Thursday, 20 August 2009

Stupid Heroines

My character might be wrong. My character is allowed to be wrong, she is not allowed to be stupid. (Lucy Lawless on Xena)
“…some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can't act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door, it's insulting.” (Neve Campbell as Sidney Prescott in Scream (1996))
How many times is it acceptable for a heroine to do something stupid in the course of a book?

For me personally - like the use of the word literally and the big misunderstanding plot device - I'd say a heroine can be stupid once. After that it's a problem.

Ever since reading the Lucy Lawless quote, (which I think she may have used a few times in different interviews as I've seen different versions), I've always kind of measured my heroines by that. I think it's a good yardstick.

And I think the important word is choice. A heroine needs to decide what she is going to do, have a plan of action that she is able to adapt to changing circumstances - is she going to run up the stairs or out the front door?

It can be a subtle thing. If before she accepts a drink from a stranger she thinks - this is not a smart thing to do - then she should listen to that voice. There is something telling her that there is something wrong with the situation. If she ignores the voice and accepts the drink she is being stupid. If she listens to the voice and accepts the drink, she may or may not be making a mistake, but she is making a choice. She is not letting life or - in the case of fiction - plot just happen to her. (Of course if she repeatedly ignores the voice she's got some kind of problem).

And that's where I think it causes a major problem in fiction. If the plot is just something that happens to characters, rather than being something that they engage in and are affected by, and which they in turn affect, then it isn't going to work as well as it should. Even if, as a reader, you can't always explain it or put your finger on it and instead you end up saying 'Oh that heroine was TSTL'.

I'm lucky in that most of the books I read I've not been left with the feeling that the heroine is stupid. A heroine can be wrong. A heroine is allowed to make mistakes. But she shouldn't be stupid. Being stupid once is a mistake, being stupid repeatedly is a lifestyle choice.


Jenre said...

What a great post, Lesley.

This is the beauty of fiction over film. In fiction the author can allow us to hear the internal thoughts of the heroine as she debates where or not to accept that drink. That means a reader knows that the heroine is making that choice. Authors who miss out that internal dialogue (and it only has to be a couple of lines!) leave us in the dark as to why a heroine acts as she does. We view her actions as stupid or misguided if things go wrong and fail to identify with her actions.

This is why some of my favourite heroines like Jaz Parkes or Elena Michaels have strong internal voices. I know they make errors but I also know the reasons that led to the errors being made.

LesleyW said...

Jenre - That's it. A strong internal voice is so important (I think) when you're reading a heroine. If you don't completely understand a heroine's actions it can make it harder to identify with her.

I'm reading Jaz Parks #3 at the moment and she is such a strong character. And when I look at my favourite heroines they have that in common - Elena Michaels as you mentioned and Mercy Thompson is another.

Tracy said...

I'm with you Lesley. Really only 1 dose of stupidity in a book is all I can take from a certain character - and that goes for women as well as men.

I agree with you and Jenre - a strong internal voice is sooo important.

LesleyW said...

Tracy - you're right, this applies to male characters as well.Though I can think of fewer instances of male characters being stupid. Maybe that's a post for another day?

Kris said...

Terrific post, Lesley.

First up, I'm with all of you re: the strong internal voice.

I have a lot of, I guess, qualifications about a character doing stupid things. For eg, is it the same stupid thing they are doing over and over, is the stupid thing meant to be a reflection of deeper issue/s, are there any signs of character development, etc, etc. It boils down to - my fave bandwagon - context and relevancy to the plot.

However, if 3/4 of the way through the book nothing other than the protags idiocy is happening with no resolution in sight, that's when I get majorly annoyed and the book gets thrown against the wall. :)

LesleyW said...

Kris - thanks. :) I think you're right that if you can see a reason for the stupidity or find out that there's a reason then that's acceptable to a point. (The point where you become more annoyed than interested).

Every heroine should make a least one mistake. Otherwise she runs the danger of going too far the other way and being perfect. Lol, which is just as annoying as being stupid.