Jeannie Campbell

Jeannie Campbell is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. She is Head of Clinical Services for a large non-profit and enjoys working mainly with children and couples. She has a Masters of Divinity in Psychology and Counseling and bachelors degrees in both psychology and journalism. Jeannie started doing character therapy in March of 2009. Her Treatment Tuesdays feature assessments of fictional characters and plot feasibility while her Thursday Therapeutic Thoughts take a psychological topic and make it relevant to writers. She can be found at her blog, The Character Therapist, at

Character Stereotypes: The Tomboy

The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue,
but that they are incomplete.

—Chimamanda Adichie

Fiction carries many examples of tomboy characters: Jo March in Little Women and Idgie Threadgoode in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, to name just two. The word can refer to little girls engaging in what society considers more boyish activities to grown women who “hang with the guys.”

There is no hard-and-fast rule why some girls prefer Tonka trucks and Transformers to tea sets and tiaras, but sociology has established tomboyism to be a normal experience among girls of all cultures and identities.

Unfortunately, most of the psychological research looks at tomboyism in light of gender outcomes as adults, such as homosexuality or transsexuality. But roughhousing young girls shouldn’t have to suffer the presumption that they want to be a boy or will grow up to be a lesbian. In books written for the CBA market, this is certainly not the intended or desired result for our heroines!

Typically, in books targeting Christian readers, the author pens a “one of the guys” kind of girl who refuses to wear pastel, lace, or dresses. She usually ends up donning a dress against her will that is both pastel and lacey for some event, then she realizes that she wants her best guy friend to see her as a romantic interest and look at her as a girl.

How can you spice up this stereotype?

1) Give her a weak spot for some feminine aspect.

Perhaps she wears lacy panties under her basketball uniform. Maybe she wears satin to sleep in. Possibly she gets regular pedicures but covers her prettily painted toes with power heels or cleats. While she can keep her hard outer shell, a quirk like this can help the non-tomboy identify with her and soften her in the eyes of your readers.

2) Give her a solid reason to seek the masculine realm.

a) Disappointment with female role models

Tomboys may want to identify with the world of men more than the with the world of women, particularly if they think the world of men has more to offer them. For example, if a tomboy grows up with a powerful father who dominated a submissive wife, the young girl might begin to reason she should be more like her dad, interested in what interests him.

Many girls who gravitate toward being a tomboy don’t want to be perceived as weak, boring, or a pushover. They don’t want to be used and abused as they might have seen happen to some other female they know, so they work hard at showing no signs of weakness.

b) Desire for recognition (beyond physical beauty)

What if your heroine grew up with a beauty-queen mother from whom she inherited drop-dead gorgeous looks. Not wanting to be valued for her looks alone, she seeks rewards for her professional successes or athletic accomplishments instead. To her, these represent more substance, but they are also considered more “masculine” arenas.

c) Hometown hero(ine) mentality

Research shows that tomboys more often than not grow up in a rural setting. Not to be too stereotypical, a female seeking to establish herself in a backcountry town might be forced to run faster and jump higher to stand out. To do this, a female would almost have to excel at being competitive and a risk-taker.

3) Give her a non-masculine job.

It’s easy to imagine a tomboy as a police officer, athletic coach, animal handler, or military trooper. But what if she had to run a florist shop or a jewelry store? Or had to work in the lingerie department instead of the hardware department? If you give her surroundings that are even more unwelcoming for a tomboy than general circumstance, you’ll ramp up the tension for your heroine.

A short word should be said about the male equivalent of a tomboy—the “sissy.” This term is far more pejorative for males than tomboy is for females. The connotation sissy carries with it is less positive. So instead of all out sissification, there are male characters who are “in touch with their feminine side,” which means they have affinities for cooking, they dress well, tolerate a shopping female, or like to have their hair just so. But because I’ve never read a book about a sissified man, you won’t be seeing a “Character Stereotypes: The Sissy” column next month. Just not happening in CBA fiction right now—or probably ever.


The Character Thrapist