Those of us of a certain age cut our reading teeth on Nancy Drew, the Dana Girls, and other books starring teenage heroines. They were great. I wanted to be just like Nancy. I wanted to solve mysteries with her. Mostly, I wanted to look like her … and all the other heroines who populated such books.
To a one, they were slim, beautiful, with long flowing locks that were never mussed.
Times have changed, and so have tastes. Today's readers are far more sophisticated and savvy. They want their heroines to be pretty, sure, but they want more. They want a strong, confident heroine who can take care of herself and anything life throws her way. Think Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
Let's take a look at what makes a heroine appealing, whether you're writing a YA romance or another genre of novel.
Christie Craig and Faye Hughes, co-authors of The Everything Guide to Writing a Romance Novel, know what makes for an appealing female protagonist. "Sometimes, it's not the heroine's attributes that make her appealing, but her vulnerabilities. For a heroine to be appealing, the reader must relate to her in a very personal way. To do that, try to make the reader feel that the characters, both the hero and heroine, are human, with flaws.”
“You mean they aren't perfect?” I asked.
"Absolutely not. So when a flawed heroine discovers her own appeal in spite of her flaws, a reader immediately resonates with this character. In other words, if a character forgets that she thinks her thighs are too big and still feels beautiful and capable, then a reader will feel they, too, can overlook their flaws."
Award winning author Cindi Meyers agrees. "It (appeal) really grows out of character.”
When I posed the question of how a heroine's appeal furthers the story, Meyers gave an intriguing answer. "You could have the heroine who's so beautiful men are intimidated by her, or the woman who hides an insecurity in other areas of her life–say, her desire to be taken seriously. You could have a heroine who knows what she wants but hasn't been getting it.”
SMART EQUALS APPEALING
All of my experts agreed on one thing. A heroine who inspires her readers to want to be like her is smart. Gone are the days of the insipid, helpless female who can't take care of herself, who can't make a decision, who can't do anything without the approval of someone else.
Agent Laura Bradford has read her share of hot books, both published and unpublished. "I think confidence is something that can make a heroine (or any protagonist) appealing."
Lia Brown, former editor of St. Martins Press and senior editor of Avalon Books, agrees, "One of the best things our heroines can be is competent. And as unsexy as that word may sound, it's really an important attribute. I don't know anybody who likes to read about a wishy-washy uncertain main character, nor do I imagine most readers would fantasize about being that kind of person. A heroine who knows what she wants and who can take care of what needs to be done, with a sense of humor and a little empathy thrown in. Traits like that make it believable to the reader that the hero (and maybe even the villain!) would find her attractive and want to be with her."
"I think a strong heroine is confident," Shirley
Jump, who writes for both the adult and young adult market, chimes in. "She knows what she wants and goes after it, whether it's in her career, her personal life, or anything else. She knows she's worth something, and that makes her appealing to readers and heroes alike.
"I think it's important to avoid the 'Too Stupid to Live' heroine. Too many writers think that lots of conflict coupled with 'Oh my, what should I do?' heroine makes for a good story. I think a strong heroine can be confronted by challenges–and meet them head on, even if things start to go awry. If she's smart, savvy, and not afraid of a challenge, she becomes more appealing in a larger sense.
"In addition, she should be confident. She doesn't have to be arrogant, but confidence is key.
"What makes a heroine appealing?" national bestselling author C.J. Lyons muses. "She knows what she wants and she goes for it."
"It's more attitude than looks," Meyers echoes. "Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. I think most men (and boys) would agree that a woman who carries herself with confidence and maybe what I'd term an awareness of herself is appealing."
THROUGH THE HERO'S EYES
What about the hero? Remember Ned in the Nancy Drew series? Would Ned have been attracted to a dull, dim-witted Nancy who turned to him whenever the going got tough?
Of course not.
So what does a hero look for?
"What every man looks for," Lyons answers. "He wants a heroine who is smart enough to keep him on his toes–and a good sense of humor. No matter how beautiful a girl is, heroes don't put up with whining heroine, at least mine don't!"
"In the end, a strong hero really wants a woman who is his equal and a perfect match, in talent, skill, and intellect," Jump says. "He wants a woman who challenges him and makes life interesting in more ways than one.
"A strong hero needs a strong heroine, and that, in turn, makes for a stronger story and a stronger hero/heroine relationship. They want someone who has the qualities I mentioned –confidence, risk taking and smarts. Those are the kinds of heroines who make a story fun, and are ones we can all relate to."
THE LAST WORD
What if you're not writing a YA romance? What if your main character is a Latino girl striving to get out of the barrio? Give her a means to achieve that goal. Suppose she's applying for a scholarship and must first pass a test. What qualities will help her reach her goal?
The same rules apply for drawing this character as for drawing a heroine in a romance. Make her strong. Make her smart. Make her confident and competent. Make her imperfect so that she has to grow and to stretch to reach her goals. Give her a sense of humor so that when she starts to take herself too seriously, she can laugh at herself while, at the same time, never forgetting her goal.
There you have it. Heroines come in all shapes and sizes.
Make your heroine confident, give her a lively sense of humor, and imbue her with the intelligence and courage to make your readers want to be like her.