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She's a B*tch, She's a Lover: Writing a Kickass Heroine


Photo by Karen Ho

This week I have a special treat for you guys.  Guest bloggers!!!  

For those who missed Monday's post, my mom is spending this week with me, so my amazing crit group members have graciously offered to cover some topics that are near and dear to them while I'm "out".  All of these ladies are wonderful writers and offer unique perspectives on writing, so I hope you will give them as warm a welcome as you give me every day.  I also encourage you to follow their blogs--you won't regret it.  :)

So without further ado, I'll turn it over to Gwen...


She's a B*tch, She's a Lover
In a recent discussion on one of my loops, a group of paranormal authors began a discussion on what separates paranormal romance from urban fantasy.  As you can guess, what constitutes a sub-genre varies immensely depending on who you ask.  However, one thing that came up repeatedly was that urban fantasies usually feature a “kick-ass” heroine.  Granted, there are plenty of urban fantasies on the shelves nowadays where the main character is not female at all, but on the whole, I agree with this correlation.  Urban fantasy = kick-ass heroine. 
A similar, if not as severe trend emerged across all genres of romance around the turn of the century (wow, it sounds weird to say that!).  Most especially in thrillers, romantic suspense, and the emerging paranormal market, the helpless waif was out and the self-confident, self-reliant woman was in.  Many would call it a reflection of our times, where women have finally attained a position as equals in both the boardroom and the bedroom.  It’s empowering for us to see the G.I. Janes, Dana Skullys, and Sarah Conners go toe-to-toe with their male counterparts and in some cases save the day all on their own. 
A kick-ass heroine can come in many forms and her strength does not always manifest in the physical realm.  She can be on a crusade for her cause, fiercely protective of those she loves, enduring some immense emotional burden, surviving a cold harsh world that has turned its back on her, or simply aware of her own feminine power.  I, for one, fully support a world where the simpering Bella Swans are a minority.  But if you’re considering writing a strong female protagonist, keep a lookout for these common pitfalls.
Leave Room to Grow
One of the worst things you can do is paint your heroine as a Mary Sue.  No one wants to read about an all-powerful character who fights her way out of every sticky spot with hardly a scratch, and whom everyone else worships.  Give your heroine flaws.  Give her weaknesses.  Stack the odds against her and make sure she’s fighting an uphill battle, that way it will be that much more satisfying when she finally reaches her goal.  Don’t be afraid to knock her down a few times and teach her some lessons too – she’ll be that much more beloved by readers for overcoming those shortcomings.
Give Her A True Counterpart
Don’t surround your strong heroine with a bunch of swooning suitors jumping at the opportunity to do her bidding.  Keep it real.  In the real world, a tough woman is not all that adored by men, especially those she’s surpassed is skill or accomplishment.  It takes a strong man to stand beside a strong woman, so make sure your love interest is up to the task.  Another thing to look out for is painting a hero who loves your heroine in spite of her strength rather than for her strength – a very important distinction.
Don’t Cross the Line
There’s a difference between confidence and cockiness.  It can be as much of a turn-off for a woman to be full of herself as it can be for a man.  Snark comes with the territory when you’re writing a woman in a man’s world, but be careful you don’t cross that razor-thin line between sarcasm and sadism.  Don’t make your heroine too much of a b*tch, or even your readers won’t like her. 
Remember She’s a Woman
No matter if we’re talking about female charity workers, doctors, or fighter pilots, at the end of the day, they’re all women.  Remember to give your readers something to connect with.  Don’t write your strong alpha female like a man.  Make her girly.  Give her a chocolate fetish, or a stuffed animal, or a compulsion to buy shoes (okay, not something that cliché, but you get the picture).  It’s okay for her to have a soft, mushy, girly side, and it’s definitely necessary that you show it.  

Do you find it challenging to write the balance between tough chick and b*tch?  Who's your favorite kickass heroine?  Have you ever stopped reading a book because the heroine was too brash/mean/unlikeable or on the flipside, too weak/do-nothing?


