Invisible Courage and the Strong Female Character

I am a feminist. And I love strong female characters. Pioneers, protestors, thinkers and explorers: the bold, brave and brilliant women who refused to accept the narrow structures society had built  for them.

I love reading about high-achieving, empowered women, whether real or fictional. But as a writer, I also believe in celebrating ordinary women’s everyday acts of moral or emotional courage that so often go unnoticed or unacknowledged.

In my novel, The Beauty of Broken Things, the main character Kerry is one of those ordinary women who is engaged in an invisible war. On the surface she’s not bold, assertive, tough or a survivor of extreme hardship. She’s an introvert struggling with crippling social anxiety, to the point where at the beginning of the story she has to conquer her nerves just to go into a shop and speak to a stranger.

One of the hardest things about anxiety and other mental disorders is that because of the climate of stigma that surrounds us, we tend to stigmatise ourselves as well.  People ask us “what have you got to be anxious/depressed about?”, and many of us respond with a sense of shame. I’ve berated myself for being unable to face social situations that other people would consider trivial or routine. I’ve compared myself unfavourably to those strong women who have stuck their necks out for a cause or faced up to far greater adversity than I’m ever likely to experience.

Courage isn’t about the absence of fear, though. It’s about the way we choose to face our fears. And strength of character isn’t so much about toughness as it is about agency:  the assertion of our own free will in whatever situation we find ourselves. The beauty of novels is that we get an insight into the character’s interior world and the unspoken choices they make, preventing us from being too quick to judge their outward demeanour.

We see how hard life can be when our own mind is the enemy. We see the battles some people fight every morning just to show up, let alone speak up. We see the lengths they’ve gone to beat their illnesses or life circumstances, and tragically, the desperation they can succumb to when nothing seems to work, despite their constant efforts.

We see too that strength takes many forms. It’s not always about leading a movement or standing up to a bully, admirable as these things are.  Someone who seems softly-spoken or anxious in public might possess inner strengths we know nothing about. The courage to sit with a friend and listen to his or her darkest, most painful thoughts without flinching.  The honesty to look their own problems in the face and make changes in their lives, however small. The determination to keep going when life feels bleak, because someone else needs them.

These are things women in real life do all the time. We just don’t see it. And that’s why in my writing I wanted to represent those women, those unacknowledged heroines and strong female characters who walk among us, who are us.  Because if it helps even one woman to recognise and accept her strength, it will have been worthwhile.


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