Jilly: Story Essential – A Proactive Heroine

A Proactive ProtagonistI’m finally feeling happy with my heroine, Rose, which is a huge relief. She’s the most important person in my book (it’s her story) and she’s been trouble right from the start. In the early days it was my fault – I wrapped her up in cotton wool when I should have put her through hell – but even when I’d fixed that she still wasn’t quite right. Now, thanks to Michaeline and Kay, she’s getting close to where I want her to be.

Rose hasn’t changed much since I first imagined her. She’s small, about five feet tall, 25 years old, with pale skin, cropped, spiky, white-blonde hair and gray eyes, and she lives in jeans, t-shirts and Dr Marten boots. If it moves she’ll paint it, draw it, or embroider it, and she’s been that way since she was a child. She takes after her father and doesn’t gel with her mother and stepfather – they love her but want her to grow up and conform. The story starts at a time of major change for Rose and is essentially about her search for a place to belong.

In my first draft she sailed through the story. She faced some challenges and the occasional setback, made a few changes and cried a little here and there, but her life got progressively better. She found her place in the world, but she wasn’t transformed. When I submitted my synopsis as part of the McD program, my feedback from Jenny Crusie included the phrase ‘everybody loves Rose, and Rose loves everybody.’ Jenny was right. I was protecting my heroine and it was b-o-r-i-n-g.

When I sat down to re-write, I gave Rose a stronger, clearer goal. She’s still the same person, but what she was chasing before was too nebulous. I spent months head-desking about it before I figured out a specific place for Rose to go, with a time-lock and a set of entry requirements that she needs to fulfil in order to achieve her dream. So now she has a lot to do and the reader has something to engage with.

Conflict was also a big problem in my first draft. There wasn’t much, because Rose and Ian were too well-matched. I’m much happier with the new version. Ian’s goal hasn’t changed – it’s all about protecting his family Foundation – but now he sees Rose as the potential solution to his problems. Add in the growing chemistry between them, and he’s not at all happy at the prospect of her disappearing off into the sunset in pursuit of some arty idyll. I also gave a much more prominent role to super-bitch Sasha, who takes no prisoners, has plans of her own for Ian, and has no intention of letting Rose get in the way.

So Rose now has a strong goal and she’s actively blocked from achieving that goal in an escalating sequence of events, which means the improved story is good to go, right? Not so much. I knew there was still something wrong with Rose, but I didn’t know what it was until I asked the other Ladies to beta read the opening scenes I submitted to the Fool For Love contest. Michaeline and Kay kindly volunteered, and gently pointed out that Rose is totally reactive. When Ian or Sasha pokes her with a sharp stick (which is often) she responds strongly and does fun and interesting things, but she doesn’t make them happen for herself, which means that instead of owning the story she’s overshadowed by two colorful characters actively pursuing strong goals.

Kay and Michaeline only read the first 35 pages of my story, but the issue they identified is a recurring problem throughout the whole draft. I have no idea why Rose is so passive – it’s not as though that’s my nature – but now that my fantastic beta readers have identified the problem I’m going to do something about it, starting with the rest of my re-write and then going back to fix the earlier scenes.

I’m going to remind myself that the word protagonist derives from the Greek protos (first in importance) and agonistes (actor). My protagonist, Rose, has to own this story, and that means she has to stop waiting for things to happen and make some waves. I’ve already had a few good ideas that will make the rest of the story much more interesting for all concerned, and that makes me excited about writing it. Thank you SO much, Kay and Michaeline 🙂

Do you have a favorite heroine (or hero)? Does she (or he) make things happen and drive the story?

17 thoughts on “Jilly: Story Essential – A Proactive Heroine

  1. All my favorite literary heroines are strong actors–Jo March, Scarlett O’Hara, Elizabeth Bennett. I think one of the reasons I moved away from Dara, the original protagonist for my WIP, was she was much too passive. And now I need to be careful not to make Dare, her replacement, the same way. There’s a reason I named her “Dare.” I just need to keep that in mind.

    • Would you make a distinction between strong and proactive, Jeanne? I think of Lizzy Bennet as strong – she’s her own person, independent and unconventional, but I don’t think of her as especially proactive. Scarlett O’Hara, OTOH, now there’s a powerhouse of a woman. She’d be a great lodestone for me as I’m rewriting Rose.

      And you’re the second person this week to mention Little Women. I haven’t read it in years; maybe it’s time to refresh my memory.

  2. Scarlett is strong but I always had a hard time liking her. I always respected her, but like her? Not so much. Creating a strong, likable character is a balancing act. Why does it seem to apply only to the women characters? Men can be strong and likable which tells you something about the way strong independent women are still viewed.

    This post was sooo timely Jilly. I’m going through my own MS and trying to figure out where I am. I like to think Cheyenne is proactive but as I’m reading the story I’m not seeing much action either. What I’m seeing is that I’m “telling” the action stuff instead of showing it. One of the many things I’m in the process of changing.

    • Very true, Kat. Scarlett’s fascinating and memorable, but not likable. I don’t think it’s because she’s a woman (maybe it is?) but because she’s amoral. She’d trample anyone and do anything to get what she wanted. I’m trying to think of a hero equivalent – there must be lots. Hmmm. Don Giovanni? Richard III? Thinking …..

      Good luck with Cheyenne!

      • Sasha? LOL, seriously, as soon as I read Kat’s comment, I thought, “Scarlett’s a great villain, and we watch her to see what she’s going to do next.” She is not a nice woman by any means, and while we can somewhat excuse her racism because of her time, it’s harder to excuse Mitchell’s racism.

