Monday, September 28, 2009

What Makes a Heroine "Mature"?

by Linsey Lanier

1. complete in natural growth or development, as plant and animal forms: a mature rose bush.
2. ripe, as fruit, or fully aged, as cheese or wine.
3. fully developed in body or mind, as a person: a mature woman.

Synonyms: aged, grown, adult, ripe.
Antonyms: childish, raw, green, young

* * *
When my beta reader critiqued some of my early manuscripts, she asked me "How old is this heroine supposed to be?"
I had to think. I remember answering "twenty-six."
"She seems eighteen," she replied.
She had a point. At that time, my heroines were shallow, silly, too sweet, and all they could think about was the hero.

I had problems with supporting characters, too. "How old is the little girl supposed to be?" she asked about a a child in one of my books.
"Eight or nine," I said.
"She seems five."
Hey, maybe I should have gone for YA.

Instead, I focused on making my heroines (and secondary characters) seem more mature. I swung the other way, and my next heroine was a little too tough and bitter (she was an abused spouse).

Beta reader said "She's interesting,
but I wouldn't want to be friends with her." From contests and submissions, I got, "Can't connect with this heroine."

My conclusion? Neither of those extremes makes for a compelling heroine. In my opinion, it's not about the chronological age we assign to our heroines. It's about her inner being. The way she talks, the way she acts. Her thoughts. Her psychology.

In "The Fire in Fiction," Donald Maass asks, "What draws you to people in life? An even better question is, to what degree are you drawn to people in life? It varies, doesn't it? most people leave you indifferent, I bet. When you are pushing your loaded shopping cart across the supermarket parking lot, are you filled with love for your fellow shoppers?"

He gives this sage advice. "Whether they are public figures or just ordinary in profile, our heroes and heroines are people whose actions inspire us. We would not mind spending ten straight hours or even ten days with them."

"People whose actions inspire us." Interesting.

I'm learning. I'm working on the tough heroine mentioned above. And I think the heroine of my current project is a better blend of tough and tender, vulnerable and strong.

So my question for the day is this. How do you strive to create the perfect blend of maturity in a heroine in your books? What elements do you think make the reader connect? What makes a heroine sympathetic without being whiny?

Here are some characteristics I've collected from our previous discussions this month about the mature heroine:
  • Zest for life.
  • Feeling like the world holds many more possibilities.
  • Walk that tightrope between a dour reality and a pollyanna fantasy.
  • From a love standpoint, I think you can fall in love at any age. I just don't think you do so with as much reckless abandonment at 40 or later.
  • They know who they are, faults and virtues, therefore know what they want, know what boundaries to set with others, know what they will and will not do.
  • They are significantly more confident than their younger selves, thus are significantly sexier.
  • The heroine who knows what she'll put up with in a man and what she won't is infinitely more interesting, don't you agree? She's a force to be reckoned with and makes a better match for a strong hero, IMO.
Whether she's struggling with the problems of adolescence or battling hot flashes,I believe it's qualities like these that make a heroine compelling. And if we work hard and get it right, we just might create a heroine who is timeless.

What would you add to this list?

Photos from MorgueFile


Debbie Kaufman said...

Morning, Linsey:
Loved the comment from Donald Maass. I was reading that book the other day! Great points, too. I think I struggle more with where my character pans out emotionally in life experience than I do a chronological age.

Tammy Schubert said...

Great post, Linnea.

Debbie, I agree. Although age is one way to measure a person, I think a person's actual maturity should be measured on their growth resulting from life experiences.

There are people in their 40s who haven't emotionally progressed much past 25. Some 20 year olds can demonstrate more maturity than people twice their age.

Cyrano said...

Excellent, excellent post. It made me think and I had a few ah ha moments.
One of them was when I read this,
"In my opinion, it's not about the chronological age we assign to our heroines. It's about her inner being. The way she talks, the way she acts. Her thoughts. Her psychology."
Now that says alot.
Another was Donald Mass's wisdom when he asks, "What draws you to people in lif?" That's an eye opener too. We want to like our heroines, relate to them, feel for them, sympathize with them. And if we're not drawn to them, well, then we'll probably end setting the book down...or tossing it over our shoulders in disgust as I've done once or twice.
And it sounds like you're a lucky gal. A critique partner who gives it to you straight and helps you in the process. I've got three of them.
Wonderful post!
Have a great day and can't wait to see you at M&M.

Cyrano said...

Actually, Donald Mass asked, "What draws you to people in life," not lif.

Dianna Love said...

Thought provoking post, Linsey -

When I work on characters, I think along the lines of the significant decisions they make in a story and what drives those decisions. Is it experience they fall back on or are they going through a learning curve and have to make choices without the benefit of experience?

It's our life experience or lack of, that influences decisions we make every day. So a more mature person will very possibly react and act differently than a younger person when facing the same dilemma even if they both had the same back story. That's when we each identify with them no matter what age we are because we either remember that age and how we felt when struggling at that time or can appreciate being the same age and facing similar current situations or we think about what life holds for as as we age and encounter situations being presented by an older character. If any of that makes sense. "g"

It's sort of like Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven. When he was a younger gunslinger he killed at will with no second thoughts. When he's an older man (50s), he still has the same back story that made him a gunslinger, but experiences (marrying) since then has changed him over the years and now (opening of story) he hesitates to kill so easily, but he's still capable of it when he has to face shooting someone. Same character at different ages in his life facing the same decisions.

Hope i didn't confuse anyone with this. I really enjoyed this topic and the comments.

