I write for adventure fans. For readers of any and all genders. It’s important that we all read about physically confident female characters and emotionally intelligent male characters, as well as the other way round.
There’s been a revolution in girls’ roles in fiction. In the 70s I had Nancy Drew and Wonder Woman. Nowadays I would run out of breath listing all the strong girls my daughters can read about and watch (and become!).
But we’re still telling those old tales with princesses as prizes, so perhaps the revolution isn’t over yet…
Lari Don is a children’s author and storyteller. Her books include the Fabled Beast Chronicles, the Spellchasers Trilogy (the second Spellchasers novel – The Shapeshifter’s Guide to Running Away – is published by Floris Books this month) and the collection of heroine tales Girls Goddesses & Giants.
Lari will be talking about creating strong female characters and telling heroine tales on 18th Feb 2017 at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh as part of the Audacious Women Festival.
For more insight into Lari, check out this interview here on Books from Scotland.