Writing the Troubled Heroine

Writing damaged heroines or heroes is difficult work. In Urban Fantasy, it’s something of an expected framework within the story. The UF genre as a whole is a fairly dark field to read in. There’s crime, violence, and a general slew of bad things happening. Living in this world is not a joyful experience. To exist in this dark realm takes something of a dark personality in order not to be overwhelmed.  To cope with supernatural evil, one needs to have had some experience with crime and violence. So, just how much of that does a character need?

The problem of course, is that in the real world, experiencing crime and violence can be very scarring. It chips away at the soul, and makes it more and more difficult to deal with the vagaries of life. In the real world, it can be debilitating if not dealt with appropriately, and let’s face it, most protags in UF stories are adept at not dealing with this issues. They aren’t in regular counseling sessions. There is no family therapy going on. They’re too tough and recalcitrant to address their problems. It can and should make the realities of daily living something of an issue for the characters.

In many stories I have read, I believe authors take a few too many liberties with the realities of damaged personalities. They either cope with things more ably than they have any business doing or they end up having a love interest that magically makes these issues slide into the background or worse, go away. While I’m all for the heroic fantasy of having love conquer all, it’s a bit too easy to have this wipe away the issues. It’s a bit too fantasy for me.

J.D. Robb does a great job with her Eve Dallas character of having her emotional issues interfere with her life (when the stories turn in that direction; more of this, Nora! Pretty please!). Stacia Kane’s series with Chess Putnam is also fabulous at having emotional issues create havoc with the character. The emotional problems are a central conflict in and of themselves that feed into and augment the central action of the story. They can and should make life very difficult for the characters not only on a personal level, but in accomplishing the central conflict in the story. Readers love this or at least I do as a reader, but the problem of course is creating a balance.

The balance comes in believability and connection to the character.  Many characters in UF have had some pretty horrific things happen to them in their pasts. My heroine is no exception here. People don’t always handle these things well. They tend to be more destructive in their coping methods than constructive. This is what happens in real life when one is too tough to seek help or too stubborn to admit there’s a problem. People probably know someone in their lives who is like this. Drug use is a common one. Always getting into relationships that do more harm than good.  It happens. A lot. You may love these people on the one hand and can’t stand them on the other.

If the issues play themselves out on the page in a realistic manner, the reader should feel this too. The characters should have a good core, but do things, say things, and generally act in ways that make you want to beat them over the head. It can make them difficult to like. You want to like them, want them to do the things they need to do in order to be healthy, and then yell at them when they don’t.

My character in Deadworld, Jackie, is such a person. I did this on purpose. I set out to make a character that was good at heart but outwardly a complete mess. She has a past that she’s never been able to address. She’s afraid to because she’s terrified that the past is what she is, that the horror she experienced has somehow made her into a bad person. She’s codependent emotionally on her best friend, Laurel, to keep the wall up between her outer and inner lives. If she can function, she doesn’t need to deal with the problems. It’s that whole, “ignore it and it will go away” syndrome. As an author, it is then my job to force the issue for her and make it so she has to confront herself, to see the damage and understand what it is doing to her life and finally address it.  It’s not an easy task.

Making this work on the page and be realistic has one inherent problem for me at least. Healing takes time. Deadworld takes place over the course of about ten days. Is this enough time to heal? No, not even close. Is it enough to make the realization that something is wrong and needs to be fixed? Yes, and hopefully I wrote it that way. The Vengeful Dead follows on the heels of Deadworld. Again, not much time passes. After realization comes the fear that these problems are just too overwhelming to deal with. This feeling that, “I’m not capable of handling this,” is common to deep emotional issues. Even love won’t cure the problem. It has to come from within. What is love’s job here? It’s stability. It’s the glue that holds you together that let’s you know that no matter what, the support is there to see you through, and that there is hope. Hope is a big deal. In The Lingering Dead, a bit more time passes, and now we can finally see some changes begin to happen. There is hope. At last Jackie will get the sense that, “I can do this. I’m actually a good person, worthy of happiness.” Because coming out of the dark, when you feel that the darkness is part of who and what you are, is an arduous, terrifying process. And it takes time.

The benefit of a series is that you have time to play out these things in a realistic manner. The tricky balance of course is to give the reader something to hold on to in the process. One has to like the character enough to want them to succeed. It makes it very hard to have stand alone books. I’ve had many comments with regard to Jackie being too harsh. She does too many things that make her unlikeable. I knew this problem going into the story. I wanted a difficult journey. It’s both a challenge and very rewarding to make it happen. For some readers, it doesn’t work. I realize this. I can’t apologize for it because I didn’t want this to be easy. I wanted to adhere as much as I could to the realities of dealing with emotional trauma.

Time heals all. It takes time in stories as well. Or it should. Hopefully, for the readers, the journey will be worth it.

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