What Would Princess Leia Do?

By Allison Brennan


Yesterday, I made the time to attend my local RWA meeting where New York Times bestselling author Alyssa Day spoke about heroines. Alyssa is a talented paranormal romance writer who has a reputation for writing alpha heros AND alpha heroines. I asked her permission to talk about her workshop on this blog because I think it would benefit ALL writers, not simply romance or romantic suspense authors.

Alyssa’s workshop was hugely inspirational and beneficial to me. A lot of people might think that after 13 published books why would I want to attend a craft workshop? The same reason why I bought Donald Maass’ FIRE IN FICTION last summer–I am still learning. While I believe my strength in writing is centered around my heroines, I also believe that all writers, no matter what their level or how many books under their belt, published or unpublished, can learn something simply by listening to others. Sometimes it’s not like we learn something particularly new, but we are given a new way of looking at something we know and it broadens our perceptions and our craft.

Yesterday was just such a day for me.

I write strong heroines. My hardest characters are the heroines who are not in a naturally kick-ass professional. For example, Julia Chandler (prosecutor in SEE NO EVIL) or Robin McKenna (night club owner in KILLING FEAR.) Why? Because when your heroine has a role like cop or FBI Agent or P.I. reader expectations are that the character knows how to take care of themselves, that they are independent and strong-willed. Female cops are not wimps, for the most part, and I don’t have to convince my readers that Detective Carina Kincaid (SPEAK NO EVIL) knows how to investigate a murder. I can simply put her in the middle of the investigation and give her the label “detective” and readers get it.

I’ve judged the Thrillers for four years, and there are a lot of fantastic books I’ve read–the finalists and some that haven’t finaled. I love thrillers, suspense, mysteries, romantic suspense, anything with twists, turns, high stakes. One thing I’ve noticed is that some writers–many male writers, but even some female writers– create stereotypes for their female characters. The femme fatale. The man-hating cop. The wimpy Perilous Pauline. Some books are more about the hero’s journey–and that’s fine. But good books have strong secondary characters, too, and while stereotypes can (and often should) be used in writing, they should be relegated to the third tier characters.

The female protagonist–whether she is a true heroine (i.e. equal to the hero, like in a romantic suspense novel) or a secondary character (such as a partner or an ex-wife)–is crucial to a strong story. Alyssa’s advice to writers is terrific. For example, is your heroine strong or passive? Does she DO things or is she always having things DONE for her? Can she solve her own problems, or is she always looking for the hero to do it?

There is nothing I hate more than a woman who can’t do anything for herself. This doesn’t mean she has to do EVERYTHING for herself, but she should have common sense. If she has a flat tire, she might not know how to change it, but she damn well knows how to use a cell phone. Or flag down a truck. Or capable of walking a mile to the nearest gas station. (And yes, some women–not me–know how to change a tire.)

If you have an important female character, does she advance the plot in any way? Or is she standing around wringing her hands waiting for the big, strong guy to save her? (Gag.)

Alyssa identifies five core character traits of a strong heroine:


  • She’s an independent thinking and makes intelligent choices.
  • She has a sense of humor–she can face conflict and adversity and be able to laugh at herself or her weaknesses.
  • She’s ready and willing to fight, either it’s physically or not. Meaning, she should be able to defend herself verbally or physically, to stand up for what’s right, and not always cave to those seemingly bigger or stronger.
  • She should accept her hero as he is and not try to change him.
  • She should be able to face everyday situations with strength and resilience.


Smart choices, the first point, is crucial, but often misunderstand. It’s not always that we can make the RIGHT choice. Sometimes, we don’t have all the information we need. Sometimes, we have to do something we know is wrong because the stakes are so high. Sometimes, we’re in a lose-lose situation. ACTION is what’s important, that inaction is a sign of weakness. Inaction in fact is a character trait. But strong heroines will do what they think is right given the circumstances–they have strong motivation in doing what they do.

Some writers, Alyssa points out, take the idea of a strong heroine to mean she has to be perfect, flawless, beautiful at all times. WRONG! I love Alyssa’s comment, “I believe in Kryptonite.” Meaning, every character has a fatal flaw. Perhaps the flaw is physical or emotional or situational. Every character has their own Kryptonite. (This goes for heroes, heroines, villains, secondary characters–doesn’t matter who! But it’s doubly important for your protagonists and your villain.)

