Discovering the Key to Every Romance Novel: The Heroine
Most romance readers are women, and naturally, they want to see themselves reflected in their choice of reading. That desire for reflection doesn't mean that every heroine has to be straight from everyday life (even everyday life in, say, the 1800s); however, the heroine does have to feel real and be interesting and emotionally complex enough to keep the reader interested in your story.
Your heroine has to be the most accessible character, because the packaging (the cover art, copy, and often the title) usually focuses on her. And in most cases — unless the author is already one of the reader's favorites — the packaging is crucial to making the sale to the reader.
Your heroine needs to be at the center of the plot. Your story is really her story. Fifteen or twenty years ago, her point of view was usually the only one. Nowadays, authors make room for the hero's point of view, and sometimes even secondary characters'. But a romance novel is still the story of the heroine's romance — she's the focus, the pivot on which all action turns. In the end, the happy ending is happy because she literally gets her man.
Drawing the reader into your story
Because she's the reader's alter ego — the reader's avenue into the story — your heroine directly controls everything the reader feels, and whether or not she keeps reading. To get your reader involved in the novel, convince her that your heroine's not only someone she would like to know, but is also someone she would like to be.
When the reader identifies — whether consciously or subconsciously — with the heroine, she takes on the heroine's thoughts and feelings as her own. As she reads the story, the reader feels everything's happening to her, not just a fictional character.
The reader's identification is your secret weapon to make the reader fall in love with the hero. He has to be appealing on his own merits. But suppose you make him a cowboy, and your reader generally goes for suit-and-tie guys? Your heroine's thoughts and feelings — as she falls for the hero — become the reader's thoughts and feelings, too, until suddenly the reader has fallen in love with her first cowboy.
Making your heroine feel real
To foster the reader's identification with the heroine, you need to make your heroine feel real. Making her feel real doesn't necessarily mean depicting her as someone your reader could be or might know. Instead, it means giving her character reference points that readers recognize, which let your readers easily slip into the heroine's role and internalize her thoughts and feelings. Here are five rules for creating believable heroines.
Make your heroine's emotional responses realistic.She's certainly going to experience things in the course of the book that most women never experience in real life, so your reader can't say, "I remember how I felt when that happened to me." So how do you get the reader to go along for the ride when your heroine's in the protective custody of a handsome detective, or playing incognito sex games with the suave publisher of a men's magazine? Simple. Just make her respond as the reader would. If a woman would be scared or shocked (and also attracted to the hero, of course) in real life, let your heroine feel that way, too. Her realistic response to a seemingly unrealistic situation will make sense to the reader and keep her caught up in your story.
Sowing the seeds of conflict
The sparks of all conflict come from your characters, and the best conflict is emotional. Your heroine's the key character, so root the novel's conflict in your heroine's emotions. When the heroine's emotions feel real, her emotional conflict also feels real.
The circumstances may be unrealistic — like my previous example of the incognito sex games with the suave publisher — but her conflict can still be one the reader identifies with. What if your heroine has always been unsure of her ability to attract — and hold — the attention of a man, so she's afraid that when the hero finds out who she really is, he'll lose interest in her? This conflict is emotionally based and is one your reader can empathize with.
Exhibiting identifiable traits
Give your heroine character traits that feel real.She often has a job or lifestyle that your reader will never have. Maybe your heroine is a spy, a federal judge, a minister, or the daughter of a millionaire and her first car was a Mercedes. On the surface, she may seem too far outside the reader's realm of experience for that crucial sense of identification to occur, but a few well-chosen character traits can change that. Maybe she likes to drive too fast or is always playing with her hair. Maybe she has a soft spot for stray dogs or coos at babies in the supermarket.
Something small and human that you briefly mention just once or twice can resonate with the reader and make her realize that, for all their differences, she and the heroine aren't so dissimilar after all. Just don't mention these traits over and over again, because then they seem forced, which will distance your reader instead of drawing her in.
Keeping complexity in mind
Make your heroine a complex and interesting human being. You may think that having a complex and interesting heroine goes without saying, but not all writers realize this necessity. Many heroines are just plain boring. They have whatever character traits the author decided were necessary for the plot — curious, lonely, and intelligent, for example — but that was it. They don't seem like real people who have quirks, contradictions, and layers worth uncovering.
Of course, don't go to such extremes that your heroine feels like a mass of tics, insecurities, and disconnected enthusiasms. She needs to be strong, admirable, and intelligent, and she should definitely feel like herself and no one else.
Overlooking her own great looks
Don't let your heroine realize she's beautiful.This tip may seem like a small point, but especially in our visually driven society, it's actually an important one. Most women are very critical of their own appearances. Most women look in the mirror and see flaw after flaw, not their good points — even though they know they have them!
Most romance heroines are quite attractive, but if all your heroine does is admire her own beauty, readers aren't able to identify with her. So, instead of working your heroine's description into the story through her point of view, let the reader see her through the hero's eyes. After all, no one can object if he finds her beautiful. Giving her a flaw or two doesn't hurt, either. Maybe her hair is a beautiful shade of red but has a tendency to frizz in the humidity, or maybe she needs glasses to read. Little touches like these make her more human and easier for the reader to empathize with.
