Is your heroine boring?

Filed under: writing

I love it when people ask me questions to talk about on this blog. I love it even more when the question is something I’m struggling with as well.

This is a long-ish question from the lovely Lisa, so I’m going to break it down a bit. Unfortunately I have no answers, but I do have some thoughts that might spark something in Lisa’s brain, or maybe someone else has more ideas. Lisa’s writing a women’s commercial fiction novel, and her problem is that she’s afraid her heroine is boring.

The heroine is Grace. She’s an interior designer with a passion for her work and period properties. She’s a mousy, studious person, committed to her career without much of a social life. There’s no doubting she’s cautious but I need her to be like this because her issue is she’s afraid to fail. She needs to be in control and she can do that in her work but she can’t in relationships and so she’s had a few brief flings which have fallen by the way side in the past because what if she trusted one of those men and they had broken her heart and the relationship had failed?

Okay. So the problem here is that the heroine’s main inner conflict is that she’s cautious and afraid to fail, and this has made her a bit dull. Which is fine in real life…but in commercial fiction, we tend not to want dull heroines, because we’re reading this for entertainment, right? The challenge, then, is to discover a way to get the reader hooked into the heroine, while still keeping her inner conflict. (I’m assuming you know, Lisa, WHY Grace is so afraid of failure, and what she thinks the horrible consequences of failure will be, so that you can raise the stakes for her as high as possible.)

By the way, I like how Grace’s need for control is manifest in her job, where she makes order out of chaos and decay. How does she reconcile the risks you need to take to be a successful designer, with her fear of failure? This could be an added layer to her conflict, for now or later.

So within the first chapter I establish her as the studious, dedicated, passionate-about-her-career person that she is, climbing to the top of the career ladder where she’s aspired to be, in charge of the artistic design of a 18C Georgian Townhouse. Then I bring in the inciting event: her boss takes the project off of her and gives it to his wife to handle, leaving Grace tasked with her pet hate; bog standard interiors on a development of new houses.

I think I’ve got all the ingredients there to make the reader want to read on but the person in my critique group has a point; if the reader finds the character boring, they won’t read on. So my problem is how do I make it more interactive for the reader? I’ve written it in the third person so I guess having a go in the first person might make it more immediate?

I think there are a few potential problems going on here, so I’ll look at them separately, but you might find in the end that it’s a combination of things that might work.

Act One problems
In a traditional three-act storytelling structure, which is what most commercial fiction uses, Act One is the (usually brief) set-up section, where you establish things like setting, the main character, and their underlying issues. This is what you say you’re doing in your first chapter. But since Act One is about setting up, rather than getting the story moving, it can be a little boring. That’s why many narratives actually start with the inciting event, plunging us straight into conflict and filling in all the Act One stuff as they move forward.

It might be as simple as skipping ahead in your story and starting at the moment of the inciting event. Or, less drastically, by cutting your Act One down to a couple of paragraphs, half a page to a page max. It’s worth a try, anyway.

However, sometimes you do need an Act One, to orient your reader. I began the draft of THE SUMMER OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY with the inciting event, and my editor thought I was too quick off the bat. She wanted a little time to establish who the heroine was before she started living dangerously. Unfortunately, my heroine, like yours, was in a rut—and ruts are boring.

So how did I create an Act One without (I hope) being boring? I used humour and voice, for one. That can help pull a reader in. I also gave my heroine a quirk or two—not annoying ones, just little things that make her unique. I tried to make the rut itself actually a little bit interesting—you could do that yourself with your heroine’s job. Also, I made sure that I wove in some conflict from the first line, showing that my heroine is bored with her rut, and establishing within a page that her best friend was emigrating.

First person might help, too, as you suggest. Can’t hurt to try; maybe using first person would add things like humour, voice, conflict, and interest that I mention above.

Passive heroine
Your other problem could be that the inciting event here forces your heroine into a passive role. Her boss is taking the project off of her and she can’t do anything about it, at least not at first. Passive heroines aren’t as interesting as active heroines.

