When Destiny Isn’t Enough

I’ve been reading lots of YA Paranormal and Urban Fantasy lately. The current trend in these sub-genres is the celebration of the bad-ass, kick-butt heroine. When the bad-ass heroine was first introduced, everyone was really excited. It was about time women stepped up, took the lead, and learned to fight. It was great to see female characters who saved themselves (and their families, friends, and love-interests) instead of hiding in a tower and waiting for their prince to save them. Am I the only one who thinks this trend is getting old?

I have nothing against a courageous female character. I have no problem with women taking a leading role. I don’t want to see my favorite bad-ass heroines trade in their daggers for a pair of knitting needles. I don’t want to see my heroines forgo a demon-slaying for shopping with the girls. Nor do I want to see them replace courageous missions to save the world with makeovers and pedicures. I don’t want to see ‘girly’ heroines. What I do want to see are likable and believable heroines.

Here’s what I’ve been reading lately. Let me know if this sounds familiar…

Character A is a shape-shifting Demon Slayer. She goes to high school by day, but by night, she relentlessly slays demons. Before breakfast, she blithely yanks a dagger from her shoulder while studying for her mid-term in Biology. Why does she forgo sleep and endure brutal stabbings? It’s her destiny.

Character B is ass-kicking spy. Her parents were spies. Her grandparents were spies. So she’s a spy too. She spends all her time spying, kicking ass, and hurting people. Why? It’s her destiny.

Character C is the chosen one. She was born with a mark on her back which symbolizes her destiny as an ass-kicking warrior. From the time she was a little girl, she’s learned the sacred art of ass-kicking. When her path crosses with a cute, smart, courageous hero, they fall in love. Why? I have no idea.

These are pretty decent premises for a fast-paced, action-packed novels, right? In the hands of a good author, these characters have serious potential. So, what’s the problem?

Destiny isn’t enough.

Destiny isn’t enough to make me fall in love with a one-dimensional character. Destiny isn’t a motivation. Destiny can be a starting point, but unless the heroine questions her fate, doubts her own abilities, or tries to fight her destiny, I’m not going to be invested in the story. I need more conflict than just an endless stream of fight scenes–I’d like to see some internal conflict too. I’d like to see the heroine succumb to self doubt. To mourn the loss of a friend–not just vow vengeance as she sharpens her dagger. I’d like to see the heroine make really bad decisions that make her situation worse–not move through the story, killing without breaking a sweat. I want to see real, multi-dimensional people.

When Character A isn’t slaying demons, what else does she do? Does she often think about ignoring her destiny and becoming a doctor instead?

Does Character B have friends at school? Does she often have to leave in the middle of soccer practice to go on special-ops missions? Does she struggle to keep her identity as a spy secret from her friends and her crush at school?

Why does the cute, smart hero fall in love with Character C? Why does she fall in love with him? Is he able to look past her stoic, ass-kicking demeanor to discover hidden vulnerabilities?

These are things I want to know. But, in some of the books I’ve read lately, I’m left wondering. But, I don’t wonder enough to want to read the next book in the series because I’m not invested in any of these characters. They’re wooden. One-dimensional. Unlikable. There’s tons of external conflict as the heroine moves from fight scene to fight scene, kicking ass and making rude comments as she goes, but there’s no insight into who she is as a human being. Therefore, I’m not invested. Therefore, I can’t care what happens to her.

Lately, I’ve learned there’s a fine line between being a skilled demon-slayer and a sociopath. Some of the characters I’ve been introduced to cross that line. If a character’s primary emotion is blind rage, it’s really hard to me to like them–whether that character is male or female.

Give me characters who are ordinary people in extraordinary situations. Characters who rise up to meet their challenges. Heroes and heroines who can be courageous, while still displaying human emotion. Characters who have a destiny, but do not let destiny define them.

Readers, what do you look for in a hero or heroine? Authors, how do you make your characters multi-dimensional?

 


14 thoughts on “When Destiny Isn’t Enough

  1. Tricia, take heart, you are not alone. I’ve been longing to read something like this. In fact I long for it every time I see any of those phrases with ass in them: bad-ass, kick-ass (there are possibly others). It reminds me of what they said about Margaret Thatcher. She might have been a woman prime minister, showing that women can make it in a man’s world, but she did it by behaving like a man. Kick-ass heroines bore the ass off me, if that’s all they do. It isn’t enough just to be mouthy and violent. It isn’t intrinsically interesting.

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    1. They’re becoming very stereotypical. Like the romance novel hero who is a notorious cad, drinking and womanizing until he meets the feisty, opinionated, bluestocking heroine. Or, the hard-core military dude that runs through the jungle, snapping necks and crafting semi-automatic weapons out of sticks and leaves. Stereotypes are boring.

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  2. Although I’m not a YA reader or writer (my initials are, however YA), I have found the same distressing trend in real female behavior. Women have apparently decided that they can’t beat bad-ass boys unless they join them in their stereotypically one-dimensional bravado behaviors. And yes, the trend is getting very old.