But in the end, what I loved most about Alyssa’s workshop was when she ended with when you’re stuck, just think:

What would Princess Leia do?

So now I have that phrase etched in my mind as I finish the copyedits for CARNAL SIN. My problem in writing is not usually the heroine–my heroine’s are generally strong. Sometimes TOO strong. In FEAR NO EVIL I had my first hero who wasn’t in law enforcement paired with a heroine who was a renegade FBI Agent. I had to make sure that my trained, smart, and talented heroine wasn’t stronger than my forensic psychiatrist hero. So to resolve the central problem, it was my hero’s ability to think like the villain that gave them the edge to save lives–not my heroine’s training or law enforcement background.

A female character I’ve been hugely impressed with is FBI Agent Olivia Dunham from FRINGE. Olivia is trained, strong, independent, but she also has a vulnerable side. She can love, she has a sister and niece she is close to but her job keeps getting in the way of her promises. This bothers her, but she is driven to do the job well. She is not hardened, but she can be tough. She doesn’t make too-stupid-to-live decisions–when she makes a risky decision it is always with the purpose of saving an innocent life. She is smart and capable and not too rigid. 

In LIFE, the erroneously canceled NBC series starring Damian Lewis as Det. Charlie Crews, his partner Dani Reece is another example of a strong female character who has flaws but still gets up every day to do the job. She’s a recovering drug addict. She has a problem with relationships and therefore has one-night stands instead of any steady boyfriend. She’s a good cop, but is overshadowed by her well-known retired father, also a cop. She changes over the course of the two-season series to be able to have 1) a friendship with her partner and 2) a relationship that last more than one night (not with her partner) and 3) the courage to try to move up the ladder on her own merits.

And of course Princess Leia. She was a princess, after all, but she was also capable of taking charge. (So what if she got them trapped in the trash compactor? At least she DID something rather than stand around and be shot at!)

I’d love to hear more examples of strong female characters, and some of your pet peeves about heroines and female characters . . . rant away!


25 thoughts on “What Would Princess Leia Do?

  1. JD Rhoades

    Love this, Allison. I always enjoy writing strong female characters, but the current WIP is my first with a female protagonist. Luckily, I have some excellent female first readers who can fact check me on girl stuff, and this post is getting printed out for my notebook as well.

  2. alli

    Oh yes, this post has been added to my "writing craft" file (as with Alex’s post yesterday). I’m not going to allow myself to rant about weak female characters because it will bore everyone, including myself. Princess Leia is my ideal heroine (and we’ll choose to forget the garbage compactor incident, shall we?). For me, the characters I like to read most about are the ones that step up and out of their traditional role and/or comfort zone and show strength no one imagined. Especially if the character is a female – no damsels in distress for me!

  3. Alafair Burke

    I need the heroine to be competent. I’m annoyed to no end these days with Kate on Lost because whenever that woman has a gun in her hand, something horrible goes wrong. I also need them to seem female is some realistic (not stereotypical) way. A weakness for chocolate or shoes doesn’t cut it, but don’t write the character like a man and think that makes her strong.

  4. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Allison

    Very interesting post. I hate tough-guy thrillers where the only female characters seem to be there in order to make mistakes vital to the plot.

    I did once have Charlie Fox attack an intruder with a rolled-up magazine, so she would have something to read while he got his breath back … does that count for a strong heroine with a sense of humour?

    And I always wondered in the Roger Moore James Bond films if they were slipping the female characters roofies. He only had to creak an eyebrow and they were throwing their underwear at him. Annoying, even against the background of the 1970s ;-]

  5. Brett Battes

    Excellent, Allison. This is great advice. I don’t know if I’m successful at keeping away from stereotypes, but I always try. It’s important to me that my female characters are as stronger or stronger than their male counterparts…whether that be physical, mental, or otherwise. I love the "What would Princess Leia would do?" question. That’s perfect, and I’m going to keep that in mind, too!

    And I also loved LIFE…tragedy when it was canceled.


