Saturday, July 31, 2010

Parallel Universe: Extraordinary Heroines by Marcella Burnard

Let’s start right off with my contrarian take on extraordinary characters: Make them ordinary. Make them vulnerable. Make them real. Then give the character a twist that makes you giggle like a maniac. Start there and then you can do just about anything.

In my first book, ENEMY WITHIN, Ari is a fencing master, a starship captain, a bit of a scientist and an all around wise-ass. She does stuff I think we can all agree no one person could possibly do with the physical limits of the human body and the temporal limits of a single life span. None of it makes her extraordinary. It’s fun. It helps move the plot, but the thing that makes Ari interesting and memorable is the kernel of truth at her core. She suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There’s a tiny scene where the hero walks into Ari’s cabin and she’s playing a sound file on her room speakers –the mating songs of amphibians from a world she’s visited. That scene is real. A friend’s husband served two tours of duty in Iraq. He suffered from terrible PTSD upon his return and could only sleep if he slept in the bathroom floor with the shower running. Sit with that a moment. Can you imagine what it would feel like to have such a tenuous grip on a sense of safety? That emotional vulnerability – and a character’s reaction to it - is what makes heroines extraordinary, in my opinion. Ari was interesting because she was an uber-capable woman whose emotional and mental lives had been utterly deconstructed and left in ruins.

For the third book in this series, (the second is ENEMY GAMES, the third book is, as yet, unnamed) the heroine is deaf. She’s a freedom fighter turned mercenary, and a pyrotechnic/munitions expert, which translates into Edie blowing stuff up (this is the bit that makes me giggle and rub my hands together like some cheesy, second-class mad-scientist). Her people lost the war and subsequently turned on the rebels, afraid that the winners of that war would seek retribution from the populace over the battles fought by the freedom forces. If you studied World War II history, you know some of this occasionally happened in France when Germany occupied Paris. Imagine how you’d feel having put your life on the line for your people only to lose the war and then have your people turn on you, too. Resentment? Baggage? This seems to be where characters turn a corner from flat to fleshed-out. It isn’t about the fact that Edie is a mercenary/bounty-hunter tracking criminals on the fringes of legality. It isn’t about the fact that she’s deaf. The part that makes Edie interesting is her pain, her emotional sore-spots, her weaknesses.

Every one of us has strengths and weaknesses. Think through the heroes (male and female) of our world. Sometimes, we root for people based on that person’s strengths, but how much more intrigued are we by someone who has overcome weakness to achieve something? Remember the Olympic skater whose mother died the night before the woman was scheduled to skate? The skater wasn’t doing particularly well in the rankings, but that program she skated in her mother’s honor was a triumph that had the entire stadium on its feet for her. Why? Because every single human being watching could relate to the loss this woman had endured. Everyone watching wanted to believe he or she could pull an equally glorious success out of personal tragedy, even though most of us know that rarely happens. Lance Armstrong was reasonably well-known for winning the Tour de France, but the moment he suffered through cancer treatment and returned to cycling to win again, he was a household name. Again, every single person living can relate to being sick, tired, worn out – hopefully not to the life-threatening extreme of cancer – but we all have a basis for understanding even if the details are inaccurate. Right or wrong, our culture admires anyone who can bounce back from something so debilitating and wring a win out of it.

Let’s be clear. Extraordinary characters can’t breeze their way through their problems. Any success or triumph they wrest from their weakness must come at a cost, whether that is death – real or metaphorical – or whether that price is the sacrifice of a long-held goal. This is the part where your heroine has to demonstrate that she’s explored the boundaries of her vulnerabilities and has learned to cope. Or not. And that opens up so many stories with so many extraordinary characters. Get out there and write one.


For more information about Marcella Burnard, visit her Web site at