Inaction and the Strong Female Character

by Hayley E. Lavik

Imagine a hero: you’ve followed him through countless trials, through the loss of all he holds dear, struggled with him to this point, the climactic moment of the story. And then he gets captured and his best friend saves the day. Compelling? Perhaps not.

Then why does it happen to heroines?

Modern romance readers expect modern heroines — strong female characters whose happily-ever-afters are not just about children, as some past decades have emphasized. These are their stories of overcoming doubts, triumphing, finding love with a worthy equal, and yet it surprises me how often female protagonists miss out on the most important scenes of their own stories.

There’s an obvious appeal to placing the point-of-view character in distress, and by proxy allowing the reader to be swept off her feet into the arms of a rescuing hero, but if the heroine is the primary protagonist of the story… well, why take her story away from her? Why make it someone else’s? At some point protagonists need to break away from the whims of fate, the will of others, and take control of their own destinies. It’s part of bringing about a satisfying ending, and making the reader feel as though that happy ending has been earned rather than dropped in the character’s lap. Knocking the heroine out, tying her up like a Bond girl, or restricting her to passive onlooker demotes her to a lesser status in her own story.

That’s not to say every heroine must be in the thick of the action, or can’t be rescued and swept off her feet. Jacqueline Carey’s Phedre, in Kushiel’s Dart is a heroine equipped for taking blows, not giving them, and spends the novel’s climactic battle perched atop a battlement overlooking the action. But none of the novel’s outcome, not the forces rallied, not the tide of battle turned, not the peace restored, could have happened without Phedre.

(Here There Be Spoilers. Turn Back If Ye Wish Not To Be Spoiled!)

The climax of the book hinges upon Phedre’s sacrifice, sneaking through the enemy encampment in order to deliver a message that turns the tide of war. This she does alone, entirely on her own initiative, and throws her own well-being aside for the sake of shouting a warning to her besieged allies. As a result, the enemy captures her and sets her up for public torture and execution, the likes of which she escapes thanks to the timely intervention of the deadly (and oh so dreamy) romantic lead. He saves her, the battle ensues, and he gets more opportunities to show off his combat prowess … but absolutely none of it would have been possible if not for Phedre. Our dreamy swordsman saved the day for Phedre, but Phedre saved the day for the entire country.

If a story’s heroine displays strong, active traits through the majority of the story, it would be a break in character to force her into any other role for a climactic scene. This doesn’t mean the heroes need to sit on their hands, but then heroes rarely seem to have a problem doing something useful during a crucial scene. Decide who your primary character is, and make sure they shine. If your hero and heroine share the spotlight, let them share the work load at the climax so they both earn their happy ending with toil and effort rather than passive observation.