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3 Tips for Writing a Love Story Featuring a Prickly and Pessimistic Heroine

Don't mistake prickly with unlovable. Here, author Denise Williams shares 3 tips for writing a love story with a prickly and pessimistic heroine.

A study from the Pew Research Center in 2017 asked Americans to identify what society values both highly for women and for men. While honesty, professional success, and ambition topped the list for men, physical attractiveness, empathy, kindness, and a nurturing personality topped the list for women. For most people, that probably isn’t surprising. Ambitious women who are not overtly empathetic, kind, or nurturing are labeled by those around them quickly as hard to work with, ruthless, or the “B” word in professional settings.

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I’ve written many characters for whom empathy, kindness, and nurturing are key personality traits. Those are fun characters to write because it’s easy to see the world through their eyes and it often feels comforting, like the best version of myself is on the page. Kind and nurturing characters can be very easy to fall in love with, no matter their gender. Likewise, the Alpha hero in romance is a staple archetype, with leadership ability and dominant traits. However, if women characters display those same traits, they receive different labels.

In romance, we often label those heroines prickly or simply unlikable. In my latest novel, Do You Take This Man, the heroine is ambitious and “prickly,” but also has a pessimistic view of love. How do you write a love story featuring an ambitious woman who doesn’t believe romantic love can last? Can ambition and pessimism lead to a loveable character?

Below, I’ve offered three tips on writing this combination of traits, followed by recommendations of authors whose “prickly” heroines are completely squeezable. It’s also worth noting, that much of what is written on this topic looks at people on a gender binary, but characters of all genders are held to expectations by readers and these same topics are worth exploring with characters who identify outside the gender binary.

3 Tips for Writing a Love Story Featuring a Prickly and Pessimistic Heroine

1. Give your heroine a backstory

In the real world, people have a wide variety of outlooks on the world ranging from “everything is stars and rainbows” to “the sky is falling” throughout their lives. In the world of fiction, the range for characters is equally wide; however, many readers in romance expect women characters to be nearer to stars-and-rainbows, or to get there by the end of the book. Providing your character with a backstory that gives context to their ambition and/or pessimism may make this character feel more relatable and give the reader more context for their current actions.

With regard to pessimism about romantic love, consider what shaped that. Did they grow up in a home where relationships were not supportive? Were they scorned by a past love? Did other experiences uphold or shape views about romantic love? For ambition, consider sharing what shaped that ambition or drop hints of how those traits have always been there. For men characters, this trait rarely needs much explanation, but readers may be more receptive to tough women characters when they have more background.

2. Explore the inherent internal or external conflict

A negative view of love within a love story offers almost unlimited potential for internal and external conflict. I don’t know about other writers (though I think I do!), but if I can add more tension and conflict in my story, I jump at the chance to keep readers engaged and turning pages.

In a love story, your “prickly heroine” will fall in love, which will offer the reader insight into the character’s cognitive dissonance, the state of being where thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes are inconsistent, especially related to behaviors and attitude changes. Suddenly, this character is experiencing the emotional connection she believes doesn’t exist. The conflict this can provide could spur a multitude of actions and plot twists. Besides the internal conflict, their partner may have views that counter their own, providing opportunity for conflict between the main characters.

Finally, the cognitive dissonance plus the potential for external conflict can be fodder for great humor in the book if that fits the tone of your story. For example, in Do You Take This Man, “prickly” RJ has a side hustle as a wedding officiant and wedding planner, Lear, has been burned by love, so they’re around romantic love and weddings constantly. The setting provides opportunity for humorous situations and juxtapositions between the characters’ outlooks and the love around them.

3 Tips for Writing a Love Story Featuring a Prickly and Pessimistic Heroine

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3. Love and honor your pessimists

My final tip is to love and honor your pessimist. It’s so easy to equate “prickly” with unlovable, and authors get to show that isn’t the case. I firmly believe that people, real and fictional, change and grow.

In the character arc for your “prickly heroine,” consider if completion of the arc means becoming less prickly or if it means growth in other areas. Often, ambitious, tough, or pessimistic woman characters grow throughout the book by becoming soft, abandoning their pessimism, or realizing they’ve put too much stock into work, and while this may hold true for some, I believe this upholds some potentially problematic expectations for many women.

A wonderful aspect of writing these characters is showing the moments and where their guard is down or where empathy and nurturing rise to the surface. These unexpected or quiet moments for the character can give them depth and also illustrate them as three-dimensional characters. Tough in one context does not erase how a character is soft in others, and the love interest will come to recognize warmth and affection from the previously “prickly” partner as they get to know them, and the relationship grows.

Further reading

Writing RJ in Do You Take This Man was my first truly “prickly heroine,” but won’t be my last. For authors who are excellent at writing alpha heroines, I recommend Angelina M. Lopez, author or the Filthy Rich series, Talia Hibbert, especially in Take A Hint, Dani Brown and The Princess Trap, and Courtney Milan, particularly Trade Me and The Countess Conspiracy.

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It's easy to start and maintain a blog, but most bloggers barely scratch the surface of what's possible. This course will take you out of your blogging comfort zone and encourage you to experiment and think bigger. It goes beyond the basics to explore such topics as how to fine-tune your blog's theme, how to improve your blog's visibility in searches and across the social web, how to turn your blog followers into a community, and how to start monetizing your blog.

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