A guest post by Ripley Nox.
Ripley Nox is a web developer by day and soon-to-be published technothriller/speculative fiction author by night. You will rarely meet a more impassioned, erudite, completionist nerd. http://ripleynox.com.
Creating a heroine that readers will root for
When it comes to adventure stories, the “strong female heroine” is becoming a bit cliché. She’s beautiful, brassy, polished, but for some reason acts like a teenaged boy whenever trouble comes her way – sex or violence is the only answer she has. She’s fun to watch once or twice, but her appeal is fading, almost anachronistic, like Superman’s tights or Wonder Woman’s lasso. Men are regularly depicted as having checkered pasts, of rising above, of having multifaceted, complex characters. It’s time for women to have their own role model reboot.
It was cute at first, but a compelling heroine needs to be more than a pretty face with the balls (such a testosterone-fueled word!) to stick a gun barrel in the face of someone that dares to admire her prominently displayed bosom. That kind of heroine has had its day. There are exceptions, of course, but by and large female characters in adventure stories have a bit more growing up to do.
So let’s examine this question together for a moment: What does it take to create a truly compelling heroine?
First, we want flaws.
Contemporary readers want a flawed heroine. She needs a cause to fight for and a connection to her femininity that is deeper than who happens to be her love interest. We want depth. We want true inner beauty, the kind that only comes from a woman who has seen the dark side and has (or is about to) rise out of the ashes.
Give her a better backstory.
We need to sympathize with not only her actions, but also her past. I’m not sure why so many stories choose a boring backstory about having her heart broken, or the old fallback of having been kidnapped/raped. Rape is a horrific trauma, but losing my mother to violence at a young age would hurt me every day forever – I couldn’t repress a memory like that. That’s a story I can empathize with. I could see a fictional version of myself living a life of adventure as I sought revenge.
And there are other possibilities, stories that could easily launch someone down an unusual or unexpected path. Recounting stories I’ve heard from women I have known in my life, a sibling could have turned her family against her, or a grandparent kicked from her home and having to live on the streets. She could have become pregnant at a young age and was forced to adopt out a child she wanted. These are stories of women I actually know, and they give a fuller account of the heroine’s character, making her sympathetic to a broader female audience. Any woman from a high-powered CEO to a ranch hand could experience any of these things.
All of those things, and many more, can drive a woman to extremes – and we want extremes. We like to imagine that we are breaking those boundaries we so carefully keep, having grand adventures, and are coming out on top with her.
Bring on the drama.
We can make a few jibes here about soap operas, but let’s be honest– everyone has their soap opera. We have dramas that we like to watch unfold on TV or in books. Some are about work, or family, or inner conflict. But if you want to engage women on a level that they feel the emotions your heroine feels, you’ll do all three. You’ll link it together in a way that makes logical sense, doesn’t pander to so-called “feminine sensibilities”.
Take her to strange places, thwart her in her every wish, and let us watch her hit rock bottom – so that we can cheer her on as her resolve rises in the eleventh hour.
Make her change.
She doesn’t have to win. She does, however, need to change as a result of the experience. Where she was arrogant, she will be humble. Where she was prejudiced, she will be tolerant. Where she was weak, she will be a little stronger.
Female characters, in short, need to have the same story elements as good male heroes, but have challenges that recognize the huge variation in the female experience, and her essential humanity. It’s these details, the relationships of her life, which make a woman trudging through a desert with no water as interesting as a woman on a surfboard waving to a distant figure on the shore.