Heroic Heroines

Well it’s been forever since I’ve posted anything about writing–other than I’m either doing it or I’m not. But last Tuesday was my Romance Writers meeting, and something that was said has stuck in my mind. And if possible, I’d like to get some other writers’ input. (Of course, you should feel free to speak up even if you’re not a writer).

Colleen Thompson was speaking on engaging readers’ emotions from the get-go (that is not her workshop title), and she happened to mention Donald Maass’s book Writing the Breakout Novel. I’ve read this book, but it’s been some time, and I don’t remember every little bit of it. Clearly.

Anyway, Colleen said that Donald said that your heroine should do something heroic in the first five pages. (???) Now, mind you, I don’t think I have a breakout novel on my hands here, but I’m wondering if this is more a general rule of thumb. My heroine is definitely not following this rule. And I just picked up one of my favorite books, The Little Lady Agency by Hester Browne and tried this little test–I didn’t find the heroine doing anything heroic in those five pages either.

So…either this rule is a little iffy or else Donald Maass and I have disparate views of heroism. Anyone? Thoughts? Input?

Posted in Uncategorized on 01/25/2008 10:38 pm


  1. I’m not a writer, but I read a lot. My favorite heroines are ones that are built up as average people & then do something heroic in the middle or end. If they are heroes right from the get go I feel like I’m reading a comic book.

  2. I think it is the definition of hero. I’ve heard Maass speak and he talks about they need to demonstrate a character trait that the reader would admire versus doing something huge and grand. It might be that she speaks up when someone says something rude or if she comes across as hard and sarcastic we see her be gentle with a pet so we know we’re supposed to like her.

  3. I like his approach but, honestly, not everything about it works for me–or for many of the books that I love. And I often wonder if having so many writers following the approach could turn their fiction formulaic.

  4. Catherine Avril Morris

    I think Eileen’s got it — he’s recommending that the character do something, maybe something small that the reader won’t consciously focus on in the grand scheme of the story, but that will characterize them as a future hero/ine. However, I think anytime anyone says “This is how you gotta do it,” well, there are about 100,000 examples of people who did it differently and did it really well. I love stories about people who have a real, clear character arc — who start out not heroic, and become so. Who have to overcome their fear, or their inner asshole, or whatever. :) You get my drift, I’m sure.

  5. susanhatler

    I’m not good at putting craft into words. I kinda just write and don’t think too much about it – yikes! I do have Writing the Breakout Novel in my TBR pile though, and am currently reading Stephen King’s ON WRITING (great read, btw). ON WRITING will be the first craft book I’ve read :)

  6. I’ve read two books about writing but I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever really prescribed to any specific rule to make a story or a character successful. Then again it’s not like I’m a cool published author or anything! I can see the lure of something big happening right away but as Eileen or Catherine state, I think that something wouldn’t need to be grand.

  7. OOoh On Writing is one of my favorites. I think with any craft book you have to take pieces that work for you and ignore the bits that don’t.

  8. Alyssa Goodnight

    Thanks for all the writer/reader input! I often find myself sitting in craft workshops or reading the occasional craft book, thinking, “I’m not doing that. Do I need to be doing that? Will what I’m doing work just as well?” I’m in that limbo land of wondering if I can trust myself or whether I should just fall in line.

  9. Eileen might be right about character traits. Or maybe he just means your main character needs to begin his/her emotional development/journey within the first 5 pages.

    It’s funny how everyone loves different craft books. I always hear so much praise for King’s “On Writing,” yet I couldn’t get through it for the life of me. It felt like a bunch of aimless rambling (though it certainly seemed to explain just why Stephen King’s books are so long). Yet there must be something great I was missing if other writers love it.

    The only writing book that I feel has drastically changed the way I write and how I think about writing is Noah Lukeman’s “The First Five Pages,” which is actually about the entire book, not the opening. I have other craft books I enjoy and use as reference, but Lukeman’s book is really my literary Bible these days.

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