When not studying science and philosophy at the UW or otherwise cavorting through the Emerald City, Gwen can be found at her favorite Starbucks drawing off of the shifting grey skies of the Pacific Northwest to pen (okay, type) dark paranormal stories, which don't always end happily but leave her characters satisfied none the less. Visit her at Gwen Mitchell Fiction.

**Today's Theme Song**
"Just a Girl" - No Doubt
(player in sidebar, take a listen)


Reader Comments (23)

Mine is Rose Hathaway from the Vampire Academy series. :D

June 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStina Lindenblatt

Great post, btw!

June 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStina Lindenblatt

Fantastic post. I liked Cat in the Night Huntress Series by Jeanine Frost.

June 16, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterpensees

Heck yes!! The biggest turn-off for me in UF is the alpha female. I find it so unrealistic and grating. It's just about the only thing that will make me put a book down.

My favorite UF heroine is Mercy Thompson, hands-down.

June 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSummer

I am turned off by unrealistic characters in any genre. And if something starts to sound too ridiculous to me, it definitely gets put down.

I don't read a ton of UF or sci fi, but I liked Tally in The Uglies series. Though it did bother me that she felt little emotion in the last book and I didn't like her attitude toward those "weaker" than her.....but her body and mind were altered so I cut her some slack.

In my own writing, I struggled a lot with Lexi, the MC in A Bitch Named Karma. In the beginning of the book she is quite materialistic and self-centered...but she changes throughout the book. I had one agent tell me she couldn't identify with her for those reasons. I wanted to say "but she grows and changes...please keep reading!!"

I can forgive a bitchy character if she changes her ways. Ever read Emily Giffin's Something Blue?? It took me a long time to get into that story..I hated the MC...she was the biggest bitch in the first book- Something Borrowed. But her character grew and developed and became someone I could root for.

June 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

Totally agree with Stina-Rose Hathaway, definitely!

June 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterOddyoddyo13

I used to love Anita Blake. What happened to her??? She used to be kickass, but then the books got all weird and overly sexed, which is a turn-off for me when I'm expecting an urban fantasy.

June 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTere Kirkland

I love this post not only because it was well written but because it speaks to the character I'm trying to create. I also thought it was an appropriate picture because Sarah Conner is my idol :-) I also like Eve from JD Robb's In Death series and Elena from Kelley Armstrong's books. And most recently, Salander from the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, who is a less-cheesy Lara Croft :-)

June 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDawn

Great post, Gwen! Just wanted to add that sometimes the kickass part is something she grows into rather than starting off that way.

Lynnette Labelle

June 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLynnette Labelle

You are so right about that thin line between snarky and sadist... I like a girl who can hold her own, but she still has to have a softer/vulnerable side, if only for the contrast. I had a heck of a time with Karen Chance's Dorina Basarab because she was just a bit too cocky. I couldn't even finish Midnight's Daughter because of it, so I don't know if she ever showed her softer side. That's one of the reasons I loved the Mercy Thomspson series--she's not the biggest and baddest monster on the block and knows it, and she's got her flaws. She's still kick-ass, but she's also relatable.

Thanks for this post, Gwen.

June 16, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterj.leigh.bailey

Thanks for the comments, everyone! I've only read 2 of the heroines that were mentioned, but knowing there are that many gives me hope. :) A couple of people have mentioned Mercy Thompson and I think she's a great example of a strong heroine done well. J.leigh, you said it perfectly, she's not the biggest monster and she knows it. I didn't talk about ego, but that is a big factor... any MC too full of themselves will turn me off.

As for AB... I often wonder the same thing.

Anyone read the Kate Daniels series? She's a GREAT example of a tough, hard, sh*t-talking heroine who still manages to be likeable.

June 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGwen

Thanks Gwen for such a great post and thanks to everyone for the comments.

I agree with those who mentioned Mercy Thompson and Rose Hathaway. Rose walked a fine line for me in the first Vamp Academy book. Even by the end of the book, I wasn't sure I liked her. But then I read the second book and fell in love with her character--now I'm obsessed with the series, lol.

June 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRoni @ FictionGroupie

Katniss in Hunger Games was a great kiss-ass heroine. I immediately thought of her through your descriptions.

