How To Keep a Smart Heroine Hopping
Without Making Her Dumber than Dirt?
We’ve all seen it in the movies—especially suspense, mystery and action flicks, but occasionally romance as well. A director or screenwriter who’s into woman-in-jeopardy or woman-scorned mode allows a heroine to act in a manner that makes anyone with a lick of common sense roll her eyes.
We watch dumbfounded as a heroine descends into a spooky cellar where there’s no means of escape when she could just as easily have run through the front door to her car.
Or our heroine sees her fiancé kiss another woman and assumes he’s having an affair without bothering to ask him if the cute chick might be his cousin/sister/transvestite roommate.
Miscalculations, mistakes, misunderstandings. All play key roles in creating the dramatic situations, personal conflict, mystery and suspense that make for thrill-a-minute movies or fast-paced reads. BUT it’s the author’s job to make certain readers see a rationale for any action (or failure to act) that’s totally off-the-wall. Fortunately, such rationales come in a variety of flavors.
CLOSED-OFF OPTIONS. If you need your heroine to run into the woods in her bare feet or descend those creaky stairs to the basement, show us that her decision is the only one she can make due to circumstances beyond her control. Let her think of the best solution to the danger she faces, then have her realize that option’s been closed off. Have her test a window and find it’s nailed shut. Make her run to a back door only to see a snarling pit bull on the porch. Allow her to phone for help, only to discover her cell phone’s dead. (I might add here that the dead battery and/or lost signal may now border on cliché. Perhaps it’s time for the cell phone to fall in the toilet bowl?)
RISK-REWARD. Another approach might have a heroine fully realize her course of action is filled with frightening risks, yet believe a potential reward makes the risks worthwhile. For example, a woman fleeing a killer might be a tad more inclined to whisk away cobwebs to reach a dank cellar if she happens to recall that her grandfather hid a shotgun and shells in the dungeon-like darkness.
SELF-SACRIFICE. Sometimes we do things that would be described as stupid—such as intentionally put ourselves in the line of fire—in order to save a loved one. When this motive is clear, the action becomes heroic rather than dumb.
PHOBIAS. This option has been popular for a LONG time and needs to be used judiciously. A prime example is the fear of heights that prevents James Stewart from racing up the tower stairs in the movie Vertigo. I’m none too fond of heights myself (and neither is my heroine, Marley) but both of us can force ourselves to soldier upward if we’re given sufficient reason—like a killer with a gun. Nonetheless, a phobia that’s a well-developed part of a heroine’s personality can give her a reason to choose what might otherwise be the greater of two evils. For instance, someone with claustrophobia might choose to run rather than hide in a tiny cupboard.
PRIOR EXPERIENCE. A heroine’s past experiences also can prompt her to react in less than logical ways. A woman who divorced a cheating spouse who lied through his teeth about an affair may be less likely to give a new fiancé a chance to explain an innocent kiss.
TIME SHIFTS. The rapid pace of technology makes it increasingly difficult for authors to create situations in which heroines can’t simply let their fingers do the walking—with smart phones, burglar alarms, stun guns, etc.—to escape danger. Time shifts offer both high-tech and low-tech solutions to the problem. You can plunk your heroine in an era before cell phones came on the scene (a la Sue Grafton) or you can set your heroine in an apocalyptic future where technology has been wiped out. Then there’s also the high-tech alternative—create a future world in which your heroine and villains have weapons and defense options undreamed of today.
I’ve only touched on a few of the rationales authors can tap to help readers suspend disbelief. However, I believe an author’s best bet to avoid TSTL (too-stupid-to-live) traps is to have some beady-eyed critique partners read your manuscript. I know my crit partners always call me on the carpet when I allow my heroine or hero to venture into bozo land.
So, what is your biggest pet peeve when it comes to a heroine and illogical behavior? What rationales for illogical behavior do you believe work the best?
Visit Linda’s website www.lindalovely.com
Linda Lovely‘s Dear Killer is the first in a series of Marley Clark adventures that promise to dish up heart-pounding suspense with a side of romance. Marley Clark, a retired military intelligence officer, works security for a Sea Island community simply to keep busy. A single night patrol transforms the feisty widow’s yawner of a job into a deadly battle of wits when she finds an islander drowned and bobbing naked amid a potpourri of veggies in a Jacuzzi. Asked to serve as the lead investigator’s liaison, the 52-year-old heroine is startled to discover she’s become Deputy Braden Mann’s target as well—for romance. Yet their steamy attraction doesn’t deter the pair from sorting through a viper’s nest of suspects as the body count grows and the pun-loving killer plans a grizzly epitaph for Marley.