Wednesday, June 27, 2012

4 ways to make your heroine stronger

by Stephanie Morrill

A writer emailed me to ask, "How can I make my heroine a believable heroine? There is a bit of fighting/action in the book. She won't always win of course, but how do I make the victories believable? In reality it isn't easy or sometimes even possible for a girl to beat a boy. I want a strong heroine, but I don't want her to be over the top. Any suggestions?"


Few things draw me into a book or TV show like a kick-butt, capable heroine. It's one of the reasons I instantly loved the show Veronica Mars, which is about a teen girl who's also a private investigator. 





A character like Veronica Mars could quickly become flat, but the writers built wonderful contradictions into her. Veronica's sassy, yet can also be sweet. She's fiercely independent, yet more than anything she wants a relationship with her mom. She's beautiful and has known popularity, but she also knows the life of an outcast. And while she often catches the bad guy, she's also had them slip through her fingers.

Here are 4 techniques you can use to make your heroine a force to be reckoned with, yet also a girl we'll love to cheer for:

Develop the backstory


If you want to make your heroine's victories believable, the backstory will be critical. For Veronica Mars, her father used to be the sheriff and now is a private investigator. She's learned a lot about mystery-solving and spying from watching him. It also means cases often fell in her lap due to her father's line of work.

The River of Time Trilogy
In Lisa T. Bergren's River of Time trilogy, Gabi's parents are archaeologists so Gabi has spent lots of time in Italy (therefore she knows Italian) and her father had loved the ancient sports and taught his girls fencing and archery. Comes in pretty handy when this modern girl time-travels to medieval Italy....

Your character can know how to do extraordinary things, just make sure you've given a plausible explanation for why.

Keeping it real: Gabi's sword in medieval Italy weighed a ton more than her fencing sword, so it still took her some time to adjust. And because Veronica had spent so much time tracking down cheating spouses, the girl had some serious trust issues and would do stuff like put trackers in her boyfriend's car. Find ways that your character's backstory can also turn into emotional baggage they have to lug around.


Employ a secret weapon


Veronica Mars is petite and blond. She also carries a tazer with her just about everywhere she goes. What kind of secret weapon can you give your heroine?

Nothing but Trouble (PJ Sugar Series #1)
I love the PJ Sugar series by Susan May Warren, which is also about an amateur PI. PJ's secret weapon is her purse. She always has an odd assortment of handy stuff in there.

Get creative with your secret weapons!

Keeping it real: Having their secret weapon turned against them can be an effective technique. Occasionally one of Veronica's many enemies got a hold of her tazer and used it on her. Or in Tangled Rapunzel's hair can be helpful, like when they're underwater in the cave and it lights the way out, but it can also be used against her. Like when she's running and it catches on the tree branch.

The surprise effect

I don't want to launch into a girl-power debate or anything, but if you're writing the kick-butt heroine type, you'll have the element of surprise on your heroine's side because very few would expect a girl to know how to fight. Lisa T. Bergren used that very effectively in the River of Time trilogy when her heroine, Gabi, had time-traveled from present day to medieval Italy. Gabi was often very effective in battle because no one expected her to handle a sword so well.

Keeping it real: Flip it so that your heroine sometimes underestimates her opponent as well. Or perhaps she gets used to others being surprised by her ability, so when the enemy is prepared for her, she doesn't fight quite as well.

Brains and a sense of adventure can achieve a lot



For this one, think Hermione Granger from Harry Potter or even Belle from Beauty and the Beast. Both girls are bookworms, but they also aren't afraid to take risks. Since we typically think of brainy types as being cautious or even fearful of the world, marrying these two traits can have a wonderful, fresh feel to it.

Keeping it real: If you have a brainy character, have her be outsmarted a time or two. 

Who are some of your favorite heroines? What makes them so appealing to you?

67 comments:

  1. I love Hermione! She might not be the best fighter, but she's loyal to Harry and very clever! And she and Ron make a cute couple. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And did I mention her house elf obsession?

      Delete
    2. Team SPEW!

      Let's see, I also love Katniss, because she's kick-butt, but we also see with her that she can be vulnerable with Prim.

      I also love Lena from the Caster Chronicles because she can kick butt in battle and yet is also brave enough to be herself at school-she doesn't conform becasue others don't like her.

      Oh, and I love Ginny and Luna from HP!

