Last October, I joined a wonderful group of women for a writers' retreat. I introduced them to one of my favorite series, Lucifer, and they in turn introduced me to Good Behavior. I was hooked instantly and became an insta-fan of the heroine, Letty.
|He's in it, too. If you need extra incentive.|
But it got me thinking: why did I like Letty so much? She's an addict, demonstrating problems with drugs, alcohol and impulse control. She's a con artist, constantly lying to people from claiming to work for Instagram to pretending to be a ghost writer. She steals, shoplifting $20 000 rings and chocolate bars with equal ease (and I'm one of those people who wonders what happens to background characters after the protagonist leaves). By the logic of likeable heroines, Letty Raines has a lot more in common with villains than heroines.
That led me to take a closer look. How did the writers make Letty likeable?
It starts with the first scene where Letty is dealing with a crap job at a restaurant and fights off a would-be rapist in the bathroom. By putting her in a bad situation and in danger, the audience begins on her side. We cheer when she slams the guy's head into the wall and steals his wallet all in one move. More cheering when she quits the job immediately.
Then the writers begin to introduce Letty's story. We learn she's been to prison. We learn she has a child that she's not allowed to see. We see the addiction and damage it has caused. But we also see that she is making an effort to overcome it. She constantly recites self-affirmations to boost her self-esteem. She is struggling, which helps to keep the audience's sympathy. But writers have to be careful, because struggle and failure can also alienate an audience. It needs to feel as if suffering has a purpose within the narrative and that the character has a chance at overcoming their obstacles.
Enter the second weapon, they make Letty glamorous. Wigs, clothes, shoes, Letty gets to play in the ultimate fantasy dress-up closet. Her attractiveness also makes the audience more inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt.
Then they show that she has a good heart. She cares about her son. She supports her mother, even when her mother is cruel to her. She tries to save a complete stranger from being murdered when she overhears a hitman meeting with his client. Her methods might be ethically dubious, but her efforts counteract the appearance of callousness.
And last but not least, they play on the audience's inherent desire to break the rules and get away with it. Most of us have fantasized about doing whatever we wanted, without consequences. Taking what we want without having to worry about paying for it. Letty makes it look easy and tempting. When she describes the thrill of deceiving someone and getting away with a crime, it's a statement that rings true for all of us, even if our biggest duping delight comes from successfully pretending to be sick so that we can stay home from work.
Letty is an unusually complex character. Like people in real life, she's hard to pigeon-hole as good or bad. She's both, sometimes at the same time. She makes bad choices and stupid mistakes, but she also cares deeply about those around her. She's self-destructive but trying to escape it. Hopefully she reminds the audience about the dangers of judging someone based on a thin slice of their life and experiences.
But unlike people in real life, Letty manages to skate past the worst consequences of her decisions. She gets away with things we never could, taking the audience with her in a vicarious Robin-Hood-esque crime spree. Writing this kind of complexity is a challenge but it's also a goal, because complexity is what keeps characters real. It's a balance between writing something that readers relate to and something that makes them think. Too much on one side or the other saps the life out of a story: too much predictable relating leads to stereotypes and over-used plotpoints; too much making people think leads to characters they don't care about.
It's a fine line and it varies from book to book, character to character. But Good Behavior nailed it for season one. And it's definitely made me think about how I want to craft my next awesome bad girl.
Are you addicted to strong and interesting heroines like I am? Share your favourite heroines with me on Twitter (@jclewisupdate) and #HeroineFix.
And if you'd like to give my strong heroines a try for free, enter my giveaway for a copy of my first book. Revelations tells Dani's story: a burlesque dancer with superpowers who is searching to find her brothers before they disappear into a testing facility.
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Next month's Heroine Fix will be looking at one of the first heroines who ever inspired me. Meg Murray from A Wrinkle In Time. Coming May 10th!