Long story short, I’m writing about the qualities needed in a good fictional heroine – in the hopes that I will be working on another one someday.
These are the no-brainers, the basics that writers already know but sometimes forget. In terms of her role in the novel, the protagonist/heroine should be:
● A protagonist the reader can connect with.
● Likeable or intriguing enough to captures the reader’s attention and hook her.
● Her own person, with her own identity and trajectory, her own ambitions and goals, outside of her relationships with other people.
● Able to discover her strengths and weaknesses and to change over the course of the story.
● The character that others characters in the novel exist to support. She takes the actions and advances the plot. It is her story.
● Capable of standing up to the antagonist and is made stronger because of that interaction.
● Not defined by status or looks.
In my opinion, all good and strong heroines fulfill this role within the novel. I don’t believe this is the same as the personal qualities of the female protagonist which can vary quite a bit to fulfill the needs of the plot.
First of all, if you are writing romance, you have to like your protagonist. Otherwise, why are you telling her story? I can see how there could be occasions when, writing outside the romance genre, liking the heroine may not apply, such as biographies or other non-fiction, but even in those cases, I believe the author has to be intrigued by the person or situation, or have some compelling reason to tell her story.
Second, if you are writing fiction to sell, you need to be aware of your target audience… the people most likely to read what you are writing. Your antagonists need to appeal to and connect with those readers. There is no getting around that. You want readers to buy your books.
I’m not advocating anyone write specifically to please an audience, but be aware of their general demographics, interests, and beliefs as you write.
Even if you are just writing for fun or as a hobby, it never hurts to keep in mind who might read your work. Ultimately, the work, the story line, and the characters are yours. You can do what you want, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Most, although not all, romance readers are women. That’s a starting point, but all women aren’t clumped into one category nor do they like the same things, but they all live in the 21st century.
Romance Editor Leslie Wainger writes that “the heroine is the reader’s alter ego — the reader’s avenue into the story — your heroine directly controls everything the reader feels, and whether or not she keeps reading. To get your reader involved in the novel, convince her that your heroine’s not only someone she would like to know, but is also someone she would like to be.”
Regardless of the time and place of the novel, or the character of the heroine, an author needs to think about the challenges women are facing in real life today in order to engage women of this century. What kind of heroine would they like to be?
Like everything else about writing and other creative endeavors, there is no formula and there is no right or wrong [although there are plenty of people who will tell you there is].
If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.
Unfortunately, defining “IT” is impossible. Whatever writing skill you are trying to improve or perfect, if you write and read for a long enough period of time and listen to experts, eventually the skill comes to you instinctively. You won’t have to think about doing this or remembering that when you are writing. Beginners usually do need to think about it as they write and edit for it.
I agree with author Stacy Tucker who writes, “Today’s female reader is pressed for time, demanding as hell, and both scared and excited about the future. If you want to craft a dynamic literary heroine, you must speak to that.” writersdigest.com/write-better-fiction/defining-todays-literary-heroine
The world has changed and it continues to change more and more rapidly. Older people tend to hang on to their ways – I can say that because I am an older people -- but youngsters growing up today are using computers at fifteen months. And writers older than 30 today can’t write about what they know because a lot is already passé and younger people aren’t interested.
Although in 2020 sex discrimination is alive and well, women can still do just about any job they want. Women can be found everywhere in both traditional and non-traditional roles… non-traditional for least last year, anyway. Next year, maybe the job isn’t non-traditional any more.
We need heroines equipped to navigate effectively in today’s changing world, where women can be what they want, but still have to fight for it. That’s a real challenge as well as a literary one. Whether you are writing contemporary, historical, Sci Fi, or Fantasy, your characters have to appeal to readers living in the 21st century. To do that, writers must arm your heroines with the tools to appeal to today’s readers.
QUALITIES OF A GOOD ROMANCE HEROINE
There is a plethora of good advice from well known authors, and as I said, there is no one way and no right or wrong answer. However, many of the same qualities come up in every list, sometimes using slightly different words. The qualities of a good romance heroine include:
Her story goal is understandable, the stakes are high, and the goal defines the narrative arc. She has to get possession of something or relief from something, and there have to be important consequences if she doesn’t succeed.
A strong female lead will listen to her own instincts and make her own decisions based on her own value system. She’ll make mistakes, but she’ll always try to learn from them.
Strong female characters have struggles and flaws just like everyone else, but what makes them strong is how they deal with their shortcomings. Her flaws are the source of the bad decisions she makes, although she may not think of them as bad decisions… at the time. Remember, bad decisions make for good reading. Perfect isn’t believable.
Tough could mean a character’s ability to physically bring down foes, but it can also be her ability to think fast under pressure or negotiate with powerful figures. To be tough in whatever way, she is resilient, determined, and relentless.