      Delete
    3. I LOVE HERMIONE!! One of the things I think help make her a real character is the fact that her greatest fear is failing - this is part of what drives her to be a perfectionist. As I perfectionist myself, I can testify that one of my biggest fears is that if I fail, no one will like me (even though I know this isn't true). This fear makes Hermione real. And even though she's anxious and tends to over plan things, she won't hesitate to do what's right - even if it means starting an illegal defense society or breaking into a building. Her determination (and ability) to fight for what is right is part of what makes her so awesome (and strong).

      Delete
  2. I have yet to meet one of my characters that is a fighter/physically strong opponent/ heroine, but maybe one of my girl characters will surprise me. Usually my girl characters are more emotionally strong and my guy charater's get to play the white knight. I like the idea of the knight in shining armor coming to rescue his damsel in distress. It's a bit cliche but I love it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. 4readin, it's cliche for a reason - lots of us love it! :) And it can still be done in a fresh way, I think. Tangled is a good example. They rescue each other a few times.

      Delete
    2. I like that kind of plot. It can get a bit of a bad rap nowadays - "Oh, the girl just sits in the tower and waits for her knight to rescue her" - but you know, it takes a lot of strength to be stuck in a tower and not end up hating everybody on the planet. I don't think this aspect of it gets shown enough in today's world. And of course, there is a difference between "stuck in a tower with no way out" and "sitting in a tower because you're too lazy to do anything about it".

      Delete
    3. Really good point! It'd be interesting to read that perspective. It's so true though being wrongfully held back & not wallowing takes a special kind of strength!

      Delete
    4. you are so right! I think the feminism is overdone a lot, and being a female teenager, I think I can safely say that. I totally agree that females should not be treated as inferior, but obviously we have a different type of strength as males, like Rapunzel in her tower. Thanks for the fresh idea!

      Delete
  3. I love a good kick-but Heroine , some of my personal favorites who aren't over the top are
    Olivia Benson- Law and Order SVU
    Katniss Everdeen- Hunger Games
    Snow White- Snow White and the Huntsman
    Black Widow- The Avengers
    Veronica Mars sounds pretty awesome I'll have to check her out.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This is a great list! And writing this blog post made me depressed all over again that I'll never have another new Veronica Mars to watch :( Need to pull out my DVDs...

      Delete
  4. Some of my favorite kick-but heroines would have to be-

    Ginny Weasley- Harry Potter
    Katniss Everdeen- Hunger Games
    Snow White- Snow White and the Huntsman
    Black Widow- The Avengers
    I also love Hermione she is a stickler for the rules, but she isn't afraid to take risks.

    I have a mix of female characters. My fmc is a 99% evil and 1% angel. Other female characters of mine are more the "damsel" types, but are heroes in their own ways. I'm a huge fan of heroines who can take care of themselves. Maybe because I'm like that and I can't stand it when all the heroines are Bella Swan or Sleeping Beautyish. :D I think every story needs at least one heroine who will stretch the limits and stand up for herself.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ginny is a great one! She's one of my favorite characters in the Harry Potter series. Although I love Hermione too for the reason you mentioned. No surprise that they're friends :)

      Delete
    2. Ginny is my favorite female character from Harry Potter mainly because we are so much alike.

      Professor Mcgonagall is pretty kick-but too though. ;)

      Delete
    3. Ooh! I love Professor McGonagall! And she most certainly is kick-butt (the image of her marching -alone- on five people trying to kick Hagrid out (Order of Phoenix) comes to mind...)
      And Mrs. Weasley is pretty strong too, though, just in a quieter way...kinda goes back to the "princess in the tower" thing I mentioned earlier...but she is most certainly able to fight - and win(see the climax of Deathly Hallows).

      Delete
  5. Ooh! I love the sound of the Veronica Mars show - I'm definitely looking into it. I'm a teen girl who aspires to be a private investigator (it just sounds flipping awesome).

    My favorite heroine is the FMC of The Blue Roan Child. She's an orphan who works at a stable yard in the medieval ages, and she loved a wild Arva mare and her two colts. She is tough and strong, but gentle and caring, and is determined to rescue the Arva mare's colts when they are taken. She's cunning when it comes to escaping bad-guys and planning a way out, but she's dreamy and willing to risk it all.

    I find her inspiring!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sarah, I think they just started running reruns of Veronica Mars on soap net!

      Delete
    2. I agree, I'll have to check it out!

      Delete
    3. Full episodes of Veronica are also available at www.thewb.com. (Does anybody know what the deal is with that site? I mean, I'm old enough to remember when CW was actually WB and it merged with ... PAX, maybe? But I'm baffled by The WB website.)

