Archive for January 1st, 2010

I just stopped reading a novel by an author I like a lot because the heroine got a disastrous dye job. Now that may not mean much in itself, but let me give you some context. She’d also discovered her boyfriend had cheated on her, her sister had moved in with her and made a mess of her house, her job was quickly going south, and she desperately needed to win an upcoming competition. Into this roiling stew of misery, the author gave her a bad peroxide job that left her hair looking like over-processed hay. And I stopped reading.

Look, I know, only too well, that characters have to suffer in the course of a novel. I’ve had to come up with some believable loads of suffering for my own heroines. If you like your characters, this is sometimes difficult to do since you don’t like hurting them. But do it you must since otherwise your book will have all the conflict of a limp noodle. But there’s suffering and there’s suffering. And if the heroine seems to be dragged through too many crummy experiences through the course of the story simply for the sake of prolonging her misery, I may toss the book aside.

There are a couple of ways that heroines can be led into disaster. First, the heroine’s suffering may be the result of her own ineptitude. Maybe she has unrealistic expectations and gets herself into painful situations because she refuses to face the facts about How Things Work (e.g., “I will become a successful interior designer even though I have the design sense of a head of lettuce”). I usually don’t make it past the blurb on these because I hate spending time with clueless people. If the heroine actually does have talent and simply needs to be recognized, that’s one thing. But if your heroine doesn’t have any idea about what she can do as opposed to what she wants to do, she loses a lot of my sympathy.

However, the heroine’s problems may also be the result of the universe being against her.  Pipes burst in her store, ruining her merchandise. The dog tips over the bowl containing her last three eggs and she doesn’t have time to get any more before the beginning of the cooking competition. The dress she needed for the big interview comes back from the cleaners with a huge stain. I can accept this kind of humiliation because it’s necessary to the plot, but only to a point. If the heroine is being hit with too many whammies, I may either start skimming until her luck improves or return the book to the “back to the library” basket.

Stephanie Plum, Janet Evanovich’s intrepid heroine, is a case in point. Because these novels are comic, Stephanie usually has a couple of extended slapstick interludes in which she’s knocked around and covered in goo—that’s pretty much a given in the series. But sometimes I find myself wondering why. By now, Stephanie’s been a bounty hunter for a lot of years (even though those years apparently count as months in her world)—shouldn’t she be a little more expert at this point? And does she always have to take Lula or Granny with her for some crucial meeting? Shouldn’t she be smart enough to know by now that’s not a good idea? Okay, it’s comedy. I get it. But just once I’d like to see Stephanie get through a novel without being turned into Lucy Ricardo.

Coming up with the heroine’s (and/or hero’s) angst is part of plotting. But I don’t think any author should make her heroine seem like a total loser, somebody so clueless that she doesn’t seem capable of being a heroine. Nor should she be so star-crossed by fate that it seems she’ll never get out from under that last load of crap. As a reader, I’ll put up with a little humiliation and some losses, but at some point she needs to start winning. Or I’ll be strolling on to the next book on my list.


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