Grace's Mosaic Moments

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Creating a Heroine

Cassidy, Hailey, Riley - 2009

Mixing with dinosaurs at Leu Gardens, 2017

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What does it take to create the modern heroine (even if you write Historicals)?
To put it bluntly, "Barbara Cartland heroines" are out. (Ms Cartland was enormously popular in her day, but sweet young know-nothings who can't fend for themselves, or think for themselves, and have to be rescued by the big strong hero simply don't fly with today's readers.) 

Some of the more acerbic among us termed these heroines TSTL (Too Stupid To Live), and although I try to avoid being unkind, there are times I have to agree. But not all the dithering idiots were in Historical novels. Harlequin/Silhouette had more than their share of wilting heroines in that era, as did many other major New York publishers. And then there were all those Gothic novels where the heroine justifies the TSTL label by doing something like descending into a dark cellar by the light of nothing more than a single candle - and not a weapon in sight.

But just about the time I began writing in the mid-90s, attitudes began to change. When I wrote Tarleton's Wife, I never thought I was advocating for female independence, but a reviewer made a point of commenting on this aspect of my heroine who was making a life for herself after the death of her husband. And sure enough, the heroine of my first book, The Sometime Bride, which was published after Tarleton's Wife, was criticized by one viewer for being too passive; i.e., too close to an old-time heroine. (She is, however, only fourteen at the start of the book and later graduates to giving her husband a rather powerful kick where it hurts. I felt her portrayal was justified by her age and by the "acceptance" demanded of women of her day. But I made sure she got her vengeance in the end.)

Which brings me to my next point. (A familiar one to my readers.) If you explain, or at least give hints, why the heroine's personality is what it is, she can be forgiven a great deal. If, for example, she can graduate from passive to taking charge of her life, most readers will be fine with her earlier passivity. (In my contemporary novel, Florida Knight, my heroine has escaped from abuse (one of the most difficult things to justify - how can any woman tolerate this? - yet it is a constant and enormous problem). Her solution was perhaps unique: she joins a Medieval Reenactment group where she fights (with stout poles) men on a weekly basis. But, naturally, finding love again is going to be tough.

A good illustration of the above can be found in Jane Austen heroines (and yes, I know she lived 200 years ago. But her characterizations are the primary reason she is still read when most novelists of long ago have joined the pile of Great Unknowns.) 

1. Pride & Prejudice. There is a reason this book is the one almost everyone knows, the one that's been presented as a movie or TV series over and over again. The two oldest Bennett sisters are characters who belong to every age: Elizabeth, who is bright, spirited, takes no sass; yet Jane -  not so bright, but sweet and kind and thoughtful - is the perfect candidate to be hurt by love. Let's face it, most of us couldn't care less what happens to the three younger Bennett sisters, but Elizabeth and Jane are women for all times. We applaud Elizabeth's independence; we feel Jane's sorrow. We CARE.

2.  Mansfield Park.  I have made an effort to read articles by those who praise the character, Fanny Price. I can praise Ms Austen's characterization of Fanny Price, otherwise, frankly, I can't stand the girl. To me she is the epitome of everything we reject in a 21st century heroine. Yes, I realize Ms Austen was writing at the turn of the 19th c. when Fanny Prices abounded. It's just that I don't want to read about repressed little prigs like Fanny. Nor do I want to read about situations where it is considered scandalous when young people put on a play for their own enjoyment. No, indeed, Mansfield Park has no place on my bookshelf, genius of the author or not.

3.  Sense & Sensibility. As in Pride & Prejudice, the title is a clue to this story of two sisters with very different attitudes toward life. Another excellent contrast, with one sister a "doer," the other a mere "reactor" to life. Needless to say, a readers' sympathies are with the sister who copes with disaster rather than the sister whom life prostrates. Both, however, are personalities that exist as much in a our modern age as they did then. They are people we all know.

4.  Emma.  Again, Emma Woodhouse is a brilliant characterization, but I can't stand the girl. She is a busybody, manipulating other people's lives, while allowing her father's selfishness to dominate her own. She has a classic hero right under her nose - who dotes on her - and pays no attention whatsoever. Frankly, I always feel she has no right to get the hero in the end - some more worthy female should have Mr. Knightly. Yes, terrific story, but Emma needed a good swat in the seat.

And yet . . . Emma, too, is timeless, a character we know and recognize, even in the 21st century. Which is why Jane Austen's diverse heroines still make excellent illustrations of heroines, past and present.

