Writing Unlikely Heroines

by Marie Vibbert

This month, my first novella came out in Analog [in our July/August issue, on sale now!]. It’s about an engineer and a janitor teaming up to save their space station from pirates, but it’s also about mental illness, gender roles, friendships, and what we think of ourselves versus what we think of others. I thought I’d take some time to talk about it.

The title, “The Unlikely Heroines of Callisto Station” came pretty easily to me shortly after I finished the first draft. I’d had a working title (“Saving Io”—more about that later) but as I wrote the story, the idea of heroism and what makes a hero kept coming up, in thoughts various characters have, and in how they relate to one another.

The main character, Lottie, suffers from bipolar disorder. She is very aware how her disorder makes other people view her as dangerous, but it also affects how she views herself.

My grandmother was what they called in those days “manic depressive,” and my mother suffers from schizophrenia, as does my husband’s aunt. Each of these women has her own unique personality that shines through regardless of her symptoms. Illness affects people, but it doesn’t define them. I wanted to show that, and have a main character who deals with her condition as well as with an external threat.

Lottie reads gothic romances and sees herself always as the sidekick, perhaps the friend who advises the heroine that the hero isn’t worth it. She sees herself as passive, unable to deal with confrontation, although in reality she has the strength to step up when she is needed.

I paired Lottie, the soft-spoken academic with a rich internal world and not much interest in the physical, with a loud, brash, very physical woman who works with her hands. Facilities Manager Xiao Fung is very sure of herself and her sanity. She not only has no trouble viewing herself as a hero, she expects it. It’s her job to be heroic, to stand on the front lines of safety in the always-precarious world of space habitation.

Xiao is the sort of blue-collar character I most readily identify with, and was fun to write, even when she was being wrong-headed, because I knew it was her insecurity, her fear that she is unlovable. Xiao sees herself as active, very pro-active, but she doesn’t see the limits on her actions. There are only so many problems you can solve with a good crescent wrench, and even tough broads have to confront their softer side if they want to save their home and their boyfriend!


One of the most enjoyable things to do in a story is to set characters up to clash, and force them to interact and explore the ways their personalities spark off each other. I have great affection for these two unlikely heroines with their flaws and strengths.


One of the most enjoyable things to do in a story is to set characters up to clash, and force them to interact and explore the ways their personalities spark off each other. I have great affection for these two unlikely heroines with their flaws and strengths.

All that character exploration took the story a long way from the simple “pirates attack a space station” novel I first wrote. “Saving Io” started out as an exercise in writing action for action’s sake, with quips and tricks to get out of tight spots.

Why did I move the story from Io to Callisto? Well, radiation. Turns out, Io is smack dab in one of Jupiter’s intense radiation belts, and that ruined my whole scene where they walk on the outside of the station to get to the pirates. I didn’t want them to get cooked on the way! That was a pretty killer scene, and ended up being the cover art for the story, so . . . better to move the story out of the radiation belt to Callisto than keep the name. The reason I set the story on Io in the first place was purely symbolic. The mythological figure Io was punished for fooling around with Jupiter by being turned into a cow and chased by a stinging fly that drove her mad, never able to stop. The moon got the name because it seemed to be going so fast, close to Jupiter, and I liked the parallel to mania, but not so much that I wanted to write a bunch of extra stuff about how they handle the radiation.

Why did I change it from a novel to a novella? When I wrote the first draft of “Saving Io” for NaNoWriMo, I was a struggling, unpublished writer of mostly novels. Ten years later, I’ve sold a lot of short stories, which gave me more confidence and awareness of how plot structures work. I looked back at my draft. It was 67,000 words long, on the short side for SF novels these days, and it felt . . . bloated. I considered adding a new sub-plot to get it up over 70k, or . . . I could trim out a sub-plot and get it down to novella length. That was scary, of course. I knew less about selling a novella than a novel, but then an online writer’s group I participate in, Codex, had a novella contest. “Well, heck. I have ample time to trim this down by that deadline!” So I did, and I found that cutting a good third of the story left it leaner, cleaner.

While I was working on editing “Unlikely Heroines,” I went and sold my first novel, Galactic Hellcats, which is out now, and also features a cast of unlikely heroines—a homeless thief, a poor little rich girl turned hacker, and a military vet with some control issues. Despite their differences, they find a way to work together and save a handsome prince from a wicked queen, and incidentally form a space motorcycle gang in the process.

Soon my life revolved around novel edits and planning novel promotion events. (I am obligated here to remind you that Galactic Hellcats is available wherever you buy books, preferably a local independent seller like Mac’s Backs in Cleveland.). I was not getting a lot of writing done. How wonderful, then, to spend time polishing an already-polished draft, (as, okay, the novella was rejected the first few places I sent it) and so I got “Heroines” just how I wanted it and sent it off to Analog, who surprised me by buying it rather quickly!

Having my first novel and my first novella published in the same year has felt pretty amazing, like I could take on a bunch of space pirates with nothing but a crescent wrench and a sonic toothbrush, myself.

I hope you enjoy the story (and then you’ll get the toothbrush reference. 🙂 )


Marie Vibbert has sold over seventy short stories now, including multiple appearances in Analog, F&SF, and Lightspeed. Her debut novel, Galactic Hellcats—about an all-lady biker gang in outer space rescuing a gay prince—came out this March and was called “a rip-roaring space heist” by Publisher’s Weekly.

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