      Delete
  6. Hmmm...
    Nancy Drew - duh
    Bella - A Charmed Life Series
    Meggie - Inkheart

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good ones, Lydia! I love how Bella is both a fashion freak and a modern-day Nancy Drew :)

      Delete
    2. Oh man, I have to read the charmed life series now! I've wanted to but havent gotten to it but the other day I was wondering what a modern day Nancy Drew would be like! Guess I wrote be writing it, but I still want to read it :)

      Delete
    3. Lydia Grace HartJune 29, 2012 at 1:03 PM

      Stephanie - I know, right? I just finished that series (borrowed it off my sis), and am now on a humor withdrawl. And I never thought of it that way, but she really is a lot like Nancy Drew.
      Tonya - Yes, you must read them - they already made it to my faves <3
      Oh, and thanks to some awesome insight from fellow readers, I add Elizabeth Bennet, Jo March, and Catherine Moorland

      Delete
  7. I like this because I was thinking about it the other day since you mentioned it :) I googled it actually & I always see action. Ofcourse action is great but I also love when a heroine is super smart, clever '& surprises you that way,

    I don't know how many of my favorite heroines kick butt however I like:
    Lexi Stuart in the French Twist Series- she really tried to do the right thing even if it was painful for her. I admired that.
    Becky Bloomwood just because, I don't think she's anything except fanciful & capricious she's fun.
    Jane on Drop Dead Diva- she's got the brains & surprises people all the time.
    Bo on Bunheads- I feel like she's one to watch, she will blossom
    I could probably think of more

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. These are good ones, Tonya! They're their own brand of kick-butt :)

      Delete
  8. wow! Thanks so much for this post. Most of my characters are girls, so I always have a hard time making them awesome yet realistic.
    I like Katniss Everdeen.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Katniss is an excellent one. I would definitely want her on my team if I were battling Panem.

      Delete
    2. Haha yeah, I would totally want her..though I'd most likely end up being her.

      Delete
    3. I'll take Gale too;) *sigh*

      Delete
  9. Wonderful post! Thank you :)
    My favorite heroines include Katniss Everdeen, Deryn Sharp, Cammie Morgan, Puck Connolly, and Jo March. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jo March! Brilliant!

      No one's said Elizabeth Bennett yet. And I think she's strong in a Jo March kind of way, where it isn't quite so obvious to the modern reader.

      Delete
    2. Ooh, I love Elizabeth Bennet! She's not 'kick-butt' but she is determined. She has her own mind and makes her own decisions. She cares about her family, even as she deals with their inequities. She's not pushy, but she will stand firm, and if she lived today, I think she might have some more of the more "kick-butt" tendencies that are in today's heroines.

      Delete
    3. GAH I FORGOT CAMMIE! She's awesome. :3

      Delete
    4. Ah! I forget about Jo March and Elizabeth Bennet! They are two more of my favorites :) I also love Sybil from Downton Abbey.

      Delete
  10. LOVED this post!! :)

    I'm still trying to balance out the warrior side of my FMC, as well as her sensitive "I-really-have-no-idea-what-I've-gotten-myself-into" side. So this post was exactly what I needed this week!

    As for my favorite heroines...
    Katniss (OBVIOUSLY!) :)
    Gaia from the Birthmarked books (she's caring and gentle, with a lot of fight and determination in her)
    Saba from Blood Red Road (she has a crossbow. A CROSSBOW, PEOPLE!)

    Thank you for the lovely post, Stephanie! :)

    ReplyDelete
  11. I'm surprised no one's mentioned Maximum Ride yet. Max is tough as nails and probably my favorite heroine EVER!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. ARRGG! I totally forgot Max! She is AMAZING! :)

      Delete
  12. This is a very helpful blog post. Thank you! I find that my female characters are way too sappy and are the damsel type, which I'm really trying to stray away from since I am not all like them! Next time I work on character development, I will definately keep your tips in mind to make my stories better!

    And my favourite heroines are definately:

    Elizabeth Bennet - Pride and Prejudice
    Kathy H. - Never Let Me Go
    Hannah - The Clockwork Three
    and of course Hermoine - Harry Potter

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, and Mrs Lovett from Sweeney Todd! :)

      Delete
  13. Maximum Ride, Katniss Everdeen...
    Great post! I will have to keep these things in mind because usually, I don't think about it, I just try to go with the flow. Which is funny, since I spent a lot of time on character development in my current manuscript... :)

