Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Hero and Heroine of Your Readers' Dreams

What separates a good book from a great one?

Many things (ha!). But at the very top of that list is an exceptionally-crafted hero and heroine. You know the kind I'm talking about. The stories you read ten years ago that you still remember. The woman you spent two months imagining yourself as. The man you wished had an existence outside of a fictional reality!

Last time I spoke with my agent, Karen Solem, about my newest novel, she said something so wise. She told me to spend time crafting a heroine my future audience would want to imagine themselves as. Instantly it clicked for me, because so many times I've caught myself doing this very thing. As a teenager, I fell absolutely in love with Robin Jones Gunn's Christy Miller series. I can't tell you how many times I imagined myself as Christy, or how I secretly pretended she was a real life friend. Then years later, I found out that one of my best friends in college had done the same thing when she'd read these books! Maybe you did too. If not with Christy Miller, I'd be willing to bet that if you're a writer, you've been impacted in this way by a character somewhere along the line.

And do I even need to mention the power of a well-crafted hero? Romance just doesn't work if we don't like the guy. I, for example, am not going to spend 300 pages with an alligator-eating, woman-demeaning redneck unless I know he's got it coming in the end. I would, however, spend another 700 pages with Mr. Darcy, any day of the week. Especially the BBC version. What is it about Colin Firth, anyway? (I hope everyone appreciates that I expanded the image above to "large" size. It's almost like he's staring into your eyes, right?)

So we know the draw this kind of hero and heroine can have upon the reader. But the question is, how do we create this appeal, this tension?

Creating An Appealing Heroine...

1) Give her a flaw we can identify with. Is she deathly afraid of shoe shopping? If so, I'm sorry, but your average woman can't identify with that. Being afraid of public speaking, on the other hand, is a different story. This kind of flaw resonates with us and makes us empathize with the character because we already know how it feels to be in her shoes (the same ones that she liked shopping for and got a stellar deal on).

2) Make her brave, unique, strong. Something about your heroine has to be larger than life to encourage the reader to aspire to new places in her own life and faith journey. While you do want your heroine to be relatable and believable, she should also convey an inner strength that is unique to her, just as the gifts of God in our own lives are unique.

3) Make her likable. I chose a picture of Meg Ryan from You've Got Mail to exemplify this because really, who doesn't want to be Kathleen Kelly? Your heroine might have a great conflict and might be very realistic, but if we don't have a reason to like her, we aren't going to care what happens to her in the end--whether she ultimately finds love or not. Try to find ways to endear your heroine to your reader. My heroines, for instance, tend to love animals because that's something that's close to my own heart and is easy to write. Maybe your heroine will help the homeless or work with autistic children. The possibilities are endless, but we need a reason to cheer her on.

Now On To Those Boys.... Creating A Hero Who Makes Us Sigh

1) Make him strong. Self-confession time--I like to write sensitive men. I can't help it. I've always gone for the artsy musician type. Blame the literature-lover in me. So when I say your hero needs to be strong, I don't mean he has to be built like a football player and grunt a lot. Maybe in your book he does. And if that's the case, his character arc can be learning English. Just kidding! But in all seriousness, women like a strong man. We do. It's just a fact. We like someone who's capable of rescuing the heroine but who's also sensitive enough to wait for her to choose his rescue.

2) Give him an "awww" moment. I learned this concept from Rachel Hauck and Susan May Warren. Early on in your book, your hero should do something active that endears himself to the reader. Maybe he helps an elderly lady cross the road or teaches kids how to read in his spare time. Maybe it's as simple as donating a few dollars to the baseball team raising money outside Publix. No matter what you come up with, we need to see his kindness in action so we know his heart and can forgive any insensitive moments he may have with the heroine after that point.

