Thursday, January 27, 2005

Extra Hero, Hold the Heroine

Today I had planned to talk about the (evil?) step-sister of the virginal virgin, the sexually experienced non-ho. But last night I finished a book that got me to thinking about something else. And since the joy of having your own blog is that you get to decide what to write about and when, I’m going to exercise my right to change my mind. I will be back to visit the ho, though. I have some questions to raise.

I just finished The Damsel in This Dress by new author Marianne Stillings. I enjoyed the book – I’m going to post a review at Amazon – and while I don’t consider it a keeper, it is a great start to what promises to be a wonderful career for Ms. Stillings.

The reason this book isn’t a keeper for me is the problem I myself seem to have with nearly every book I’ve started to write (and will someday finish, of course!). While the hero of TDITD – J. Soldier McKennitt – was very well formed and three-dimensional, I found the heroine, Betsy Tremaine, to be a little too flat and, well, boring. I just didn't see what Soldier saw in her.

Too often while reading I asked the troubling question, “Tell me again, why did this guy fall in love with this woman?”

The hero seemed to know why he was falling in love with her even if I didn't. On several occasions he listed to himself all of her wonderful qualities. She was sweet and nurturing and spunky and big-hearted. However, I never really saw Betsy do anything that led me to believe she was any more sweet or nurturing or big-hearted than the average polite stranger on the street. Sure, she cuddled her mother’s dog a time or two and felt upset when two different characters were murdered. But every time I’d come across a paragraph where Soldier would express how amazing this woman was, I’d furrow my brow in confusion, wondering if my copy of the book was missing a few telling scenes.

And about that spunkiness? Well, Betsy was kind of a damsel in distress throughout most of the book, dragged from here to there by the protective hero. She really didn’t get much opportunity to be spunky. In fact, the one scene in which she actually did show some serious backbone – during a phone call when she talked back to the stalker who had been harassing her – Soldier was in the bathroom showering and didn’t even hear her.

I have several theories on why this problem occurs for some writers, myself included. The case when the hero is fully formed and demonstrates all of the qualities that make the heroine fall in love with him but the heroine just doesn’t measure up the same way. Since I’m an Amateur with that important capital “A”, I’ll admit right now that I could be way off base.

First of all, Ms. Stillings didn’t help the situation by spending more time in Soldier’s head than in Betsy’s. I didn’t do a tally of scene POVs because, frankly, I don’t feel like taking the time, but I’m pretty sure the score would weigh heavily on Soldier’s side. That being the case, Soldier had more opportunity to become a real person for me, while Betsy’s thoughts remained kind of shadowed. Other than fear and upset over what was happening to her and her growing lust for Soldier (oh, and a healthy dose of self-loathing due to her nasty mother), I didn’t know much about Betsy. Not only did I not get to “see” her being sweet and nurturing, I didn’t even get to hear her think sweet and nurturing thoughts that often.

As a female writer, I engage in a certain amount of falling in love with my heroes. It's only natural. How can I write a story wherein a woman falls in love with a man who I couldn’t see myself loving? This being the case, it makes sense that I would want to spend as much time with this guy as possible, living inside his head and watching him fall in love. I can see how a story could become lopsided, the hero's POV dominating the story as the writer indulges her desire to spend time with such a great guy.

However, pacing issues and story balance aside, spending a lot of time with the hero isn't a problem if he not only thinks why he's falling in love but also sees why he's falling in love. Maybe it's a matter of less introspection and more action or dialogue. Otherwise if this amazing man is falling in love with a woman he claims is equally amazing but who we as readers have never seen demonstrate any qualities which warrant such strong feelings, he becomes kind of stupid. Or a dupe. Or less real, at the very least.

Again being a woman, I admit to spending hours fantasizing about my ideal men. From the time I was old enough to make up stories in my head, always the knight in shining armor was the focus of my internal camera. I know my heroes very, very well. I should. I’ve spent a lot of time with them. I know what things they could do to make me fall head over heels in love with them, and I like to show them doing these things so I can do just that right along side my heroine.

But heroines? Well, I’m not a man, so I can only imagine why a man falls in love with a woman. I take for granted all of the things we women do that apparently men find lovable. Since these things are so intrinsic to my very nature (and when I say “my” I’m speaking of women as a whole), it’s a lot harder to isolate them so that I can show my heroine exhibiting them. It seems only natural to me to rub my husband’s shoulders when he’s had a bad day, so I wouldn’t think to show it as an example of a woman being “nurturing”.

