That question is the reading (and writing!) equivalent of a loaded gun. There are so many ways to look at it. Are we looking for a paragon of virtue? A character who can stand for every-girl? A character whose traits make for good fiction? Or a role model within fiction who can emblamize some social or political ideal of femininity that we make or may not even be consciously aware that we have?
My point is that different people are going to have different views on this issue, and I am no exception.
In fact, this is actually something I've been spending a lot of time sorting out and is one of the (three or four) crucial reasons for the delay on Sealer's Promise. My betas all concluded that my heroine, Sarena, needs further work because fictional characters work differently then real people. (You readers just aren't suppose to notice. Sorry for letting you see behind the curtain. :P )
So, what are the ingredients needed to make a great heroine and who makes the grade? Read on and find out. (Note: This is strictly my opinion. I know I keep saying that, but this is gonna be a hot topic, I just know it.)
Recipe For A Great Heroine
1. She must actually be the heroine of her own story. If someone else--a teacher, the love interest, her mom, aliens--saves the day, regardless of genre, you aren't dealing with a heroine. You're dealing with a narrator. The two are not one and the same.
2. She must be a girl / woman of action. For a character to be a heroine, she must actually make things happen, not simply be a victim of circumstance. I realize that there are such things as active and reactive plots, but regardless of structure, the character (male or female) must step forward and take the bull by the horns. She must make a choice / choices.
3. There must be a balance between consistency and change. Finding a way to naturally show the evolution of a character is one of the greatest challenges of being a writer. Having him or her be different at the end then he or she was at the beginning, and having the reading understand and (even more important!) believe in that change.
4. She must show strength, intelligence, and courage. That does not necessarily mean being able to lift 300 pounds, solve quantum equations, and leap through a flaming ring. The types of strength and courage that different characters need will depend on the story, it's genre, the theme and any number of other things.
5. A heroine must, in some way, be relatable (or at least compelling) to the reader. This is where things get dicey, for the reasons I stated at the beginning. Moving back to Sarena, who I talked about earlier, my 'basic' concept for her was 'A red headed Elle Woods who becomes the body guard of a prince.' Obviously she has come a LONG way from that one sentence concept. But my point is that there are some people who might take one look at the bubbly, fashion crazed ballerina in training--whose life experiences have also had her train in martial arts because aliens have landed on earth and her mother is convinced they are plotting to take over--and go "Yeah, right! Those two things (girly dancer + warrior) *cannot* go together.". And there is absolutely nothing I can do to change their minds.
Now that we have some criteria to work with, lets put some leading ladies in the spotlight! :D
Kat's Favorite Heroines:
by Liz Fichera
Character: Fredricka 'Fred' ODay
Why?: I liked Fred immediately. She isn't your super tough powerhouse of a girl. She isn't uber popular or mass-despised. She's a regular teen girl with problems, hopes, dreams and anything else you'd expect. She just happens to love (and excel) at golf, has a bit of trouble going on at home, and lives on the "Rez" (reservation).
I think that Liz did a fantastic job with Fred. The things that make her unique and distinct stand out, but they don't overshadow her in any way. With the issues and specificly focused interest, there was danger Fred (especially with the wacky-for-a-girl name) could have been a charicature and I was thrilled to see that did *not* happen.
by Suzanne Collins
Character: Katniss Everdeen
Why?: The world that Katniss inhabits showcases humanity at our most brutal and inhumane. Yet she manages to be a decent and compassionate person, while still ultimately doing what she must to survive. While I will say that for this character, survival is ultimately far more literal then actually staying alive, no one can question that she does possess the stuff needed to be considered a heroine. (At least not based on my list up there.) What makes Katniss an especially great example, in my opinion, is how swiftly she rises to the challenge. We find her risking herself for her family from the beginning, and when Prim is in danger, she wastes no time in making a decision.
(Note: I just grabbed Catching Fire as my example. I'm talking about the whole trilogy here.)
by Colleen Houck
Character: Kelsey Hayes
Why?: The great thing about Kelsey is how much we get to see her grow throughout the series. She learns to use abilities that allow her to eventually take a more direct part in the action. She becomes more confident--and more aware of the times when she suffers from doubt or insecurity--so that Ren and Kishan don't always have the upper hand. Yet she is a very 'earthy' character; extremely relatable and facing issues that any girl her age would be despite her involvement with breaking the tigers' curse.
So, what makes a great heroine or female lead for you? Who are your favorites? I'd love to know!