3) Make him good at something, and make him suave. Have you ever seen Tristan MacManus on Dancing with the Stars? I'm loosely basing my hero off of him for the reason I'm about to discuss (and let's face it--being Irish means extra points). Like the heroine, your hero should have a strength that is uniquely his. It could be something about his personality, his career, his family, a talent he has, etc. The important thing is, we need to see his skills in action so that we feel like he's competent to take care of the heroine (who we already love), and also so he wins us over as readers. And this is romance after all, so it needs to be... well... romantic! Even if you aren't writing straight romance, if you have a romantic thread, make sure you spend time really developing the reader's attraction to the hero, not just the heroine's attraction to him. One way to do this is to make him, for lack of a better word... sexy. Dancing, kitchen-cleaning, fire-fighting, dog-loving sexy.

Your turn! I want to hear who your favorite hero or heroine is (they could be from a book, a movie, or real life!) and why these people left such an impression on you. How can we strive to create those qualities in our own writing?

Ashley Clark writes romantic comedy with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blog and herTumblrShe's also on Facebook and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.

Photos from:,,


Julia said...

Great choices. A heroine that is memorable for me is Kathy Lee Bate's character in Fried Green Tomatoes. She struggles with her weight, and standing up to other people. BUT ultimately she finds a courage deep within in order to change her marriage and help her new friend Mrs. Threadgoode.

Jeanne T said...

Ashley, did you crawl into my head today? :) I have been pondering how to make my heroine more relatable. You've given me good food for thought.

Let's see, there are so many heroines and heroes I like. I like Kathleen Kelly too. I just watched that movie again a couple of weeks ago. But, I also liked Tom Hanks' character in that story. He discovered he wanted more than his money could buy or his father had. He humbled himself and went after her, in the most winning of ways.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Ahsley! You've given me much to think about.

Ashley Clark said...

Julia, I've never seen Fried Green Tomatoes, but I think that's an excellent example! Reminds me a bit of Laura Jensen Walker's book Miss Invisible. Have you read that one? It's so funny, and so easy to relate to because no matter what size we are, most of us can relate to having insecurities about our physical appearance. And the standing-up-to-other-people part makes me think of Rene Gutteridge's My Life As A Doormat, antoher one of my all-time favorite books. Thanks for stopping by and sharing this example! :)

Ashley Clark said...

Jeanne, I've been pondering it a lot lately too, which is why I decided to blog about it. I love that you brought up Tom Hanks' character because he is a great example of a strong hero. He's very good at what he does and loves his nephew and cousin (Did I get that right?), yet there's this incredible tension between him and the heroine. Plus he's just funny. And the humbling pursuit of Kathleen Kelly is another good point you make--that really endears the audience to him even before he wins over his lady.

Thanks for stopping by today!

Pepper said...

Heaven SAKES, Ashley - you started the morning off with Mr. Darcy AND Tristan from DWTS.
That's all I needed this morning :-) Whew....

And Miss Invisible by Laura Jensen Walker was HILARIOUS! Oh my goodness, definitely easy to relate to.

Love your list of characteristics. Meg Ryan and Sandra Bullock are so likeable in their movies - that 'girl next door' feel.

I think that whole 'overcoming' feeling from our heroines is necessary.
And I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the 'awww' moment.

That's why writing hero POV is so much fun!! :-)

Susan Anne Mason said...

Wonderful post, Ashley! It's tough to find a good balance, especially with my heroines, I find. Those flaws are pesky things - I have a hard time making my heroines really stand out.

Love doing the heroes though! LOL.

This is definitely a keeper!


Ashley Clark said...

Thanks, Pep! Sandra Bullock is definitely a great example. And I had no idea you love Tristan as much as I do... :D Good point about the heroine overcoming something... I think that is so true and sometimes so easy to forget to do!

Ashley Clark said...

Thank you, Sue! I know what you mean about the balance being tough. Something that has helped me is to think of flaws for my heroine that are still endearing, or at the least, to present them in such a way that the reader identifies with that struggle. That way the heroine has room to grow, but the reader also wants to see her succeed... it's a win win!