        Still, it’s not a book about racism. It’s a book about a strong woman taking charge of her destiny. And, many of us still equate that with bitchiness . . . there are studies that show the same actions by a man are viewed as “strong” but by a woman they are viewed as “bitchy.”

        (-: I feel I have to make excuses for GWTW. It’s a great story, and an important lesson. Nobody wants to *be* Scarlett, but she’s awfully fun to watch as she tramples everyone.

  3. I haven’t had a problem making my protagonist proactive, and I’m sorry to say that I think it’s because my protagonist is a guy. Sadly, our society encourages passivity in women (although there’s been some push back against this- witness the “ban bossy” campaign). I think the fact that this is so ingrained in our psyches makes it more of a challenge to write a proactive female protagonist. Of course, this is also one of the reasons we admire those fictional women so much.

    • Yeah, I gotta say I agree with Jennifer — “nice girls” don’t go out and grab the gusto in general. If they do, they are generally carrying high-powered arms, because not only are women encouraged to be “nice,” it can actually be very dangerous to be “aggressive.” Or so it feels.

      (-: Maybe we can change that, one book at a time. There are some great books out there with strong women who act instead of re-act.

      (Thinking about it though, it’s harder for readers to identify with proactive women, maybe. Most people, men and women, are just reacting to one damn thing after another, and it’s a very true situation. Sometimes the most interesting and educational thing is to see a protag reacting with grace and cleverness and all the things we wish we could consistently call up. That goes for heroes and heroines.)

      • I don’t think proactive has to mean bitchy or aggressive. Some of Georgette Heyer’s heroines are fabulously proactive – take The Grand Sophy – she’s made of proactive and it takes a strong man like Charles Rivenhall to match her. Or (my favorite) Mary Challoner – she’s quiet and competent but the story starts because she takes the initiative to rescue her sister from Vidal’s clutches and she tries to take control of her own destiny throughout the story. Vidal loves her for it. Or Masqueraders. Prudence is quiet but strong and when things get tricky she (nicely) tells the her true love Tony to butt out because she knows what she’s doing, it’s not his fight and she doesn’t want him to get embroiled.

        Proactivity is also a characteristic of Suzanne Brockmann’s heroines – one of the things I love about her books, right from the early category ones. It may be easier because she writes romantic suspense, but there are plenty of those where the heroine is saved by the strong, manly hero rather than saving herself or at least playing her part.

        • I think you are right that proactive doesn’t have to be bitchy. But . . . something on the borderline can be read by one reader as bitchy and by another as justified. For example, in *Lord of Scoundrels* — reading through the one-star reviews are interesting. Most of them do seem to like Jessica, but those who don’t say she’s overly perfect. Or that they hated the heroine. Not a lot of explanation, it just is. (For the record, I loved Jessica. I thought she had the right amount of no-nonsense, and I cheered as she arranged the universe so she got what she wanted. I never thought she crossed the line into bitchy, or even cold.)

          The flip side is also intriguing — what looks like good emotional sharing in a person may be read as whining or angsting by some. I have to say, I thought Dain walked the fine line between idiot whinger and justified angsting. I don’t *think* that I expect men to suck it up more — I think I would feel the same way about an abused woman who does spectacularly stupid things because she’s coping with childhood trauma. “Suck it up, ladies and gentlemen, we are adults now and can choose to be kind to each other.” But I’ve got my own issues about Stiff Upper Lip, so that’s coloring my reading experience.

  4. I probably cite the Charlaine Harris Sookie Stackhouse series way too much, but I’ve read some of those books a couple of times, and I know them pretty well. In those books, Sookie is a telepath, and because of that, she gets involved in the vampire/werewolf/shifter world, not always in a good way. She’s a very strong and proactive figure, but Harris I think does a great job in showing how Sookie might be afraid, but she takes action when she knows she must or it’s the right thing to do; she takes action or asks for help when she’s outnumbered or outgunned. Her actions drive the story, but they don’t always launch the story—that is, in the first book, Sookie launched the story when she saved Bill’s life. But in other books, someone might ask her for something or something might happen to her, and then her subsequent decisions and actions drive the story. It’s primarily a mystery series, though, with a romance subplot(s) running through, so the comparison is not quite the same.

  5. This is the same problem I had with my first version of Susannah. Jenny said, “Everything is being DONE to her. What is SHE doing?” I think I’m a little better off than I was, but still not quite there. More writing (and banging head against desk) will, of course, ensue.

    • Exactly, Justine! I know we’ll get there but I am surprised that it’s so difficult – I mean, we’re not exactly a bunch of shrinking violets IRL, are we 🙂 ??

  6. I think on some level we want our characters, particularly our heroines, to be our ‘friends’ and to be beloved by everyone who meets them. I am so guilty of overprotecting my heroines. With every manuscript, I have to relearn how to put my heroine through hell.

    One thing you could consider, Jilly, is making Rose more proactive as the story progresses. As she gets tested through conflict and starts pushing back, she can discover her backbone. That sometimes works well. But I have to agree that if a heroine is too passive, she has to start changing pretty early in the story or she will lose me.

    In real life, the older I get, the more my female friends seem to be the ones whom would be labeled by the less enlightened as ‘bitchy’ or ‘bossy’. I try to keep some of those fabulous ladies in mind when I’m rewriting my characters :-).

    • I think you hit the nail on the head there, Nancy. I really hope I don’t have to re-learn this lesson anew with every story 🙂 I do like the idea of Rose becoming more proactive as the story develops; that fits very well with the story-line. Must cogitate. Thank you!

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