How To Write Perfect Heroines

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Vanessa Westermann

· 4 min read

This post was first published by Women Writers, Women’s Books at

“The perfect heroine for our times” is how Canadian crime writer Barbara Fradkin described Kate Rowan, the protagonist of my mystery An Excuse For Murder. High praise indeed! Barbara identified Kate’s strengths as being her “wit, charm, and spirit balanced by impressive skills in self-defense and lock-picking”.

I was overjoyed, especially because an earlier draft of the manuscript had been rejected by an editor for being a “woman-in-danger novel.” The feedback had a gasp of horror rising in my throat, not unlike that of a Gothic damsel in distress. My reaction: pass the smelling salts and a red pen, please. I planned to rescue the story.

I revised the novel, making sure that Kate showed strength and courage in every decision she made and every action she took. Then An Excuse For Murder sold to The Wild Rose Press and Barbara Fradkin praised Kate’s spirit. And I learned that criticism, no matter how painful it may be, can be the best motivator for improvement and lead to success.

So, how did I transform Kate from a woman-in-danger to the perfect heroine?

I killed my darlings.

Prepared to be ruthless with cuts and changes, I analyzed the story to identify weaknesses. I love reading mysteries and, for me, one of the defining scenes is the discovery of the body. The appearance of a corpse can hook or lose the reader. When Kate discovers the body of her great-aunt’s tenant, sprawled on the basement stairs, she was shocked and horrified. The dead man’s grimace, an eerie imitation of a smile, shot a surge of pure terror through her. But, in the rewrite, I added, “Not that she’d admit it for the world.” I went through the manuscript, looking for these moments of terror that I could use to show Kate’s gumption.

I drew inspiration from a history of female sleuths.

Kate was created within a tradition of female sleuths. In the Golden Age of detective fiction, female characters were often sidekicks to the male hero (Miss Marple being a notable exception to the rule). In the past half century, female sleuths have shown that crime solving is indeed a suitable job for a woman and even become, to quote Dilys Winn, “the better half of the mystery”.

A writer’s toolbox, as Stephen King states in his memoir On Writing, is filled by reading. I gathered my tools by re-reading my favourite crime novels. There are so many examples of inspiring female sleuths in fiction, I couldn’t possibly name them all. To mention but a few: Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak and S. J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin. These feisty, resourceful and intelligent heroines set the bar for Kate.

I developed her personal goals and ambitions.

In contemporary cozies, the amateur sleuth’s education and life experiences provide her with the skills to solve the mystery. Kate has a passion for crime fiction and, as a bookstore owner, the means to indulge it. I decided, she should be able to fight off villains as easily as she deals in first editions. She’s imaginative, curios and stubborn. She’s not afraid to ask questions, she never backs down and hates, absolutely hates, being called a coward. Besides picking locks, Kate can throw a mean right hook and run a business.

I used a foil character to emphasize her strengths.

An Excuse for Murder is told from the perspective of Kate, a bookstore owner who discovers the body, but also from the perspective of Gary Fenris, a haunted former bodyguard who committed murder. Gary could have taken on the role of knight errant, but instead I had Kate prove again and again throughout the novel that she can fight her own battles. I used her interactions with Gary, and the moments when he underestimates her, to show Kate’s independence and ability to act under pressure.

I gave her flaws.

Perfection is not flawless. Quite the contrary, in fact. As a bookworm, Kate is a daydreamer. She draws conclusions on reality from fiction, which can lead her down the wrong path. But she recognizes her weaknesses and overcomes them–or uses them to her benefit. It’s her knowledge of mysteries that helps her solve the crime and enables her to expose the holes in a story, to recognize a lie as fiction.

I enhanced the dialogue.

I have a confession to make. I love dialogue. There, I’ve said it. There’s nothing like wit and banter to bring a character to life, which is why I devoured Golden Age detective novels in the first place. While revising An Excuse For Murder, dialogue was another opportunity for me to show Kate’s spirit. Was her voice being heard by other characters? Did she take or give advice? Did other characters have the last line or did she? If you read An Excuse For Murder, and I hope you will, you’ll see that Kate now tends to have the last word.

Through the editing process, I discovered that my plot develops naturally when I “listen” to my heroines. Because each and every one of them has a strong voice. Although they find themselves in danger, they are not damsels in distress.

There is power in rewriting, and I can guarantee your story will be the better for it. All it takes, is a killer attitude and a red pen–blood red, perhaps.

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About Vanessa Westermann

Vanessa is a Canadian crime writer. She is the author of Cover Art and other books. At the heart of all of her stories are strong female protagonists.

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