I read two books recently on the theme of war, refugees and women. One book had me nodding off after every page, the other kept me awake and frightened the whole time. What was the difference? Both dealt with women caught up in violence they couldn’t control, both faced starvation, brutality, and terror. Why was the effect of the stories so different for me?
The answer lies in the inner life of the heroines. One was full of passion and determination. The other was passive, bowing her head in submission as one calamity after another befell her. Instead of inspiring me with sympathy, this character pushed me away with her constant cry of “woe is me.”
Alice Orr in her book, No more Rejections, calls this the lacklustre character. She says “a protagonist [must] stand out among the very large pack of . . . submissions.” The late Jack Bickham in his book The 38 most common Fiction Writing Mistakes has a whole chapter called “Don’t Write about Wimps.” Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, counsels writers to create “larger-than-life” protagonists.
Obviously, avoiding passive heroines is a foundational pillar in writing fiction, but I’ve never seen it so clearly demonstrated as I did in the two books I mentioned above. It’s a good lesson. Both books were critically successful, but, as a reader I much preferred one over the other.
I’ve a sneaking suspicion that the heroine in my current story spends too much time thinking and not enough time doing. So, while one book bored me and the other scared me, I’ve learned a valuable lesson about story-telling. Off to edit!