|This is a guest post by K.M. Weiland, a writer who lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors. (She’s also a great writer to follow on Twitter at @KMWeiland!)|
How to craft a three-dimensional, empowered, compelling heroine? It’s a buzzing question, even among female authors. The Bechdel Test, which slaps the sexist label on any story that fails to feature at least two female characters discussing something other than a man, continues to be a hot topic.
But what does all that really mean? And how does it help us create an amazing heroine?
What are the requirements for a strong female character? Does she have to be able to throw punches like the boys? Supposedly, G.I. Joe: Retaliation passed the Bechdel test, and yet its fe
male characters were thinly drawn warrior chicks performing unrealistic feats. Does a strong heroine have to act like a man, totally reject a man’s help, show no weakness? In swinging away from two-dimensional stereotypes of feminine fainting spells and damsels in distress, how can we keep from swinging too far into unrealism on the opposite side of the problem?
For tips on creating female characters who are strong, empowered, and compelling in their own right, let’s take a look at one of our earliest examples of a mind-blowing heroine: Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (whose character arc I analyze in-depth in my book Jane Eyre: The Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic).
1. Larger-Than-Life Strengths and Weaknesses
The first requirement in creating a fabulous character (of either sex) is making sure you’ve given her both phenomenal strengths and staggering weaknesses. I read far too many women’s novels that feature protagonists who spend most of their time bemoaning their inability to do anything with their lives (especially when it comes to romance).
And yet, I also read almost as many books about women who are unrealistically empowered—both physically and spiritually. They’ve got everything figured out, and they want the world (especially the male half) to know it. (And why not? If I could toss around a 250-pound guy while wearing five-inch stilettos and a catsuit, I’d feel pretty invincible too.)
In creating a memorable female character, it’s important to make sure she acts like a woman. Don’t just copy what you’re seeing in summer blockbusters and chick flicks. Look to your own life or the lives of women you know to create a personality whose strengths are besieged by her weaknesses—and whose strengths will eventually trash those weaknesses.
Jane Eyre is such a beautiful example of this. She’s a dowdy, repressed young woman, living in a world that hardly welcomes penniless female orphans. The book is the story of her struggle against her own ingrained beliefs in her unworthiness to be loved. In some respects, she’s the classic figure of a downtrodden female character waiting to be rescued. And yet, her story is one of a woman who fights tooth and claw to rise above not just her circumstances, but her own weaknesses.
Readers will forgive a character for many a flaw, but cowardice is always going to be a hard one to swallow. A character’s outer circumstances have no bearing on her moral fortitude. She might be spy or a warrior on the front lines of a great battle. Or she might be a single mother struggling to get her kids through college. Whatever her fight, the point is that she must be fighting.
Don’t feel you have to write the realism right out of your character in order to make her strong and heroic. Let her be scared. Let her be physically weak. Let her be lonely, embarrassed, and uncertain. But never let her courage lapse.
Right from the beginning of the story, Jane Eyre finds herself in soul-numbingly terrible situations. She’s kicked around by everyone. She’s manipulated, lied to, and taken advantage of even by the man who loves her. At one point, she’s bereft and adrift, without money, home, or job. But her courage never wavers. The fierce light of her independence and integrity shines out of her at every moment—nowhere more clearly than in her famous speech to Rochester:
“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you.”
3. Refusal to Feel Self-Pity
Right along with courage comes the absolute requirement of avoiding self-pity. Most characters will undergo some nasty turns of event. Conflict, after all, is all about preventing characters from getting what they want. We authors have to think of the worst thing that can happen to our characters—and then make it worse.
If I had to undergo half the things my female characters deal with, I’d have a hard time not feeling sorry for myself. But characters can’t afford self-pity—not if they want readers to admire them. So open the onslaught on your heroine. Let it bend her, maybe even break her. But never let her throw a pity party.
One of my favorite lines in Jane Eyre comes early on, when Jane is a child at the horrible Lowood School for Girls. She’s just been served the first of many meals of “nauseous” burnt porridge. Instead of crying or whining, Jane shows her determined spirit when she ironically comments that “thanks [was] returned for what we had not got.”
4. Passion / Strong Desires
Larger-than-life characters must have larger-than-life desires and goals. It’s not enough to create a lovely, accomplished, brave, and interesting character—if all she does is sit around and admire her new shoes. She needs to want something and want it so badly she’ll spend every last drop of her life trying to get it.
This is why a strong goal must go hand in hand with passion. Passionate characters drive stories. They are catalysts within their own worlds. Things may happen to them, but the characters also do their own share of moving and shaking.
Jane Eyre’s passion is one of her defining traits. She’s not out to reform the world or fight great battles. But she cares deeply about life and about people, and when she tries to repress these strong feelings, they always end up bursting forth all the more strongly. Only a heroine of tremendous passion could give us one of the world’s greatest love stories. But then again, only a heroine of tremendous passion can give us any kind of great story.
5. Control of Her Own Destiny
Finally, perhaps the most important element in creating an amazing heroine is putting her squarely in charge of her own destiny. This in no way means she has to be control of her life. She’s probably not. She may be trapped as a prisoner. She may be subject to the whims of a tyrannical boss. She may be sacrificing every moment of her day to raise her family. For the vast majority of the story, she won’t be in control of what happens to her. But she can take control of her own heart.
Empowered characters aren’t necessarily those who wield great physical power in the world around them. Rather, an empowered character is one who has claimed her own personal power. She’s recognized that she, and only she, can make the decisions that determine her life’s course. Those decisions may be to live or die. Do the laundry or don’t do the laundry. Break the law or don’t break the law. Great or small, they are decisions that influence her life even more than external circumstances outside of her control.
The empowered heroine may have to wait for someone to rescue her from prison (or maybe not). But the one thing she can always do is make the decision to survive. She can make the decision to maintain personal integrity. She can make the decision about her own priorities. And she can take responsibility for the ramifications of those decisions.
Jane is at the low end of the social totem pole. She’s bossed around, pushed around, and even trampled on by those above her. But she never submits to external situations. She takes her life in her own hands and determines to make her own way: first as a teacher, then as a governess, then as a rich man’s fiancée, then as a penniless wanderer with nothing but her self-respect, and finally as the woman who ends up being the rescuer instead of the rescued. She doesn’t wait around for things to happen to her. She goes out and makes them happen.
If you can write a heroine (or a hero, for that matter) who possesses just these five important traits, you’ll be well on your way to an incredible story!
What did you think of this advice? What other literary heroines offer a great model of character development? Share in the comments!