  6. Allison Brennan

    Dusty, I think she’ll turn out fabulous! I read an early version of Jon Land’s TOO STRONG TO DIE with his first female protagonist and he did great. The biggest problem with male writers and females (this is SOME male writers, not ALL) is that they either create a "perfect" woman (big boobs, slender, gorgeous, sweet, ultra-feminine, etc) or they create a man and call her a woman (a lot of female cops are portrayed this way–as if being more like a man makes them a strong woman, which is not the case.) I can’t wait to read your creation!

    Alli, don’t get mad at Princess Leia for the trash compactor! They were being shot at from both ends of the tunnel, Luke and Han were firing at the stormtroopers who kept coming–they would have been killed or captured, no doubt. She thought quick and found the only way out of the immediate danger–yes, it put them in additional danger, but it bought them time. (And I don’t like damsels in distress, either, though sometimes your characters–male or female–will find themselves in a bad situation and they need the other person to get them out.

    OH! That reminds me of something else Alyssa said, which is exactly what I strive to do in my books–if you’re writing a romantic suspense or any high-action romance, the hero and the heroine may investigate the crime or go along on their separate journeys for a large chunk of the book, but they must work together to defeat the bad guy–that because they have complimentary strengths, they are able to work together and survive (save mankind, catch the killer, solve the crime, or even save the hero’s ranch from a developer or extreme animal rights activist.) (And it’s particularly true for my supernatural thriller series–which they learn in book 3 that they can’t defeat the demon by themselves, only when together do they have the mental and physical strength to do it.) One of my pet peeves is when the heroine is arm candy or always creates more problems than she solves–she needs to take ownership of her problems, solve most of them, and know when to ask for help–just like the hero.

    Alafair!!! Thank you!! "Don’t write the character like a man and think that makes her strong." Brilliant. 🙂

  7. Allison Brennan

    ROFLOL Zoe! Charlie’s sense of humor comes from how she looks at the world, even with all the crap she’s been through. And the rolled-up newspaper is perfect 🙂 It’s not like a character has to be LOL hilarious unless you’re writing comedy, but they need to have a healthy understanding of who they are and not always take themselves seriously. Alyssa says readers need some "breathing room" especially when you’re writing dark (which I do) and that’s something I have a hard time finding. I do better in my paranormal because there are more opportunities to be sarcastic and show the dark humor of the situation.

    And don’t get me started on the bimbos . . .

    Oh, Brett, I was so sad! But I watched it AFTER it was canceled through my AppleTV, so I knew it wasn’t coming back. I blogged about it at Murder She Writes on Thursday.

  8. Kate Douglas

    Allison–great post and damn but I wish I’d been there to hear Alyssa! I am a huge fan of her Warriors of Poseidon series and can’t wait to read Atlantis Redeemed–it’s right herein the TBR stack with Original Sin, which I can’t open either. Not until the WIP is in the mail to the editor! I tend to write strong women who are control freaks, and that need to be in control of their lives often gets them into trouble and pits them against their men, but I love that "what would Princess Leia do?" question. Going to keep that in mind–I can’t abide a weak heroine. She’s got to be strong and self-confident, and if she fails, she needs to at least try to get herself out of the mess. I think a lot of the heroine’s strength needs to come from layers–things in her background that shape her behavior in the here and now. Even if the details never get into the book, I’ve learned that by knowing them myself, I can keep a heroine’s actions consistent, and it helps to stave off the stereotypes.

  9. Eika

    I hate it when characters are just written as ‘the perfect woman’ or ‘perfect man’. I think it’s a double-edged problem; far too often the women are wimps, sure, but the men are so perfect it’s boring.

    I’ve actually played with that. One of my FMC’s major flaws is that she has difficulty asking for help when she needs it. I have so much fun with her- she managed to talk her way out of an angry mob, but she argues with people when they tell her to stay put until they’ve gotten there to help. And my MMC spends a long time willfully ignoring all his good, trusted friends who tell him his girlfriend (not FMC) is cheating on him. This was especially amusing when she wound up having to tell him she was pregnant- before they’d had sex. The pandemonium was WORTH IT.

  10. Louise Ure

    I like my heroines with competence, even if they don’t have total confidence.

    And my pet peeve? That it still seems like she has to have a love interest of some kind. Not a man "to save her" kind of thing, but a romantic interest nonetheless. Sometimes I think they’d be more interesting without one.

