Can Your Heroine Be Too Strong?

Simpering misses and damsels in distress seem to be out of fashion these days. Rarely do I pick up a book and read about a heroine who is sickly, pale, and teary-eyed all the time. Instead, strong female leads—some magical mixture of Lara Croft, Mother Teresa, and Maya Angelou—populate our fiction.

While I’m all for strengthening our reader’s views of females, is there such a thing as overdoing it? Can your heroine be too strong?

Dominance in the psychology world is on a continuum, low to high. Abraham Maslow did a lot of research in the 1930s and 40s, and he concluded that this continuum exists due to similar batches of traits he found in the women he interviewed. His findings were that High Dominance women were attracted to High Dominance men—aggressive, self-confident, highly masculine, and self-assured. Low Dominance women were attracted to men who were kind, friendly, gentle, faithful and showed a love for children. Medium Dominance women fell in between, as you might conclude, but they made up Maslow’s largest group. These are your romantics. They want love to find them coming from a white knight. Flowers, chocolates, moonlit walks—these are the things they live for. In short, they want Mr. Right.

But without fail, the women in all three groups were attracted to men more dominant than they were. A woman is rarely attracted to someone who seems to be her “equal.” She wants someone more than her—someone to make her feel feminine. It doesn’t matter how dominant you make your heroine. She will just look for a man even more dominant than she is.

Why is this important for writers?

The more dominant your heroine is, your hero will have to be even more so.

This fact might cause you to pause and worry over the feasibility of the attraction between your lead characters. Good. But don’t fret if you’ve got to firecrackers lighting up the pages, either.

While it’s true that most woman are not High Dominance (in reality, they make up the outlying five percent on the Bell Curve in Maslow’s research), most readers wants to read about main characters who are more dominant than they are.

This dominance could take several manifestations, so you can be creative. We want to read about people who are smarter, faster, wittier, and stronger than we are. We like to imagine ourselves in their shoes and fantasize that we are taking down the bad guy.

I’ll leave you with two equations to keep in the back of your mind when writing:

Female Reader Dominance < Heroine Dominance < Hero Dominance

Male Reader Dominance < Hero Dominance

I hope I’ll get a chance to connect with many of you over at my new website, The Character Therapist and my blog. Be sure to sign up for my newsletter and receive the Writer’s Guide to Character Motivation for free!


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About Jeannie Campbell

Jeannie Campbell is a licensed marriage and family therapist in California. She is head of clinical services for a large non-profit and enjoys working with children and couples. She has a Masters of Divinity in Psychology and Counseling and bachelor’s degrees in both psychology and journalism. Two of her “therapeutic romance” manuscripts have garnered the high praise of being finalists in the Genesis Contest for unpublished writers. She writes a popular monthly column for Christian Fiction Online Magazine and has been featured in many other e-zines, newspapers, and blogs.


  1. I guess that’s why heroines (and heroes) are always so heroic in pulpy adventure stories. Everything in a normal person is multiplied to make the characters adventurous and heroic.

  2. I wonder if complement is the correct term. I am strong in some areas, weak in others. Males can also be strong and weak. Together it makes for one whole. Heather

  3. Thinking more about it. It goes against my early training, but you have a point. In most, but not all, books I’ve enjoyed, no matter how strong the heroine is (or becomes), she relies on the hero more than he relies on her.

    That doesn’t mean she’s weak or submissive, at least by the end. If you ask the hero, they are equals.

    Unless the stakes are very high, Castle only pushes when he can win. He knows that if he loses, they both lose, so he chooses patience. In the hangar scene in the last episode, remember Beckett is a kick-boxer. It’s a complex situation. Even at the time, she knew he was right, although in the heat of the moment if she might have made a different decision if he weren’t there. I don’t know if that’s dominance or trust.

    It can get complex. In Devon Monk’s Magic series, Allie often goes against Zay’s wishes. Also, he often needs her help and protection. Part of the fun is him learning how to accept that. Dominance shifts between them frequently.

  4. Good points – thanks. My heroine is a secondary character, and I was working on boosting her a bit – I’ll make sure to still keep a balance between her strong points and the hero’s.

  5. Glad I ran into this article. Initially I wanted my female MC to fall in love with a male MC, but for the life of me, I could not figure out how or why that would happen. Now I know why. Looks like my male MC needs a makeover, or go through a transitional phase where his strengths come out to precede hers. More fodder for my story, thank you so much.

  6. Hmmm… In real life, I think strong women are often attracted to a man with some obvious weakness, that they (think they) can heal or help. Men, also, go for the women who make them feel strong and manly, but the strong women *I* know tend to not pair off with the alpha make, but with the wounded birds.

    Trying to analyze my own reading tastes, now. I do like men being stronger than the women, sometimes, but I also like a man with at least some concept and practice at taking turns and not trying to be Thor all the time.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I see this as a result of social conditioning, not inborn psychological differences (the more intelligent someone is–giving them a better chance to question their conditioning–the less they exhibit mental differences associated with their gender). It’s something that we should combat in fiction, not utilize, if we want a more equal world. I think my generation is growing toward a shift in attitude, but the majority remain ingrained with limiting ideas of gender roles. The backlash against Twilight, for instance, is considerably smaller than its fanbase. And the more people retain the whole nonsense Venus/Mars dichotomy, the more people believe men should protect and provide for women and not vise-versa, the more likely it is that true equality will never be reached. Sorry for ranting, it’s just that I hate that women still have less political and business power than men, and are still often expected to be dependent on their male partners. Also, I came to this site directly after reading this:

  8. i love the discussion about castle! thanks for coming back to think on it some more, cricketb. i just went back and rewatched the finale….*sigh*.

    heather – i think you may be on to something with the “complement” term.

    jessica m – glad this was helpful in getting that story turned around in the right direction. 🙂

  9. I’m struggling with having a little girl MC be strong, yet still be a child. She has some inner strength, but is no match for all the big grown ups around her, one who specifically does not have her best interests at heart.

    Her innocence is both a strength and a hindrance to her.

  10. Sounds like a very helpful book. Thank you for giving a copy away, Jeannie. Katie, I added this to my weekly give-away list so others will know about it too.

  11. Thanks, Suzanne!

  12. Interesting. I’ll keep this in mind.

  13. I’m so unconvinced by this… I appreciate the thinking behind it, but I disagree that female readers require a hero to be more dominant than the heroine. Lyra and Will in the Dark Materials Trilogy I would consider very much to be equals, for instance. Women looking for men to dominate them leads to books like those of the Twilight Saga, and even then the hero and heroine /become/ equals. And there is a very strong theme in so-called courtly romance which requires the hero to subjugate himself to the heroine. No, sorry, I don’t accept this theory as absolute.

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