Being a Heroine

(If you’re male and reading this, substitute hero for heroine and vice versa. I’m writing about being a heroine because I’m female, and I’m thinking about this blog post in terms of myself. But really, what I’m going to write about is not particularly gender-specific.)

I don’t know where the phrase “Be the heroine of your own story” originated. It’s been knocking about the internet for a while, and Nora Ephron has said it, but I don’t know if she was the first.

I think it’s an important phrase because we understand the world by telling stories about it, and if we want to change our lives, we need to change our stories. And we can – we can change the stories we tell about our lives and ourselves. And those stories can have significant impact, because what you believe about yourself affects your life in many ways. It affects what you focus on, what you strive for. How you allocate your time.

So I want to try to understand it better. What does it actually mean to be the heroine of your own story?

The heroine has a journey.

In a story, the heroine is on a journey from somewhere to somewhere else. It can be an external or internal journey — of course, it is often both. But she is in progress, on the move. There may be periods of stasis, times she needs to spend up a tree or in the underworld. But those periods are part of the journey, not permanent stopping-places. And they are often times when internal progress happens, when she becomes something different than she was internally, and can then change her external circumstances.

And the heroine defines her journey. It is defined by the choices she makes along the way. She decides whether to climb the glass hill in iron shoes. (Yes, there are stories in which the heroine is passive, but we have been tricked into thinking that is the typical storyline by Disney. In the old fairy tales, the true stories, the heroine is almost always active. She decides whether to be nice to the witch in the woods, whether to weave her brothers shirts of thorns. Whether to marry the white bear.

The heroine has adventures.

This is different from having a journey. On that journey, things happen to the heroine that she cannot control. Those are the adventures. She has to respond to them by making choices, but sometimes there are no good choices. Sometimes it’s the glass hill in iron shoes. What that means, in practical terms, is that sometimes the heroine’s life sucks. Sometimes she has to serve the witch in the woods for seven years. Sometimes she’s stuck in the underworld, which is a boring place, let me tell you.

But if she understands that she’s the heroine in a story, she knows that the times that suck are her adventures, and she needs to make it through them with a combination of courage, determination, common sense, and whatever magical implements she can find.

Being the heroine of your own story means that when the bad times come, and they will come if you’re the heroine (only non-heroines get to live happy, uneventful lives), you get to tell yourself that they’re part of the story. And you get to show that courage, determination, common sense, etc. Which is a lot better, I think, than sitting around and saying, wow, life sucks.

The heroine has flaws.

The heroine always has character flaws. She is curious, opinionated. She does not follow the rules. If the hero says, you may never see my face at night, what is she going to do? Find a candle, of course. Those character flaws get her into trouble. But you know what? They are also the reason we love her. If she were genuinely perfect, we wouldn’t care about her, because perfect people are not interesting.

That means you get to have character flaws, and your character flaws are loveable. Even, perhaps especially, when they get you into trouble. (Remind yourself of that, when you get into trouble.)

The heroine is at the center of her story.

You get to be at the center of your story. No one else does. There are going to be people who call you selfish because you want to be at the center of your story. Because you want it to be about you, about your choices. That’s because they want to be at the center of your story. Parents do this more often than I think they realize — want to be at the center of their childrens’ stories. But your story is about you.

The heroine is not dependent on the hero.

The hero is there, for the heroine to fall in love with, form a partnership with. But he is not at the center of her story. He has his own story, his own journey to go on. While she is climbing the iron hill, he is resisting the advances of the ogress. She can’t simply wait around for him to show up — he is not her story. He may be a part of it, their stories may intersect. But she has to go on a journey as well. Otherwise, it’s not much of a story, is it? (They met, they married, they lived happily ever after. What’s the point?)

The heroine gets interesting clothes.

She may wear a cloak made from the fur of a hundred animals. She may wear a dress as bright as the stars. She may wear a suit of armor. But she gets the interesting clothes. She gets to look like a heroine. Unless she’s in disguise. (Are you in disguise? When I worked at the law firm, I was in disguise. Sometimes you have to disguise yourself, among people who don’t understand how these things work.)

(I mentioned that this was not particularly gender-specific, so I’ll just say here that the hero gets some smashing outfits as well, like magical suits of armor. Plus, he often gets to turn into an animal.)

These are all good things to remind yourself of, if you’re the heroine. You’re on a journey, and parts of it are going to suck because that’s just the way journeys are. But you’re going to overcome them — you’re going to grow as a person, and lop off the ogress’s head. And all your faults and flaws and inadequacies are signs of character – don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. You’re going to make mistakes because of them, but that’s part of the journey too. And don’t let anyone tell you that the story is not about you, because it is. Finally, and this is an important finally, you get to look the part, whatever you think looking the part is. Are you the sort of heroine with a gamine haircut who knows how to use a sword? Are you the sort of heroine with hair to your waist who charms animals? There are all sorts of heroines, and you get to decide which sort you are. Because (did I say this already?) it’s your story.

Arthur Rackham Illustration

(The illustration is by Arthur Rackham.)

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8 Responses to Being a Heroine

  1. Duncan Long says:

    For heroes… Not clothing as much as weaponry or gadgets, I think. At least that would be my take.

  2. Thoraiya says:

    What a wonderful post! Thank you.

  3. Terry Kepner says:

    But changing heroine to hero is so much mental work–how about I just wear a dress while reading it instead?

    Also, in the old stories, many times the heroine was escaping from something and going somewhere else. There is even one story (“The Girl Who Pretended to be a Boy”– where the heroine is disguised as a man and falls in love with the queen-to-be (whom she was sent to steal for her King), as she is rescuing the queen-to-be from kidnapers, a magician, seeing that they will not be caught, sends the worst curse he can imagine after them–namely that the one doing the rescue change to the opposite sex. Instead, the now male heroine ends up killing the evil King and marrying the Queen-to-be himself.

  4. The hero gets clothing costume as much as the heroine, just as she gets gadgets just as much as he does. The separation of fashion and gadgetry by gender was a late Victorian concoction that should be done away with–forever if we can manage it.

    I have been generally put off by modern conceptions of the heroic journey because they often lack options that I think are more important than struggle: Cleverness, and the wisdom of resignation. Resignation not in the sense of giving up, but in the sense of letting slide that which does not matter. The story of the Buddha’s enlightenment is one of the few strong myths about the virtue of resignation rather than struggle. There are hints of something like this in the old fairy stories, where people were expected to be humble and respectful around the dangerous witches and ogres, but nowadays the heroic journey is so often about struggle to directly overcome great foes rather than the cleverness to slip past them or the wisdom to discover how irrelevant those foes actually are. Maybe these last two don’t often look so good on film? (Except in the final scenes of The Matrix.) Or maybe American culture is generally too confrontational to laud these options as much as they deserve?

  5. This is a great post. I printed it off to put in my character folder. Love your blog so much. 🙂

  6. Terry, that sounds like a fascinating story! Richard, I agree — the standard hero’s journey we see in movies, for instance, lacks subtlety. (Maybe that’s part of the medium.) On the personal level, I think we get to define what sorts of heroes or heroines we are . . .

    Thanks, all! I’m glad this post was helpful to people . . . 🙂

  7. Margaret Fisher Squires says:

    A wonderful post!
    It’s good for me to contemplate as a budding author.
    But I’m also thinking it might be meaningful to share with some of my psychotherapy clients. I’m not sure, but I can imagine that it could strike a chord in some of them. How would you feel about my doing that (with attribution, of course)?

  8. Evelyn says:

    This post makes an excellent guide to life. I particularly like the line about being the center of your story (and the line about interesting clothes (: ).

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