Tuesday, March 10, 2015

How to Craft a Strong Heroine

Dina Sleiman writes stories of passion and grace. Most of the time you will find this Virginia Beach resident reading, biking, dancing, or hanging out with her husband and three children, preferably at the oceanfront. Since finishing her Professional Writing MA in 1994, she has enjoyed many opportunities to teach literature, writing, and the arts. Her debut novel, Dance of the Dandelion with WhiteFire Publishing, won an Honorable Mention in the 2012 Selah Awards. Also look for her novels, Love in Three-Quarter Time, Dance from Deep Within, and her Valiant Hearts series with Bethany House Publishers. Dina serves as an acquisitions editor for WhiteFire Publishing as well, and she loves to teach at writers conferences throughout the US. For more info visit her at her primary website.


The strong and spunky heroine is a popular motif these days, especially in young adult fiction and the many movies being made from YA books. Katniss Everdeen, Tris Prior, and the list goes on. There’s something about a strong young woman that excites people. That makes them say, “If she can make a difference in this world, then so can I.” You can see this on television as well. I’m thinking Sidney Bristow on Alias, Olivia Pope on Scandal,  Nikita and The Legend of Korra, but I’m sure you can come up with plenty of your own examples.  .

Even if you are a guy who wants to write guy books, strong female sidekicks and minor characters
are hugely popular. If you do a good job with these characters, you will earn a faithful readership among women as well as men. And in case you didn’t know, women buy waaayyy more books than men.

My new YA adventure/romance series, Valiant Hearts with Bethany House Publishers, features strong young medieval women in legendary male roles—which means I’ve spent a lot of time over these last few years contemplating spunky females.  So how do you craft a strong heroine? Here are some ideas to get you started.

Give her admirable motivations

A woman who is tough merely for the sake of being tough can come off as cold or standoffish. Help us to understand the hardships that formed your character. Give her strong motivations like protecting the weak, standing up for justice, or seeking freedom. Let us see her making sacrifices and using her strength to help others.

Give her a special ability 

Most spunky female characters have some sort of special ability that allows them to stand above the crowd. For example, Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games is an excellent huntress. In my Dauntless, my heroine was trained by traveling acrobats, and in my next book Chivalrous, the heroine learned to fight like a knight alongside her brothers.  It could be intelligence or humor or people skills, but give your heroine some special ability that will allow her to take on the world and that will make her strength believable.

Surround her with characters who respect her

One of the important rules of good fiction writing is show don’t tell. Show us your heroine’s strength through the eyes of the people around her. How they treat her, respect her, and look up to her. Show us through dialogue and the inner thoughts of other characters. Make us believe that we should admire her strength as well.

Give her a formidable foe

Any hero is only as strong as their adversary. Don’t give us a wishy washy oppositional force just because your hero is a girl. Make your villain a worthy foe, and then allow your heroine (and/or her surrounding team) to overcome them anyway. Depending on your genre this might be a literal villain, or it might be a force of nature or even an internal adversary. But whatever it is, make it a true challenge.

Show us her soft side

The factor that makes a heroine strong and spunky rather than just tough and cold is her soft side. A woman should have a special sort of vulnerability which underlies and complements her strength. In addition to showing her strength, be sure to show this vulnerability as well.  A tear in her eye, a sentimental moment, a gentle stroke over the hair of a child, a brief cuddle with an animal or a beloved doll. Let us know her fears and hurts and weaknesses, and then let us see her overcome them anyway.

Leave room for transformation

Although your heroine should be strong, make sure she still has weaknesses to overcome. It is always important for any main character in your book to undergo a transformation. This is at the heart of good storytelling. Weave your plot in such a way that she has to overcome her weaknesses in order to overcome her foe. That is how a heroine becomes not only interesting and exciting, but inspirational as well.

I say, bring on the strong heroines. Personally, I can’t get enough of them.

Do you have any feisty females in the book you’re working on? Who are some of your favorite spunky heroines?

