What's Wrong with Ideal Heroines?
Updated: Mar 9
I received criticism recently about the heroine in one of my stories being too perfect. My friendly reviewer had access to only two chapters of my novel. I suspect if he'd been given more of it to read, he would have changed his mind.
But the objection got me thinking. How often are heroines in stories imperfect people? I’m not referring to literary antagonists who are obviously flawed, such as Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Rachel from My Cousin Rachel, or Annie Wilkes from Misery.
At the moment, I can think of only five examples of imperfect heroines (who aren't antagonists):
Diane (Mulholland Drive)
Scarlett O’Hara (Gone With the Wind)
Virginia Woolf (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)
Lisbeth Salander (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
And yet, an unstoppable flood of fanciful female figures comes upon me:
Jane (Jane Eyre)
Lisa (Rear Window)
Maria (West Side Story)
Jo March (Little Women)
Princess Leia (Star Wars)
Snow White (Snow White)
Wendy Darling (Peter Pan)
Belle (Beauty and the Beast)
Anne (Anne of Green Gables)
Mary Poppins (Mary Poppins)
Princess Anne (Roman Holiday)
Dorothy Gale (The Wizard of Oz)
Nancy Drew (Nancy Drew series)
Hermione Granger (Harry Potter)
Scout Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird)
Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games)
Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibilities)
But wait, wasn’t Hermione conceited? Or was she was just more mature than Harry Potter and Ron Weasley? That’s a problem? What about Jo March (Little Women), who kept rebuffing Theodore Laurence’s bid for marriage? Is it wrong for women to make their own decisions?
I’ve never read a romance novel, but I understand they're notorious for floodlighting faultless femmes. My family keeps telling me that if I’m going to be a successful author, I must appeal to female readers—who apparently like their sparkly and pristine upscale counterparts.
Which gets me back to Adrianna (Hanover), the target of my critic’s derision. The only physical descriptor of the girl in the entire novel is the sentence:
Her eyes rolled beneath fans of lashes.
If that’s all it takes to create a perfect heroine, then I'm a really, really good writer.
Perhaps my critic was referring to her behavior, such as during this exchange between her and the main character:
She put a finger to her mouth as if to say, shhh. “Hey—” the word burst from her lips, “let’s go for a drive. You can show me around.”
“Drive to where?”
“Around the valley.” She looked up at the veil of clouds circling the half moon.
“Tonight?” Kyle said.
She laughed. “No, we’re dancing tonight.” She twirled in a full circle, looking up with her arms in the air, and then lowering them to her hips with a slap. A smile came upon her face. “How about a drive tomorrow morning? We can meet here.” She motioned to the curb.
“Yes,” Kyle said, trying to look reasonable. “Nine o’clock?”
I’ve read countless times that good literary characters must be three-dimensional, realistic, and non-cliché. Yet, most of the most famous books worldwide feature flawless heroines.
This is a great puzzle for me.
The typical heroine
The following are the characteristics of the typical modern literary heroine according to the latest qualified sources:
She captures attention
She’s her own authority
She’s valued for her wisdom
She has faith in her ambitions
She changes over the course of the story
I suspect that most women in real-life do not possess all of these traits.
Here's another fact to add to the debate. Just about everything in literary fiction isn't representative of reality:
Fictional events are more exciting than real-life experiences
Fictional problem resolution occurs more quickly than in real-life
Fictional dialogue is crisper and more efficient than real-life dialogue
Fictional obstacles are usually more daunting than real-life challenges
If everything else is idealized in fiction, why can’t women be, also?
Some critics despise idealized female protagonists with such ferocity that they’ve given them the special name of Mary Sue. A Mary Sue has the following traits:
Beloved by all
It gives me great satisfaction to formally declare that my poor heroine in Hanover possesses none of these traits.
Having to wait
We live in an age of instant gratification. Everyone wants everything right away. What do we do about readers getting the wrong impression about something in the story early on (where in my case the heroine appears to be overidealized)?
Will the reader stick around long enough
to witness the explanation?
I suggest three ways to help the reader wait for what will later be explained in the story:
Make the "problem" so egregious that it's clear to the reader that something is up. This frees the reader from wondering if the author just wrote the story poorly. Or,
Cause one of the characters to complain about the problem. This lets the reader know that the author knows that something is wrong. This helps the reader wait until the perceived flaw is explained or resolved. Or,
Go full Rosemary’s Baby and have the characters unconcerned about things that the reader clearly knows are terribly wrong. The reader then knows something is amiss, but the characters do not. This makes the story feel creepy.
What you never want is to allow the reader to wonder:
Is the story really strange on purpose, or
Is the author just a poor writer?
Authors are supposed to have absolute control over their fans. It’s not good for impressionable readers to be allowed to have thoughts not intended by the author.
Our readers want to be directed, so don't leave them wandering in indecision. Authors are like defense lawyers, but with much lower salaries. Let's keep the jury under our thumbs so they’ll believe only what we tell them.
And finally, if certain people aren't willing to accept perfect women into their lives, then they must improve themselves until they can mix with better people. This will help make the world a better place, which I say is a good idea.