Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Heroines on a tightrope

As per Kimber's comment on my last blog post, heroines can be really tricky to write. Readers want them strong but not unsympathetic, compassionate and caring but not doormats and heaven forbid they seem too stupid to live. TSTL heroines are the ones who make decisions like, "There may be a serial killer in my basement. I could (a) leave the house (b) call 911 (c) leave the house and call 911 or (d) go down and look without telling anybody there may be a killer in my basement -- and pick (d).

So let's say you want your heroine to be tough. How do you then make her sympathetic, or -- what I believe is a better goal -- empathetic? I think you have to be sure to show that there's a compassionate, unselfish heart beneath the exterior. It doesn't have to be a whole scene or a major "look at this!" moment. It could be as simple and almost "thrown away" as having her give a large tip to the overworked waitress in the diner or holding the door open for an elderly person -- just something that relatively quickly and early shows the reader that however she conducts herself in other areas of her life, she's not completely self-centered. Tough itself isn't bad; but tough in the sense that she'll walk all over anybody to get what she wants without a second thought? Not so good.

You also don't want the heroine to be so completely self-less, it's as if she has no personality or energy (aka the doormat heroine). Even the most dutiful, self-sacrificing heroine should have goals and dreams and desires. She may work toward them, or she may believe it's hopeless, but she harbors them nonetheless.

Another way to avoid the doormat heroine is to present a heroine who has chosen to put herself second -- something that requires it's own kind of resolve. She hasn't simply fallen into her fate and passively accepts it; she's chosen it, eyes wide open.

As for the apparently too stupid to live heroine: sometimes a writer needs to get that heroine to the basement or there's no more story. I understand that. The difference between a brave heroine and a TSTL heroine is usually that the writer hasn't given the apparently TSTL heroine a really compelling, believable motive for what she does. Put a sobbing child to rescue in that basement and give her a broken phone, and she won't seem TSTL anymore.

If you want your heroines to be strong, make them active. Have them make decisions. Give them understandable reasons for what they do and the history to back it up. Give them goals and dreams and desires.

And maybe, if she's a really tough cookie, a pet.


Anonymous said...

Margaret, I love your comments on the tough heroine and also on the wishy-washy ones. Mine tend to be wishy washy, which I have to go back and fix a lot.

But my new favourite saying of the day is "Too Stupid to Live". I see a lot of this on soap operas, as I yell at the screen. And today I was using the term a lot to yell at drivers that were TSTL!

Thanks for the smile.
Sue Mason
PS. I have no idea how to blog or set up a google ID so I'm going anonymous (but typing my name). Just to make everyone go "HMM".

Wylie Kinson said...

Your timing is perfect, Margaret. I'm struggling with my current heroine - the wishy-washy syndrome.
My biggest pet peeve is the TSTL heroine. They make me close the book!

Margaret Moore said...

Glad to be of assistance!
My heroine's tend to fall into wishy-washy or bratty at first and then get revised. Rarely am I satisfied with them right out of the gate.

With the wishy-washy, I think it's a lack of resolve that makes them seem so. In other words, they don't seem to have definite ideas of what they want or need. You might think so, but will the readers pick up on it? Sometimes that's a problem, especially if you've revised a lot. What is crystal clear to you, the author, is not clear to the reader, because you took out something vital.

The problem with a having a heroine who's too resolute is that she can seem selfish or too stubborn.

Yep, nobody ever said this writing stuff was easy!

Kimber Chin said...

I love, love, love this post. So much that I printed it out in hard copy.

My heroines are all overly strong and I'm definitely going to be using your "tricks" to soften them up. I tend to give them loved ones to watch over (though, as with my second novel, I sometimes kill them off) but being a generous tipper or giving them a pet (or plant like Leon the Cleaner in The Professional) works even better. Cuts down my cast of thousands.