Lindsay Harrel said...

Yes, I CAN feel Colin staring into my eyes...dreamy...


I love Lucy from While You Were Sleeping. She's so quirky but loveable, and we all feel for her so much because she's alone. And we don't want her to be alone. We want her to be with Jack. She just has to. Even if he is...uh...leaning.

OK, feeling silly this morning.

I also LOVE Anne from Anne of Green Gables. Again, she has her quirks, but she's got a dream to be a writer and she does it. She is herself and no one can stop her--even if they try!

Nancy Kimball said...

I really liked this post, though I'm convinced I'm the only woman in the world who prefers Matthew Macfayden's Darcy. =)

My favorite hero ever is Michael Hosea from Redeeming Love and my favorite heroine is Julia Roberts' Erin Brockovitch. These are good lists, Ashley.

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Oooh, Ashley! Thank you! I'm really working hard to make my characters more likeable and relatable. I need to give them dimension. I'm going to go through each one of your tips and apply what will help to my story. Yay! Thanks again!

Ashley Clark said...

Loving the comments and examples, everyone!

Lindsay, I LOVE While You Were Sleeping. Such a great movie! And you'll find lots of Anne of Green Gables fans around here... the Alley Cats are always talking about Anne. (Don't tell them, but I don't know all that much about the story.)

Nancy, Redeeming Love is an EXCELLENT example that so strongly influenced the course of Christian fiction/romance. Thanks for bringing that up. Is Matthew Macfayden in the new version? If so, I enjoyed that one too. :)

Cindy, I know what you mean! I created the lists, and yet I'm still not sure I'm applying all my own tips! Ha! I need to go back through and focus on developing them. It's so easy to get swept up in the dialogue and forget to strategically endear the characters to the reader... at least it is for me!

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Oooo, Ashley, I am SO telling on you. You don't know much about Anne of Green Gables? We are going to have to have a lesson :)

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for this. I just realized I really need a save-an-animal moment (or something up that alley) for my hero in the first chapters I'm currently writing.

This was uber-helpful today!

Heather Day Gilbert said...

I enjoyed this post so much--definitely tweeting it!

It gets a little tricky when your main character is a little hard to handle (think Scarlett O'Hara). Sometimes you have to search for those admirable traits, b/c she's hidden them so far beneath her shell. But I love realistic characters, and we all have flaws--some more obvious than others!

I like the idea of a hero being proficient at something. Will keep that in mind!

Casey said...

Loved this post.

I just read Becky Wade's My Stubborn Heart--LOVED that book. Wow, what a GREAT one! And yes, I could totally see myself (wanted to actually, who wouldn't love Matt?) as Kate. SUCH a great heroine and Matt was such a dark and brooding hero.

Loved, loved, loved that book! Uber-good! :D

Ashley Clark said...

Rachelle, thanks for your feedback! It's so easy to put in that likable moment when we already love our hero, but it's also so easy to forget! I get so caught up in the action of the scene that I often forget the strategy behind what I'm writing.

Heather, thank you for your feedback and for offering to tweet the blog! My Twitter name is WriterAshley if you want to connect there. And your idea about the complicated heroine is a good one. I've gone down that route too in making heroines who are really quirky. If you think back to the most memorable heroines, many of them are spunky (Lorelei Gilmore even comes to mind), so great example. I think the biggest thing is just that we like the heroine, even with (and perhaps BECAUSE of) her spunk.

Casey, I haven't heard of that one! I'll have to pick it up once I finish Janice Thompson's Stars Collide (which is so cute!)

Mary Vee Writer said...

Tom Hank's character, Sam Baldwin in Sleepless in Seattle.

Belle from Beauty and the Beast. Willing to look at the inward appearance, kind, loving, risk taker, defender, beautiful, AND A BOOK WORM

Ashley Clark said...