    ReplyDelete
  14. Creel from Dragon Slippers by Jessica Day George is my absolute favorite. She takes her future into her own hands and will fight tooth and nail for her friends (and sometimes she has to, her weapons skills are so-so), but she can still be tired and scared and lost. She loves pretty clothes (she's a dressmaker) and Ms. George manages to make embroidery sound noble instead of sappy, like it usually does. Creel (and her best friend Marta) sound and feel as real my friends and I are. They can panic and scream, but they can also find ways out of tough situations (like how to get off the roof of a tower with going splat) and nobody - but nobody! - messes with their friends. Another thing I like about Dragon Slippers is that even though Creel is very strong, she isn't strong at the expense of the male characters (there are few things I hate more than making the guy characters weak so the girls look stronger by comparison). Prince Luka is noble and kind and will fight to the death for what is right or for those he loves.
    Let's see, who else?
    ~ Hermione, Ginny and Luna from Harry Potter
    ~ Captain Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager (I think her character is done pretty much perfectly: capable without being over-the-top. Most definitely a girl, but a girl in command.)
    ~ Emma Peel from the Avengers
    ~ Rosalind from The Penderwicks
    ~ Belle from Beauty and the Beast
    ~ Annabeth from Percy Jackson
    ~ Plasma Girl from "The Extrordinary Adventures of Ordinary Boy" (she hangs out with the guys, but she likes nail-polish)
    ~ Marguerite from The Scarlet Pimpernel
    And a whole host of others. I've actually started keeping a list, so that when I need to figure out how to make my characters look more convincing, I can go see what other people have done.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I most definitely agree about Marguerite from The Scarlet Pimpernel!
      She's not "kick-butt", but I was beginning to wonder if "the most intelligent woman in all of Europe" would make it on this list. :-)

      Delete
    2. You just mentioned my ALL TIME FAVORITE BOOK (The Scarlet Pimpernel) <3 You, my friend, deserve a super high five!!!! :D

      Delete
    3. Marguerite is so cool! Her awesomeness only makes Percy's awesomeness better, instead of downplaying him. Even a brilliant woman needs a knight in a monacle and caped coat.

      Delete
  15. Ahhh I love Veronia Mars! *totally hooked on that show*

    I like Annabeth from Percy Jackson because she's smart, and she's scary when she's smart. She had the kind of power that said she didn't need to be a strong person-- she was just so smart people were afraid of her before they even really knew her.

    One of my other favorite heroines is Astrid from How to Train Your Dragon. She tried so hard to be brave when she really needed to be scared. That sort of idea fascinated me. I actually modeled one of my own characters after her.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Hm, if we're talking about TV, too, I should say Elizabeth Burke-- Peter's wife on White Collar.

    She. Is. So. Cool.

    She's kind of like the "Mom" sort of heroine, the one who surprises you when you need help and she steps up immediately. She's brave and really smart and very loyal, very trusting of Neal and Mozzie. She's very lovable. I don't know if she counts as a heroine, but she'd probably be my favorite.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Sabriel and Lirael by Gath Nix
    Nancy Drew
    Katniss Everdeen
    Mathilda by Roald Dahl
    Panic Room (the mother)
    Becky Bloomwood

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Matilda! How could I have forgotten Matilda?! Actually, most of Roald Dahl's heroines are strong. Maybe that's part of why I love his books.

      Delete
  18. Katniss Everdeen is my favorite heroine in both the book category and movie category.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I love Finley Sinclair from "There you'll find me" by Jenny B. Jones, she is the farthest thing from shy lol! And makes her opinion duly noted.
    And I love Rapunzel too because she is insanely creative and artistic, and definitely her own woman. :) She doesn't always need prince charming to help her either, she can take care of herself pretty well for the most part but not so much that she's like superwoman.
    There's also Katara from "Avatar: The Last Airbender" who is the most amazing female character you ever come across ^_^ She is independent and can defend herself in any situation and you do NOT mess with that girl's temper. If you get in her way she'll beat you out of the way until she can do what she wants.
    And then last but not least Korra from "Avatar: The Legend of Korra", she is a great big fireball and has a very strong personality and bulldozes her way through anything to get where she needs to go.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Katniss Everdeen is pretty cool too :) But I guess I just prefer to have a heroine that isn't so serious all the time.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I find it interesting that nobody has mentioned Eowyn from Lord of the Rings. Is this because no one has thought of her, or because she doesn't quite understand that, contrary to popular opinion, there is a kind of honor and a great deal of worth/importance in staying behind and doing the hard things you never get credit for? Kinda goes back to what I said earlier about the strength it takes to be stuck in a tower...It takes one kind of strength to face and destroy the lord of the ringwraiths, and another to stay behind and provide food, shelter and comfort without getting much, if any, credit when everyone else rides away to battle and glory.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Alright, this just may be my favorite GTW post ever. And not just because you not only mentioned the River of Time (which I could tell you would from the title!) and Rapunzel (adore that movie), but because it is so helpful. Crafting a feminine but strong but sweet but believable heroine is so hard and this gave me a list of sorts of stuff to think about. Thank you, Stephanie!

