I always wanted to be Princess Leia when I grew up. She could do it all--rule a planet, shoot a blaster and win Han Solo’s heart, and through it all, she sported fabulous hairdos. When I started to write science fiction romance, I was determined to create equally impressive female characters. In my new release, Ladder to the Red Star, I followed a few guidelines in how to make my heroine, Devi, a woman strong enough to hold her own with the hero and fend off the powers rallying to destroy them both.
First, Devi’s ambitions and fears are separate from the hero’s. In a romance, the union of the hero and the heroine should make them both better people than they were apart, but even so the heroine needs to be willing and able to pursue her own goals and make her own judgments without being subsumed by the hero. Her thoughts can’t revolve solely around him—in other words, she must pass the Bechdel test (she has conversations with other women about something besides a man).
Second, Devi insists on being treated respect according to her merit. She is highly intelligent and driven, and as a medical doctor she maintains a position of authority and responsibility. She is not dependent on her sexuality to achieve her goals (though she is very beautiful and has fabulous hair). A great heroine doesn’t necessarily have to be extremely beautiful or smart or powerful. She doesn’t need to be physically capable beating up a horde of baddies by herself. But she does need to draw the reader’s respect through her actions and her willingness to overcome her shortcomings.
Finally, a great heroine has to have firmly drawn physical characteristics, flaws, and personality traits that ground her in the reader’s mind and make her believable. Devi has her own well-developed inner life that is the result of her specific history, and outer quirks to match. This is what makes her unique among all the women of the universe, and thus uniquely able to win through the obstacles before her.
These are the thoughts I keep in mind as I’m writing my science fiction romance heroines. I think Princess Leia would approve.