Tuesday, August 25, 2009

FLAWED HEROINES



"She speaks poniards, and every word stabs."
Benedick from Shakespeare Much Ado About Nothing

I am demanding of my heroines. They must be flawed.
I overheard a conversation once that went like this, "The female lead in my novel is beautiful. Flawless. Long blonde hair, twinkling blue eyes, a button nose, gorgeous figure. She is sweet and kind, too. The moment the hero sets his dashing eyes on her, he falls in love even before the first word is spoken." I hated the heroine already. Was this for real? Cinderella is just a fairy tale, so I knew it wasn’t that story, not again.
So, how do we become flawed? Reality. Give me a heroine who snorts when she laughs, stutters self consciously when she is nervous, who doesn’t take herself seriously so therefore no one else does. As a result she is overlooked once more for a promotion. One who always answers the phone on only the fourth ring and if she cannot reach the phone in time, allows the answering machine to pick it up.
Just as in real life, our heroines should be portrayed with flaws. Think about Kate on the TV show Lost. We all thought she was an innocent gal until we had a glimpse of her shocking past, which explains a lot about why she chose Sawyer over Jack. Brie Hodges from Desperate Housewives is the very picture of being perfect but her perfectness causes her to live by rigid, narrow guidelines, deeply flawing her in that process.
In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, we find beautiful Beatrice who is given to fits of fierce opposition. So, tell me, why do we love her? Because she is a witty heroine known for her verbal dueling. She has it all in her life, everything to bless her and to vex her.
On the flip side, should men be perfect? Let’s look at the TV character Monk, played by Tony Shaluba. He is an obsessive-compulsive detective who can hardly function in life so he hires an assistant. He also lacks social graces. So why do we love him? Because he is a genius at solving crime. How about a villain with redeeming qualities? Think about The Phantom of the Opera. In the movie version, one side of his face is horribly disfigured, while the other side is normal and quite handsome. Both sides reflect the two halves of his personality; a cold blooded killer and a lonely man who woos Christine through music.
Back to the conversation about the twinkling blue eyes and button nose. The gal listening to her friend replied, "Well, my heroine hates anyone who is not a workaholic. I have her kicking street people in the first chapter but she changes by the last chapter." Oh boy. Can a heroine be too flawed to be loved by readers? Yep. Readers may not get to the last chapter if they find the heroine is too unappealing. The reader needs to connect with the heroine and like her enough to read the whole book and cheer for her.
Flaws are important. They reveal the need for change and make us vulnerable in our humanity. I put my heroines in uncomfortable situations, forcing them to change. They grow. Improve. Just like we do in real life. We can use that grist in our writing. As a card-carrying member of flawed heroines, I see stories everywhere.
Writers, who’s your favorite flawed heroine? (Hero?) Would you want her as your friend? What flaws do you write into your heroine's character? What risks did she have to take? And was it fun?

9 comments:

Debbi said...

Give me a heroine with brains in her head. I'd give anything to see that in a Christian novel.

Debbi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Debbi said...

Robin: Thanks for the invite. As a fellow novelist, I am intrigued by how women (especially) are portrayed in Christian literature. I compare what we're offered to the Bible and see a cavernous difference. I've posted a new blog at www.debbivaughn.blogspot.com, if you'd care to read it.

Have you read Rudyard Kipling's work called: The Female of the Species? I ponder it and weave these distinct differences into my female characters (especially the bad ones).

Debbi said...

Here's Kipling's work, The Female of the Species:

When the Himalayan peasant meets the he-bear in his pride,
He shouts to scare the monster, who will often turn aside.
But the she-bear thus accosted rends the peasant tooth and nail.
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

When Nag the basking cobra hears the careless foot of man,
He will sometimes wriggle sideways and avoid it if he can.
But his mate makes no such motion where she camps beside the trail.
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

When the early Jesuit fathers preached to Hurons and Choctaws,
They prayed to be delivered from the vengeance of the squaws.
'Twas the women, not the warriors, turned those stark enthusiasts pale.
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

Man's timid heart is bursting with the things he must not say,
For the Woman that God gave him isn't his to give away;
But when hunter meets with husbands, each confirms the other's tale –
The female of the species is more deadly than the male.

