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:
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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
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