Posted On October 19, 2012 by Print This Post

Editor Theresa Stevens of Ask an Editor on Making Your Heroine Likable!

Have you made your heroine likeable? Or is she a whiner? Read this post by editor Theresa Stevens – one of the most likeable editors I know! =)

Washington D.C. 1999

Before I’ve read a single sentence of this manuscript, I’m already questioning the timeline. My hunch is that this is some kind of prologue, but it could be that the entire book is set in 1999. I’m wondering why the year is significant, but I’m withholding judgment for now. It’s just that this particular kind of start to a book is not usually auspicious, so I’m already wary, but I’m keeping an open mind.

I ought to disclose that, after reading the first two pages, I’m reasonably certain I’ve seen this manuscript before. This is the first time I’ve run across this kind of duplication in the samples for this column, which is surprising in itself. I don’t remember all the specifics of this story, but I remember enough to know I’ve seen it before.

“Darn,” Lieutenant Brenda Piedra gripped the steering wheel and slammed on the breaks when an SUV in front of her stopped short. She glanced at the clock on the dash as she was held captive by stop-and-go traffic. Her dress was bunched together at her waist and she tried to smooth out some of the wrinkles. Her engagement ring caught the flimsy fabric of her dress. She glared at the precious metal then began twisting and rotating the ring until it slid down her finger. Without further inspection, she placed the ring inside the ashtray. When asked, Brenda described her own plight, “I’m engaged to one of  the hundreds of D.C attorneys.” Silently she’d add, a name without a face.

There’s a minor pacing problem in this paragraph. It takes too long to unfold. It’s not that the action sequence is bad, but the pacing is slow. We could trim a bit and end up with something pacier, maybe like this:

“Darn,” Lieutenant Brenda Piedra slammed on the breaks when an SUV in front of her stopped short. She glanced at the clock on the dash as stop-and-go traffic held her captive. She tried to smooth out some of the wrinkles in her dress, but her engagement ring caught the flimsy fabric. She glared at the precious metal then twisted and rotated the ring until it slid down her finger. Without further inspection, she placed the ring inside the ashtray. When asked, Brenda described her own plight, “I’m engaged to one of  the hundreds of D.C attorneys.” Silently she’d add, a name without a face.

So all we’ve done there is trim out a bit of excess language, combine a couple of sentences, and changed one passive voice construction (she was held captive by stop-and-go traffic) to the active voice (stop-and-go traffic held her captive). We’ve cut the length from 120 words to 104, about a 13% reduction, but we haven’t lost anything from the action sequence. Because most of the cuts come from the stage directions at the beginning of the paragraph, this also adds emphasis to the more important parts at the end of the paragraph.

At this point, I’m wondering why she has such a hostile reaction to the engagement ring and such a negative attitude toward her fiancé. The next paragraph answers these questions a bit.

Brenda shifted in her seat, irritated that once again she was sans fiancé on Friday night, not to mention a work related party. Coming solo meant having an accuse ready on the tip of her tongue. Lately, she was left alone so often, it was a chore to be creative in her excuses. Her goal, avoid giving the same excuse twice in a row.

Okay, so, she’s miffed that her fiancé is standing her up on a Friday night. Understandable. The fact that this is a pattern in their relationship makes me wonder if they’re about to break up. There’s no indication that she supports him in whatever he’s doing tonight – for example, if he’s working late, and she supports his career goals, this would have a much different tone. Then she might be bragging about his career instead of trying to cover up his absence with excuses. So, this is a relationship in trouble. (I also wonder, very fleetingly, why she didn’t ask a friend to go to the party with her if attending alone was such a problem for her. This seems like a problem that’s easy to solve.)

Perfect, she thought, I’ll arrive thirty minutes after the party started making small talk bearable. Brenda reviewed her plan for the evening that included no more than two scotch on the rocks. Hors d’oeuvres that tasted like paper, much like the conversation, would circulate around the room.

This paragraph makes me reconsider everything I’d thought about Brenda so far. This is very negative, and I can’t see any reason for it. She’s going to a party. She might not be excited about it, but her mindset is so negative that I’m starting to think maybe she just likes to complain. Maybe her negativity toward her fiancé stems from this same attribute. Maybe the problem is not that she doesn’t support his goals; maybe the problem is that she is just an unhappy person prone to finding faults in the people and situations around her.

Let’s think about this for a moment. Imagine a positive, optimistic person in Brenda’s position. Her fiancé can’t attend the party with her, but she still gets to dress up and go to a party, right? So a positive, optimistic person might be thinking about ways to stem the damage – John has to work late, but maybe Mary will want to go in his place, and I’ll get plenty of time to talk to Sarah – instead of dwelling on the perceived negative of having to go alone. Even if this situation is symptomatic of a larger problem, and she’s thinking she might have to break off her engagement, she could put a positive spin on the party – Maybe Sarah will be able to help me sort through all this, or maybe it will do me some good to have fun and stop fretting for a few hours. But that’s not what happens here.

