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  • Leah E. Welker

My Favorite Things, Part 5: "Soft" Heroines


A sprig of small flowers in a white, spouted cup on a white surface. Photo credit: Vivi Mimi on Unsplash.

In my introduction to this series on my favorite things in fiction, I listed "paragons" as number five, but I'm actually going to skip that one for now and go to "'soft' heroines," since I think that sets up the foundation for paragons for next week.

Caveat: I'm a female who tends to like reading fiction traditionally written for females, which tends to have a female protagonist. So while I love all of the following qualities in a male protagonist too, I'm just going to default to female terms for this post. Plus, the trending "hardness" of characters seems especially stark to me in female protagonists.


What I mean by "soft"


When I say that I love "soft" heroines, here's what I mean by the word soft:

  • tender,

  • kind,

  • compassionate,

  • altruistic,

  • or hopeful.


Or she can be any combination of those (I don't expect the heroine to be perfect).


I don't mean...

  • naive,

  • weak (physically or mentally),

  • cowardly,

  • submissive,

  • or unintelligent.


A heroine can be tender and be resilient, be kind and be resolute, be compassionate and have healthy boundaries, be altruistic and still prioritize her own needs (or learn to do so), be hopeful and still know darkness.


And yet, to me, there seems to be a growing trend toward glorifying "hard" or "dark" heroines. I have three unresearched, stream-of-conscious guesses why.


People might think soft heroines are unrealistic


We live in world that can be cruel, dark, and hard. I know there are people whose lives are far harder than mine who naturally hardened themselves in order to survive, and I ache for them. I understand, then, why they would write and read about heroines who are more like them (or what they want to be or think they have to be). I can only guess that writers and readers see all those soft qualities I listed for only their dangers, seeing them as weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and want to eliminate them or discount them as being laughably unrealistic—perhaps more unbelievable than magic itself.


I understand why dark fiction, and particularly dark fantasy, and dark romantic fantasy exists, and if that's what people need to heal, I wish them the best.


But that's not what I need. And that's not what I feel the ones I love need, many of whom have had far harder and darker lives than I have.


In fact, the stories I love the best have heroines who start out with a few of those soft qualities, along with their downsides, and find balance; and in that balance, they find the way to face darkness and remain soft. That is the kind of character development that I find so exquisite, so extraordinary. It is the hardest kind to do well, since the most natural thing in the world is to become harder and harder. To convincingly portray a character who faces darkness and not just remains soft but becomes softer AND stronger is not easy.


But to me, it's not only worth the effort—there's no effort that is worth more.


We humans have listened to stories over millennia to tell us how to survive. One could say one of our greatest evolutionary advantages is storytelling, if you can consider it the basis of communication. Nowadays, we think we read and write for entertainment, but there's at least one part of our subconscious that is straining for the answer on how to survive each experience the characters encounter, should we ever find ourselves in the same situation.


I am desperate to read about soft heroines who cross the dark chasm of life by finding their balance on the tightrope of light.


Because that's the kind of balance I desperately need.


That's the kind of person I want to be.


Because though I do sincerely sympathize with the many reasons there could be hard heroines out there, and people who need them, all that I have read about real-life resilience research points to the necessity of us, at one point in our journey, returning to a place of softness. Of compassion. Of connection. Of hope.


That's the kind of hope I want to give to the world.


People might think soft heroines are too feminine


I'm just as troubled by a widespread perception that females have to take on traditionally masculine traits in order to be somebody in this world. That all things traditionally feminine and girly are, first, inferior, and, second, should be shunned for the sake of ambition, power, or simply creating a niche for themselves in traditionally masculine roles such as sports or the military.


I'm not saying every girl should be completely "girly." Certainly I'm not. I dislike the color pink, eschew nail polish, and still haven't even figured out how to style my hair. But because I was never traditionally girly, I got sucked in to the idea for a time that I wasn't feminine. Putting that together with the idea that masculine traits are the path to success, I subconsciously thought sometimes that it wasn't worth exploring traditionally feminine things I might actually have an interest in, like reading romances, wearing girly dresses, or wanting to be a homemaker. I went through phases of thinking I had to be a serious career woman, wear serious suits and dress suits, and eschew romances. Yet all those things were expectations of others and not true to who I wanted to be. It's taken me a long time to find the ways I am authentically female, and I'm still on that journey, because I'm still growing into the woman I'm meant to be, and I always will be.


