Sympathetic Heroines

I watched Surface this week. I did NOT like the lead character, the marine biologist who was so callous to her kid. (She said something to him like, “No, I’m going to break you” before she dumped him with her ex and his girlfriend.)

I really liked Jill Hennessey when she was on Law and Order but I can't stand her on Crossing Jordan. She's just way too tough.

I do like Kate on Lost, enough to model my current heroine on her. Yeah, she's done some bad, bad things, but there's a vulnerability in her. Maybe it's that she's looking for reparation. Maybe she's looking for that second chance. Something about her appeals. I even liked Shannon in this last episode. I'm sorry, Boone, but looks like you had to die to save her character.

I used to like Sydney on Alias. She had the balance of toughness and softness. Yes, she lied to her friends, but she did it for the greater good. And when she was betrayed, she was wounded. But the past season, she was destroyed. She went from being vulnerable to being weak.

I know it's hard to portray strong women, to create a believable balance of toughness and femininity. I think that was a problem with a lot of the Bombshells when they came out. I think Evelyn Vaughn does an awesome job of showing both sides, as does Stef Feagan and Sandra Moore. Peggy Nicholson's character was a bit too much of a superhero, but that book is still on my keeper shelf.

I've been trying to write active, tough women, but have had a hard time finding a balance, a woman that readers sympathize with. I think you have to give her great motivation to do what she does, a soft spot in her life right now, a backstory that tugs at the reader's heart. I liked Trish's Bombshell, where the heroine was struggling with who she was. She also had pets, and a puppy in particular. Evelyn Vaughn's heroine in Contact also struggled with who she was, and her soft spot was her friends.

I personally like the heroines who are in a situation out of the ordinary, like Stef Feagan's Pink, who made a choice in her life that tossed her on her butt, and now she has to make the best of it.

Characters who are good at their jobs, like Sandra's biologist and Peggy's paleontologist, are fun to read. I love a woman who can outsmart a man. Sandra's heroine has a soft spot for her grandfather, and it proves to be her fatal flaw. Also throughout the story, she develops more of a heart. That works for me, too, if a character becomes more sympathetic throughout the story.

But unsympathetic heroines mark the end of a book for me.

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Trish Milburn said...

Another great post. And thanks for the compliment. :)

It is a fine line to tread, to make a heroine tough and competent without making her too much so or even edging into bitchy.

MicheleKS said...

To me, a heroine can be strong and smart without being rude and insensitive. My current heroine who tends to keep her wits about her in stressful situations and in the past has taken flack for it. One of the reasons she falls for my hero is that he likes that about her. I hope readers will connect with that.

Toni Anderson said...

And at the start of a book you are looking for somewhere for you character to go emotionally.

My first heroine was a victim of rape and totally closed off and dangerous. The whole romance story is about her getting over her past and learning to trust in something as basic and complex as love. Shouldn't have given myself such a difficult start!!!

Greta post Mary. Makes you think.

Stacy Dawn said...

Heroines these days I think need to be tougher because us as readers are tougher and don't go for the weak girlie girls anymore. I love a heroine who can give it to the hero wit for wit too.

MJFredrick said...

Michele, that sounds like a great character!

Toni, I totally agree with the character arc, but I think the heroine has to have a touch of sympathy, something the reader can relate to. I'd think a rape victim who closed herself off would be a very sympathetic character.

Stacy, yes, I like reading about tougher heroines - I like writing them, too. But it's sure hard to find the balance.

Anonymous said...

Good thoughts all, Mar. I can think of wimpy heroines I've written before...and those were the books that never seemed to get off the ground. I think there's a correlation.

My last book had a heroine who wanted to hang tough about NOT getting involved...but she made the decision to do so because she knew she had to do the right thing. In the course of that, she was forced to face who she really was and embrace it, in order to defeat the murderer. She was a tricky one to write...loving single mother, self-protective but also a real lioness when it came to her family, afraid to let outsiders in but aware that she had a higher calling that she couldn't ignore. Whew. I loved her. Still do. She's the strongest heroine I've written. I hope I can do as well on future ones.

I've discovered that as much as I love my heroes, I have to love, respect, and identify with my heroine in order to truly bring her out. She has to be a woman I'd want to (or at least be willing to) be, even if she's as different from the real me as night and day.


Anonymous said...

Very true. I loved the two tough heroines I wrote, but the editors didn't. My new heroine is driving me crazy because she seems like such a victim. It's so hard to balance tough and sympathetic. I'm glad I didn't watch the last Alias season.

Unknown said...

One thing I'm struggling with now. Making my heroine strong and distant when she's around the hero without having it come across as her just being really bitchy. Because she really is unsure of herself and vulnerable. He has to peel away the layers to find that person.

MJFredrick said...

I love to see a hero peel away the layers. Actually, one of my favorite things in reading AND writing is the hero being intrigued by the heroine. What makes him interested? What keeps him interested?

MJFredrick said...

Mary Beth, you remember I was struggling with a wimpy hero early in this WIP. It's so hard to figure out how much emotion to show.

JoAnn, you're dead on about finding the right heroine for the book. I hope I've done that with mine, and that they're not too much alike.

Amie Stuart said...

Somehow or another I missed surface. I LOVE Jill's character on Crossing Jordan...and kate...but Sydney whines too much. I noticed that even in Season 3.

TOugh heroines are TOUGH to write but I agree, give them one softening characteristic and/or motivation for being that way and you can definitely hook a reader. My current heroine is a money grubbing ho =) I have no clue how I'm gonna redeam her when I edit.

MJFredrick said...

Cece, what do you like about Jordan? I find her way abrasive. And yes, Sydney is whiney. Imagine what she's going to be like this season!

Good luck redeeming your heroine!


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