Friday, 25 January 2013

What makes a good heroine?

Aimee's post earlier this week got me thinking.... what actually makes a good heroine?  If you were going to design a heroine by committee (see the hero survey) what would she be like?

For some reason, I find this harder to do this for heroines - I'm not sure where to start even designing a survey - and that makes me feel bad. Am I just more critical of female characters?

I don't think so.

So I had a think about the heroines I like.  Not kick ass action film heroines.  Just all round heroines from books and films.

So who makes it to my heroine pin up list?

Alice Kingsley in Alice in Wonderland.  Particularly in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland.  I like her truthfulness and the fact she owns herself and follows her dreams.  She has integrity.  And that frisson of mutual affection with Johnny Depp's Hatter is just delicious (only Johnny Depp could make a frizzy haired maniac seem attractive).

"From the moment I fell down that rabbit hole I've been told where I must go and who I must be. I've been shrunk, stretched, scratched, and stuffed into a teapot. I've been accused of being Alice and of not being Alice but this is my dream. I'll decide where it goes from here."

Venetia the eponymous heroine of a Georgette Heyer romance.  Why do I like Venetia?  For similar reasons, actually.  She's truthful.  She's kind.  She's intelligent and in the end she reaches out and takes what (or indeed) who she wants, because she has courage and maturity and she believes in herself.

“There is nothing so mortifying as to fall in love with someone who does not share one's sentiments.” 

Hmmm.  I'm sensing some similarities here.

Who else?

Maria von Trapp in the Sound of Music.  Alright, as I've grown older I've also developed a sneaking fondness and sympathy for the Baroness (she's quite heroic in her own right).  But why Maria?  Because she's wholehearted in her zest for life.  She follows her dreams.  She searches her soul and tries to be true to herself and to do the right thing.

"Oh, no, sir, I'm sorry, sir. I could never answer to a whistle. Whistles are for dogs and cats and other animals, but not for children, and definitely not for me. It would be too... humiliating."

Who else would I add to this list?  Anna from The King and I (principled, intelligent, truthful and strong), Robin from Diane J Reed's YA romance Robin in the Hood (honest with herself if not with others, protective of those she loves, takes responsibility for herself), Belle from Beauty and the Beast (intelligent, kind and truthful), the Black Widow in the Avengers (clever, honest with herself, responsible), Terry McKay in An Affair to Remember (clever, funny, responsible) Princess Giselle in Enchanted (believes in her dreams, generous, kind, truthful)....  I could go on.

So who doesn't make it to my list? 

Bella Swan in Twilight.  Cinderella (from the Disney version through to the Drew Barrymore version). Judith Taverner from Georgette Heyer's Regency Buck.  Pretty much any Johanna Lindsey rape-me-i'll-still-love-you heroines.  Or the other type.  The I-going-to-be-stupidly-strong-willed-and-a-pain-in-the-ass-and-you'll-love-me-cos-I'm-a-challenge heroines (see Judith Taverner reference).

I don't like them.  Why?

Because they don't take any responsibility for themselves or their own actions, because they don't value themselves or their own beliefs, because they're overly martyred, or because they are constructed merely to be a pale and reactive mirror to their world (in Bella's case).  Not that I didn't like Twilight.  I actually did. But still.

So here's what I deduce from this...

1. Heroes can take many forms because they carry the fantasy.  We can have multiple fantasies.

2. Heroines are more personal.  They're not carrying the fantasy, so they're not essential to that aspect of a book but a really annoying heroine can intrude on your fantasy and make you want to scream.

3. The best heroines reflect the values that you personally value - and that's going to vary.

For me a heroine is proactive in shaping her own life.  She takes responsibility for her own actions.  She is honest with herself.  She values herself - and others.  She has principles but isn't judgmental or moralistic.

These are qualities I like and admire.  This is the type of woman I feel deserves a happy ending.

My type of heroine.

Giselle: "But dreams do come true. And maybe something wonderful will happen." 


  1. I can only add one thing--I heartily agree. :)

  2. I think you are right on all your summing up points, and point 3 is definitely true because I don't like ANY of the heroines you've listed ;o) But bizarrely I would actually say I admire the same attributes that you've given, so not does everyone have a different values they need the heroine to have, they also PERCEIVE those values differently.

    Also I think sometimes I need a heroine to compliment the hero, to make him seem even more heroic.

    So to make him more dreamy (to me) I can put up with more negative attributes from her especially the too-stupid-to-live variety, because I know deep down, at the last minute he is going to ditch her anyway and step out of the book and marry me! (I'll explain the husband away at a later date...)

  3. I really love this sum up. Like Jess Baker, point three was the one that really stood out to me. I mean, I just published a rant about Bella and how the only thing she really has is her ability to attract men like a magnet attracts iron filings. By the time I finished, I realized the subject was a lot more complex than I thought.

    I'll be linking this article to that rant. Thank you. :)

  4. @Amy I read a really interesting blog post on Twilight which argues Bella is the perfect "projection screen" character - you can read it here:

    @Jess LOL! I think you are right about the heroine complementing the hero and also, about perception/projection of values. Good call!

    It IS a complex area!

  5. What a wonderful post. Each of you articulated so well why we're drawn to certain heroines, and I love it that you include Maria von Trapp because of her zest for life & willingness to stand up to the Captain! Considering the film was made at the height of American "domesticated" female culture in the 1950s, it was rather remarkable for it's time. Alice from Alice in Wonderland is terrific food for thought as well. Although I've read the book many times, I never focused on her ownership of her own reality before, which you highlight with her provocative quote, "this is my dream. I'll decide where it goes from here." And thank you so much, Meg, for including my character Robin from Robin in the Hood as one of your admirable characters! I really wanted to write a work where all a female character's "props" in life were taken away from her, and she had to rely on herself to forge the future, while still developing emotionally. Hopefully, it worked : ) Another one of my favorite characters in literature is Jo from Little Women—not only is she spunky & ambitious, but the real Louisa May Alcott wrote the story to help provide for her family (that's a heroine in my book : )