Hateable Heroines (and How to Avoid Them)

Over the weekend, I finished a book that I really liked, Surrender of a Siren. It was a book I’d read for a book club, and some of the other members of the book club didn’t like it. Why? They didn’t like the heroine.

Maybe this hits a little too close to home for me because I’ve been told that some of my heroines are a little hard to love. I personally thought that the heroine in this particular book definitely made some poor decisions at the beginning of the story, but she changed, grew up, and ended up making good decisions by the end, so I was ok with her. Obviously, other rational readers didn’t necessarily agree with me. (Perplexing!)

After a similar shop-talk discussion about likable heroines a few months ago, my friend Katharine Ashe sent me a document she’d found with a list of ways to make your characters sympathetic (or likable).

Michael Hauge’s four suggestions:

1) Make her funny.
2) Make her very good at what she does.
3) Make her a victim of some unwarranted tragedy.
4) Make her powerful.

These aren’t necessarily specifically for your heroines; they’d work just as well for your heroes. But I bet most of you can think of at least one example of a heroine from all of those categories. In the book I mentioned above, the heroine is really funny, even at the beginning when she’s making somewhat irrational decisions. Maybe I’m just a light touch, but that was enough for me. Another funny heroine: Elizabeth Bennet. I loved her immediately.

There are just scads of heroines who are great at what they do, and pretty much every heroine ever written is the victim of some tragedy or another. Power is a little bit touchy for heroines, in my opinion… but it can be done.

The rest of the list looks like it comes from Karl Iglesias’s Writing For Emotional Impact.

  1. We care about characters we feel sorry for.
  2. We like characters who have humanistic traits.
  3. We like characters who have traits we can admire.

Empathy Traits

  1. Undeserved mistreatment
  2. Undeserved misfortune
  3. Physical or mental handicap
  4. Frustration or humiliation
  5. A moment of weakness
  6. Abandonment
  7. Has been betrayed
  8. Exclusion and rejection/loneliness and neglect
  9. Represses pain
  10. Life endangerment

Humanistic Traits

  1. Lets down defenses in a private moment
  2. Helps the less fortunate
  3. Likes children
  4. Likes animals
  5. Change of heart
  6. Helps or risks life for a friend
  7. Ethical or moral & responsible
  8. Dependable, loyal

Admirable Traits

  1. Attractiveness
  2. Courage
  3. Power & charisma
  4. Passionate
  5. Skilled
  6. Thoughtful & wise
  7. Witty/funny/playful
  8. Underdog

I think this is a great list, and a good jumping-off point for making your heroines (or, really, any character) likable.

What would you add to the list? Do you think any of these are off the mark? Do you have to think this hard about making your heroines likable? (I do.)

  • My problem with the book was I didn't like the hero. I was indifferent to the heroine. I can forgive the heroine just about anything (even irrational behavior) if I like the hero. But I became indifferent to both and so couldn't enjoy the book.

    I like funny heroines. I don't really think about the heroine's too much. I also to see heroines have fortitude and overcome obstacles.

  • merindab

    Haven't read the book, I just wanted to say I hated “gone with the wind” (at least the movie, though I couldn't get into the book either) I wanted Scarlet O'Hara to die in a fire or something.

    On the other side of that I've been unable to re-read “stranger in a strange land” because (at least in the first couple chapters) I can't stand the female main character because she feels like a woman a guy would write. As in a bit ditzy, flimsy and only interested in sex.

  • Haha, I picked the picture of Scarlett O'Hara because she is such a controversial heroine. My mom HAAATES her. I think I love to hate her at first, but I admire that she holds everything together, including her family and her home, during the war. And Rhett is just perfect for her!

  • merindab

    oops, i liked instead of replied, oh well. I just found her to be a conniving self-centered bitch, pardon the language. Though I do agree Rhett is right for her, she just can't see it, which, I know, is part of the drama. I just, yeah. Hate. Haaaate.

  • I get what you're saying. I don't necessarily think about the heroine as much as the hero either– maybe that's why I don't get too bothered when they do stupid things! (As long as they redeem themselves, that is.)

  • ACW

    I love Elizabeth Bennet. Don't forget Josephine March, too!
    I've been bogged down in textbooks for the past three years, and haven't gotten a chance to catch up on my reading list… so, sadly, I haven't picked up one of your books since discovering your blog. Out of curiosity: do you write in first-person or third-person? I've been dabbling in writing, only in the first-person, but it's really hard to make a truly noble heroine in this style because she comes off sounding haughty and self-righteous. 🙁

  • I generally write in third person, though I've done some first person (none of it published), and my third person is pretty deep point-of-view, so you see a LOT of her thoughts and it's very nearly first person in that regard. You might try some chick lit for examples of how first person heroines are done really well. Bridget Jones' Diary is, of course, the finest example, IMO. 😉 Noble she's not, but we love her anyway. Maybe the problem is that most people don't really think of themselves as noble? So to create a noble heroine in first person POV, the trick would be to show it through her actions rather than what she says about herself and let the readers figure it out for themselves. Does that help at all?

  • ACW

    Excellent, excellent response! Thank you!
    …and, yes, I loved _Bridget Jones' Diary_…

  • ACW

    I can deal with empowered, manipulative female characters; I can't stand whiners. Think: Bella, esp. during the first _Twilight_, or Gray in the movie 'Catch and Release'… The secondary characters hooked me in the vampire saga. Kevin Smith's character, Sam, makes the movie one of my favorites, despite Gray's self-centered personality.