Is Your Heroine Too "Nice"?

In one of his books, Syd Field says that heroes are often the dullest characters in the story. In support of this theory, he points to Luke Skywalker of the Star Wars movies. His example is hard to argue with. Luke is a nice guy. Han is a scoundrel and far more interesting. In comparison, Luke’s bland.

This observation about heroes was a revelation to me. Not a revelation as in it had never occurred to me, but a revelation in that I didn’t know it was so common. It was certainly something I’d struggled with in my own writing, and now that it's come to my attention, I wonder if it isn't why I see other writers mentioning that they have secondary characters that enamor them more than their main characters.

Since I write romance and the audience is mainly women, the main characters of my stories are my heroines, which made me consider what qualities a good romance heroine should have. The reader should find her accessible. Someone they can relate to. Someone they’ll root for. Attractive, I thought. Smart. Nice. (Because don't most people think they're nice?) So that’s what I tried to write.

Let me tell you about nice. It’s boring.

“Nice” people tend to not voice strong opinions because they don’t want to offend others. When you’re mean to them, they don’t fight back. They're perky and chipper (two qualities that annoy the hell out of me.) They’re peacemakers and usually have a positive outlook on life. It’s hard as hell to make such characters feel unique. I want the reader to see my characters as one-of-a-kind, which is the one quality all really great characters share.

I couldn't figure out how to have "nice" yet interesting characters who didn't bore the crap out of me.

Then I wrote a story with a “nice” heroine. Or at least she was nice most of the time. Poor girl had a lot going on her life, so when circumstances got extreme, I let her be a little less nice. I figured that was okay. No one could criticize her for being a little bit of a hard ass when her life teetered on the edge, could they? I never imagined that she’d be the first stepping stone on the path to envisioning (and writing) a different sort of heroine.

In the same story, the hero’s sister is a secondary character. She’s not so nice. As the oldest girl in a large family, she tends toward bossiness. She’s also capable of being outright bitchy. She gives my nice heroine a significant amount of grief. I liked her a lot.

And then she got her own story.

I didn’t pull back on the bossiness or the bitchiness. She doesn’t worry about whether people think she’s “nice.” She doesn’t whine; if someone hurts her feelings, she goes into attack mode. She battles the hero for control of their situation, creating lots of lovely conflict. She was SO much fun to write. 

Do I worry about readers liking her? Not really, because underneath that prickly exterior, I buried a softer, more vulnerable side in her. She may not appeal to everyone, but she’s anything but dull.

Because she's got what I call a "strong" personality, I never wondered what she would do in any circumstance I put her in. I always knew. I still feel like I channeled her story. If you've never written a "bitchy" heroine, I recommend it highly. It's incredibly liberating.

So tell me: What kind of heroines do you write? Or what kind do you like to read? Have you ever read a story that featured a heroine who wasn't "nice"?


  1. You've got some great points here. I have yet to actually write a heroine successfully. My first attempt at a novel featured a female MC, and it just didn't work very well. She never really came to life. I think maybe this is why - at the start she had her bland, professional face on. She got better toward the end where all kinds of crap was happening to her, but she still wasn't all that interesting. Making her less nice may be a good key to fixing her when I go back to see what i can salvage.

    My beta readers do seem to like my bitchy, assertive secondary female characters from other projects a great deal. Good food for thought...

  2. As you've said, this is a problem with all protags regardless of sex.

    This is why it's important to find some inner demons for the main character and give them a character arc where at least part of the story is about them conquering those inner demons and growing as a person. You still want them to have the colorful attributes of their personality but, I think at least, seeing them grow adds to the empathy that the reader feels for them and also makes them more likable.

    One of the problems that I have with "classic" authors like Hemingway and Updike and Conrad is that I find many of their protag characters unlikable and pretty much irredeemable. I can never build any empathy for them and I find myself rooting against them. So there's a fine line there between creating someone who's too far gone vs. creating someone who's the right mixture of good and bad.

  3. Hi Kathryn - From the description of your secondary characters, it sounds like you know how to write interesting characters. You just need to give yourself permission to write your MC with more edge to her. I wonder if this isn't part of why vampires are so big now. Because they're vampires no one expects them to be "nice."

  4. I agree, pencilneck, that one needs to be careful not to go overboard. Redeeming qualities mixed generously with flaws. Everything about good writing is a balancing act.

  5. Suzie, everything you've said about the problem with "nice" heroines applies to our voices as bloggers, too. I tend to spend very little time at blogs that present only one facet of the blogger—the one where she's always got her act together, is chipper and chockfull of tips, and never has a button pop off. To me it's like visiting an immaculate home where I'd be afraid that my loud honking sneeze would offend my hostess or the moisture from my tea cup would leave a ring on the fine polished wood.

    I wrote a short story once that portrayed my mother-in-law in as realistic a fashion as I could, and the writing coach said she was too villanous to be believable. She never met my mother-in-law! But yes, thepencilneck's last line, especially, rings true.

  6. My heroines are a lot like me, loud, opinionated, resouceful... But with soft squishy centers that sometimes get hurt. I've always had more fun playing with the not so nice girls.

  7. agree: nice is boring and there is more fun in writing characters who aren't so nice.
    On the other hand, we can write heroines who start off as nice and let them grow to be less nice but more true to themselves and assertive.

    Like Generatedanomaly I tend to write heroines who are like me, assertive, resourceful, a bit on the short fuse side and feisty.

    But I have been writing a heroine who is nice because she doesn't want to hurt or offend anyone and she ends up with a wrong, abusive guy, trying to live her mother's dreams. The story is about her growing up to shed this niceness, learn to say no and be able to live her own life.

    Thanks for a great post, Suzie