Instead, we get some relentless negativity in the first three paragraphs that mounts into a negative impression of Brenda. The thing is, readers want to like heroines, and it’s hard to like someone who complains a lot. Yet, Brenda might be coping with very real problems here, and those problems can’t be shrugged off with anything like fake cheerfulness. So what is the solution? Portray the problems, but also portray Brenda responding to them with a can-do spirit. Then the reader will feel some sympathy and will cheer for Brenda to conquer those problems.


How do you balance your character’s range of emotions and still make them likeable?  What changes would you make to this entry? 


On Monday, October 22nd, Ruth Harris presents Hold Your Nose and Type Fast.


Bio: Theresa Stevens is the Publisher of STAR Guides Publishing, a nonfiction publishing company with the mission to help writers write better books. After earning degrees in creative writing and law, she worked as a literary attorney agent for a boutique firm in Indianapolis where she represented a range of fiction and nonfiction authors. After a nine-year hiatus from the publishing industry to practice law, Theresa worked as chief executive editor for a highly acclaimed small romance press, and her articles on writing and editing have appeared in numerous publications for writers. Visit her blog at where she and her co-blogger share their knowledge and hardly ever argue about punctuation.

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11 Responses to “Editor Theresa Stevens of Ask an Editor on Making Your Heroine Likable!”

  1. Theresa –

    Thanks for this today. It’ll help me remember to make sure I’m not destroying my snarky heroines’ “like ability.” That can be such a fine line for me!

    Happy Friday!

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | October 19, 2012, 7:22 am
  2. Hi Theresa,

    Heroines need to be strong, but soft. I add a little yearning to my heroines. They are capable to handle things themselves, but look forward to some help.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | October 19, 2012, 7:35 am
  3. Hi Theresa, I absolutely love your posts and find your advice so useful. This is exactly the sort of advice I need to improve my own writing. It’s one thing understanding the theory of what makes a likable character, but picking apart the text, as you do in this post, in order to put the theory into practice and make it work, I find very difficult. A few years ago I had a manuscript rejected with the gutting comment that the hero lacked charisma. By chance I blogged about this today, and about what I tried to do to make the character appear more likable. My post is here: I’d love to hear how others have dealt with this. Thanks for your example above – I’m saving all your posts to re-read when stuck.

    Posted by Helena Fairfax | October 19, 2012, 7:48 am
  4. Good morning, Theresa. I always love the wisdom in your columns. I’m working on a story now where the heroine is snarky and I’ve had to check myself a few times.

    I think sometimes we aim for funny, but the character comes off sounding mean. I always go back and study the dialogue for that reason.

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | October 19, 2012, 8:06 am
  5. Thanks for the great post, Theresa! Boy, did I have a hard time creating a likable heroine in A Lady’s Revenge. Took me a long time to figure out how to add bits into the ms to make her more sympathetic, but I eventually accomplished it!

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | October 19, 2012, 8:39 am
  6. A subject rejections have made so dear to my heart, lol. 🙂 Thanks for some great words of wisdom on likability. I’ll definitely be applying these thoughts as I move forward. I think everyone else has nailed it – snarky is popular, but there’s a line.

    Posted by Jamie Farrell | October 19, 2012, 8:44 am
  7. Morning Theresa!

    I too struggle with snarkiness leaning sometimes into the mean. Definitely a big one to watch out for!

    I’ve also always heard that you need to gain empathy for your heroine in the first page or two….so the reader can bond with your heroine. Any helpful hints on how to do that?

    Thanks so much for posting with us today!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | October 19, 2012, 9:08 am
  8. Great post. You made me think about the opening paragraphs of my wip where my heroine is feeling really down. I don’t think I show her as a whiner but I’m not sure I showed her drive to handle the situation in a postive tone. I’m glad I popped in today. Thanks! And thanks to Adrienne for tweeting the info.

    Posted by Autumn Jordon | October 19, 2012, 9:59 am
  9. Thanks, Theresa. After reading your post, I’m going to reread my first chapter again to check for whine.

    Posted by Stephanie Berget | October 19, 2012, 11:02 am
  10. Thank you!! I’ve been struggling to make my heroine more likable.

    Posted by Laurie Evans | October 19, 2012, 11:20 am
  11. Oh man, can I relate. When I first started writing, I worked hard to make my heroines strong, kick-ass women, but instead they came across as pushy and bitchy. I think because I’m not particularly kick-ass myself, I had my characters lean too far the other way. Hopefully, I’m getting better at writing women, but for some reason I’m better at writing men.

    Prologues, wordy beginnings – been there, done that. Now I’m going back to those stories, slashing through everything that slowed it down. Not sure if I’ve got it right yet, but the stories are definitely better than they were originally!

    Thanks for another really helpful post, Theresa! And thanks to the brave writer who submitted her work!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | October 19, 2012, 1:10 pm

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