Stephanie here. If you like strong heroines, make sure to check out Dina's newly released Dauntless in which Lady Merry Ellison must fill a Robin Hood type role after the evil King John (Prince John of the Robin Hood legends) tries to kill her entire village. But she has to fight her tendency to become hard and bitter and learn that there is power in love as well.

63 comments:

  1. My current WIP's heroine is decidedly not feisty. That's not to say that she isn't a strong heroine; her strength is just in a different way. She's quiet and shy, she can't swing a sword or use a bow, and she loves gardening and penning poetry. However, her strong faith and her unique abilities to see and hear what others can't (or won't) help her in the challenges she faces.

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    1. That sounds cool too, Sarah. There are all different sorts of people, therefore a need for all different sorts of role models. You heroine sounds like my mom, who is a strong woman of faith.

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    2. Aww, that's so sweet. It seems the "feisty" heroine is very popular nowadays, but I'll admit, she's not my favourite kind. There are other ways--and more becoming ones too, I think--to show that a heroine is strong than making her prove that she can bite someone else's head off. (No offence intended to those who DO have feisty heroines!)

      I would very much like to meet your heroine, Sarah! She sounds like such a loveable dear.

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    3. Well, maybe we just have different definitions of feisty. Of course Merry in this book is physically tough, but I also think of sassy, funny, and outgoing characters as feisty.

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  2. My main character, Serena, I would say is particularly strong, mostly because she's been treated like a social pariah all her life. You've got to grow some tough skin to get through something like that. And when it comes to being feisty I must say she's both feisty and very closed mouth at the same time, at least near the beginning and part of the middle of the book. Kind of like how Snoopy is really sarcastic, but he never says a word, Serena has a lot of snarky things to say, but doesn't say them for fear of being compared to her father, who's not a nice man at all.
    Her friend Josephine is also strong, in that she has successfully braved a life of captivity in a clock for the last 50 years (she's immortal) and over the course of the story gradually moves on from the depression she fell into after her parents' deaths, which she has been pining over for all that time. Unlike Serena, she's much more outspoken and expresses her feistiness, which sometimes comes across as "Luna Lovegood like" comments, freely which makes it fun when writing the duo in the same scenes as they're similar yet opposites and causes their friendship to be all the more interesting.

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    1. Sounds interesting. A lot of feisty heroines are the strong silent types, I think. Katniss doesn't say a lot, her actions speak for her most of the time. My Merry is sort of that way too.

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  3. I love strong heroines!! My current WIP has a strong MC and a strong side character, who both have experienced hard times. Because of this, they're very supportive of each other. Thanks so much for stopping by Go Teen Writers!

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  4. I LOVE the last one, Dina. "Leave room for transformation." Definitely keeping this in the forefront of my mind for my main heroine in the sequel I'm working on!

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    1. Yeah, I think that's an easy one to forget, especially when you are purposely going for strong.

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  5. Thanks for being with us today, Dina!

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    1. Thanks so much for having me!!! I always enjoy my visits to Go Teen Writers.

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  6. At present I can but say one thing about my heroine: I love her immensely, because she always tries her best, yet reproaches herself because it is not better; she does noble needs, yet cries at the end of each one because of the fear and pain it cost her; and she innocent and naive in a sort of way that makes me want to hug her.

    Thank you for this wonderful article, Mrs. Sleiman. It has gone onto my list of Favourite Go Teen Writers Posts.

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    1. Wow, thanks, Hanan. Actually, I have a minor character in my third Valiant Hearts book who sounds just like your heroine. If I get a chance to write a fourth book, she will be the protagonist in that one. She's not terribly tough, but if it works out, she will be required to go on a quest and will need to find a lot of inner strength.

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    2. Oh, then I shall be really excited to read that book. Do tell us when it's out! And please forgive the spelling errors in my original comment. My own spelling mistakes drive me nuts.

      I hope my bookstore has got Dauntless in stock, too!