What can you do to make Grace active in her own problems? Maybe you can start with her making a mistake, which leads to her boss taking away the project? This would tie in with her own fear of failure, too, giving us a good strong sense of her inner conflict and raising the stakes.

You can probably think of other ways to make her active in this situation, too.

The other conflicting factor could be that I introduce the secondary heroine, Izzy, in this scene too. Izzy, is very young (19), vibrant and with a lot to learn. Still living at home, her motivation is to become independent. My idea is that as the story evolves both heroine and secondary heroine will learn from each other; Grace will learn from Izzy that it’s okay to make mistakes, to go wrong, so long as you can put it right – essentially Izzy will help Grace become less ‘mousy’. Perhaps I should leave her out and just concentrate on the inciting event to start with – get the reader hooked?

It’s always a danger with a ‘mousy’ heroine that she’ll be overshadowed by a more vibrant secondary, and it sounds like that might be happening here. You might be right to trust your instincts and save Izzy for a little bit later in the book, when your reader is already on Grace’s side, and when they can see her for what you mean her to be—the heroine’s foil and a way each of them can learn. Or, you might find that trying one or more of the suggestions above makes Grace interesting enough so that she can compete with Izzy for the reader’s attention.

In GETTING AWAY WITH IT, there was a very good reason why I didn’t introduce spiky, sarcastic, difficult heroine Liza at the same time as her sweet, considerate, sunny twin sister Lee. I wanted my reader on Liza’s side before we see her much nicer twin.

I’m wrestling with an issue very like yours, Lisa, with my current WIP. My heroine, Fern, is super-nice. She’ll do anything for anybody, and while that’s one of her strengths, it’s also one of her weaknesses. I need to start my story showing this trait and conflict—which means that I need to start with a) Fern being put upon (ie passive) and b) Fern helping one of her friends, whose situation is necessarily more dramatic and therefore interesting than Fern’s.

I’m trying various ways of solving this problem, most of which I’ve mentioned above, though I’m not 100% sure I’ve cracked it yet.

Anyway, does anyone else have any other ideas of how to solve the dilemma of the boring heroine?

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  1. This is really interesting! I wondered also about a flashback snapshot opener of just a few hundred words (a prologue?) where we see the main character as a child or teenager going through an event that crucially informs her adult ‘need’ to be mousey. Perhaps something that directly reflects what the boss does to her ie takes away something she prizes and gives it to another female. Could the flashback show a birthday party scene where an adult takes her present and gives it to someone else, possibly a sister? She’s so hurt by this act that she consciously withdraws from life and sets out to be a wallflower because what’s the point in being anything else? X number of years later when the exact same thing happens again – the project is taken away from her and given to the boss’s wife – this unleashes a fury/energy and sets up a whole chain of events. The reader will be really gunning for the main character because they see that poignant moment from childhood? Just a thought.


    • Ooh, Karen, that’s really interesting! A lot of Grace’s hang-ups are to do with the fact that she had a rough-ride growing up with parents who argued a lot and finally divorced. Now she’s forever under scrutiny from her mother for not settling down with a man and feels she’s responsible for her needy, single father. She doesn’t believe in true love because she doesn’t want her life to fail and fall apart like her parent’s did and consequentially hers. I need to go away and do some real thinking – perhaps write some pre-scenes as you say, to build up emotional background, thanks you! Lisa x


    • That’s an interesting solution, Karen. I can see it working for some people, though probably I wouldn’t do it myself—I’m an enemy of prologues in general, and I think that at the beginning of a novel, two scenes that are structurally the same (heroine being let down), with the same purpose (show heroine’s conflict), would probably be too repetitive to pull in the reader. But skillfully done, it could work; I’m just saying that I couldn’t do it. Generally I think that if a character doesn’t make sense and is appealing RIGHT NOW in the story without all kinds of backstory being added, it’s because the scene set in the present needs some work.

      If I were to use a flashback like that, though, I would want the flashback to have more purpose than just showing character; I’d want elements of it to be essential to the plot, for example it’s where the heroine also learns a secret that will become important later on…


      • (That said, writing pre-scenes as you mention Lisa can be really useful for the author, to understand character and to find the grains of interesting bits, and enable you to write more conflicted characters. Whether the reader needs them, is the question.)


