I have recently been involved in feminist critiques of children's and young adult novels, where it is far too easy to point out what is wrong or failing to live up to the standards of today. When you think of a climactic scene in particular, what do you usually picture? The hero saves the heroine from mortal peril (like most every superhero movie pre-Avengers)? The woman dies to strike an emotional blow for the male protagonist? Or even the patriarchy attempting to crush a female protagonist, but she triumphs because she is just oh-so-different from all the other women?
(Photo from Galesmind Blog, accompanying poem "Damsel in Distress--or Devil In Disguise?")
These are not feminist climactic scenes.
Yet, when I began to write the climax of my novel a few weeks ago, these were the types of tropes I found myself falling into. They were the scenes I had seen played over and over again on screen and on the page, with varying degrees of male-dominated ridiculousness. I purposefully did not plan out the climactic moment of my novel because I wanted it to rise organically from the story I had created, but this proved far more difficult than I expected. Instead of creating the strong final scene for my feminist heroine, I found myself writing her into the role of a victim. A sideline character to the male-centered action scene. How could this happen? To me, who had just spent a year studying feminist critique of stories?
So, it's time to take a step back. If you, like me, find that your climactic scene is not living up to the story you have created, join me on this journey to re-imagine the climactic scene the way it always should have been: with female heroines included.
What is a Climactic Scene?
The climax of any novel or short story is the moment where "the author reveals what the journey the character just endured was really all about—and, in a positive change arc, why that journey has turned out to be worth all the heartaches and trauma" (from K.M. Weiland's brilliant blog Helping Writers Become Authors). In a feminist story (and honestly, all stories should be feminist because they should represent men and women as real people, as they are in the real world), this means that the climactic moment has to show the character(s) dealing with the end result of their journey. Notice the verbiage of the phrase "dealing with". The female protagonist of any story cannot stand on the sidelines of her climactic moment, watching as some men fight over her, save her, or deal with the problem without her.
The climactic scene is also "where your character proves that he really is a changed person" (K.M Weiland)--Notice here how Weiland slips into the masculine pronoun at this point. It is so easy, so very simple, to give over the climactic scene to the male voice. However, we are trying to portray a realistic world here people, and women are not statues who stand prettily on the side, perfect and unchanging. At the beginning of your novel, you probably gave your main character a big flaw (if you haven't, this is something you should revisit in the revision process). Now is the time to show whether your protagonist succeeded or failed to overcome this flaw in order to triumph in the climactic scene.
How Do You Make it Feminist?
According to the almighty Google, feminism is "the advocacy of women's rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes." So what does this mean for our climactic scene? We now know that we want this scene to A) show what the story was about, B) create meaning out of the protagonist's journey, and C) prove that the protagonist has changed. In the case of creating a feminist climactic scene (for a female protagonist, in particular), we have to hit the following requirements:
The main CONFLICT of the scene revolves around the heroine's inner struggle to overcome her flaw.
The inner struggle is NOT hinged on a man or love-interest.
The final antagonist is NOT an older, female figure with more power and experience than the heroine(because this has been done a million times before--see every popular princess fairy tale).
If the final antagonist is a man, then he does not derive power and strength over the heroine simply because he IS a man.
The heroine is the main ACTOR in the scene.
The climactic scene is in the heroine's POINT OF VIEW.
NO ONE is fridged--as in, killed for the sole purpose of creating tension between other characters or pushing the plot forward--even if they are a man. Flipping dangerous narratives merely perpetuates the poison, instead of purging it.
The heroine uses powers particular to her status as a human being with AGENCY to solve the final dilemma.
Women around the heroine HELP her, rather than stand helplessly by or act as default antagonists.
Without the HEROINE, the result of the climatic scene could not occur.
Looking at your plans for your climactic scene, or perhaps back on one you've already finished, does it follow all these points? How would your climax, and--by extension--your whole novel, be improved by adhering to these requirements?