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    1. You’re absolutely right. Since when did human emotion become a weakness? Instead of teaching our boys to solve problems by using their heads, girls are learning to use their fists or crude language to fight battles. We’re going backward instead of forward.

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  3. Good post, Tricia. I so agree with you about one dimensional characters. Hopefully my Angel Murphy, although she can look after herself, isn’t like that!

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  4. A good writer knows that it’s not enough to have a bad-ass heroine, they have to be more than one-dimensional. Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer made mistakes.
    What I get tired of seeing is smart, sexy, kick-ass women who for no reason that makes sense falls for the bad boy who treats her like crap. I really hate the message that sends.
    I specialize in kick-ass heroines, but they’re all real people with skills they learned, and their love interests are realistic men who have flaws, too.
    However, I do have to say that I don’t write YA.

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    1. You are so right! Even Buffy had flaws. Everyone has them. Just like every tough guy has a tender side and every bad-ass heroine has moments of vulnerability. It’s the author’s job to make sure her heroine is more than a bad-ass. She has to have interests and dislikes beyond demon-slaying or butt-kicking. She can’t do everything perfectly all the time.

      Smart, sexy, kick-ass women falling for jerks is a HUGE problem. I can’t fall in love with the romantic relationship unless I can understand why the heroine loves the guy. Why would she fall for someone with no redeemable qualities? I also roll my eyes when the author inserts a ‘love interest’ only for the sake of having a love interest. There’s no chemistry between the heroine and the guy she falls for, yet the reader is expected to believe the bad-ass female falls in love with the first guy who comes her way. The author needs to give the reader–and her heroine–a little more credit.

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  5. You put that well, Tricia, thanks, gave me a warm feeling. I was getting disenchanted reading into books that feature young women lately. My anti-heroine in ‘Cabal of Mirrors’ questions her fate, doubts her own abilities and tries to fight her destiny. Well she does ☼

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  6. You’re so right! What seems to be happening as well, is that female heroines are morphing into being male heroes. That the only way to kick ass and save the day is to lose what makes you female and unique as a person. I suspect this may just be poor writing or perhaps a male writer trying and failing to capture a believable female heroine. Heroes & heroines should always be complex characters. So often I’ve read a novel with wonderfully multi-layered three dimensional male characters, but when it comes to the female characters they slip into cliché. Characters, in many ways especially female characters, should question events that happen around them – because that’s what we do, we question. They should doubt themselves and their choices, be uncertain of a course of action – because that’s what we do. We as women, constantly doubt ourselves, lack confidence in what we do or a decision we’ve made. We fret, we worry. It doesn’t make us weak, it makes us human, it makes us real. Realism is key not stereotype. Brilliant post again, Tricia! 😀

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  7. Great post!
    Personally, I like a price to come with the bad-assery 🙂
    I agree that the story has to go beyond a good premise, that’s just the starting point.
    I’m a YA writer, and I constantly have to ask ‘why?’ regarding my own story. There are reasons for people (characters) to do what they do and you as a writer should know it even if you don’t necessarily have to write about it.

    The love triangle is kind of fascinating in its way, there’s always the good guy and the bad guy (sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively) and it’s a toss-up who gets picked in the end. A lot of the time, it overwhelms the story, which kind of takes the fun out of fantasy. I love a little romance, but that can’t be what the character is ALL about.
    My YA hero isn’t going to have a romance any time soon – his plate’s a little full.

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  8. Ah what a cracker!

    I am right with you there. I don’t plot my novels very much and the reason for that is that I try to let the characters decide what to do. To me, that’s all it takes to make a very unbelievable idea seem real.

    Why would anyone want to write about characters who are unlikeable, why would anyone want to read them. They can be difficult, arsy, up tight and downright gittish but there has to be something in there that makes you care for them. And you’re right, there does seem to be a tendency to forget that.

    I also second what Sophie says. It’s really boring reading about heroines who are just blokes with boobs and a high voice.

    Cheers

    MTM

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  9. Great post Tricia, and it seems as if we all feel the same way – nothing wrong with a heroine who can hold her own, but we still need to see her as a ‘real’ person, with the kind of flaws and weaknesses that a real woman has to contend with.
    I’ve a female lead, along with her best friend – and it’s been a challenge to write them as women who can get the job done because circumstances dictate that they must, not just because they like to kick ass, or because it is their ‘destiny’. Giving them emotional insecurities, the odd less-than-ideal habit, moments of weakness and poor decision making, self-doubts, etc surely creates a charcter that a reader can invest in and identify with? Obviously the same applies to the male ‘hero’ – perfect is unrealistic and boring, and it’s not enough to just throw in an arbitary ‘hang-up’ to make him interesting. Real men have real weaknesses, insecurities and self-doubts too – and behave less than heroically.

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