I was hoping someone would mention Sleepless in Seattle! Doesn't get much better than that movie. And great idea about Belle, Mary! Thanks for sharing!

Angie Dicken said...

Ooh, I am so glad you wrote this as I begin my new novel! Great advice! My favorite hero and heroine duo are Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson in How To Lose A Guy In 10 days...well at least, that's who I think of right many good hero and heroines out there! I love how the hero in the music has that southern flare and shows his sensitive side. And Kate Hudson is spunky and beautiful! Actually, I think she looks a lot like the heroine I am writing. ;)

Ashley Clark said...

Oh, I LOVE that pair, Angie. I love Matthew McConaughey movies. Did you know he doesn't wear deodorant? That's what I've heard, at least. Crazy, right?

Looking forward to reading your heroine! :)

Angie Dicken said...

Yes, I have heard that too. But a true hero's sweat doesn't stink...stud basics.;)

Ashley Clark said...

Ha! Love it.

Faith said...

Great post, Ashley, all of your points are totally true!

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

LOL...I love Angie's comment! There's a lot we don't write because, well, it's just TOO real. :)

Great post, Ashley. My dad (who is an editor) said my heroine was not likeable. Too whiney. Sigh...I'm hoping with my new WIP to bring a heroine to life in a way people can relate to.

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

How about a couple counter-examples?

My husband enjoys You've Got Mail and While You Were Sleeping, but Kate and Leopold and Leap Year are two he was much cooler toward, while I liked.

The elements of likable and relatable (for both the hero/ine) were missing for him.

I'm glad somebody brought up Scarlet. I have a hard time making my characters "naturally" likable (like Kathrine Kelly) because ((self-disclosure here) *I'm* not "naturally" likable.

That is, people get me or they don't, and I'm trying to mature to the place where I'm okay with that.

Which makes me backwards feel that way about my characters. I mean, I'd *like* them to exude likability, and to me they do (as much as having a character-development arc will allow), but I've got feedback from my most persistent reader (granted she's the only one whose spoken up) that my heroines are consistently "unlikable" or "weak."

I know it's only one voice, but it gets weighted heavier since we're together all the time.

I'm thinking I need to just quit letting her read my stuff: she doesn't read anything with a romance line anyway...

But it hits deep, too, because I know (in terms of comparison) they aren't high on the traditionally likeable range.

Does anybody else feel like putting in the typical triggers/markers water down a character?

What about (instead of/in addition to "likable") looking at something I need a word for-- the opposite of neediness.

(This is getting long, sorry)

Most of my heroines start out in a position of trial/dependance (they're all based on fairy tales, and that's just the way women begin), so my challenge is to show that without rendering them unattractively needy.

So maybe that's where I'm not succeeding...

Really liked this post. It's helpful to see such specific suggestions.

Pepper said...

Amy Jane,
I love Leap Year and Kate & Leopold.
But I really like hard-to-love characters...except Scarlet. I've never really liked her (but don't let Julie Lessman hear me say that :-)

I really like Rochest from Jane Eyre.

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Pepper!!!! I'm telling Julie! I'm telling Julie! ;)

I also love Leap Year and Kate & Leopold, but I do understand a man's "coolness" toward them. They are independent and don't let others stand in their way.

That's kind of how I wrote my heroine in my first novel and my dad thought she was whiny and rough. I think men WANT to feel needed, so if they have to sit through a chick flick, then by-golly there better be a damsel in distress!

Just my two cents. :)

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...


Jane Eyre was my first romance novel. I still love it.

Concerning "less likable" characters, in those two movies in particular, part of the point of the characters seemed to be their non-universality.

(And I don't think I've ever made it through Gone with the Wind-- even the movie. Yeah, it was probably S. But maybe it was Ashley and Rett (?) too. I didn't find anybody to admire...

Angie Dicken said...