  11. anonymous

    Absolutely Louise. A woman can have a life without being in love or having a relationship. IT’S OK. Men make such good friends, brothers and fathers, (and cop partners) why not keep them as such?

    Interesting post, Allison, thank you.

  12. anonymous

    I also prefer stories where the male protag is not always daydreaming about his female partner or estranged girlfriend or his ex-wife or being hit on by a ‘woman of interest’.

    I guess it sells more books if there is a strong but sexy woman somewhere in the story, right?

    I mean, seriously (I’ve said this before) if a female protag has thick ankles and can’t handle a gun, are we interested in her?

    Kinsey Milhone does pretty well on her own (when she’s not using poor judgement and messing around with married men) and I really like Cadence Moran……I mean common……a blind female auto mechanic…….how cool is that?

  13. tess gerritsen

    Allison, I’m with you about the value of craft workshops, even for veteran writers. Sometimes we write our books on instinct, never quite sure how we manage to do it. It ends up feeling like magic, and the scary thing about magic is that, if we don’t know how it happens, we can’t always conjure it up when we need it.

    A good writing teacher can break it down to knowable, repeatable techniques. I’ll never forget that "aha"moment I had when I was listening to Donald Maass talk about how "microtension" is what good pacing is all about. Not big booms or car chases, but the niggling little moments of unease and conflict that keep your characters off-balance. Suddenly I realized that "microtension" was exactly the technique I’d been using all these years, in my own books. And having a name for it made it seem less like magic, and more like a reliable method that I can count on.

    As for Princess Leia — yay, she works for me. The main thing about my heroines is that they are far more gutsy than I am. I’d be the helpless female standing at the roadside, waiting for someone with a Y chromosome to change my flat tire.

  14. Allison Brennan

    Wish you could have been there too, Kate! I love listening to Alyssa talk. She has a very straight-forward and accessible manner. Must come from her years as a trial lawyer!

    Eika, your scene sounds fabulous! I agree–keep your Barbie’s and Ken’s to yourself. I like complex characters who are not perfect.

    Louisa, exactly! They have to be competence–not all characters should have confidence because that might not be in character, but they need to have a level of common sense so readers don’t think that they’re stupid or can’t relate to their decisions (there are exceptions, of course, such as the Stephanie Plum series which is built around Stephanie getting herself into trouble, but there are also reader expectations with that series that you read it and think, ok, how is Stephanie going to get in–and out–of the latest mess?)

    As far as love interests . . . I don’t have an answer. I do think relationships with all characters is important. In my Lucy Kincaid series, her relationship with her brothers, particularly Patrick, is crucial to her growth as a person. But I know my mom–who reads widely–doesn’t enjoy straight mysteries/thrillers anymore. She says there doesn’t have to be sex or a romance per se, but she wants to know that the main character has someone. Take Tess Gerritsen. Her series isn’t a romantic suspense, but the subplot of Jane and Gabriel (and Maura and Daniel or–if I have my way–Maura and Anthony) adds depth to the lead female characters. Gabriel doesn’t ride in to save the day–the book IS about Jane Rizzoli–but he compliments her, he makes her more human. Without him, she would be too hard (IMO) and run the risk of being a stereotypical hard-ass female detective. Now she can be a hardass because we the readers know that she has an an insecure side, a softer side. But this is just my opinion 🙂

  15. Paula R.

    Hey Allison, I love strong female characters too. I feel my love of alpha heroines is the desire to be like them. For a long time, I felt too weak to fight for myself, but I often lost myself in a world where women were take charge, but they did have some flaw that indicated they were not perfect. I feel that Dt. Olivia Benson is such a character. I also feel that the Det. in Cold Case (I can’t remember her name right now) that airs on CBS is such a character too. A strong female that is not TSTL!!! I hope to be able to write such strong male and female heroines as I get more experienced.