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    3. It might. If not all the online stores have it.

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    4. It might. If not all the online stores have it.

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  7. I like realistic heroines because that is its own kind of strong. Your point on transformation is what I love in stories. Even in my previous WIP I had to start my heroine as believably meek before I could have her talking down to the men of her home in the climax. Thanks for this wonderful quest post!

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    1. Yes, it usually takes time and some hard situations to really find that strength. My book Dauntless opens two years after my heroine has to find her strength. But she's grown hard, and has to find her soft side again.

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  8. I have a culture made entirely of warriors. I have had practice with this.

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  9. I've never written a heroine before. Maybe it's because I'm a guy...nevertheless, this is going in my bookmarks :).

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    1. Well, you can keep it in mind for strong side kicks for your male leads ;)

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    2. It's hard to write for someone of the opposite gender ... well, not hard, just hard to know if you're getting them right.

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    3. If you do, maybe you could have a female beta read for you.

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    4. I have a number of heroes, but being a girl, naturally such works opposite for me: I have to try really hard to make them convincingly "manly" or "boyish." That also means the sort of witticisms that girls think up have to go!

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  10. While I also enjoy a strong heroine, and have several in my WIP, I think the world needs more strong male characters as well. Characters who will show our children (speaking collectively for the culture) what it is to be a real man. Not only as an example for the boys as to what they should be, but also for the girls, showing what they should look for in a man. The character doesn't necessarily have to be the strong, save the world, stereo type, but someone like Prince Arthur, or Merlin or the various knights in BBC's Merlin, or Robin (or any of the gang actually) in BBC's Robin Hood. Men who are strong and brave and talented but also have their struggles. Anyone familiar with the two examples I used will also know that their are several strong female characters in each. Morgana and Gwen in the former and Marian and Djaq in the latter. I really think that their ought to be more of a balance between characters.
    All that aside, it was a great post! And thank you so much for taking the time to offer us your advice. :)

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    1. I agree. I think you'll love my guys as well. They aren't weak to make up for the girls being strong. They are strong as well. You'll especially love my hero in book 2, which is a Arthur/Lancelot style story.

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    2. Kewl! I like the idea of a balanced cast, I have five POVs, three girls two guys.

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  11. I love reading about strong heroines, and I strive to create them in my fiction. These are amazing tips, Dina. I think it's important for these heroines to have weaknesses as well because it makes them so much more complex and realistic. It's a little bit difficult to balance weaknesses without making the character unlikeable, though. Also, Dauntless looks like a great book, and I can't wait to read it.

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    1. I agree, but we should also take into account that there are clichés on the matter. Giving your character a romance related weakness is very overused. When a tough hardened heroine who never has even thought about liking anyone suddenly falls for some guy for no real reason except the author needs them to, it makes me want to throw up. In real life, this doesn't happen and it makes all the people who plan to be single roll their eyes.

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    2. It is indeed a delicate balance to have your characters flawed but likable. A lot of it will have to do with their motivations. If you know why they're flawed, and the wonderful goals they have, then it is easier to like them

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  12. I have two heroines that I'm currently working on. The first is more willing to fight and to prove herself. She's been babied most of her life, but she wants to prove she's just as strong as the guys. And my second one is more of an innocent. She is very happy, talkative, and doesn't want to hurt anyone, but she gets sucked into a world where she has to find a harder more serious side of herself.

    I think the feisty heroine is being used a little too much lately. Not that I don't enjoy reading about them, but there could be a bit more variety in the books currently coming out. :)

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    1. I like your points. I have three strong heroines who are a mix. It's nice to balance the feisty-ness out because it could end up cliché. My feisty MC is also an introvert, and she never wants to get close to anyone ever because of the harsh world she lives in. Giving your characters a reason for their actions makes for a deep character.

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    2. The feisty heroine is indeed used a lot, but not nearly as often in Christian fiction, which is what I write. I think in the Christian realm there is still plenty of space for strong role models.

