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Friday, April 29, 2011

Damsels in Distress:

Crafting a Heroine Worth Saving

By Michelle Griep

Let’s be honest, reading is an escape. The grind of life sometimes pulverizes us to such a fine dust, our only recourse is to grab a book off the shelf and slink over to the big butt chair in the corner of the family room. And when you finally leave behind your troubles, journey into the story world of a different space and time, how long will you put up with a whiny, flake of a female main character?

Probably about as long as it takes you to fling the book against the far wall.

Assuming that’s not the ideal you’re striving for as a writer, how in the world do you avoid such a violent reaction to one of your heroines?

There are a few key qualities you need to balance in your heroine to make her a damsel worthy of saving...or at least reading about.

Barbie vs. Whoopi Goldberg

Everyone wants to slap an airhead. If a character is continually clueless, any admiration you try to create via other attributes will fail. Miserably. And just as annoying is an opinionated hardhead who won’t listen to reason. The ideal heroine knows her own mind but is willing to consider other perspectives.

Varuca Salt vs. Pollyanna

Who doesn’t hear enough complaining in real life? If you make your heroine a PMS goddess, no one is going to turn the page. On the flip side, do you know anyone who never grumbles? A sassy retort, hysterically sarcastic, can add humor and realism to your character. Sprinkle these in, though. There’s a fine line between a distinctive flavor and too salty.

June Cleaver vs. Xena Warrior Princess

Doormat characters are annoying. If a heroine doesn’t respect herself, why should the reader? Neither should your gal be a bully. Strive to balance forcefulness with moments of uncertainty. Makes for a more complex character.

Paris Hilton vs. Mother Teresa

Sex crazed women prance across TV screens 24/7. Who needs to crack open a book and read about one? But if you want to make your heroine a realistic, flesh-and-blood female, she’s got to notice every now and then the male of the species. God created us as sexual beings. This is an area where the middle of the road is the safest place to write.

Nancy-Needs-A-Man vs. Gloria Steinem

If your heroine sucks the life out of the hero, it’ll deflate your story faster than a sheet of bubblewrap thrown to my kids. An over-the-top needy woman is one I personally want to strangle. However, if your heroine is completely self-sufficient, there’s no need for her to interact with or depend upon the hero, weakening the conflict potential in your story. It’s often fun and can be a successful tool to combine both these factors in your heroine. A battle between her intellect and emotions is something most women can relate to.

Juggling all these qualities creates a well-rounded and memorable female character. Sounds easy enough, but it’s difficult to keep all those balls in the air at the same time.

Especially if you bring a contemporary woman back to the past, which is what I did in my most recent novel UNDERCURRENT. Yes, you guessed it…a shameless commercial break is about to slap you upside the head.

People go missing every day. Many meet with foul play, some leave the social grid by choice, but others are never accounted for. Such is the fate of successful linguistics professor Cassie Larson. She leads a life her undergrad students hope to attain, until she tumbles into the North Sea and is sucked into a swirling vortex…and a different century.

Alarik, son of a Viking chieftain, is blamed for a murder he didn’t commit—or did he? He can’t remember. On the run, saving a half-drowned foreign woman wasn’t in his plans.

Ragnar is a converted pagan shunned by many but determined to prove his Cousin Alarik’s innocence. He didn’t count on falling in love with Cassie or the deadly presence of evil that threatens his village in Alarik’s absence.

Check out UNDERCURRENT to see how I put into practice all the qualities of the perfect damsel in distress.

Michelle Griep’s been writing since she first discovered blank wall space and Crayolas. She seeks to glorify God in all that she writes—except for that teenage graffiti phase. You can find out more about Michelle at And about Undercurrent here and here.


  1. Thanks for sharing your damsel do's and don'ts.

  2. In other words, don't use a stock character as a main heroine? :D

    I was trying to remember what books I've read where heroines violated these. Elsie Dinsmore is the only one I remember liking, the angel with no faults, but she managed to hold my interest. Still not sure how.

    My favorite heroines, however, all do obey these rules. Who knew there were so many unique characters down the center of the road? ;)

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Undercurrent sounds great, Michelle! Thanks!

  5. A big thanks to Novel Journey for hosting me. Hopefully these tips will spare the reading world from suffering through yet another slappable heroine.

  6. That's what I loved first about your writing, Michelle. You create great female leads. You male leads are also hot, but that's another subject. ;)

  7. So you want I should turn up the heat and write a hunky hero how-to?

  8. Very cute. And might I just say Michelle is sooooo talented. I love her books!

  9. Of course you might just say, G...
    and I'll slip ya that $50 in the mail for saying so.

  10. Ooh, do write a hero how-to! I'd be interested in what you have to say.

  11. Uh...senior moment? I totally forgot I already did write a hero how-to a few years ago right here on Novel Journey. Here's the link:

  12. That's right you did, and your heroes are very studly, too.

  13. Well honey, let me tell you, as an author writing about a Viking warrior hero, all I had to do was show up with a pen in hand to make that hunk-of-man studly.

  14. Cool, Michelle. And great voice.


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