How to Write a Great Heroine Part 2 #wrtr2wrtr #amwriting
Welcome to Part 2 of my series about how to write a great heroine. You can catch up with Part 1, all about why compelling heroines are so important, here. This week I’m looking into the different ways we can make the heroine seem so real to the reader that they forget she is a fictional creation.
Get the Heroine on the Page
This seems like a rather obvious thing to say, that you have to get the heroine on the page, but I do read lots of manuscripts where the heroine isn’t really there. We can develop character four ways, through dialogue, action, thought and description. It’s really only action and dialogue that truly get the heroine onto the page though.
With dialogue and action, we get to see and hear the heroine. Dialogue and action shows the heroine to the reader, rather than just telling the reader about her. Thought and description tend to tell more than show and thus become simply words on a page, rather than a means through which to bring the heroine to life. Allow your heroine to speak and do as much as you can, rather than think and be described by you.
Get the Reader on Her Side
I can’t over emphasise the importance of having the reader root for your heroine. They must be on her side. Being on her side means they care about her goal, they want her to achieve it, they worry that she won’t, they celebrate her triumphs and they despair at her failures.
All of which means your heroine must have a clear cut goal and her motivation for wanting to achieve the goal must be clearly understood. The reader also needs to know what’s at stake: what difference will it make to your heroine if she does achieve her goal and what will happen to her if she doesn’t? Sometimes these last two things aren’t always sketched out in the story; it’s not enough, as writers, to know and understand that we need goals and obstacles because it’s the stakes that make goals and obstacles important. It’s what’s at stake that makes readers care.
At the RWA Conference on the weekend, I attended a session where some very brave writers had submitted 3 pages of their manuscript to be read out. Half a dozen editors and agents on the stage put up their hands at the point at which they would be likely to stop reading the manuscript if it was submitted to them. One of the common issues that came up time and time again was that, in those first 3 pages, readers were presenting their heroines as a person to be pitied. That’s not the way to get the reader on side. The reader needs to root for your heroine, not feel sorry for her.
Understand the Limitations and Benefits of Different Point of View Choices
I want to say first up that I don’t believe there’s a right or a wrong point of view choice. I do know, however, because my first agent was like this, that some agents and publishers don’t like a first person, present tense point of view. This also came up at the RWA Conference on the weekend, with some editors expressing the same reservations. Why?
Because, as a general rule, first person tends to lend itself to more telling rather than showing, especially in inexperienced hands. Of course there are also very successful examples of first person narratives so this isn’t always the case.
The point is though, don’t just choose a point of view for your heroine blindly. Know the limitations and benefits of each point of view type and choose wisely, based on your ability to take advantage of those benefits and work around the limitations.
I always use third person limited point of view. I prefer this for the kinds of stories I tell and because I believe I can make it work to the strongest effect to get the reader on side. It has all the advantages of first person in that we’re only ever inside the head of one character, so the reader tends to be drawn to that one character, but it has the advantage of being able to step outside the head of the main character and show the reader what she is doing rather than always telling them.
If you’re not sure about how the different point of view types work and what their advantages and disadvantages are, then it’s a great idea to do some reading about this, or attend a course because I do think choosing the wrong POV is one of the quickest ways to lose a reader.
Understand Narrative Distance
Narrative distance or psychic distance is closely aligned to point of view but is more about how close to or how far away from the heroine the reader feels based on the narrative stance. John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction is the best resource to read in relation to psychic distance and I’m going to reproduce the 5 examples he gives of narrative distance below. The words in brackets after each example are mine.
- It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway into a snowstorm. (viewed from high above, remote)
- Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms. (viewed from just outside)
- Henry hated snowstorms. (In his head)
- God how he hated these damn snowstorms. (Seeing with his eyes)
- Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul. (Feeling with his whole body)
Examples taken from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction
In these examples, you can see we begin with a sentence that is distancing to the reader, a sentence that presents the character to the reader by telling. We then move on a continuum through sentences that show more than tell, sentences that narrow the narrative distance, sentences that take us right inside the character’s head.
Neither is better or worse than the other. You need all kinds of narrative distance in your book. But you do need to mix it up. If you only ever use sentences like the first one above, where the narrative distance is the largest, your reader will always feel as if they are being kept at arms’ length from your heroine. If you only ever use sentences like the last one above, it will feel too claustrophobic, as if we are trapped in the heroine’s head