There And Draft Again

A Fellowship of Fantasy Writers

Tossing Heads With Heroines May 18, 2013

Filed under: Writing — thereanddraftagain @ 6:30 am
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K. L. Schwengel

No, I didn’t mean Talking Heads, although I do enjoy their music. If you’re a Labyrinth fan you’ll know where this is coming from. One of my favorite scenes in the whole movie (besides any with David Bowie as THE number one best Goblin king ev-ahr) is when Sarah finds herself surrounded by the odd, head-tossing Fireys.

“You’re only allowed to throw your own head!” Love it. Why? Because it’s just one of the times our heroine gets to show what she’s really made of.
Much is made about heroes in fantasy, and the qualities they should possess. Often, however, the heroine is subject to playing second string, or even sitting on the bench. Even when she’s supposed to be driving the story. Nothing will make me dump a book quicker than a simpering, milquetoast heroine. I want to see some head tossing, dang it. Occasional tears are fine. Weakness and flaws, to be expected. But constant sobbing, wringing of hands, and screaming . . . not so much.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t need the Amazonian, full-on kickassery battle chick. I’m okay with heroines displaying their feminine side. But they need to temper that with other qualities or I just won’t care if they ever succeed. Heck, I may even start hoping the bad guy does them in.
So, what do I want to see in a heroine?

  • Strength: Not physical. I want that internal strength that pushes our gal forward even when she’s terrified. She can be shaking in her boots, ready to toss her cookies, but she’s got to have the hutzpah to suck it up and keep going, beyond her limitations.
  • Initiative: Give me someone who acts as opposed to always reacting, or worse, sitting on her hands waiting to be saved, helped, or told what to do. This trait is likely going to get her into worse situations more often than not, but she’s trying. She’s making the effort.
  • Faith: Hope, optimism, call it what you will. She needs to believe there’s a way out of the situation, that at the end of the day, it’s going to work out. Yes, she can have moments of self-doubt, moments of utter despair – key word, moments. We all have them. Wallowing in them pins us down, just as it will to our heroine. She needs to believe in herself, in a greater power, in the love of someone. Something has to fee her Strength.
  • A Sense of Humor: No, not slap you knee funny, life of the party, cracking jokes and taking nothing seriously type of humor. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m somewhat a fan of gallows humor. You know, that scene where our heroine and her bestie are outnumbered 10-1 and certain death is staring them in the face, and she looks over and quips, “At least I’m wearing clean undies.” (Because whose mother never gave them that warning as they headed out the door?)
  • Love: Hey, I’m not the big mushy type, but our heroine needs to be able to love, openly and without reservation. Heroes aren’t always perfect. At least, they shouldn’t be. Our heroine needs to be able to set aside her preconceived notions of Prince Charming and embrace Prince I’m Only Human.

I’m sure I’ve left something out. So tell me, what is it you like to see in your heroines?

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18 Responses to “Tossing Heads With Heroines”

  1. Aldrea Alien Says:

    Ah, Labyrinth … *sigh* … I love that movie. (And David Bowie is THE Goblin King, no contest there)

    I also love my heroines this way and that’s how I try to write them.

  2. katemsparkes Says:

    Bowie is the only Goblin King for me, even if his pants are terrifying. 😀

    I expect all of those things, and I love that you mentioned it’s OK for her to be scared. I think this goes for male heroes, as well, but a lot of the time it seems like writers think that for a woman to be strong, she has to be cold and emotionless (I love you Katniss, but you’re a frigging robot. Also Tris, though I just started your book). Let them cry, let them puke in the bushes, let them want to curl up in a ball in bed instead of actually making a tough decision. But then let them make the decision, get past the pain and horror, and act in spite of their fear. That, to me, is real strength, and it’s far more relatable then the cold arse-kicking machine.

    • kathils Says:

      Acting in spite of fear — that’s precisely it. I don’t mind the cold, arse-kicking machine, so long as she has a weakness that the author is going to show us and have her battle with. I think heroines can become emotionless in a situation they need to shut themselves off from, but once it’s over, I want to see the meltdown. That moment when they close the door and it all just hits them.

      • katemsparkes Says:

        True. As long as she’s human and vulnerable somewhere in there, I don’t mind clarity and focus in action scenes. It’s when they seem inhuman the rest of the time (yes, even after a life like Katniss’) that I lose interest in them as characters.

  3. deshipley Says:

    Prince I’m Only Human — love it! And I love a *Princess* I’m Only Human, too.
    I will admit it: I’m a tough reader when it comes to heroines. I have no patience for girls who are tough to the point of dehumanization or don’t contribute anything but incessant whining. You make a series of points writers would do well to take to heart.
    The strongest characters have weaknesses to balance their strength. Trying too hard to make them perfect will always backfire, whereas having them stand there and do absolutely nothing makes me question their presence in the story. Just let the heroines try the best they can; we can ask no more of them than that. (:

    • kathils Says:

      Balance — definitely. I’m a terrible movie watcher when the female lead runs down the middle of the road screaming in an attempt to get away from the bad guy. Really?!!? Use your brains, girl. I do a lot of yelling at the TV, and at books when things like that happen.

  4. ReGi McClain Says:

    Balance. Balance is good. There’s a tendency to make fantasy heroes/heroines a little too much. Too sexy (is it just me, or are all the movie heroines starting to look about the same? Boobs. Check. Legs. Check. Badonkeydonk. Check. Ridiculously uncomfortable outfit designed to show off everything and protect nothing? Yup, she’s the heroine.), too countercultural, too tough, too vulnerable, too prim, too clever, too whatever. Balance is a happy thing. 🙂

  5. Yes, yes and yes. Hate simpering. Hate waiting for the prince to turn up (because how often does that happen in real life). Hate skimpy bikini wearing heroines. But love strength, vulnerability, and an ability to face down whatever circumstance she finds herself in!

    • kathils Says:

      I wonder how many of the people that clad their heroines in outfits like that have actually tried doing *anything* in them? “Here, m’lady, hop on this horse in naught but your polka dot bikini. We shall be riding through the woods today.”

  6. jcollyer Says:

    I agree with every point. What it boils down to is that heroine needs to be a decent *character*. Being female might effect her response to things or people’s response to her, but the fundamental reasons for all her actions will be the sort of person she is, just like any other character. I think people tend to forget this with female chracters, write them as female first and a character second, whereas with male characters it’s character first and the fact that they’re male impacts little. I know this because do it too. It’s an easy trap to fall into, especially with fantasy. But it is also easily avoided and yuo open yourself up to so many more opportunites when you embrace your heroines, so to speak


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