      • Thanks, Julia. Your response to my suggestion has taught me something about why and how to use a prologue. Great stuff – we’re all learning!


        • It does really depend on the kind of book you’re writing, though, Karen, doesn’t it? In some authors’ hands, I can see a short prologue really working. But a scene from childhood creates a certain sort of mood, that might not be right. It’s all in the execution, and it’s not a solution I would leap to, but that’s what makes every book different!


  2. […] to me is her fantastic blog in which she answers a myriad of publishing and writing questions.  Today’s article: Is your heroine boring? Be sure to check out on the left hand panel links to other articles she’s written about […]


  3. Wow, wow, wow Julie, what can I say? Thank You!! I’m reading your blog and taking it in, but I’ll have to come back to it as ideas are springing into my mind as I read. Lots to go away and consider but at least I started in the right place with my WHYS?! Your suggestions about Act One are very interesting, I think I’m going to have to rewrite this scene several times, possibly in different tenses, until I get it right but I can’t thank you enough for your suggestions. Good luck with Fern (love the name), she sounds just like me… can’t wait to read!
    Lisa xx


    • I hope it’s helpful, Lisa!

      Yes, I think you and I are both going to be experimenting with our heroines for a little while, Lisa. Let me know what you do, what you try and how it works.


      • Hi, I am not Sam. Please, do not mix our names up. I wish Rob all the best and I have always been svpuortipe of him. However, I do think it is quite naive to think that real Rob would join the blog under his name. Trust me, he has had media training, and with all the gossip magazines and websites screaming his name he would not dare in his right mind to do anything like this.Of course, it is just my opinion.


        • The above comment is spam but I think it’s so amusing that I’m leaving it.


  4. I’d be very nervous of switching to first person in an attempt to make your heroine more interesting. It’s a very high risk strategy because then the whole book is in her voice and if readers don’t take to her immediately, they won’t want to spend that time with her. This is why Kristan Higgins’ books don’t work for me – they’re written in first person and I find the heroines’ voices just too irritating. With third person, you can give your reader some breathing space and some distance from the heroine. Plus, if the heroine is boring, first person will just make the whole book boring.


    • I’m a fan of first-person narrative, Ros, but I agree—a first-person book needs a vivid voice to keep it going, so it can be a risky strategy. And some readers just don’t like it. Third person is more flexible, especially if you have two heroines, or an important secondary whose point of view you’d like to include.

      Thank you!


  5. Animal Instincts is in first person but the problems discussed here were the ones I faced with Clodagh, the heroine who was plodding along doing her best in her own little world and her sister, Immi, vibrant, annoying but sparky. My opening used Immi’s character to show Clodagh’s rut by using Immi’s faults. Clodagh’s strong points, her loyalty, dedication and her kindness stopped her from being boring. She became empathetic. People could identify with her so it worked.


    • I like that idea, Nell, of using a secondary’s faults to point out the heroine’s qualities. Another option. Thank you!


  6. Absolutely fascinating, Julie – thank you! Esp as I’m just tackling this problem in my second draft now. I’d got what I thought was a stonking opening, funny with a lots of action – the hero and heroine instantly together and in conflict.

    But I think it’s oo much, too soon – interestinglyt, in my first LBD manuscript for Decent Exposure, the ed asked me to go back in the story a bit and not be in with H and h quite so soon. So I did – and it was so much easier to write at the END of the book, when I’d been working on it for a year and I knew everyone inside out.

    I’ve now written a new opening for my current wip, trying to establish character and setting and context and linking the heroine’s actions (she lets a teenage thief go free) to her future conflicts.

    I did write a prologue but it just didn’t work.

    You’ve given me even more to think about and I know it will be a big help.

    Thanks again!


    • That is SUCH a good point, Phillipa. It’s much, much easier to revise your beginning when you’ve already finished the book. I meant to mention that in the main post, but I forgot, so thank you so much for saying it.

      Otherwise, it’s way too easy to just keep on revising the beginning, when in fact you won’t know the correct way into the story until you’ve finished it and you know it backwards and forwards.

