50 Shades of an Active Heroine

By Carly Silver, Editorial Assistant, Harlequin Special Edition

Harlequin heroines are leading women worthy of stage, screen, and page. They range from vampire maidens to virgin brides, bad girls to businesswomen ruling the boardroom. That said, it's not always easy to write the dynamic female lead that we like to see.

At first, "active" and "passive" just seem like old grammatical terms torn out of a foreign language textbook from high school. You know what they mean in regards to verbs, and you probably know that editors usually prefer when writers use active verbs.

Similar problems rear their heads when you're creating your lead characters. At first glance, an "active" heroine might seem to be one who's a go-getter, doesn't rely on others to better her lot in life, and takes charge. But there can actually be many kinds of "active." Not every person who is active in their life has an aggressive attitude towards their surroundings and toes the line every day. Action can be subtle; it doesn't have to be loud.

As an editorial assistant, I personally prefer an active heroine over a passive one. As a woman in the working world, I've had to fight for what I want and can relate to a go-getter attitude. But that doesn't mean that I always want to see that same alpha personality crop up in every female lead. That would get boring after a while. There are many variants as to what constitutes "action."

Here's an example. Imagine you're writing a novel set in Georgian England. Your heroine is a young noblewoman who, like most women of her time, is set to wed in an arranged marriage. Being a woman of spirit, she can choose to do several things:

  1. Reject the marriage and flout societal conventions
  2. Accept it and make the best of a bad situation

Many active heroines would take the first route, rebelling against societal norms and following their hearts. But I believe that active heroines can just as easily take the second route. It takes a lot of gumption to reject everything you've been raised to believe, which, in that period of time, involved arranged marriages. Most people wouldn't have the guts or, let's face it, the financial ability, to strike out on their own.

It could take just as much courage for our Lady So-and-So to swallow her pride and try to make it work with Lord Whomever. While she is engaging in an arranged marriage, she isn't necessarily tacitly accepting everything that goes with it. She doesn't have to be a milquetoast character in order to live realistically; she can still be just as much of a spitfire as you'd like her to be. She could even find her own true love within that societal norm. Look at Lord and Lady Grantham on Downton Abbey. Robert Crawley married American Cora Levinson for her money, but, lo and behold, Cupid struck…and they lived happily-ever-after (sort of).

That's not to say, though, that there aren't very passive heroines, which I don't enjoy reading. I prefer heroines that reflect the many shades of human existence—active sometimes, passive other times. They behave differently, depending on their moods and the situations in which they appear. After all, there have to be some shades of grey when it comes to life.

So, as you're putting the finishing touches on your manuscript for this year's So You Think You Can Write contest, remember: your heroine can be active in a lot of different ways. Perhaps she doesn't demand a job promotion by bursting into her boss's office; maybe that's not her style, or it's not appropriate. Make sure she expresses what she wants, but in the way that's natural for her and her setting/surroundings.

How do you make your heroines active?

6 replies on “50 Shades of an Active Heroine”

Thanks for this, Carly. I worry a great deal about strong 21st century women liking my heroines because I am a fairly gentle and passive human being from another era. I make my heroines active by making them as unlike me as it is possible to be! I wonder what I would do and then I make them do the opposite!

I like making my character stressed to begin with, a bit overloaded with life’s burdens. There’s a lot of energy in stress, and it can cause a rational woman to act uncharacteristically, but in a way that’s more true to her feelings, when confronted with the hero and the way he interfers with her life.

Nice article Carly. I agree that an active heroine is a more engaging character. I try to create my female leads with goals and a purpose. Then, they base their decisions in pursuit of those goals. They may be misguided and cause her lots of trouble, but then that’s the fun of story making!

Thanks for sharing such great insights. You exceeded my expectations for this topic and I’m so glad that I read this.

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