So where do you begin to create a heroine who will appeal to readers in a time when we're discovering Women's Lib hasn't come as far as we hoped it had. (As the "Me too" movement, continued disparity in pay, and the disillusion of women who thought they were strong enough to do it all has revealed.) Let's look at some possible types:

1.  the Action heroine - secret agent, detective, stunt actress, president of a company (or country), etc. (If you haven't read Susan Elizabeth's Philips's tales of the runaway President's wife who becomes President, do so now. Among my all-time favorite series of dramedies.)

2.  the Romantic Suspense heroine - dragged into heroism by circumstances - this could be anyone from a medieval maiden in a castle to a contemporary female coping with challenging circumstances.

3.  the Career/Classic heroine - she tries to do it all - career, husband, children, PTA, charities - except . . . the possible pitfalls in this scenario are enormous.

4. the "Everywoman" heroine - a stay-at-home or part-time work-from-home Mom. She manages her family, including providing endless transportation to soccer practice, play rehearsals, doctors' appointments, school performances, etc. She cooks, attends church—we all know the drill. She's content with life until one day disaster happens - this could be a death, bad health diagnosis, a difficult child, husband loses his job, and so on - something that requires her to rise above her mundane existence and be something more.

4.  the Party Girl - the female equivalent of the male rogue - she charges head on at life, not ready to settle down; she has few ambitions beyond enjoying life to the hilt - again, until something blows up in her face and she is forced to become more. 

5.  the Beta heroine - the female equivalent of a Beta hero - the girl who doesn't stand out, does her job but never brilliantly. She obeys the rules, has few girlfriends, is shy of men. Loves children, animals, maybe daydreams of being something more - but it takes a major nudge, perhaps a challenge to her compassion, to get her up and moving into a person who can be a benefit to others instead of merely existing without making ripples in the world around her.

Other than steering clear of wimps and cry-babies, your heroine's personality is limited only by your imagination. But as with the heroes mentioned last week, there are certain conventions that definitely enhance the character of your heroine. First and foremost, she must be likable. Yes, she can have quirks,foibles, even faults that add to her character, but she can't be continually rude, unkind to children, kick animals, etc. Qualifier: it is my general impression from a wide range of reading that no matter how modern readers say they are, there is still a greater limit on what females can get away with and what men can do with little or no censure. For example, you can create a promiscuous heroine, but she'd better stay within the confines of admittedly erotic novels. [I repeat: this is my opinion - other opinions are most welcome.]

And as with heroes, a heroine should have vulnerabilities—ways she can be hurt, people or causes that are vital to her, insurmountable difficulties to overcome. (I recall reading a book that sticks in my mind: the heroine's mother was schizophrenic. Did she have a right to marry and risk passing on this genetic anomaly?) 

And finally, I looked at my own heroines, the ones I've created for nearly forty books over the last 25 years. I DO like variety, and here is what I found:

My heroines range from that 14-year-old—who comes closest of all my heroines to the innocent to whom things happen, rather than the more dynamic heroine who causes things to happen—to the pacifist princess in a distant future who turns rebel and is instrumental in taking down an empire. I've written light Regency heroines and strong Gothic heroines who must survive dire events before earning their Happily Ever After. I've written about a wife and mother who is stalked and nearly killed, a retiring type who, with the aid of a forest fire, breaks up a sex-trafficking ring. I've created a female FBI agent, wounded in body and spirit, who is forced back to life in order to help a friend. And so on . . . The possibilities are endless. And such fun to dream up. 

So go out there and let your imaginations soar! (Just don't make your heroine a wimp.)

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For a link to Blair Bancroft's web site (updated 7/28/18), click here.

For a link to Blair's New Facebook Author post, click here.

Thanks for stopping by,

1 comment:

  1. It always amazes me that people dislike Fanny price because she isn't more assertive and dislike Emma because she is too assertive. The trouble is neither is Elizabeth Bennet. Most of Barbara Cartland's heroines weren't TSTL. They did often appear weak and in need of a strong man's help-- but men like to feel the protector. The too stupid to live heroine was the one -- usually in a Gothic-- who decides to investigate the noise in the cellar though alone in the house when she knows some one is threatening her. The so called spunky or feisty heroine is often the one who I think is TSTL. "I can do it myself" stupidity is often a trademark of the independent heroine who has to show she doesn't need men. Blair Bancroft's heroines are never that stupid though many are.
    Jane Austen wrote six books with six different types of female as heroine. They were deliberately created with different strengths and weaknesses. I think Fanny price and Mansfield Park were partially, at least , created to refute the theory of delicacy. Mary Crawford is the closest to Elizabeth Bennet but lacks her morals.