Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
April 2008

How to Write A Strong Heroine

Writing a strong heroine can be a tricky thing, and not just for male writers. The problem is that if you write a heroine exactly like a hero, then it may seem unrealistic or "unfeminine." But you don't want to use stereotypes, either, because those are a cheap shortcut and don't make for a genuine character. I will admit that I tend to prefer the heroines that are written by women, but there are plenty of counter examples. Jim Butcher does a great job with strong heroines, even though Harry is the protagonist of his books. Guy Gavriel Kay. George R.R. Martin. John Scalzi. Orson Scott Card. Joss Whedon. I don't feel like I have a preconceived notion of how a heroine must be strong. It doesn't have to be physically, though it can be if it is explained well enough. I think the problem is more often that there aren't any heroines at all. Now there are books that are going to be about a man's world, but you know what? I'm not going to like it as much as one where there are hints of the women surrounding that man's world.

Mistakes that I see writers make too often:

  1. The heroine's part in the plot is not an important one. Perhaps you will say that it is impossible to make more than one character absolutely essential to the plot, but I think this is untrue. If you are writing a story and you want the hero to be the most important character in the plot, you have every right to do that. But I will like your book more if the heroine also has a big role to play. She might not have to do it in the climax of the book, although she could. But please don't pander to female readers by pretending that she does something important (by having the hero tell her how important she was to his mental well-being or some such crap) when she doesn't.

  2. The heroine's part in the plot is to give up herself. I know that this is a common device in Western Literature. I studied it plenty in grad school. "Das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan" was a quote I learned early on, from Goethe. It's from his play Faust, and is about the eternal feminine that leads men to a higher plane. Yeah, only in Faust, Gretchen is abused by Faust and commits suicide. She comes back in spiritual form to help him. Um, this isn't what I would call a strong female character. A woman who throws herself into the well of evil to save all mankind is dramatic, but is there some other way she can destroy the evil? If not, I don't know what to say. I may just not like your story that much, or your world view. There is something noble about giving up one's life for another, but it seems like women do it a lot more than men in novels. Men tend to figure out some other way, or they just are not put in the same position. Women also give up their lives to save their children. Again, I would do this as a mother if I had to. But I would try not to be put in this situation. My children need more than just my giving them birth. They need me to remain alive in order for them to grow up well balanced. And a mother's job is not to be swallowed up completely in her children's lives. At least, that's my belief. Again, your view of the world is going to change what you choose to write in your books.

  3. The heroine is recovering from abuse. I've used this myself. It works on occasion. Unfortunately, the world is full of women who are recovering from abuse as children. But not every heroine needs to have this as her background story. Some women are loved and treated as queens. Some are neglected in other ways, just as terrible.

  4. The heroine sits around a lot, moaning about her fate, waiting for the hero to rescue her. Sure, women are physically weaker than men, and in a realistic novel, there are going to be some realistic limitations for women. But just be careful of this as a device for heroic action. Maybe your heroine can get herself out of that tower and go help the hero fight the evil hordes. Or maybe she isn't going to sit in that room spinning gold just because some king told her to do it and she'll get married.

  5. Which leads me to -- the heroine's reward at the end of the book is marriage. Romances end this way traditionally, and I have no problem with a happily-ever-after ending. But be careful that the marriage is a reward for both the hero and the heroine, and that there are other rewards, as well. One of them being self-esteem, or perhaps some other tangible reward like a sword or a crown or even a big drink of water after a terrible battle with very dry evil.

  6. You may be surprised by this, but I wish there were fewer heroines who disdain all things male. I get tired of this, really. I consider myself a feminist of sorts, but when the heroine has to go out of her way to say that everything she does that is traditionally male is stupid, that is offensive. Let her think some things are stupid, yes. But give some balance.

  7. Heroines who fall in bed with the hero as soon as it is convenient for him. Come on, this is just school boy fantasy, isn't it? It's not the way real life is, and I think it makes for bad plotting, along with the other problems I have with it. It's as if the hero has problems in every other part of his life, and so he deserves (?) to have a little sex thrown his way to give him some relaxation. Need I say how much it offends me when female characters are used merely to be toys for the heroes? They have lives of their own and motivations of their own. I love how in Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind, the hero is always trying to find the heroine and he can't. She is mysterious and has her own motivations, which he can only guess at, and he tends to guess very wrong.

OK, now some of the things I think I would like to see more of in heroines:

  1. Heroines who have unusual skills. Your heroine doesn't have to disguise herself as a boy and learn how to fence in order to be interesting. But think about the stereotypes you are perpetuating when you choose your heroine's area of expertise. Is she a good seamstress? Does her magic come from tears? Or from dancing? Or from beauty? You might want to choose beekeeping (like in Robin McKinley's Chalice) or reading or filing papers or using a hammer in interesting ways. On the other hand, it is fun to twist around expectations, so that if a villain expects the heroine to make him dinner, she can poison it because she is really good at gardening and recognizes that those mushrooms growing outside his window are not what he thinks they are.

  2. A heroine who refuses marriage. I liked it in the new book Gradeling when the heroine decides it isn't for her. I am a married woman with children and have a traditional life, but I like to see other choices offered to young girls, and marriage isn't the only way to happiness.

  3. Heroines who are mothers and go on to become great political powers. I love Bujold's Barrayar because it is about a woman who deals with all the difficult realities of being a mother and giving birth, but still stops a civil war on her planet all by herself. Well, with help. But she is the force behind everything, and she takes her own risks. I love Bujold's women, by the way. Even more than Miles Vorkosigan, who some say is a woman in disguise.

  4. Heroines who think for themselves. Just because someone tells a heroine something doesn't mean she should believe it. Heroes are always bucking authority and get rewarded for it by the plot, but for heroines, it often seems the reverse. They have to be good little girls, obedient, staying in their place, and they can work from there. Yes, that can be done and done well. But it isn't very often.

  5. Heroines who beat the heroes in some area of life. I've read plenty of novels where I see female characters do things that are just unbelievable. That annoys me, too. But I wish there were more of them who out-thought the men, or at least teased them and brought them down to size. I think one of the problems with the Vorkosigan books was when Miles found his beloved Ekaterina, how could Bujold write a romance with anyone equal to Miles? She certainly tried, but I'm not sure it turned out well. Miles runs roughshod over her life and the thing she does best he uses to entrap her. I don't know if that is ever fully forgiven in the books. Miles is Miles, and well, he gets what he wants in the end.

Well, that's a start. There is a difference between good writing, which is clear communication of what you want to say and writing that has something to say that I like. I'm not saying you have to have strong heroines to have a successful book. Clearly, you do not. There are men who won't notice and even some women. But there's no reason you can't do everything, is there?

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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