What makes a good heroine? I’ve been pondering this since someone in my writing group had the temerity to describe my novel’s heroine as ‘a bit passive’ – an accusation I hotly denied, before scarpering back to my keyboard in panic.
A heroine is never passive. You need a spark, determination, bravery. In today’s world, they don’t have to be goody-goodies – quite the opposite. Virtue itself makes a most tedious heroine, although they need some moral core, a sense of basic decency that elevates them above the devious self-servers around them.
Browsing my bookshelves, I’ve been thinking about which female protagonists I would like to have on my side in a crisis. Which (fictional) women would I want to find myself with if I was stranded in a strange country, no money and no mobile phone, chaos breaking out on all sides? They’d need common sense, humour, practicality, courage and loyalty (bye, Becky Sharp). Here are my top picks:
- Jane Eyre. Morally incorruptible eponymous heroine, with a will of iron and a sense of the ridiculous. Has experience of begging on the Yorkshire Moors without a penny in her pocket, which might come in handy.
- Flora Poste. Cold Comfort Farm‘s queen of practical good sense, adept at soothing nerves of ravaging beasts, be they man or bull. Also, knows what to wear on any occasion. Always gets her own way, while making everyone feel it was their idea in the first place.
- Bridget Jones. Perhaps not the most practical choice. But she did talk her way out of a Thai prison, and has a handy knack of attracting useful top human rights lawyer boyfriends. And we’d have fun reliving the story over a bottle or two of chardonnay.
- Jo March. Adventurous, and has experience of travelling alone; also of working for a living under trying circumstances. Could make our adventure into a best-selling book afterwards, thus funding a school for wayward boys for many years.
- Miss Smilla. Clever; very clever. Good at gaining people’s confidence, and loyal to friends. Would be especially useful in polar adventures or anywhere snow is likely to be an issue.
- Kay Langrish. Brave, strong, romantic and indefatigable hero of Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch. Kay also has good first-aid skills, can drive an ambulance through fires and doesn’t get squeamish even when body parts are involved. Has black market connections and a personal fortune, which is always useful.
If I were putting together a band of super-heroines from literature (and why would I not?) then I reckon they’d be hard to beat.
A couple of classical heroines are missing. I considered Dorothea Brooke and Elizabeth Bennett, but somehow neither felt quite modern enough for the sort of crises one encounters today. I worry that Dorothea would be shocked by Kay’s trousers, while Elizabeth would be overly concerned about Jo’s constant breaches of etiquette. I’ve arbitrarily excluded all Shakespeare heroines, partly because I’d have to include them all (Viola! Beatrice! Rosalind!) and partly because they’re in plays, not novels.
Maybe I’m wrong. Go ahead, tell me so, and nominate some heroines of your own. (Next week I’ll be turning to the men.)