She has to be strong emotionally and mentally, but that doesn’t make her think or act like a man. We’re talking about strength of character, strong opinions, resilience, purpose, confidence, wit, and mental fortitude. She will stand up for herself, and her actions match her core beliefs.
Our heroine needs to have a believable and complex range of emotions. Vulnerability is important in all characters, because people always have them. Why people react the way they do is complicated and often surprising and unpredictable, at least under certain circumstances.
Circumstances create these reactions.
The heroine can just be a caring person by nature or through experience, but she could also be a heroine who believes she doesn’t care and learns that she does as the story unfolds. Not caring could be her weakness. Ultimately, she has to embrace the concept, at least in a romance novel.
Sometimes in the heat of the moment people may feel the consequences are far less important than the need to act on something. Swift action without thinking can do a world of damage and usually end in regret.
Some of the heroine qualities also listed by multiple authors include the following:
● Will power
● Passionate about love and life
I agreed with the list the first time I read it. Then I had second thoughts. First, what about other good qualities such as honesty, faithfulness, reliability, and so on. There are many other such qualities that are not cited by authors. Second, I doubt that one person possess all of the qualities just on the list.
My take-away is this: Give your heroine the qualities she needs for the story line and let her fulfill her responsibilities to the novel as the protagonist. She’ll be great.
Author Author Janice Hardy claims that the term Too Stupid To Live “is an actual literary term (no, really). It's a common trope that describes characters who act in ways no sane or reasonable person would act in the face of danger.” blog.janicehardy.com/2014/characters-too-stupid-to-live
I don’t know that for a fact, but I’ll take her word for it. The figure of speech is certainly commonplace, and there are plenty of fictional characters that fit the rather harsh description which is given in The Urban Dictionary as “…a mental and social disorder where by an individual is deemed to be an unproductive member of society because s/he lacks the mental aptitude, social skills and general zest necessary to do so.” urbandictionary.com/define.php?term
Hardy lists in her article, noted above, some questions to ask about a character in a novel to determine whether or not the fictional person is TSTL.
“How do you know if your character is too stupid to live?
- Do they ever think, "Gee, that would be a really dumb thing to do" (in some fashion) and then do it anyway without very good reason?
- Do they ever tell someone who can--and likely will--hurt them that they plan to betray or expose them?
- Do they ever ignore the obvious signs of danger or take zero precautions against those dangers?
- Do they ever act in ways that no sane person would ever act?
- Do they make the foolishly wrong choice every single time?
- Are they oblivious to life-threatening situations?
- Do they make the same dumb mistakes multiple times?
- Do they ignore people who tell them not to trust them or who have done bad things to them in the past?
- Do they frequently act in ways contrary to their own best interests?
- Do they often attack (or confront) in no-win situations?
- Do they have zero survival instincts?
EXAMPLES WOULD BE HELPFUL BUT…
Sorry. Professional writers don’t publish craft articles naming authors or books with characters they believe are too stupid to live. They may have examples but it’s not professional or kind to do that sort of thing. Every writer knows how much hard work, time, effort, and self goes into writing a book, even a bad one. According to mastersclass.com, some examples of strong heroines include:
● “Buffy Summers
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a powerful heroine with awesome fighting skills who can be both tough—even when chasing a love interest—and empathetic—even towards those who have wronged her. She is a three-dimensional character, and she always tries to do the right thing.”
“Sigourney Weaver as alien-fighting heroine Ellen Ripley in the film Alien. Ellen Ripley is straightforward, physically strong, and a smart main character—but she also has strong maternal instincts that sometimes drive her decisions.”
● Katniss Everdeen
“In Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Katniss is a young woman living in a dystopian world, who volunteers her own life in order to protect her younger sister. While sometimes impulsive and susceptible to the manipulations of others, Katniss grows throughout her story arc, becoming a skilled warrior who makes sacrifices to keep the ones she loves from harm.”
● Hermione Granger
“In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Hermione Granger is a strong female character not just because of her talented wizarding abilities but because of her fearless opinions and her ability to use intelligence to solve problems.”
CAN THIS CHARACTER BE SAVED?
If you have to answer yes to any of Hardy’s questions regarding your heroine, you need to do some work on her character. Most of the time, salvaging the character and the novel can be relatively easy, but also tedious.
● Find all the places where these weaknesses appear.
● Revise the scene with the heroine doing something smart or taking a more reasonable action. See how it reads. Or have the heroine think about doing something stupid and catch herself before she makes the mistake.
● If you don’t want to change the action, give the character a strong reason for doing it and make it a no-option situation. Sometimes a person can get away with doing a dumb thing for the right reasons. It all depends on circumstances, but those must work within the plot.
If the whole novel is full of “yes’s” to Hardy’s questions, you may need to rethink the manuscript.