OH NO PEPPER!!! We have finally found something we don't agree on! I LOVE Scarlett! Such a perfect diva! She is awful, awful, awful, which makes me love her more because she's so true to herself!! :)
But to safe my face, I also love Melanie...but get more sick of her than Mrs. Butler ;)

Ashley Clark said...

Thanks, Faye!

Sherrinda, I have a hard time imagining you writing a whiney character! I hope you can find a heroine who really works for you for your WIP. It's so hard when we like our heroine but someone else doesn't "get" her like we do.

Amy, thanks so much for your thoughtful comments and for taking the discussion up a notch! Hearing that people don't "get" your writing voice or your heroine is a hard thing. I know I can relate to that with comedy (and I've heard Janice Thompson say this multiple times too) because some people seem to love my humor, and others don't get it at all.

My thoughts on this topic are complicated because I think we need to keep several things in mind. First, it is important to really listen for God's nudge and where He is leading us. We don't write to please our audience... we write to fulfill our calling in worship to God. And the best of writers have an audience their message strikes a deep cord with, and another audience who doesn't get them. And that's okay. Think about The Shack and the controversy that book sparked, but also the lives it changed. I've heard people say that the stronger your voice gets, the more polarized people will become in their response to your writing.

So I think what you said about getting feedback from other sources is wise. But something I noticed in your comment that I wanted to mention is (and this is hard!) I would encourage you to not feel like a critique of your characters is necessarily a critique of your personality. I know we put so much of our own heart and soul into our writing that we sometimes feel like the characters are an extension of ourselves, so a criticism of those characters can also really shake up our writing confidence. At least, I know that's how it is for me!

But the way I look at it is this: it really all depends on what you choose to highlight. So your character can have all those different aspects you're talking about, but what might help you instead of feeling like you have to start from scratch with the way you've crafted your characters is to think about re-proportioning these aspects of their personality. I had to do this with one of my heroines who is a germaphobe. When I first wrote that story, my heroine was coming across way too OCD and paranoid, and I really had to pare down the germ-fear references because she was coming across as a bit unstable! Ha!

As for the typical triggers/markers watering down a character, I can definitely see what you mean. But I think we as writers can avoid that by avoiding cliches. So I think the key is to find things that appeal to the majority of readers without using cliches, and that takes some creativity.

Just some thoughts in response! Hope that encourages you somewhat. Thanks again for stopping by.

Ashley Clark said...

Oh goodness, you ladies posted more comments while I was rambling on in that last one! Ha! I just thought I'd add that Amy Jane makes a good point that universality doesn't necessarily mean a likable character. Some characters who are universal are BORING. We want someone with a spark, with a uniqueness that sparkles.

Angie Dicken said...

safe should be "save"...geez, typos are my downfall!

Julie Lessman said...

Ashley, your agent is SO smart!! You said she told you to "spend time crafting a heroine my future audience would want to imagine themselves as."

After writing seven books, the character most of my readers relate to is Faith O'Connor, whose love for God emulates everything I want to be and, apparently, my readers too, so you have a smart agent, girl!!

And, Sherrinda ... no need to tattle ... I heard Pepper all the way up in St. Louis and I am NOT happy!! Scarlett is SUCH a great character!! Whether you relate to her or not, if a poll were taken about the top ten most notable heroines ever, SHE would be on the list, guaranteed. #10 maybe, but she'd be on there ... :)

But I forgive you, darlin' ...


Anonymous said...

Wow, thank you so much for that post!!! I'm working on writing a book of my own (I'm 16) and right now I'm in the rough process of thrashing out my characters personality's.
I have to admit that I copied the whole post onto a document so that I can go back and re-read it every time I'm stuck!
Thanks again,


Ashley Clark said...

Andrea, thank you so much for your response! I think it's so cool that you're already getting started on writing novels! Writing can be hard work, but stick with it, because it's also one of the most fun, rewarding things to do! Keep in touch on here or on Facebook with me and the other gals if you have any questions along the way or just want to chat, okay? :) Merry Christmas!