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  13. I just got a copy of Dauntless in the mail a couple days ago for review. I'm excited about it!

    In my own novel, I have Artemis, goddess of the Hunt. She's tough, but a hard life has made her that way.

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    1. I'm excited too ;) And your heroine sounds fascinating.

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  14. Why do heroines however tough or whatever always fall for a guy? Even if the relationship is forced, and the girl is the type never to fall for anyone, the girl always ends up with a guy. It makes said girl sappy, and anyone who wants to be single can't read without rolling their eyes. Why can't a girl ever have a happily ever single?

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    1. Well, my books are part romance novel, so the genre dictates a relationship. But in general, romance usually adds interest to any genre. Even most of my male friends include a romance thread. So I suppose that is why, although your right, a single girl should be able to be happy too. In fact, I'm going to be doing a whole series of posts on my Valiant Hearts blog starting next week about healthy relationships. Part of a healthy relationship is that both participants should be happy and complete without the other. I hope if you read my books, that you will see that subtle difference, that the girl is fine on her own, but chooses to be a part of a couple. On my website I write this about my heroines:

      What is a Valiant Heart heroine? A young woman who is both feminine and strong, vulnerable and tough, gentle and passionate. She is fearless, intelligent, and full of life. A heroine who contains within her both the tender beauty of a blossoming flower and the fierceness of a lioness. One who uniquely reflects her creator God and is willing to pursue her dreams with all her heart. A woman who is open to love, but not defined by a man.

      My prayer for my readers is that you will be strong and courageous. Follow the path God has laid before you, wherever that might lead. Be a doctor, a lawyer, a professional athlete, a wife, a mother, or even a president. Chase after your dreams, and if a handsome knight in shining armor should happen to come alongside you, headed in the same direction, and you should happen to fall in love…then join together and become partners in your quest. But please remember this—you are complete, you are beautiful, and you are dearly loved by God just the way you are.

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  15. BTW, I want to invite all of you to enter this awesome giveaway that Bethany House is holding in celebration of Dauntless. First prize includes a $250 amazon gift card and cross and arrow necklace, second place is a backpack and real bow and arrow set. All winners get a copy of the book too. https://promosimple.com/ps/6ba5

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  16. Dauntless is already on my to read list! It sounds like something I'd love.

    Thanks for the great advice. There's nothing wrong with a damsel in distress, but if that character is NEVER willing to fight(or think) herself out of the situation....there's a problem.

    Off the top of my head, some of my favorite spunky heroines are Hermione and Ginny from the Harry Potter series, Cinder from the Lunar Chronicles, Shaylinn from the Safe Lands trilogy, and Gabi and Lia from the River of Time series.

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    1. Oh, you mentioned a lot of my to read books there too. Which of the series that you mentioned did you like the best. I actually started Safe Lands, but my reading often gets derailed because I'm also an editor for WhiteFire publishing, and I always have to read for work.

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    2. Harry Potter is my favorite, but I think River of Time is the fastest read. It hooked me from the start! I always seem to go back to that series. They're my 'comfort books.' :)

      It must be hard to not always be able to read what you want, but how cool to have reading be a part of your job! I start college soon, and I'm considering a major that will prepare me to become an editor. I think it might be a job I'd enjoy, but I have to do more research on it.

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    3. It's a pretty cool job. I'm only part-time, but I really enjoy it.

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  17. I absolutely love this post! I definitely agree that we need more strong heroines!
    One thing I love immensely is when an author gets a little creative with their female characters. I love the idea of mixing it up a little...for example, one of the things I wanted to do with one of my heroines is to make her a strong character in that she's extremely intellectual, sassy, and is a natural leader, but she's also sort of a wimp when it comes to certain things like swordplay or horseback riding...or nearly anything that involves physical activity :) . I agree that it's important to keep your characters relatable and realistic; I've read so many books where the heroine has it all! Spunky, talented, self-confident, intelligent, and gorgeous to boot...and that really turns me off as a reader. A character needs to struggle and push herself if there's to be any sort of character development!
    Anyways, thank you for the spectacular post! These are such wonderful tips which I shall definitely be taking into account :)

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    1. That sounds like a fun heroine idea. My heroine in book 2 is kind of shy and awkward even though she is trained as a knight. My heroine in book 1 kind of has it all, but it came at such a high price, I don't think you'll begrudge her.