    Thanks for sharing what Alyssa Day had to say. I will be coming back to this one for a bit, just so I can get some pointers. I loved this particular section: "–if you’re writing a romantic suspense or any high-action romance, the hero and the heroine may investigate the crime or go along on their separate journeys for a large chunk of the book, but they must work together to defeat the bad guy–that because they have complimentary strengths, they are able to work together and survive (save mankind, catch the killer, solve the crime, or even save the hero’s ranch from a developer or extreme animal rights activist.)" This advice is good to know. As a newbie writer, and I mean NEWBIE, I still haven’t defined which genre I am writing in. But, romantic suspense seems to be what I am leaning toward right now. We will see in the end though. Love the blog topic for today! I will check back in later.

    Peace and love,
    Paula R.

  16. pari noskin taichert

    Great post, Allison,
    I don’t kick-ass heroines but they’re evolving for sure — gaining confidence and competence. I hope my new series finds a home because I think a 50-year-old psychic who prefers communicating with nonhumans more than most humans deserves to show her stuff. Believe me, her problem-solving skills take a whole new direction.

    As to attending workshops to improve our craft and being in a state of continual learning — well, YEAH! I guess I feel that way about writing AND life.

  17. Cornelia Read

    Allison, again I’m so happy to read this today as I’m struggling with my WIP–between you and Alex yesterday, a bunch of big chunks seem to have disentangled themselves in my head.

    I also loved what Tess had to say about "having a name for it made it seem less like magic, and more like a reliable method that I can count on." Donald Maass’s books always seem to do that for me… each one has a few crucial/essential "so THAT’S what I need to do to make (insert scene-my-writing group/agent/editor-is-still-dismayed-by-after-four-rewrite-attempts here) work!" epiphanies.

    Every novel is such a long slog, and whenever I get to the point where I drop that wooden bucket down the subconscious creativity wishing well and pull up nothing but dead spiders, crispy brown lawn clipplings, and the odd sun-faded granola-bar wrapper, I know it’s time to soak up some craft wisdom.

    And two things leap to mind about dodo heroines for me right now. I just watched a horror movie with Annette Bening and Robert Downey Jr. in it the other day. The entire time she’s trying to escape the old cider mill with the kidnapped little girl, Annette is wearing the spike-heeled Fifties pumps Downey put on her after he knocked her unconscious and tied her up so he could dress her in his dead psycho mother’s old clothes. Seriously–she leaps into a silo filled with fermenting Rome Beauties (falling a good forty feet before landing in the pit of fruity mush), busts out of a rotten-lumber-barred window, sprints miles through the forest, and finally gets chased across the narrow upper walkway of an old hydroelectric dam by Downey’s scythe-wielding neo-Norman-Bates dude, gets caught in a headlock, is shot at by the cops in the helicopter, and then gets knocked off the dam to fall ANOTHER hundred feet into the water (which kills her) and only THEN do those stupid shoes come off. Really, Annette? Your feet are THAT tender? Okay, kind of groovy underwater shot of the shoes drifting slowly downward through the sunshot aquatic netherworld, right before she embraces the ghost of her drowned daughter, but STILL.

    Second dopy female character move I always remember is something written by a former male member of my writing group. He had an ER nurse in his opening chapter lounging on the toilet in a hospital ladies’ room cubicle for several minutes in rapt self-admiration for how she looks in her scanty red and black underwear. Yes, because all women can actually see how hot their panties make their butts look WHILE SITTING DOWN ON A TOILET WITH THEIR SKIRTS BUNCHED UP AROUND THEIR HIPS.

  18. JT Ellison

    We all know how I feel about strong heroines, and the ways we give them flaws and vulnerabilities. I’m always in favor of a strong heroine who’s independent and not driven by a tortured past, who can handle most anything, but has some weaknesses that can be exploited for story. My favorite thing to do is hand my main character something that falls into the gray areas, situations she’s never faced that challenge her code. That’s the fun stuff!

  19. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I love complex characters, especially those with ambiguous moral compasses, and I enjoy reading women who are as complex as the men around them. Basically I believe that if you’re a human being you’re complex, and that dimension should be represented in the story. I hope I don’t write stereotypical characters, even third-tier characters.
    Great post Allison, thanks!