By advocating soft traits, I'm not saying everyone should display them exactly the same way. I acknowledge that softness will and should look different for each person. A woman who has found a place of softness and wholeness on the inside may still look tough on the outside. Certainly I'm tired of people assuming I'm angry or miserable simply because I'm hard to read, I'm very focused, and my resting face looks like a scowl—when normally I'm happy, whole, and at peace with the world.


What I'm saying is that every girl and woman should be allowed to be whatever they want to be, to live in complete, authentic harmony with their best traits, whether they be traditionally masculine or traditionally feminine. I think they should be able to have whatever job they truly, authentically want, whether that be traditionally masculine or traditionally feminine, or not a paid job at all as a homemaker or caregiver, without sacrificing their authentic inner selves. (And, by the way, I believe the same for men—if a guy wants to be the stay-at-home-dad, go for it, I say!)


I think, when put so plainly, most of us agree with this. But I kindly point out that if we fully believe this, if we fully want this for ourselves and each other, we should fully reflect that in our fiction.


A heroine should not have to be traditionally masculine (tough, course, fierce, violent, dominant) to be worth reading about. There should be stories about girls who want to be and become queens, yes, but there should also be stories about girls who just want to be simple village healers with nary a title or claim to fame. A girl should be allowed to be a warrior (if she wants to) but also a woman.


I think Tamora Pierce struck this balance well. At the time I read her Protector of the Small series, I didn't realize how significant it was that Keladry of Mindelan, who was the first girl to openly train to become a knight, consciously chose to wear dresses to dinner in the training mess hall every night. As a tween reader, I actually thought that was a bit odd and wasn't sure I would have done the same; it didn't fit the cool picture in my head of a girl training to fight.


I didn't realize how brave that must have been of the character, how healthy for her identity, and how necessary a statement that was from the author. In fact, Pierce wrote all her heroines to be authentically female, having traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine traits as all people do, and they all found how to embrace both kinds as part of their whole as they navigated traditionally masculine spaces. Even Alana the Lioness, who had to hide her gender to become a knight, was given feminine interests and traits. (Perhaps even more than Kel.)


Another author I saw this do well recently was Kit Trzebunia in The Gatherer. Peregrine also has a passionate interest in a traditionally masculine space (combat, once again), but she doesn't harden or become traditionally masculine, no matter how much she has to fight to be there. And it's only one of her facets—not downplayed, but also not all-defining. In fact, it's balanced well with Peregrine's interest in healing, and the interplay between the two domains is explored several times. The combination of the two makes Peregrine a dynamic, fascinating young woman.


(As an aside, I like how Peregrine doesn't face universal resistance to her interest—just from a character or two, one of whom is female, and almost all the males in her life are adamantly supportive. I'm wearying of fiction in which it's the lone female fighting against universal expectation, especially from all the men. It's just been done so much, and it's exhausting to even read about. Maybe it's still truth, maybe it's not, but I think if we want to see men being more feminist, and have feminist views be more universal, perhaps its time to be portraying that more instead. And even the woman who is resistant to Peregrine's combat training has a legitimate point, which is acknowledged several times in the book.)


In a noncombatant example, I have to bring up one of my favorite characters of all time, Wanderer from The Host. (I told you she'd make another appearance. But seriously, she's perfect for a combatant example, because she's literally a pacifist who can't hurt a fly.) I don't think I've read a character that better exemplified who a soft heroine is. Granted, her altruism is at the unhealthy end of the spectrum, and that's part of her character arc, but don't mistake that selflessness for a lack of courage, grit, and determination, because Wanderer has that in bucketloads. She truly is a hero, in every sense of the word.


People might think soft heroines are boring


On a similar vein, I am troubled by the growing idea that a soft woman is boring, and therefore obviously to be avoided in our fiction (our entertainment).


I haven't seen it spelled out in so many words (except "Well-behaved women seldom make history," but that's commonly a commonly misunderstood quote because the author wasn't intending to imply what most people think). But what else could be the subtext behind all of these female protagonists whose most touted qualities are the opposites of all the soft ones I listed? Protagonists who are violent, savage, wild, coarse, cynical, jaded, worldly, power-hungry, vengeful, selfish, ruthless.