      Different stories have different needs, too, I agree. Sometimes you need a big explosive beginning and sometimes you need a slower lead-in. I always struggle with them.


  7. I had the problem of starting the action too soon in my first novel and was asked to start the story earlier, but then it became too dull!

    After several re-writes I began with a very short first chapter (we didn’t call it a prologue!) along the lines of It was only four weeks to my wedding, but it turned out I hadn’t even MET my future husband because it was important to show what was different about the story as soon as possible.

    Then I wrote a shortish – and hopefully amusing – lead-up to the main event that conveyed the main character’s personality and circumstances.

    I agree with Phillipa that’s it’s easier to go back and rewrite the beginning after you’ve finished the book, as you know your character so much better by then.

    Good luck with it!


    • I like this way of thinking, Karen—always putting the reader’s needs first.

      And I love your opening line.


  8. There’s a really simple answer to this: have your character DO something that a) requires a bit of nerve and b) readers will have had to do themselves at some point so they empathise. It doesn’t have to be anything overly dramatic – in Adultery for Beginners my main character had to enter a room full of strangers who all appeared to know each other. I’ve just finished reading Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, and that starts with the main character trying to be polite to a near stranger when they’ve just had a terrible bit of news. I rooted for the main character from page 1.


    • Ooh I like that very much. I’m thinking of changing my first scene so that my heroine meets an old friend who she has no desire to know any more, but she has to be polite. I think that’s something that most people can identify with…


  9. The short answer is give the reader a reason to care passionately about that character. Give the reader a reason to be totally involved in that character’s life. Once that is done, the reader is hooked. She wants to be involved and wants to know more.
    What makes this character stand out? Why is she passionate about restoring houses? What does she want to pour petrol and burn? What would she risk her life in burning flames to save? What larger than life qualities does the character have and how can you show this in a small way within the first five pages. How is she going to resonate with the reader? What benefit does Fern get from being super-nice? Why is she passionate that the world is a better place when people help people out? Is there sistuation where she wouldn’t? What are her personal stakes in being nice?
    I am afraid, it is always ALL IN THE EXECUTION. Every character has the potential to be exciting or dull. It is about releasing that potential and getting the reader to care passionately.


    • That is absolutely the truth, Michelle. Thanks for putting it so well.

      The problem is, HOW can you show these truths in the first five pages? It can be hard to do, and sometimes you don’t get it in the first draft. Sometimes you don’t get it in the fifth. It’s an important part of the book, and we have to think about how we’re writing it as well as what we’re writing, put the reader’s needs first, and possibly make some tough decisions.

      I think all of the suggestions we’ve had so far are giving different ways of doing this very thing: making the reader care.


  10. Ah Michelle… IAITHE.

    And there lies the real dilemma. Thinking Too Much – rather than just being inside the characters’s heads.

    Not easy, is it?


    • Yes, and no. I think you can think too much in a first-draft situation. But I think you have to think a LOT when you’re revising.

      That said, sometimes it just feels right, because you know the character so well. Which is, actually, just what you were saying…


  11. Lisa you have so much great advice that I’m hesitant to chip in but for what it’s worth: I like a boring heroine because, to give her a conflict, she has to be plunged into an exciting situation! I think it’s also worth mentioning that it’s never the heroine that’s boring – it’s her outer circumstances. My first book opens with my heroine sitting around in her room eating Pringles, feeling depressed and watching a gorgeous man on DVD. A few chapters later, she meets him in real life – cue fireworks! (And conflict).

    Lisa, I wonder if your heroine’s ‘inciting incident’ as you put it, could be made more contrasting? At the moment it sounds as if she leads a dull life and then is forced to take a duller job (bog standard interiors). What if she had to work on an OTT, bad taste, flamboyant property owned by an equally flamboyant hero/Mr Wrong/friend character? This could represent all the things that are lacking in her life …

    I hope this is helpful – if it’s any consolation, my beginning was easily the hardest part and I only cracked it at the very end (oops, almost wrote ‘cracked’, also true …)


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