with guest blogger Raela Schoenherr.
Hi everyone! I wanted to start off by giving Seekerville a big thank you for having me on the blog today. Happy 8th birthday, Seekerville folks!
In a crowded market where readers often say their biggest problem is having too many good books in their TBR piles, it can be hard to create a heroine who stands out. As an acquisitions editor, I see a lot of proposals and manuscripts and can attest to the number of stories where the heroine is fine but not particularly memorable. So, based on what I’ve learned from the manuscripts that cross my desk as well as my own reading, I’ve put together some tips for making your heroine one of the hard-to-forget ones!
1. Real flaws
The rest of this list is in no particular order, but I had to put this tip at number one. I’ve said elsewhere that likability is important in main characters, but I think we can do a disservice when we push this too hard. There’s a balance between making your heroine someone a reader wants to spend her reading hours with and making her someone who’s so perfect the reader leaves the story discouraged at how imperfect she herself is in comparison. And, if we’re being honest, that type of heroine can be just plain uninteresting to read about. Also, the journey a heroine takes throughout the course of a book has nowhere to go if she starts out almost perfect on page 1.
And frankly, some of the most memorable heroines are either solidly in the unlikeable camp (Gone With the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara) or at least start out that way (Redeeming Love’s Angel).
Crafting a multi-dimensional heroine isn’t like answering the job interview question “What is your greatest weakness?” Don’t be afraid to give her room to grow! Here are some examples where a heroine’s “flaw” doesn’t feel very flawed:
• Clumsiness (You wouldn’t believe how often this is the heroine’s primary defect!)
• Caring too much
That being said, there are times when a talented author has taken one of these character traits and made it feel unique and fresh. But consider yourself forewarned that these can often feel clichéd to avid readers.
2. Proactive rather than reactive
Another way to phrase this would be to make sure that your heroine is not just a victim of circumstances and other people. One thing I see more often than I’d like is a heroine whose conflicts all stem from other people’s actions. A heroine who merely reacts instead of acting and causing things to happen is much less compelling and can even feel superfluous to the plot. Readers want a heroine who has agency, and her actions should at least play a part in the twists and turns of the story.
3. Complicated emotions
If I asked any men to chime in on this, they’d swiftly agree that women and their emotions can be impossible to understand. And I think most women would agree that we have a hard time understanding our own emotions sometimes! However, it’s surprising how black and white the emotions of fictional women can be in some stories. I don’t think I’m alone in preferring to read about characters who struggle with and are torn between varying emotions.
As the author, it’s easy to have such a clear understanding of how the character is feeling and why at any given time that this shows up on the page in a way that doesn’t feel true to life. In reality, people often aren’t able to instantly and clearly articulate what they are feeling, why they feel that way, and what needs to happen for them to feel differently. It’s good for the author to know, but be aware of how realistic it is for your heroine to have the same clear understanding at that point in your story.
4. Compelling platonic relationships
As I was thinking through some of my favorite books and heroines, I found myself noticing how many of the heroines were equally memorable for their relationships with their friends, family, or antagonists as for their romances. In stories that are primarily a romance, there are times I find myself continually wondering where the heroine’s friends and family are because there’s hardly any attention paid to relationships other than the one with the hero. Not all heroines are going to have lots of friends and family—maybe her conflict is that she’s mostly on her own in the world—but hopefully at some point in the course of the story she’ll develop more than just one relationship that helps to flesh out the world of the story and add color to her personal arc. Some of the most interesting heroines to read about are the ones whose lives are multi-layered and who are juggling more than one kind of relationship.
This remains true with books that aren’t a romance, as well. Whatever the heroine’s primary relationship in the story is, make sure to give her meaningful relationships beyond that main one.