  20. kit

    When I read this post the very first female character that came to mind was the one written by Thomas Perry. Jane Whitefield.
    In his series, she’s Native American and self described as a ‘guide’ in helping people change their identity.
    the part that stuck out in my mind was when she was describing a unforseen confrontation in the future…and I’ll paraphrase: "just remember that women are not men with long hair, men have greater upper body stregnth, women are stronger and more flexible in their legs…the way you would fight, would be different, so forget everything you’ve ever seen on tv or in the movies…it’s just not real.You have one good shot…make it count"
    that’s not the exact quote because I don’t have the book it came from near at hand…but close enough.

    We live in an area where it isn’t much of a choice but to be strong women in real life…it’s a matter of survival.It’s not a gender-bender or even a feminist stance…it’s just common sense..to have a working knowledge on how to do several different tasks that may seem gender related to people without the same experience.
    it would seem to me, for whatever reason, when you have those experiences and skills the confidence would naturally follow…and the female lead wouldn’t allow th male lead or another female to belittle it or have it both ways.
    For example…if it’s a cop or female detective..the supposition would be that she is supposed to watch their backs and cover their asses, pull her own weight…so don’t regulate her to filing her nails …like her brains just fell on the floor when the action is over.

    My oldest daughter is fond of wearing heels, and dressing like a *girly girl*. She is living in a different area and her in-laws call and treat her like she’s prissy princess, until she explained to them one day " I can change a tire, change the oil, and shoot straight in these heels…my mom taught me a few things about self-defence as well, she was worried about me taking care of myself in a bigger city…anything can become a weapon in the right hands…so I practiced walking in heels.’

  21. Allison Brennan

    Paula, I love Olivia Benson! She’s another great female character who is truly multi-dimensional. She hasn’t had an easy life, but it doesn’t make her too masculine or too stupid or too hardened.

    Pari, I always think about that masters writing class you took and think, someday, I’m going to do something like that–I think I would learn a whole lot.

    Cornelia, I hate coming after Alex because she’s so damn smart about this stuff and makes me feel like a little girl trying on her mommy’s too-big shoes. 🙂 Maass is one of the few craft instructors I really enjoy and re-read. I’m loving FIRE IN FICTION. Haven’t finished it, but have read the chapters on character three times.

    JT, you’ve created such a terrific series character(s) that I hope to emulate you when I write my Lucy series. I think a series is hard–having the character grow while also making sure that each book stands alone :/

    Exactly, Stephen–human beings ARE complex and to dumb them down for literature is, well, dumb :/

    I already like your daughter, Kit! She reminds me of my oldest 🙂

  22. Cynthia Vespia - Author of Thrills and Chills

    Great post! Thanks for sharing those wonderful tips you picked up. My females have to be capable of taking care of themselves, it’s in my own DNA as a strong female. I’m a martial artist and fitness competitor so it rubs off on my characters. And if they don’t start off being capable certainly by the end of the story they develop that way.
    I totally agree with the fatal flaw part tough. That’s true of all characters. No one in reality is perfect so who wants to read about someone who is (unless you’re writing a fairy tale).
    One of my absolute favorite TV heroines is Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan from the series BONES. This series was based on crime novels by Kathy Reichs so I’m sure Ms. Reichs had it in her head to develop a cunning, capable heroine to lead her stories. When moved to television they added dimensions to her simply by Emily Deschenal’s portrayal. She’s a genius, beautiful, a trained fighter, and a member of the NRA! But what I like about Bones is that she’s a little goofy, she’s not very adept at being social…that one small quirk makes her relatable where if she didn’t have the flaw she’d be TOO perfect. Every week she tries hard to gain ground in this area so you witness the character growth and it makes you want to come back for more.
    The same would be said for writing a novel series with a returning female character. There has to be some type of growth or change that keeps the reader returning on these wild adventures.
    I’m going to remember that from now on: WWPLD!! "What would Princess Leia do?"

  23. Paula R.

    Cynthia…I love Bones too…she is really a kick a$$ female. She knows her vulnerabilities and she is not afraid to show. Though, it is sometimes done through her characterization and her questioning the whys of things. I haven’t had the chance to devote as much time to watching Bones, and sad to say, I just started reading the Bones books by Reich’s. I am loving the way she writes too. The subtle sarcastic wit is plain as day, if that makes sense.

    Allison, Olivia is my idol. And, Mariska Hargitay was the perfect choice for the role.

    Peace and love,
    Paula R.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *