Every author wants to create a hero or heroine that’s believable, likeable, and relatable. But it’s even better if you can dream up a protagonist who’s independent, capable, and a little bit flawed. And for me, I love reading about a heroine who can also kick a little butt.
For example, I’d love a mash-up of Jo March, Little Women, Lisbeth Salander, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Hemione Granger, Harry Potter Series, and Nancy Drew. Oh, and throw in The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen.
So how does a writer come up with characters that possess the wonderful contradictions of sassy and sweet, fiercely independent, yet sensitive? Beautiful, but sometimes, an outcast?
Here are 5 ways to boost you’re heroine’s staying power.
To make your heroine believable, a well-developed backstory is critical. The backstory you create can be as complicated as you like, but only show portions to your readers only after about fifty pages into the book, and then, sprinkle in further details sparingly.
For example, in Center of Gravity, we learn that Ava Carson has a complicated relationship with her mother, who has recently married a wealthy older man in the community. We also discover that Ava’s mother has still not forgiven her daughter for running away from home with her (self-described) worthless high school boyfriend. Readers are later told that Ava’s father was a philanderer and died in the arms of his lover, causing her mother extreme public humiliation.
Readers soon also learn that Mitchell has had a very unhappy childhood, compounded by the suicide of his mother and the untimely death of his wife. All of this, even Mitchell’s losses, become Ava’s emotional baggage.
As readers get to know Ava, they understand that she performed well in her former job as a former school counselor at a prep school in Mobile, and that she has been told she will always have a job there.
- A Goal
After a series of unrelated events that trigger uncontrolled jealous anger, Mitchell begins his descent into madness; he files for divorce and the custody of the couple’s children.
While Ava’s objective at the outset of the novel was to keep her happy-from-the-outside family intact, her goal becomes to win back her children and fight for their safety as she is being pummeled from all sides by Mitchell’s manipulations.
Intelligence doesn’t always mean a lack of naiveté, and after shying away from relationships because of her father’s track record, Ava finally allows herself to be swept away by Mitchell’s charm, attention, and persistence.
Like many of us, Ava wants to believe in the good inside all people, and it takes her a few agonizing chapters to wake up to the fact that her husband is not who he portrays himself to be. Even when she’s come to understand her husband’s dark side, she still, on several occasions, underestimates his ability for evil.
Ava is vulnerable because she isn’t cloaked in the steel armor that protects Mitchell from feeling much emotion. While he fuels his personality through jealousy and hatred, Ava cares too much about her mother’s opinion, as well as that of the members of her small community.
She has grown up listening to others and, for the most part, following directions. It is only when she breaks free of those chains that she begins to come into her own and gains the clarity to solve her own problems on her own terms. She no longer needs to be rescued.
She takes joy in the small things in life that cost very little: a swing set for her children, baking cookies because her family likes them, and the pink paper heart that her children gave her on Valentine’s Day.
- Heroic Qualities
Writers can begin a story with smaller heroic acts, like stopping to save a puppy that’s run out into traffic, or leaving groceries to melt in a shopping cart while rushing off to meet an ambulance carrying her 8-year-old son to the emergency room.
Those tiny acts build the heroine’s true identity and character, so that when you reach the climax of the story, and your main character’s internal strength is tested, readers will believe she is capable of the fight and (hopefully) the victory.
Who are some of your favorite heroines and why? I’d love to hear about them!