Mike Nichols was a master storyteller, one of the best that ever lived, in my opinion. I saw him in an interview once where he was asked to name the most important element in a story. His answer was this. "All we care about is the humanity."
How to Create the Perfect Heroine for Your Story
He was saying we must put the core of what makes us all human into the characters in our stories. Their dreams and hopes. Their disappointments and losses. Especially how they FEEL about their dreams, hopes, disappointments and losses. All portrayed in well-written scenes.
In Nichols' film Heartburn, from the novel and screenplay by another great storyteller, the fabulous Nora Ephron, humanity is at the burning heart. Rachel Samstat spends the entire story trying to get into, get through and eventually get out of the marriage of her hopes and dreams. She is toppled into disappointment, one she creates for herself by an error in judgment.
Her blunder sets her up for what feels at the moment like the most devastating loss of her life, the discovery that her husband Mark Forman has been unfaithful. Let me emphasize that Rachel FEELS like his infidelity is the greatest loss of her life and this is what matters. How the situation FEELS to the character. How what happens to her impacts her humanity.
We may know she is better off without this lying, philandering so-and-so, but she doesn't FEEL that truth. She triumphs, so to speak, in the end because she comes to grips with that truth, and we FEEL that triumph with her. We also FEEL her heartache. We FEEL her humanity.
The entire story really belongs to Rachel Samstat. It could have been titled The Adventures (or Misadventures) of Rachel Samstat. Similarly, each of our own stories could be titled The Adventures of ________ (fill in the name of your story heroine). Or more accurately The Emotional Adventures of ________.
It's All About Her Humanity
In the romance genre in particular, our audience, our readership, cares most about the humanity of our heroine, and how that humanity acts itself out in our story. How her humanity comes to life on the page in the way she behaves and talks and most of all FEELS. In other words, what our readers care about most is our heroine's Emotional Truth.
Emotional truth is what's really going on in your story. The real, underlying truth of what is happening to your heroine, and all of your characters. What your characters allow us to see and hear on their surfaces can conceal what they are truly feeling. Great stories are all about TRUE FEELINGS REVEALED.
This is exactly like real life, and real life is the mother lode from which you mine your own emotional truth and refine it into storytelling treasure. The precious coins of that treasure are the deeply felt emotions at the beating heart of your story, the deeply felt emotions that make your reader feel deeply too. Like we feel for Rachel Samstat, because we recognize her heartburn and her heartbreak, because at one time or another it has most likely been our own.
I write romantic suspense novels. Scary things happen in my stories. In my latest novel, A Time of Fear and Loving, my heroine, Amanda Miller Bryce, is terrorized by a brute. That same thing happened to me once. Fortunately, Amanda and I both survived. In the meantime, as I wrote the story, she and I both benefited from my emotional truth of that awful experience.
We shared the powerlessness we felt while the awfulness was happening. We shared the shock and numbness we felt after it was over. We also shared our awareness of the way others reacted around us. I didn't need to take notes. All of that was branded on my own, very personal humanity in indelible emotional ink. Now it is branded on my heroine's humanity.
We have all had emotionally indelible experiences. We have been changed by them, traumatized by them, sometimes stopped in our tracks by them. As writers, we get to pass those experiences on to our heroines. We get to convert our own emotional landscapes into the very raw material of very intense, very dramatic, very powerful storytelling.
You know what these stories are for you. Pass them on to your heroine. Write those stories the way your heart FEELS them to be true. Don't worry about whether or not these stories may differ from factual truth. Facts are verifiable. Feelings are not. Someone else's emotional truth may vary from yours, but that doesn't make your truth any less valid. Besides, you are creating fiction, which can be anything you, as creator, want it to be.
Emotional Truth is individual, for you and for your heroine. Her truths are what she honestly FEELS. That honesty gives your story authenticity and makes your heroine come to life on the page. That authenticity gives your heroine her humanity. It is what makes your story really matter, to you as you write it, and to your readers as they read it.
So, dig down and dig deep. You will know when you hit the humanity mother lode because it will zing straight to your heart, just before you zing it straight onto the page, where you will create the perfect heroine for your story.