April PANorama: Your Perfect Chick Lit Heroine

Dear Readers,

It’s the fourth Monday of the month, which means that it’s time for one of our chapter PAN members (PAN stands for Published Authors Network, a professional designation within RWA open to members who reach a certain level of sales) to visit the blog to share some of their wisdom and expertise.

This month, Megan Crane talks about chick lit heroines.

Take it away, Megan!

Your Perfect Chick Lit Heroine

~ By Megan Crane

If chick lit is—to use my favorite definition—a story about a woman’s journey (Usually when asked I say that my books are “about a girl… who’s on an emotional journey…” Yeah.  I’m not so good with pitches.), then it makes sense that your heroine is therefore the base upon which your entire novel rests.  Yes, your entire novel.  So, no pressure!

How, you might ask, do we go about making the perfect heroine, one who is up to the challenge and can carry the weight of all your imaginings?  All things spring from your heroine, after all.  Her personality.  Her needs.  Her wants.  Her fears, flaws, skills, and secrets.  She is the backbone of your novel, its driving force, and the reason you are writing the novel in the first place.  A huge chunk of the internal conflict in your book, and the external conflict, will be determined by who your heroine is.  Why should anyone want to spend some 300 pages with this person?  Would you want to spend a cab ride with this person?

So, who is she?  How do we create heroines who make the reader want to make that commitment—and keep turning the pages?

Here are three things I try to keep in mind as I think about my heroine and the book I want to write:

1. The primary audience for a chick lit novel (and any other kind of novel—women are the big readers in this country) is other women.

Women can be very judgmental about other women, especially ones they are expected to spend 300 pages with.  For example, readers tend to hate a cheater.  They have to be given very good reasons to accept a heroine who cheats on her significant other—and even then, some will dismiss your entire book because of this choice, no matter how important it is to your plot.  Some will extend their anger to you—they will assume you are a bad person because they think your heroine is a bad person.  (I’m not making this up.  I had a heroine cheat on her boyfriend in my second book, Everyone Else’s Girl, and I read more than one blog post and review which questioned my morals because of my heroine’s choice.)

This is not to say you shouldn’t do this—you should do whatever you want and go wherever your story leads you.  This is your book!  But you should understand that there are consequences to the choices you make in your novel and some (like pointed blog posts questioning your very character) are a bit unexpected.

2.  Readers hate a Mary Sue.

What’s a Mary Sue?  She’s the perfect woman—usually smart, sexy, hyper-competent, and, of course, devastatingly gorgeous.  Everybody loves her and is incredibly indulgent of her, no matter what she does.  Men fawn all over her.  All women want to be her friend. Meanwhile, the reader wants to kill her.  Who wants to read about somebody perfect?  Do such people exist?

Yikes.  How do we avoid this?  Well, first of all, don’t make your heroine you.  Not that you’re not wonderful and fascinating, but it’s awfully hard to write about our own flaws.  Because we see the world through our own eyes and from our peculiar little perspectives.  So if your character is doing the same, you might find that there are a lot blind spots.  Your character can certainly be like you.  She can even be a lot like you.  But there will be places where your life and the story diverge, and you should always, always follow the story.  It’s always obvious when people write what really happened. The problem is, what really happened usually doesn’t work on the page, for whatever reason, unless you happen to be a talented memoirist.  (I am not one.)  Stories need to make a kind of hyper-realistic sense.  They have to make more sense than life.  And that usually means that what really happened just won’t have the kind of emotional resonance your story needs.

3.  Readers love a flawed heroine who learns to see herself clearly, and then changes.

Readers love stories about overcoming obstacles, especially when the obstacle is oneself.  Readers want to cheer, weep, and feel as if they grew along with your heroine.  It’s hard to cheer for perfection (because secretly, who trusts it?) and much easier to cheer for someone flawed, who tries.  (Because secretly, don’t we think that’s who we are?)

So you can love your heroine, but don’t be afraid to hurt her.  Many authors create a character that they fall in love with—and then try to protect her.  This comes across as a pulled punch on the page, and it makes readers put the book down.  Don’t be afraid to get messy!

My personal feeling is that whenever I shy away from writing something, it’s probably because I need to write it but am afraid to go there.  Make yourself go there. Write yourself into corners.  Raise the stakes.  Show us what your heroine is made of—make her prove it to herself, no matter how ugly it gets.  And don’t be afraid to let it get really, really ugly. At the end of the day, the perfect heroine is the one your readers can’t forget—the one they feel they know as well as themselves, the one they can’t and won’t let go.

Happy writing!

USA Today bestselling author Megan Crane has written five women’s fiction novels, a bunch of work-for-hire young adult novels, and a lot of category romances (under the name Caitlin Crews) since publishing her first book in 2004. Her third novel, Frenemies, was a BookSense Notable in July 2007. She teaches creative writing classes both online at mediabistro.com and at UCLA Extension’s prestigious Writers’ Program, where she finally utilizes the MA and PhD in English Literature she received from the University of York in York, England. Megan lives in Los Angeles with her comic book artist/animator husband and too many pets. For more info visit her at www.megancrane.com or www.caitlincrews.com.

4 thoughts on “April PANorama: Your Perfect Chick Lit Heroine”

  1. Good points about writing about and for women, Megan! It’s not easy to show a protagonist in the throes of recognizing her own flaws, but that IS the beginning of growth.

  2. Hi, Megan!

    Thanks for the reminder about the female heroine. I need to go back now and make sure my heroine (and her love interest) isn’t generic. Thanks!

    Danielle Spears

  3. Hi Jeff,

    The problem with wrapping our heroines in any kind of protective veneer is that it creates distance from the reader. It’s choosing safety above all else–and that can keep our stories from being as dynamic and exciting as they should be. Try pulling back a little bit. See what happens. It could be kind of awesome!


  4. Very good tips. Thanks, Megan.
    As a man creating female protagonists, I may be guilty of breaking your Rule # 3. I think I DO want to ‘protect’ my heroines. Of course, I don’t mean that my heroines experience no conflicts and handle no obstacles. They all have their work cut out for them in my stories.
    What I mean to say is that I fret about them … maybe a bit too much.
    Not sure, because I’ve never thought of this aspect until reading your column today.

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