I once tried reading a prominent dark romantasy, but I could not get beyond the preview chapter because the POV character was so hard, bitter, and ruthless. It could be that some of those qualities soften over time, but I could not bear being in her head long enough to find out, and everything I've heard since about her still confirms to me that one of her most touted qualities remains that ruthlessness. I understand why that might be thrilling to many people, and because I have not read that character's journey, I can't judge, but I still can't bring myself to.


Defiance against evil, against overwhelming darkness, is courageous and admirable. But a constant fierce bitterness, a never-relenting attitude of that person versus the world, no matter the direness of their circumstances, will probably only consume the person's own soul. In glorifying hard qualities in our entertainment, in chasing after the shock factor, the thrill of seeing someone exert power, cultivate rage, exude cynicism, I worry that we are missing the fact that the true keys to resilience, the true traits to admire, the qualities that will fulfill (not just entertain) us are the soft ones.


The word untamed has generally positive connotations. Even I, when I think of the word, think of a wild horse running free—a thrilling, exuberant freedom. Perhaps something similar comes to your mind as well. But I think if we narrow in on that one image too much, if we value that one moment too highly, we aren't just blind to the whole picture—we forget what makes that feeling possible.


What we see as complete freedom isn't actually what we think it is, since I'm certain that horse could not survive for long completely on its own, with no ties to anyone or anything. A wild horse lives in a herd, which I bet is not just necessary for it's survival: I'm certain it has a complex social contract, and that horse must navigate social dynamics and the natural give-and-take that is group survival.


Untamed is the name of a prominent feminist book by Glennon Doyle, which I have not read, but from what I've heard and the description I've read, I think the author is advocating the same thing I am: letting go of expectations discordant with one's inner self and becoming authentically ourselves.


But I don't think Doyle is advocating a complete abandonment of social ties or sociopathic behavior, either. Human beings (the ones who aren't sociopaths, anyway) simply cannot function that way. We are herd animals, and as Dr. Brené Brown puts it, we are hard-wired for connection. "Armoring up," as Dr. Brown calls it, kills off our life-sustaining connections as surely as cutting off all a tree's roots would. The anti-social behaviors portrayed with increasing frequency in popular entertainment, no matter how engrossing, are terrible for individuals and society. If we are what we eat, I'm getting very worried about what we are becoming.


If the origins of storytelling could be seen as passing along the life-saving lessons of how to function as a group, when did those live-saving qualities become boring?


Compassion, vulnerability, hope, service, faith—those aren't just "soft" qualities. They aren't just the keys to individual resilience, as research is increasingly proving. They are the keys to humanity's survival.


I totally agree that a girl shouldn't have to be a sweet, pretty, compliant doll, which is perhaps what some people first picture when they hear "soft heroine." But I think the other extreme of ferocious, cynical isolation and ambition is not just troubling entertainment: it's a lie that will make the real-life girl consuming it just as miserable, and a society of those girls equally so.


On the other hand, I am not just inspired, I am not just thrilled, I am not just entertained to see a heroine learn how to stay soft in an increasingly hardened world.


I see no storytelling task more urgent for myself than to explore just that.


Conclusion

In other words, I'm advocating for fiction the same thing I'm advocating for life: that we all give ourselves and our characters permission be authentically who we are in the pursuit of what is truly best for us and society. If a woman genuinely wants to be a CEO, and that gives her peace, wholeness, and joy, amazing. If she genuinely wants to live in the middle of the woods with a bunch of cats, weaving baskets to sell at the local farmer's market, and that gives her peace, wholeness, and joy, amazing.


It's when someone thinks they have harden in order to have what they want, even though that hardening makes them miserable, and their hollow achievements even more so, that my heart breaks.


And I hate to see how often soft heroines are downplayed as being too soft, as having qualities that are too unrealistic, too feminine, or too boring—qualities readers and writers see as ballast that should be cast overboard for the sake of something (money, fame, power, entertainment) that won't even bring happiness in the end.


In life or in fiction.


And if that's all we read in our fiction . . . I worry for us all.


Be your best self, whatever that looks like for you. I simply proffer the theory that your authentic best self . . . is actually much softer than the world would make you to be.


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