    One of my favorite heroines is from a book I've read this year. Lark Benton from Love Finds You in Annapolis, Maryland! She was so intricate in all that she went through and the things she experienced and the way that her character developed...Emerson had to save her once (great chapter!) but she also sort of saved him at the end in an indirect sort of way.
    Also, I'm in the middle of Short-Straw Bride by Karen Witemeyer and Meri is so lovable in that her independent ways contrast with all the scrapes she gets into!

    Lovin' this discussion!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lovin' having you back home and back on GTW, Rachelle :) Yes, Lark is an amazing heroine and has such a great character arc. Good one!

      Delete
  23. I my goodness! Loving this post...its gonna help me a lot in my story. But how can I insert a good back story into my novel when I've already started into the story without it? Is there a right way to do it? should I go back through my whole story and try to bring it up a few times? I'm lost on how to do that...HELP?!

    ReplyDelete
  24. I'm trying really hard to balance my heroine... She has two different people in her, a soft-hearted cheerleader from her past life and the detached survivalist from her current life. She can't figure out who she is so far... she doesn't fight if she can run, and she's very good at running. She will literally keep going until she physically can't anymore. Any suggestions?

    ReplyDelete
  25. I love Vikki Byrne from the Junior Left Behind Series, she's totally awesome!! She hasn't necessarily fought anybody physically (Not that I remember anyway) but there had been a lot of harrowing escapes. She's brave and takes risks, at a few points it back fired but she got by through the power of prayer. If you're not familiar with Left Behind it's a Christian series based on Earth's last days and the second coming of Jesus Christ. I definitely recommend the series. The writing is rather simple but it'll help struggling teens understand the book of Revalations and God's love. - MJ

    ReplyDelete
  26. I love Averella (AKA Vrell, Sparrow, or Vrell Sparrow) from Jill Williamson's Blood of Kings trilogy. She's strong, yet not invincable and can't always make up her mind. Romance turns my stomach, yet I was rooting for her and Achan. (It takes a pretty strong plot and characters to get me into anything that even smells of romance.)

    ReplyDelete
  27. My MC is a really tough girl, like the kind that wouldn't mind being mistaken for a boy, yet she can be totally girly at times. I'm really liking her, because she's so complex, which makes her super fun to write! :) I love complex characters.

    ~Katelyn~

    ReplyDelete
  28. I personally love Annabeth and Reyna from the Heros of Olympas series. katniss, duh. Max from Maxime ride. Theres just way too many to even try to mention

    ReplyDelete
  29. I love Tris from Divergent, she's a pretty regular girl (Aside from being Divergent) and everything about her seems so real :)

    I love this site by the way

    ReplyDelete
  30. Eowyn!!! She is the most perfectest example I can think of.
    Strong in battle, has an emotional background, is struggling with her love for Aragorn.
    I love her for being a real figure, some one you could relate to. I mean, Arwen is a beautiful character, but she has the only problem of being immortal.

    ReplyDelete
  31. Love, love, love this blog!

    My favorites are,

    Lizzy and Jane Bennet - Pride and Prejudice

    Leah - Abram's Daughters

    Used to be Skye now Rosalind - The Penderwicks

    Kale - Dragon Keeper

    Amy Dorrit - Little Dorrit ( She is so much like me )

    Leslie - The Book Thief

    Malthice - The Bronze Bow ( She is the other side of me )

    And so many more!!
    Want to read a bunch of those others!


    ReplyDelete
  32. Great post!

    Some of my favorite strong heroines are:

    Imraldera - Starflower (Learns the incredible and devastating power of TRUE love and compassion)
    Harry - The Blue Sword (Becomes a hero, war leader, and awesome fighter almost against her will)
    Irene - The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia (Rules her kingdom with ruthless efficiency, but learns to love again)
    Sara Crewe - A Little Princess (So very strong, sweet, and serious)
    Anne - Anne of Green Gables (Reminds me of myself in so many ways)
    Beana - Veiled Rose, Moonblood (An awesome knight with a mysterious past yet to be revealed...)
    Carliss - Lady Carliss and the Waters of Moorue (so quiet and sweet...yet so serious and deadly)

    ReplyDelete

Disagreement is welcome. Rudeness is not. Please be considerate of each other!