June 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShelli

and whom everyone else worships

This is the biggest one for me. If a heroine wins EVERYONE over with her sassy comebacks and pluck, or worse yet if the characters are divided into good and evil based on whether or not they like her, I get annoyed fast. No matter how great you are, SOMEONE is going to be unimpressed or annoyed by you. And that's okay. It's normal.

(I don't like that in a hero either, but in romance it seems to me to be more common with heroines, maybe just because the heroine is more likely to be the main protagonist...)

June 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRose Lerner

Great post Gwen! I really love a strong female character, and you have some great points here on making sure she stays that way.

June 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSierra Godfrey


I love kickass heroines so long as they come across as plausible characters, even within fantasy there has to be sense of credibility!

She can be a gun-toting,sharp-tongued sassy bitch, but she must also have a vulnerability about her - that makes her a likeable character in my book.


June 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFrancine

Excellent post, Gwen. You really helped define the line between b*tch and kick-a$$!

Personally, I LOVE Allie Beckstrom and MacKayla Lane, though Rose Hathaway is also a fave. Mac in particular does a superb job of being just girly enough to make an impression (pink flashlight-toting helmet, anyone?) while still fighting off the monsters.

June 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDebbie Mumford

Hi Roni,

Rose Hathaway, Mercy Thompson, Tally--all great.

Alexia in Carriger's Parasol Protectorate (Soulless, etc.).

And I certainly hope people will add Maddie Dunn from the Ganzfield books (Minder, Adversary, etc.) to this list! :)

June 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDisgruntled Bear

Excellent post, Gwennie. I especially like that you pointed out how important it is that a kick-ass heroine deserves a true and realistic counterpart. How true it is that in the main, many men don't adore tough women. A good soul mate for a kick-butt heroine is a strong man of character whose sense of his own masculinity is not threatened by female strength. :) It takes a real man to love a strong woman!

June 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThomma Lyn

Roni - it was my pleasure, thanks for sharing the stage! :D

Shelli - I've been meaning to check out the hunger games. Now that I know this, it has just been bumped up my list. Thanks!

Sierra - thank you! And thanks for the roundup mention! ;)

Rose - EXACTLY! I hate it when a character is adored by everyone regardless of their actions. Major turn off for me. In fact, it's probably good advice to think of at least one "enemy" for every character one plans to write, and to consider why it is that enemy doesn't like them, to ensure they're rounded out.

Debbie - thanks for stopping by! Allie Beckstrom is another good example. I like that she also acknowledges her own limits.

Bear - I love that Alexia is so ladylike and proper, while still getting a good cut in now and then. ;)

June 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGwen

Roni - it was my pleasure, thanks for sharing the stage! :D

Shelli - I've been meaning to check out the hunger games. Now that I know this, it has just been bumped up my list. Thanks!

Sierra - thank you! And thanks for the roundup mention! ;)

Rose - EXACTLY! I hate it when a character is adored by everyone regardless of their actions. Major turn off for me. In fact, it's probably good advice to think of at least one "enemy" for every character one plans to write, and to consider why it is that enemy doesn't like them, to ensure they're rounded out.

Debbie - thanks for stopping by! Allie Beckstrom is another good example. I like that she also acknowledges her own limits.

Bear - I love that Alexia is so ladylike and proper, while still getting a good cut in now and then. ;)

June 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGwen

I'm so happy that you included Dana Scully! I absolutely adore her. She was intelligent, strong willed, resilient (hell, she stuck with Mulder and the FBI even after she was abducted). But I love that Chris Carter (Writer for X-files) made her unmistakably a woman. She had a strong connection with her family and her child. (And, they also say Scully's immortal, but who knows) As you can see, I'm a huge X-files fan.

Another woman I really adore is Lara Croft from Tomb Raider. She kicks serious a** but she's without a doubt a feminine woman.

Anyway, thanks for the post! It was very inspirational.

June 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterC.M. Sherwin

I strongly believe in kick-ass warrior women, but I definitely believe they've got to be real people. Even the most badass women I know have something that makes them scared or makes them need comforting.

I've got to say, there are times watching Terminator 2 when Sarah Connor gets on my nerves. It makes those moments when she gets emotional with her son even more important for me in the film.

June 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDominique

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