I imagine in any romance where the characters are not larger than life – where they are real people holding down real jobs and leading fairly ordinary lives – it becomes even harder to show a heroine doing the things that appeal to the hero. After all, how hard is it to believe a guy finds a feisty heroine attractive after she has just rescued him from a posse of drug smugglers chasing him down the street? It’s a lot harder to show sweetness and nurturing and spunkiness if your heroine works in an office and spends her lunch hours picking up the drycleaning.

Not to say that many authors don’t do heroines well. I’ve got several books on my keeper shelf that have heroines I just love. In fact, Mary Potter, the heroine in Linda Howard’s wonderful Mackenzie’s Mountain, is such a woman. She’s got a normal job – a school teacher – and is a very normal, unassuming person. But in every instance where she and the hero, Wolf Mackenzie, interact, I’m given evidence of the traits that appeal to Wolf. I completely understand why he falls in love with her; he doesn’t have to tell me. Heck, I don’t blame him!

Perhaps it’s a matter of knowing your heroine as well as you know your hero. Of liking her just as much as you like your hero. My problem arises from the fact that I don't spend nearly the amount of time thinking about women and what makes them attactive as I do thinking about men. (Shhh. Don't tell my husband I said that.) It's the classic Mary Sue complex. In all of my mental fantasy stories, I'm the heroine. I don't have a stock pile of heroines I've already invented. And since Mary Sues are to be avoided like the plague, well, that resorts in kind of a shortage.

Which begs the question, do you have to have both a hero and a heroine to write a good story? If you have a hero you love and a premise which is fresh and exciting, can you find a way to wedge any old heroine into the empty slot? I suppose so, as long as you can convince the hero and the reader to fall in love with her. But I imagine that would be hard to do.

I now see that this is what I've tried to do and what has tripped me up as a writer. I figured a stick woman would work fine as long as my hero was extra-fabulous. He could do the work of telling everyone why he loved Miss Stick - because she's sweet and nurturing and spunky and big-hearted. And of course everyone would believe him.

I have gotten better as I’ve practiced this whole writing craft. I’ve started to meet heroines from my own creative brain that I genuinely like and can imagine a man falling in love with. I’ve started looking forward to writing her scenes as much as I enjoy writing the hero’s scenes. That has to be a step in the right direction.

I suppose the trick is to show why the heroine is lovable. As much as I’d love to take the hero’s word for it, somehow I need more than just his musings on how great she is. I need to agree with him.


Anonymous said...

Lynn, I always have trouble with my heroines. They're always too weak in the first draft. I think it's because I'm so "into" the hero saving the day that I forget she has to help, LOL. It's the number one problem I have to fix in subsequent drafts of a book. And somehow I keep repeating the same mistake in every first draft!


Lynn M said...

Yes, Suzanne, that's the exact problem I have. My heroine always falls flat - as if she's nothing more than a prop for the hero to use as he acts out his daring deeds of greatness :).

I'm glad (well, not *glad*) to learn that you have the same problem. Gives me hope that it's fixable.

And I think I'll do what you do - let the heroine be a little limp in the first draft and then really work to polish her up in revisions.


ma said...

“Tell me again, why did this guy fall in love with this woman?”

Yes! I've seen this lots, in my own (unpublished) work, too. In fact, the last two books I read, which were certainly decent reads, The Second Coming of Lucy Hatch and The Real Deal had me wondering why exactly the hero was falling.

Anonymous said...

"I suppose the trick is to show why the heroine is lovable."
- That's it in a nutshell!

That’s also the key to characterization: SHOW – don’t TELL.

Showing is all about Description. Body-language cues the reader as to what is going on in a character’s head – in ADDITION to dialogue and internal narrative.

“I love you too.” She rolled her eyes and sighed dramatically. “Oh yes, I truly do love you.”

“I love you too.” She dropped her chin and pouted. “Oh yes, I truly do love you.”

“I love you too.” She glared straight at him. “Oh yes, I truly do love you.”

“I love you too.” She turned away and wiped the tear from her cheek. “Oh yes, I truly do love you.”

So how do you make a heroine that SHOWS she is what the hero says she is? You CHEAT.

The easiest way to figure out how to make a loveable heroine is look at your home video collection with your favorite heroines. Grab some scrap paper, WATCH the movie and jot down what you LIKE about her and WHY. If you have a character sheet - fill one out for that heroine.

My favorite heroine of all time is from "Miss Congeniality". I LOVE that heroine. Gracie Hart, played by Sandra Bullock, is a slightly clumsy, but all heart, FBI agent who is a tom-boy from hell undercover as a contestant in a Beauty Pageant. I adore her. And I use her - SHAMELESSLY.

I also like Trinity from the Matrix, and Selene from Underworld.

Consider this – a heroine that’s modeled after a movie character already comes with a dialogue style, expressions and body language that’s EASY to see – so it’s EASY to put on paper.

Morgan Hawke