The heroine of my debut book, Lush Money, came from a lightning strike of an idea: What if the romance billionaire we’ve spent so many years reading and writing about was a woman?
Great idea, right? But Roxanne Medina, self-made Mexican-American billionaire and CEO of Medina Now Enterprises, was a struggle to write.
I’m a writer and ex-journalist who works from my suburban home and, while now an empty nester, I spent the last 21 years taking care of children. I’m ruler of my fiefdom – my husband concedes that the dog recognizes me as alpha – but that doesn’t make me knowledgeable in Roxanne’s skin.
In the beginning of the book, I had to stop a lot to ponder what Roxanne’s thoughts, impulses, and reactions would be. How would a woman with a billionaire’s level of power and self-determination move in the world? What would her desires be? How would she interact with others? What could she still want for herself when she could buy everything?
All the things I figured out writing Roxanne Medina allowed me to develop some guidelines to make writing alpha heroines in the future easier.
1) Don’t write a man
Okay, we’ve all read her: She’s a “tough” heroine, doesn’t like “girly” stuff, is sexually adventurous, into technology, and spares the man in her life (who women can’t get enough of) all her messy emotional stuff. She’s generally written by a man. And, if you squint, she IS a prototypical man with the addition of the fun lady parts.
Creators can do better than this. We women deserve better than this. To dismiss all of our womanliness as something that makes us weak or lesser is just a phenomenal bunch of crap.
Roxanne Medina wants a baby and uses her Wall Street Journal to bookmark her Vogue and enjoys her phenomenal good looks as a tool and cries easier than she likes. And all of these attributes are an extension of what make her a great leader and a great boss: she’s a nurturer, she stays in-the-know, she uses all the tools at her disposal, and she’s empathetic.
Our womanliness makes us mighty.
2) Honor her femininity
As we embrace the fact that gender is fluid – and that personalities, preferences, upbringings, and cultures vary widely – it’s counter-productive and dangerous to define specific traits as “womanly” or “feminine.” Being a woman can be all things and everything. But whoever our female character is – whatever female traits we’re bringing to the table as the story builders and our character is bringing as she develops in our heads – we should value her female-ness as part of her alpha strength. Not shy away from it as something that makes her weak.
I realized early writing Roxanne that she was a mama bear, a protective nurturer. How did she take care of those in her den? By supporting and engaging the female business owners whose companies she invested in or acquired, running a morally responsible company that took care of her employees, and funding her small Kansas hometown that she claimed to disdain.
Roxanne’s feminine instinct to nurture was the engine that made her powerful.
3) Allow her to fully occupy her space
What defines an alpha heroine? I don’t believe it’s her job – soldier, spy, billionaire – or the fact that she can kick ass. An alpha heroine is defined by the way she occupies her space and understands her importance in that space.
Imagine a woman standing in the middle of an empty room. As people come into this room, we are preprogrammed to expect this woman to shuffle to the side. Usually as she’s asking everyone who enters if they need anything. She might even press herself into a corner to make sure others have more space.
We’ve been taught to appreciate women who accommodate other’s needs. Women as caretakers used to be an evolutionary imperative.
But an alpha heroine stays in the center of the room. Why? Because she knows how important her place there is. Only from the center can she get a full picture, assess what other’s need, and balance those needs against her own. She doesn’t diminish herself because she knows she is necessary. Others will not receive the best she can give if she’s tucked into a corner.
Roxanne makes mistakes when she first meets Príncipe Mateo de Esperanza y Santos, a Spanish prince with a struggling kingdom, who she contracts for a year-long marriage of convenience and sex three-days-a-month so she can have her royal baby. But it’s her own judgement – that Mateo is a good man, that she behaved poorly and against her own standards and morals -- that inspires her to change and triggers this enemies-to-lovers couple to work together instead of against each other. Roxanne doesn’t let Mateo take over as her mea culpa; instead she apologizes, sincerely makes amends, and welcomes him to stand as an equal by her side.
4) Know her vulnerability
Her vulnerabilities – the balance to her strengths -- are what make our alpha heroine fascinating and real. Not weak. If we deny her those vulnerabilities, all we have is a caricature of a strong woman. So it’s important we know those tender spots going in.
Roxanne’s strength is that she’s a nurturer. Therefore her vulnerability had to be that she was lonely. She worried, because of her upbringing, that she would never be valued and loved. That she would never have anyone to truly nurture. So why wouldn’t she try to buy herself a baby? Her exterior strength is her vast resources and wealth. Her vulnerability: That no one – not her employees, her hometown, or her prince – could love her unless she paid them.
I don’t want to get to spoilery so I’ll just say that vulnerabilities create issues for the hero to discover and comfort and provide fun, wrenching, awesome, heart-rending moments for the author to explore.
5) Make her human
The elephant in the room with strong, alpha heroines is that many times they’re called “unlikeable.” We’ve coded “make her likeable” with “make her relatable.” I hate both words. Instead, we should just make sure to create a living, breathing human with all of the corresponding foibles.
Give her a favorite junk food. Or an irritating habit. Or a favorite reality show. Whatever. We just make sure she isn’t perfect because perfect is sterile and boring.
When Roxanne first sees her prince in a suit, she’s so knocked out by how gorgeous he is that she slips on her four-inch-high Louboutins. It’s a tiny moment – she just passes it off like there was something on the floor – but after a couple of chapters of her imperviously ramming her agenda down his throat, I loved seeing her this way. Human. Jaw-dropped.
Because of the close perspective that romance novels are written in, it can be difficult sometimes to show an alpha heroine’s love-strewn and foible-filled humanity. An alpha heroine is not going to acknowledge them in her POV and the hero – either filled with lust or enemies-to-lovers irritation -- might not see them in his.
So, I found it useful to let my secondary characters do that work. I showed my secondary characters loving her, respecting her, teasing her, valuing her for her strengths AND vulnerabilities AND foibles, and—hopefully—set the tone for the hero and the reader.