True heroines are strong but flawed. An imperfect heroine makes a perfect heroine. At first glance, that probably doesn't seem to make any sense, but it does, and for several reasons:
- Readers can't identify with a perfect heroine: No one is perfect. So if you make your heroine perfect, without flaws, fears, or vulnerabilities, your reader won't feel the bond that keeps her inside the heroine's head and turning the pages. By introducing weaknesses and vulnerabilities, you let the reader create that all-important bond with the heroine.
- Static characters are boring: Your heroine (and yes, your hero, too) can't remain static over the course of the book. As the plot progresses, you need to make your heroine develop, change, grow, and discover things about herself and her abilities — especially how to love and live with her hero. If your heroine starts out perfect, she has nowhere to go. But if she has insecurities, past failures to put to rest, doubts about herself and her abilities, or an out-and-out bad habit — maybe a quick temper, or impatience that leads to rash, unwise decisions — she has room for progress, and readers will want to see how she masters the challenges of the plot and the romantic relationship.
- Imperfections call for complementary strengths: Part of what makes a couple right for each other is that they complement each other; they need each other, and bring out the best in each other. The same must be true of your hero and heroine, so the reader believes they belong together.
- Your heroine's insecurities and flaws allow room for the hero in her life and in her heart. As an example, perhaps your heroine comes from a broken family, which left her doubting her ability to succeed in a relationship, much less be a successful mother. Pets are the most she can manage, she's decided. So who moves in next door? A single father whose 5-year-old daughter just can't stay away from the heroine's golden retriever. Suddenly she finds herself playing mom at unexpected moments — not to mention having dinner at the hero's house so he can thank her for her help, where she discovers that maybe she does have what it takes to win the love of a good man after all. Without her insecurities, you wouldn't have a story — or a romance.
Naming your heroine
Odds are, an editor has never turned down a manuscript because she didn't like a character's name, but the names you choose for your characters can subliminally express whether you have an ear for language or a knack for thorough research. Although a rose by any other name might smell as sweet, the idea of buying a dozen skunk cabbages doesn't appeal to most people. Names carry both connotations and information, so as a writer, you want to make your characters' names work for you, not against you. And because your heroine's your key character, her name is also key.
Ultimately, select the name that simply is your heroine's name, the name that belongs to her as an individual. Listen to your instincts as an author. At the same time, know the consequences of your decision, so you can make them work for you as you write your romance.
Choosing an accurate name
Taking accuracy into account when naming a character may sound odd, but the idea is important. You want your heroine's name to fit seamlessly into her world. Her name is part of the illusion that makes her feel real.
For instance, if you're writing a Medieval romance, don't name your heroine Tawana or Tiffany. In any historical romance, choose a name that's appropriate to the period. When you don't choose a historically accurate name, the editor may question the accuracy of all your research. And research — especially in a historical novel, where most readers have to be told how people dressed, what they ate, and any other details of their lives — is crucial, so an editor needs to know she can rely on you to get it right.
The accurate-naming rule applies to ethnicity and region, too. If your heroine's Scandinavian, the names Ellie and Rose aren't appropriate first names, and Smith and Weinstein aren't suitable surnames. If your heroine's from New England, she's unlikely to go by Sarah Kate, because that double-name construction is more indicative of the American South.
But watch out for place-based stereotypes, such as Sarah Kate from down South. If your heroine's name sounds like a cliché, your reader may think the heroine herself is a cliché, too. You also want your heroine's name to sound unique so she'll stand out from the other characters in your book, who may need to be defined by their names more than your heroine does.
Connotations count: Pretty is as pretty does
Some names just sound nicer than others, like rose versus skunk cabbage. Every generation has its own standards of beauty — in clothes, cars, and names. With no offense meant to anyone who has a mother, aunt, or sister named Myra, it's a tough name to pull off for a heroine these days. Younger generations are conditioned to think of Myra as an old-fashioned name, so if you choose it, you're fighting an uphill battle to convince the reader that the name isn't an accurate indication of the heroine's personality. That's not to say you can't choose a name that creates challenges for you, just know what those challenges are so you can overcome them.
Be aware of any connotations the name you choose carries so you can work with them or against them to create your heroine. Choose a name that has no real connotations, so you can create your heroine from scratch, or pick one that communicates what you want to convey about your heroine. Is she brash and iconoclastic? Bree (with its echo of "breezy") may work. Quiet and feminine? Perhaps Emma or another name that hints at the past and has a soft sound. A tomboy? Try Meg or Becky — something that has a playful lilt. Or, if you choose a name that has connotations that clearly don't fit your heroine — Emma for a tomboy or Mabel for an adventurous astronaut, for example — be aware of the mismatch so you can work to counter it. You may even have another character comment on her name, so you can bring it out into the open and get it out of the way.
Unisex names are trendy now. But if you name your heroine Jamie or Sam (short for Samantha), be aware of one challenge in her future: back-cover copy. For a reader, flipping a book over and reading about the perfect romance between Jamie and Jake or Sam and Rafe can be a little jarring. Unisex names are less of a problem in the books themselves, but know that you're creating a challenge on the marketing end.
Is exotic erotic?
The short and oh-so-definitive answer is . . . sometimes. Exotic (meaning different, not necessarily from an exotic locale) names can be beautiful, musical, romantic, and enticing. Romina. Michelline. Shoshanna. But exotic names can also be so strange, attention-getting, and unpronounceable that they stop the reader in her tracks, pulling her out of the story to sound out a name. Shivareena. Caledonia. Briganta. Don't try so hard to choose something different that you work against your own best interests.