5. Sense of humor
Although the overall tone of many books is not supposed to be funny, a heroine with a sense of humor can go a long way in making her unforgettable to readers. And a sense of humor can manifest itself in a heroine in many different ways. Some authors love writing slapstick, but others are great at creating heroines who deliver killer one-liners. Some heroines have the driest of wits and other heroines have a self-awareness of either themselves or the situation they’re in that can crack readers up. There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to humor, but giving your heroine a sense of humor that fits her character, her story, and your writing style is one way to keep her in your readers’ top ten list.
6. More than just skin-deep characterization
Sometimes an author can rely too heavily on superficial descriptors to give readers an idea of what type of person the heroine is.
• Hair color
These are important details to determine, obviously, and they do go a long way in painting the picture of what a heroine is like. However, authors should be careful not to use superficial details as a crutch. For example, I often see red hair as a fallback way of showing a heroine is feisty or not caring about fashion to show that a heroine is a tomboy. Since these are stereotypes, they’re inherently going to make a character less memorable. If you do decide to match a character’s description to a traditional stereotype, you’ll need to be creative in making the heroine stand out from, for example, all the other British-accented female characters out there who are also stuffy and proper. If you really want to make a character unforgettable, flip a stereotype on its head and make the heroine contradict what readers are conditioned to expect.
Don’t be afraid to let the heroine fail. A heroine who makes a decision that creates conflict for her that doesn’t work out perfectly will certainly stand out in the slush pile. It’s a hard balance because most of us want to close the last page of the book and feel happy about where we left the heroine. However, there are too many times when a heroine makes a mistake or is experiencing conflict that never truly jeopardizes her ultimate goal and she ends the story still getting everything she wanted all along. There are ways to make happy endings that aren’t predictable if you are willing to get creative and put in the time to develop a story that takes some surprising but more fulfilling turns. And even if you’re writing the kind of book where the ending is non-negotiable (the mystery is solved, the characters fall in love, the villain is defeated), you can get your readers to that pre-determined end in an unpredictable way that leaves them remembering your book long after they’ve finished.
8. Go for the unexpected
My last tip is simply to go for the unexpected! Perhaps this is a cop out tip because this has pretty much been the theme of all of my other tips. But when you’re brainstorming your next story, I encourage you to think about the rules of your genre and the common denominators in the books you loved and the books you didn’t love. Where can you take those rules and commonalities and spin them in a new way when it comes to your heroine?
• In the type of story you write, who would normally be the typical heroine? Instead of writing that character’s story, choose someone else in that world whose story wouldn’t usually be the focus. For example, in the book Longbourn, the author tells the story of a servant in the house of Pride and Prejudice’s Bennets rather than telling Lizzie’s story.
• Have your heroine make a big sacrifice for something or someone and have it backfire on her rather than magically work out the way she wanted.
• Give her a goal or a purpose that is unique. Use the setting and the time period in a way that is integrally tied to that goal or purpose. If your heroine’s motivation is love or saving her business or protecting her family, how could you approach it in a way that would make it different from other heroines with the same motivation?
• Have your heroine choose or do the exact opposite of what the readers will want at that point in the story. Or rather, what the readers think they want. I think we’ve all had a moment in a story where a character does precisely what we didn’t want them to do and yet the author skillfully manages to completely change our minds by the end of the book.
This was a fun post to brainstorm since it gave me a chance to think through my favorite reads and heroines! Who are some of your favorite heroines and why? Which of these tips do you agree or disagree with?
Raela Schoenherr is a fiction acquisitions editor and has been with Bethany House Publishers since 2008. She grew up reading Christian fiction and enjoys being able to work with the kinds of books she always loved. When she’s not reading (or listening to audiobooks!), she’s probably cheering on the Green Bay Packers, running, or spending time with her wonderful family and friends. A graduate of Bethel University, she makes her home in Minneapolis, MN and is active on Twitter at @raelaschoenherr.
Today Raela is generously bringing with her two wonderful birthday presents!! Leave a comment for a chance to win any 2015 Bethany House Publishing FICTION book. Two winners. Winners announced in the Weekend Edition.