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  18. A huge problem with most tough characters is that they normally don't have that soft side. They're all tough and they don't have anything that makes people smile and laugh over.
    The other massive problem you've addressed is that they don't have room for self improvement. What's the point of it all if she doesn't change over the course of the book? It's like everything she has to do and does do doesn't affect her at all. Just because she's tough doesn't mean she can't get even better.

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    1. Yep, real people are multi-dimensional.

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  19. I have a Swordmistress in my WIP, and she will have an ever greater role in another part in the series. I also have another woman whose name I don't know yet but I know she's going to be 'feisty' alright. My favorite such heroine is Mara Jade (Star Wars novels). She has a fascinating story arc.

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  20. How cool! I literally just stumbled across Dauntless this past week on my library's website and thought it looked interesting, so it's been on my mind (and my to-read list) recently, LOL. I definitely think "strong" heroines are more than just physical strength or "toughness"--they can be strong in character, and that is my favorite type of strong female. I consider my mother a strong female, and she doesn't smash bad guys with her fists. Instead, she manages all seven of us kids and ten million other things with grace, and always manages to find time for the neighbors and friends who need a listening ear and anyone else who just needs someone. :)

    A lot of people get confused and think traditional/conservative Christians belittle women or stereotype them or somehow make them inferior, saying they can't do this or that. But they're missing the true meaning, which is that an honorable and excellent woman is absolutely strong. She is diligent and responsible and encouraging and manages many things and is an example to everyone. She has a strong and tender heart.

    Well, there's my little spiel, haha. Can't wait to read your book, and thanks for posting!

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  21. Thanks, Amanda. Your mom does indeed sound like a strong woman. Do you mind if I ask which library is carrying it. This is my first book with a big publisher, so this stuff is still exciting to me.

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    1. Hillsborough County Public Library Cooperative. (Around Tampa, Florida) This link might work: http://hcplc.lib.overdrive.com/348121C4-5051-45F4-807E-BE4131618AC5/10/50/en/ContentDetails.htm?id=DE0F10BC-7EF5-491F-A20A-0FC2874FDB29

      And I totally understand about it being exciting. :)

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  22. Cool tips! I think a lot of these could even be used for guys.
    I definitely have a few feisty females, though in one of my books, my heroine isn't what I'd refer to as feisty. It's a dystopian and she's actually a quiet, more nerdy type of girl. But she has a very strong sense of right and wrong, and also love for her family. And that's what pushes her to act.


    Alexa
    thessalexa.blogspot.com

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  23. My favourite Heroine is definitely Clary from the Mortal Instruments. She's strong, powerful, and has a huge heart.

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  24. Strong heroines are so important, and I don't think we hear from them enough in the books out there right now. I'm especially grateful when guys write good female heroines, because the movie industry isn't succeeding completely in that department. Here's to more awesome girls in books! :D

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    1. Thanks, Heather. I'm glad you share this excitement with me!

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  25. Thank you so much for sharing this article, it helped me a lot! I'm writing a book in which the main character is a girl, but I've been finding it hard to keep her likeable and interesting. After reading this I think it's going to be a lot easier (and more exciting) to shape her character, so thanks once again. My most relatable heroine is Hermione (Harry Potter) because she taught me that being smart is nothing to be ashamed of. She is definitely a strong female character! Your book Dauntless looks cool, I'm going to check it out in my library right now. :)
    ~Autumn

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    1. Hi Autumn, I'm so glad you found the article helpful, and I hope you enjoy Dauntless :)

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