How do you come up with a likeable heroine? Nancy Allen, author of The Code of the Hills: An Ozarks Mystery, stops by to answer this question. The Book Diva’s Reads is pleased to present to you Nancy Allen:
Fictional Heroines: A Recipe
By Nancy Allen
What makes heroines tick? Why do readers fall head over heels to embrace one female protagonist, while another leaves them cold?
I think it’s the right combination of ingredients: V/V, U/R. The heroine must possess the essential elements of Virtue and Vulnerability, and be simultaneously Unique and Relatable.
Think of the women we love in fiction: Skeeter in The Help, Clare Fergusson in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s series, Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum. They have the V/V factor. All heroines must exhibit strength, whether they are battling racism, or fighting crime, or solving mysteries. It requires a healthy dose of virtue to get the job done.
But a heroine who is all goodness and light is a bore. I didn’t read each and every volume of Spencer-Fleming’s series because I wanted to hear heroine Clare Fergusson, an Episcopal priest, preach on Sunday. No, indeed; I wanted to see Clare struggle with her unbridled lust for a hunky married cop. The vulnerability factor, the contest of strength and weakness, converted her woman-of-the-cloth heroine from a potential yawn to a persona who kept me riveted to the page.
Similarly, Skeeter’s fight against the racist practices of the 1960’s Deep South was heightened by her angst, fear, and uncertainty as she met in secret with the maids whose stories fueled an expose. And Stephanie Plum’s employment background in lingerie does not equip her for the job of crimefighter; but the fact that she stumbles makes us root for her.
Also, the heroine has to be unique in some way. We don’t want to see the same woman over and over again in fiction. Stock female characters bore us; in the mystery and suspense genre, we’ve all seen the hard-boiled female detective, the brilliant-but-introverted medical examiner; the tough-as-nails female lawyer. If the character isn’t invested with traits that set her apart, we toss the book before we reach page 50. A heroine needs a streak of something unexpected, either in her background, like Clarice Starling of The Silence of the Lambs, or her history (addiction issues, personal disasters), or her personality.
But while we want something unique, the heroine must remain relatable. A heroine who is too beautiful, too brilliant, too infallible makes us suspicious. Why should we care about her? We don’t like those women in real life—the acquaintance who never has a hair out of place or a run in her hose. Why would we like her in a book? Who wants to read about that?
So we love Skeeter’s frizzy hair in The Help; Stephanie Plum’s family dinners with kinfolks who deliver a put-down with a hug. We want to see a heroine eat a doughnut, sleep through the alarm, walk into a kitchen full of dirty dishes. Leave the infallible heroines to the dystopian fantasies, targeting the the high school set (no doughnuts or dirty dishes in Chasing Fire). Real women need protagonists who contend with life’s realities.
When crafting the heroine of my novel, The Code of the Hills: An Ozarks Mystery, I tried to follow my own advice. Elsie Arnold, the assistant prosecutor in my legal thriller, embodies the V/V contrast. She’s smart, dedicated, hard-working—important virtues in the legal field. But Elsie has feet of clay. Her personal life is messy. She puts up with a bad boyfriend because he’s easy on the eyes; to relax, she heads to the local bar (not the gym); she makes mistakes in her case that threaten the outcome. Elsie is a good/bad girl.
And it’s important to remember the U/R quotient as well. Elsie is a hillbilly, born and raised in the Missouri Ozarks, with the quirks inherent in natives of that area; that’s something you don’t see in fiction every day. She’s also a feminist fighting for women in the good ole boy community.
But she is truly relatable. Elsie buys McDonalds burgers at the drive-through and eats in the car. She watches reality TV and buys her shoes at Shoe Carnival. She turns to her mother for comfort and counsel, then rejects her advice—just like we all do.
Whether I invested Elsie with the right measures of V & V, U & R? Only time will tell. The Code of the Hills will be released by HarperCollins on April 15, and Elsie will be put to the test. I hope she lights up the page!
About the author:
Nancy Allen is a member of the law faculty in the College of Business at Missouri State University. She practiced law for 15 years, serving as Assistant Missouri Attorney General and as Assistant Prosecutor in her native Ozarks. When Nancy began her term as prosecutor, she was only the second woman in Southwest Missouri to serve in that capacity. During her years in prosecution, she tried over 30 jury trials, including murder and sexual offenses, and she served on the Rape Crisis Board and the child protection team of the Child Advocacy Council. The Code of the Hills is her first novel.
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A powerful debut thriller set in the Ozark hills, about a young female prosecutor trying to do right by her vulnerable clients-but by breaking their silence, she herself may fall victim to The Code of the Hills. Elsie Arnold may not always have it all together, but a raucous night at the bar now and then is just how she blows off steam after a long week of hard-fought trials. When she is chosen to assist on a high-profile incest case, Elsie is excited to step up after four years of hard work as an attorney for the prosecutor’s office, and ready to realize her ambition of becoming the Ozarks’ avenging angel. There might even be media attention.
But as soon as Elsie she begins to sink her teeth into the State of Missouri vs. Kris Taney, things start to go wrong -which is when her boss dumps the entire case on her. The star witness and victim’s brother, who has accused Taney of sexually abusing his three daughters, has gone missing. The three girls, ages six, 12, and 15, may not be fit to testify, their mother won’t talk, and the evidence is spotty. To make matters worse, it seems that some people in town don’t want Elsie to lock Taney up – judging by the death threats and chicken parts left for her to find.
Elsie is determined to break the code of silence and find out what really happened, refusing to let a sex offender walk, but the odds – and maybe the community – are against her. Even as Elsie fights the good fight for her clients, she isn’t so different from them: her personal life is taking a one-two punch as her cop boyfriend becomes more and more controlling. And amidst all of the conflict, the safety of the three young Taney girls hangs in the balance.
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