Five Ways to Write a Successful Heroine

KissI’d like to spend some time over the next few weeks working on elements of a novel. Today I thought we’d talk about the leading lady, or the heroine, primarily because I was sick this past week and spent more time reading than writing. The novels I read I won’t name, but they all had something in common: the leading ladies bugged the crap out of me, and soon I’ll tell you why. But first, a personal anecdote…

Yesterday was my seventeenth wedding anniversary. What does that have to do with the price of chocolate at Walgreens? I’m getting to it. See, Corey (that’s my husband) and I were high school sweethearts (awwww). We grew up in the same town, attended the same church, knew many of the same people. We actually had crushes on each other in junior high school, but we didn’t tell each other, or anyone else. When we finally got together in high school, we were (sickeningly) inseparable. Our relationship matured through college and long distance romances when he worked out of state. We even had some long distance issues during our marriage when his job took him away from our family for extended periods of time. Now we’re all under one roof and, although we’re not in our home state, we’re happy with our lives. Is everything perfect? No. But our relationship is perfect for us. Are we perfect? (Pause for hysterical bout of laughter.) Heavens, no! We’re perfect for each other though, and we know each other’s short comings and accept them.

Enter today’s heroine.

I’m not sure when it happened, but I think I know why it occurred. Many of today’s leading ladies are being put on pedestals so high that Zeus would have to look up from Mt. Olympus to see their feet. And they’re being written this way so they seem strong, capable and desirable. Guess what? Women can be strong, capable and desirable without being COMPLETELY FLAWLESS. These love triangles where two amazing men are fighting over Ms. Right (who, by the way, isn’t even that great half the time, they just seem to think she is), are tired and cliché. Ms. Right needs to be real. She needs to have flaws, and not just superficial ones that she notices, but ones that the men notice, too. Our daughters need realistic role models so when they read our books, they don’t feel that they fall inexplicably short or think that men have to duel over them for them to be worthy of love.

The books I read this past week had heroines that were either so helpless that they needed the men to rescue them or were so over the top wonderful that the guys couldn’t get enough of them, but in every case they were the “perfect” women: flawlessly beautiful, intelligent, generous, giving. Every man on the planet stopped and stared when they entered a room. Enough, already.

Here are five points to keep in mind to create a believable and likeable heroine in a novel.

  1. Get in your heroine’s head
    We need to see things from this woman’s point of view. We need to think her thoughts, in her voice. Respond to things realistically, avoid melodrama, but give us something we can really sink our teeth into so we can get to know her and like her. As with any character, the best way to get to know her will be through her ability to deal with conflict. Put her in stressful situations as soon as you can so we can see how she reacts. We need to feel her emotions, and let us experience them with her. This isn’t the place to hold back.
  2. A little less conversation, a little more action please
    I know, women complain. I’m a lovely and likable person, but even I have been known to utter a negative word or two here and there. The women who sit around bemoaning their lots in life waiting for the hero to rescue them need to be eliminated from literature. I’m not suggesting the heroine rush off half-cocked without a plan (the woman who acts without thinking also needs to be eliminated from literature), but there needs to be a methodical plan of action in place. Believe it or not, woman can be rational.
  3. Give us a believable reaction to her beauty
    She may be a knock-out, she may be an untraditional beauty, but she’s going to be good looking. In either event, she shouldn’t be obvious about it. This woman isn’t going to be staring into mirrors appreciating what she sees. However, I wouldn’t go to the other extreme, either. Humility is one thing, arguing about it and denying it is another. If she is complimented, she shouldn’t be shocked, and if she’s complimented repeatedly, her man shouldn’t have to convince her he finds her gorgeous.
  4. Work with a quirk
    Everyone has a thing. A nervous tell. A boredom tick. Something. The heroine needs one, too. A twist of a ring, a twirl of the hair, a bounce of the leg… Pick a thing that you can use to display emotion for your leading lady and use it. But use it sparingly. It’s just another layer for you to build with and us to unravel as we get to know the heroine.
  5. MAKE HER FLAWED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Did the bold, all caps, and several exclamation points do enough to keep your attention? This is the most important one, so I hope so. This woman isn’t perfect, so don’t make her be perfect. She makes bad decisions (although they need to be consistent with her character). She has bad hair days. She loses her temper. She doesn’t always recycle. She runs out of gas on the interstate when her cell phone battery is dead. She’s NOT perfect. No one is; why would she be? Lower the pedestal.

photo credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:French_Kiss.JPG

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8 Responses to Five Ways to Write a Successful Heroine

  1. Matt Knox says:

    Great tips. I really enjoyed this post :)

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  2. Congratulations, my wife and I will be married 38 years in January. Time flies when you’re having fun. :) Thanks for another insightful post.

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    • Staci Troilo says:

      Wow, 38 years is great. Glad to hear it was a fun 38. My parents are looking at 51 this year and Corey’s just celebrated 47; they’re all as happy as on their wedding days if not more so. I guess we had good examples to follow.

      Glad you dropped in. Thanks for posting.

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  3. Staci Troilo says:

    Ouch. Eight hours and he didn’t notice. Maybe that was just because the house looked good to begin with? At least he folded the clothes. I don’t think anyone in my house knows how to do that but me!

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  4. P. C. Zick says:

    First, congratulations. Thanks for not sugar coating the whole marriage ride. I agree with you about the female characters. I’ve read a few lately that leave me frustrated. They’re either too perfect or too stupid. Make them real (or at least partially). Thanks for your as always insightful post, Staci.

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    • Staci Troilo says:

      Thanks Patricia. Corey and I have been together for twenty-five years in total, if you count the dating years. That’s a lot of water under the bridge. Things aren’t perfect. We’re happy, but nothing’s like a novel. Life’s not all sunshine and roses until a soul-sucking wraith is chasing us, and after we banish it back to hell, we’re back to rainbows and unicorns. There are still mortgages, car payments, kids, schedules… With our lives, I think I should know how to paint a realistic female lead. Corey may see me through rose-colored glasses, but the rest of the world can still see me as me, and that’s the way a story should read. The hero can be enamored of the heroine, but he should still recognize her bed-head hair in the morning. (It doesn’t need to slow him down any…) ;-)

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      • P. C. Zick says:

        I know what you mean. After a near idyllic weekend, my husband told me last night he could never tell when I cleaned the house (this was after an eight-hour marathon of cleaning yesterday). “It looks a little more organized is all,” he said. I fumed for a bit until he grabbed a load of clothes from the dryer and folded them as his way of apologizing. We’re living in a house much too big for us at the moment, and I’m often hard put to keep up with things. But one thing I love: we have three bathrooms. I believe the secret to maintaining romance in a marriage is separate bathrooms! Never had that luxury before.

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