Monday, July 30, 2012

Writing a Human Heroine (Guest Post!)

Such a pretty cover!
Today's guest post comes from Leah Scheier, the lovely debut author of SECRET LETTERS — a Victorian mystery with an inquisitive girl detective and a Sherlock Holmes twist.

Writing a Human Heroine

First, a Parody:
Our heroine is standing poised and ready in the clearing, her lean, muscular body taut with anticipation. Her impossibly long hair billows in the wind, framing her high pale cheekbones. Three shadowy figures emerge from behind a cluster of trees and rush upon her, knives drawn and glinting in the moonlight. She does not hesitate; her bow is out and the arrow flies, the hiss splitting the night air. It hits its mark (of course) and the first foe screams; his mate crumples next to him a moment later as her second arrow finds his heart. Only one enemy is left standing now; he springs at her and his blade buries itself in her side. She grits her teeth and grabs his head between her slender fingers, smiling coolly at the sound of his neck snapping beneath her grasp.

Less than two minutes have passed and all her enemies lie dead around her. The King/Paranormal Creature/Wizard/Warrior-she-secretly-loves will be very pleased. She gives a disdainful glance at the weapon buried in her flesh and shrugs. She can tell by the angle of the knife handle that the blade has missed most of her vital organs. Nothing to worry about then. Someone will just have to remove it later, when she finds the time.

Okay, so I may have exaggerated a touch. But you have to admit it—you still love her a little, don't you? We all want to be that girl, even if the greatest enemy we face each day is a surly co-worker or a demanding boss. We would all love to kick ass once in a while.

I love those larger-than-life fictional girls too. But while I enjoy reading tales of derring-do as much as the next person, I sometimes can't help pausing mid-battle-scene and wondering, "How would I react in Brave Girl's place?"

So when I dreamt up my own character, I decided to give readers a different type of heroine. I wanted Dora Joyce to be courageous and smart and creative, as the daughter of the Great Detective was meant to be. But more importantly, I wanted her to be human.

Here are some tips I learned as I was telling Dora's story:

1) Give your heroine flaws:
Nobody likes perfect people. In the first place, they don't exist, and if they did they would be really annoying. So what makes your character flawed? Is it a bit of a temper? Or vanity? An obsession with neatness? Whatever it is, as long as the flaws fit well with her overall personality they will make your heroine more real. In Dora's case her major flaw was impulsivity. And a tendency to take herself too seriously.

2) Don't let your character take herself too seriously:
If your heroine has a ton of pride, then some comic relief at her expense is required. Someone should be on hand to occasionally take the wind out of her sails and make her doubt herself. Nothing humanizes a character more than a realization of their own weaknesses. Dora's new friend and detective's apprentice Peter Cartwright was her kindest supporter. But he was also her harshest critic. And he never missed an opportunity to tease her and keep her on her toes.

3) Make her bleed:
That sounds harsh, I know. But real people bleed when they get hurt. They faint, they sweat, they trip over their own feet and sprain their ankle. I'm not suggesting making your heroine a complete klutz. But if she gets injured it should hurt for more than a paragraph. And she should be somewhat fearful of getting hurt again, especially if the first wound was a serious one.

4) Have her make mistakes: 
This is particularly true for spies, detectives, and anyone who lives by their wits. Especially if they are young adults. Allow her inexperience to show a little. Have her jump to wrong conclusions. Dora may have been Sherlock's daughter, but she could still screw up. And when she did, she would admit her error —even if only to herself.

5) She doesn't have to be a martial arts expert in order to be a heroine:
It helps, sure. But if your character is five foot three and barely scraping a hundred pounds, having her take on a burly armed guard — and winning, may be a touch unbelievable. It's okay if she gets beaten. And bleeds. And then admits that she probably should have waited for backup before tackling the ogre. (Points 3, 4 and 5 together!)

There are all kinds of heroines in real life and in fiction. And it's the blend of real life and fiction that can make a heroine relatable — and truly irresistible.


Thanks, Leah, and congrats on your debut!
Follow Leah on twitter.

About SECRET LETTERS (available NOW from Hyperion/Disney!):
Inquisitive and observant, Dora dreams of escaping her aristocratic country life to solve mysteries alongside Sherlock Holmes. So when she learns that the legendary detective might be her biological father, Dora jumps on the opportunity to travel to London and enlist his help in solving the mystery of her cousin's ransomed love letters. But Dora arrives in London to devastating news: Sherlock Holmes is dead. Her dreams dashed, Dora is left to rely on her wits--and the assistance of an attractive yet enigmatic young detective--to save her cousin's reputation and help rescue a kidnapped heiress along the way.
Steeped in Victorian atmosphere and intrigue, this gripping novel heralds the arrival of a fresh new voice in young adult literature. 


Want to write a guest post? Email us! firstnovelsclub [at] gmail [dot] com


  1. Nice cover! I'd buy the book just because of that. I love reading Sherlock Holmes stories, so I'm intrigued now. Great points about writing a believable heroine.

    1. Thank you, Annie! And I just loved my cover when I first saw it!

  2. Great post and valuable advice for writers out there....


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