It may seem like a fruitless exercise. Why should you bother completely rethinking your climatic scene for a few disgruntled women who probably just need to get laid more so they'd stop complaining? Because not only is your potential audience for this book going to be 55% women, but perpetuating those tired tropes of female weakness are frankly incorrect and LAZY WRITING. By thinking about your climatic scene in a way to give all characters the agency and power to act like real people, you will improve both the climax and your novel. If the climactic scene is really what the journey was all about, then this is where your readers are going to judge your story for good or ill.
Feminist Climaxes in Successful Novels
Chances are that you're writing your novel for someone to read it, correct? Well, here are some extremely popular and successful novels which are all the stronger for the fact that they follow the feminist requirements in the climactic scene.
WARNING!! SPOILERS AHEAD for the following novels, in order of intended reader age: Princess Academy by Shannon Hale, The Young Elites by Marie Lu, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, and Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho. (First thing I've noticed: all these authors are female, but that does NOT mean that you male authors can't write great feminist climactic scenes as well! Just see how these pros do it.)
Princess Academy - The climax of this Newberry Award-winning book is centered around a bandit attack on the heroine's village (Req 2). The climactic scene is both the biggest action set piece of the novel and the protagonist's moment of profound character change. In this scene, the heroine chooses to fight for her village, from which she has previously felt separate and distant (Req 1). She leads all of the young women in the princess academy to fight off the bandits (Req 9). She eventually triumphs over the bandits by acknowledging her deep and magical connection with her mountain home (Req 8). In the peak of the climactic scene, she stands alone against the bandits and the results of her choices and triumphs cause them to fall right before everything would have been lost (Req 10).
The Young Elites - The action-packed climactic scene of this mature YA novel is a little different than usual. (If you have not read this book, STOP READING NOW!) In the climactic scene, the heroine has used her illusion-creating abilities to get her commander (friend/lover) onto a publicly-viewed dais for the final showdown with their enemy, by making her commander look like the enemy (Req 3). During the fighting, she shows her immense power by trying to keep the enemy confused and disoriented through illusions (Req 8). However, something triggers a memory she has been struggling with the entire book and she becomes trapped in her own terror (Req 1). When her commander moves to help her, she mistakes him for the enemy whose face he wears, and kills him, bringing about the destruction of his cause and her own eventual role as the story's villain (Req 10). (I told you not to keep reading!)
Uprooted - This book was nominated for a Hugo Award and won a Nebula Award--let's just start with that. In the climactic scene of this novel, which is full of action but focuses mostly on the internal struggle between fear and compassion, the heroine calls down lightning to attack what she believes to be the source of the villain's power--a mighty tree (Req 8). The villain, however, puts the heroine into the tree, where the heroine is transported to a world of memory and witnesses the creation of her antagonist and discovers the truth about the villain with the help of the villain's sister (Req 9). Even though the antagonist is a much older woman who has been made wicked by the world, the protagonist is able to see how she was once naive and hopeful, which lead to her doom (Req 3). The heroine is rescued from the tree/memory by her friend/ally/lover, but then calls for him to stop attacking the villain (Req 8). Despite all the terrible things the antagonist has done to the heroine's friends and village, the protagonist forgives the villain and helps her find peace and rest at long last (Req 10).
Sorcerer to the Crown - This book is chalk-full of powerful female characters who wouldn't understand anti-feminism if it bit them. They would just go on doing whatever they think is right, and that is exactly what happens in the action-climax, which consists of a jilted mermaid trying to kill everyone, a cunning sorceress trying to defeat her, and an elderly female dragon admonishing the mermaid into using her logic rather than her temper to solve her issues (Req 3, 8, 9). The emotional climax of the novel happens a scene after this one, where the heroine uses her cleverness and ruthless ambition to become the most powerful magician in the kingdom and save her friend/teacher/lover from a terribly painful existence (Req 8, 10). The heroine's original flaw was that she didn't try hard enough to get what she deserved in the world, rather than what was given to her, so in the climactic moment she chooses to sacrifice something close to her to get what she wants out of life, on her own (Req 1).
You may have noticed that not all of these stories hit all 10 of the feminist climactic scene requirements, but they all hit at least a few and usually more than half. Next time you're enjoying a book, consider how well women are treated in the most important moment of the story. Then, when you write your own story, consider hitting as many requirements as you can. Heroines are heroes too, especially in their own stories.