Carol Burnside said...

Linsey, I would add that habits are more ingrained in the older heroine and therefore she might need a bigger catalyst to effect change. For instance, a widowed woman who'd deferred to her husband in the big decisions may find it incredibly hard to make big-life decisions on her own. That trait would be a great way to show growth in the character.

Thought-provoking post. Good job!

Maxine Davis said...


I enjoyed the post and it made me think.

I think you and the others just about covered what makes a mature heroine.

The older I get, I do tend to speak my mind more, not sit around and "take it" when I don't agree with what is said or done, and really appreciate family, friends and life more.

Still liking that mature feeling.

Susan May said...

Nice post. As we age I do think we become more interesting. We can talk on more and larger subjects. I like people that think for themselves and not just go along.

Anna Steffl said...

I think the key word in character development is "compelling." Scarlet O'hara is a great example of a heroine who you wouldn't want as a friend, who's pretty nasty, yet entirely compelling.

Very thought-provoking post!

Linsey Lanier said...

Hi Debbie. Yes, I agree. The emotional growth of the heroine is really tough for me, too.

Good point, Tammy. Those are the kind of people who end up as colorful secondary characters (sometimes to get back at them without them knowing it...) Don't forget to change the details so they can't recognize themselves, LOL.

Thanks, Tamara. Glad I could provide some inspiration. Yes, I love my beta reader. She has been a big help to me. It's important that our heroines appeal not only to us as their creator, but to potential readers, too. Sometimes, those two don't jive. :)

Thanks, Dianna. Your comment is thought-provoking, too. "the significant decisions they make in a story and what drives those decisions. Is it experience they fall back on or are they going through a learning curve and have to make choices without the benefit of experience?" I need to chew on that one awhile.

The Clint Eastwood example is a good one. It shows how a character can grow without losing his hero characteristics.

Hi Carol. Good thought and good example. I really like stories about women who grow in their independence. However, with such a character, you have to be careful to give her enough strengths at the beginning, even if she has been dependent on her husband, so the reader won't get disgusted with her before she gets to the growth part.

Maxine, I think I speak my mind more, too. Wish I could have done that when I was younger. Glad you said it. Being mature feels good!

Thanks, everyone for all the nice remarks.


Pamela-reader said...

On the article phrase "The heroine who knows what she'll put up with in a man and what she won't is infinitely more interesting, don't you agree?"

Yes, I agree... but even if she's positive what she'll put up with, you gotta stretch her limits with the hero anyhow!

And I just LOVE those heros who are turned on by confident women. (wink)

Linsey Lanier said...

Thanks, Susan. That's another one to add to the list. Being able to think for yourself.

Thanks, Anna. Yes, "compelling" is the operative word. Easy to recognize. Harder to do.

Hi Pam!
Here's the lady I've been talking about! Oh, yes. I love heroes who are turned on by confident women, too. If only that happened more often in real life. Guess that's why it's fiction, LOL.


Pamela-reader said...

Grin! Yep guys, I'm Linsey's Beta reader... Blunt, but smiling... that's me. :-) It is very appropriate that she used some of my comments above... one I remember especially was referring to one of her minor characters as a "whiny spoiled brat acting 12 instead of twenty something". She just looked at me and said "really?" and started making notes. (I'm so glad she takes my comments in the spirit they are intended!!) I love reading her stuff! I've seen her heroines of all flavors and enjoyed different personality traits in each one of them.

Keep up the good work Linsey! It's cool to be ahead of the other folks on here.... after all, I've read your latest already!!

Everyone: Come-on! Write faster already! I'm eagerly waiting your next On-line Read to follow Aspen Expose! You guys did a great job with that one. It was such fun to see the twists you gave each other.

Marilyn Baron said...

I enjoyed your post. I have the Donald Maass book but haven't read it yet.

What makes the heroine sympathetic without being whiny? I have the most trouble with that one so I was happy to get some ideas from the comments on your post.

Marilyn Baron

Sandy Elzie said...

Hi, Sorry for the late appearance...just a heck of a busy day.

Maturity isn't a number, it's what's between your ears. Life can help mold you, but for someone to progress to being mature, she must want to be mature; must want to stand on her own feet vs letting everyone else make life decisions for her and must be willing to stand behind those decisions...regardless of what people think of her or what people say.

A mature person stands for what is right...what's right for them and their family or country and is willing to buck friends & family, tradition, customs, ANYONE AND ANYTHING to do what her heart, soul & mind says is the correct thing to do. Period.

Sandy Elzie
(my kids always said I should have been a drill sergeant. (g)

J Perry Stone said...

"From a love standpoint, I think you can fall in love at any age. I just don't think you do so with as much reckless abandonment at 40 or later."

Hell no, and thank the Lord. I really don't think I could add anything, Linsey. You're amazing.

Linsey Lanier said...

Latecomers! Welcome. Glad I checked back in. :)

Hi again, Pam. Thanks for the praise. Don't know what I'd do without your honest feedback. Hold tight. The next Expose book is coming soon...

Hi Marilyn, Glad I could be of some help!

Sandy, I love that - "maturity is what's between your ears." So true. "A mature person stands for what is right." An excellent adage for a heroine.

Aw, shucks, JP! Now I'm cyber-blushing.

Thanks, everyone for all your thoughts. Have a wonderful night. :)


Tami Brothers said...

Wow, Linsey. You really make a girl think!

I need to work on my character, too. Right now, she's too weak and I did that because I was afraid to make her unlikable. This really puts it all into perspective. I'll have to write these down!