Man, a bear in most relations – worm and savage otherwise, –
Man propounds negotiations, Man accepts the compromise.
Very rarely will he squarely push the logic of a fact
To its ultimate conclusion in unmitigated act.

Fear, or foolishness, impels him, ere he lay the wicked low,
To concede some form of trial even to his fiercest foe.
Mirth obscene diverts his anger – Doubt and Pity oft perplex
Him in dealing with an issue – to the scandal of The Sex!

But the Woman that God gave him, every fibre of her frame
Proves her launched for one sole issue, armed and engined for the same,
And to serve that single issue, lest the generations fail,
The female of the species must be deadlier than the male.

She who faces Death by torture for each life beneath her breast
May not deal in doubt or pity – must not swerve for fact or jest.
These be purely male diversions – not in these her honour dwells.
She the Other Law we live by, is that Law and nothing else.

She can bring no more to living than the powers that make her great
As the Mother of the Infant and the Mistress of the Mate.
And when Babe and Man are lacking and she strides unclaimed to claim
Her right as femme (and baron), her equipment is the same.

She is wedded to convictions – in default of grosser ties;
Her contentions are her children, Heaven help him who denies! –
He will meet no suave discussion, but the instant, white-hot, wild,
Wakened female of the species warring as for spouse and child.

Unprovoked and awful charges – even so the she-bear fights,
Speech that drips, corrodes, and poisons – even so the cobra bites,
Scientific vivisection of one nerve till it is raw
And the victim writhes in anguish – like the Jesuit with the squaw!

So it comes that Man, the coward, when he gathers to confer
With his fellow-braves in council, dare not leave a place for her
Where, at war with Life and Conscience, he uplifts his erring hands
To some God of Abstract Justice – which no woman understands.

And Man knows it! Knows, moreover, that the Woman that God gave him
Must command but may not govern – shall enthral but not enslave him.
And She knows, because She warns him, and Her instincts never fail,
That the Female of Her Species is more deadly than the Male.

Sarah Salter said...

In reading, I really do like the characters that are flawed. Probably because I can identify with them. But when I write, I find myself trying to make my hero/heroine more perfect so that my reader will love them. Thanks for helping me to think through that. Great blog, Robin!

Robin Shope said...

Hi Sarah, that is the problem I have when I write. Sometimes y editor makes me cut out something very human that my heroine might think or do because its not christianly and she worries about the readers not liking her because of it. Its a struggle I have because its important for the reader to love my heroine and to connect with her but I want her to be real. Thus the problem.

Sarah Salter said...

Well, I'm not published, so you can take this with a grain of salt. But the books that I put down and don't finish are the ones that have unrealistic characters or plots. When the heroine is a perfectly-coiffed, starched-and-pressed, goody-two-shoes who has never been through anything, I just can't take her seriously.

So, how is it that when I write, I find myself creating a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, model-like heroine with a perfect smile, fancy shoes, and a heart of gold?

(I'm laughing at myself now.)

And the worst part is that I really hadn't realized what my problem was until I read your blog post. Thank you, Dr. Robin! You helped diagnose me today! :-)

Robin Shope said...

But you are a reader! ANd readers buy books!I want a heroine who makes me laugh over the things she says...and I want to see myself in her and I am flawed! I dont want her to be mean but she should have quirks and problems. There are imperfect people all around me too. I know plenty a christian women who have flaws. Some have more flaws than women who are not christian...no, I am not picking on anyone. Its just how I see things and I want to write real life not make my heroine so sweet that she gags us.

Christine said...

You mention all my favoritely flawed tv characters :) I'm a reader, but wanted to make a comment on the one you left about your editor cutting parts of your story. My skin gets itchy when people talk about the degrees of Christianity as if their own attempts at living their faith makes them better than some or less than others. As a redeemed sinner, my flaws don't go away and neither do my troubles so it's good to read a story that shows the heroine/hero struggling with the same issues while keeping their faith in tact...like Job.