In addition to her keynote speech, Karen Cushman did a breakout session entitled, “Not Pale or Frail: The Case for Strong Girl Characters in Historical Fiction.” Actually, her talk was less an argument for having strong girl characters in historical fiction and more about challenging stereotypes. If asked for an example of a strong fictional female character, many might think of Wonder Woman or Katniss Everdeen, but Cushman argued that Charlotte from Charlotte’s Web is also one. She might be a spider that lacks physical strength, but Charlotte is the one who makes things happen and drives that story forward.
Cushman spoke at length about depicting females in a proper historical context, and she warned against “putting boobs on a boy.” In other words, creating a girl character whose strength draws from masculine behavior and action. To be honest, I don’t think that that is something limited to historical works. I think that “strong” females who are essentially girls with boy attributes can be found across genres. So it was refreshing to hear Cushman talk about creating characters that exhibit strength even as they fulfill traditional female gender roles and work within boundaries such as limited employment opportunities and arranged marriages. That the strength one girl demonstrates in tending a sick parent is just as valid as that in another wielding deadly weapons.
She closed by having attendees call out elements that would be found in a strong female character. Some traits named were determination, compassion, sense of self, and the drive to survive. One attribute that Cushman stressed, though, was the ability, willingness, and courage to make choices. Because when decision-time arises, it is the strong character that does not hesitate–something that I think is true of either gender.