Shoes and Handbags

You know how when you’re walking across a parking lot, you’re scoping out possible escape routes, watching everyone around you for signs of instability or danger, and figuring out how—if you were attacked by the shifty-eyed guy in the inappropriately large coat over there, or the other one who’s skulking along a line of cars not meeting anyone’s eye, like he’s trying to hide something—you’d kill him with the weapon he pulled on you, or your car keys, or your thumbs, teeth, and knees?

Or how, when you’re in a nice restaurant with your beloved husband and kid, you’re figuring out what you would do if a lunatic with multiple firearms charged in intending a massacre, and you had to take him out to save their lives?


Just me, then?

Well, that’s awkward. So… aaaanyway… I’m going to discuss creating characters you can respect.

And it starts with shoes and handbags.

I own three pairs of shoes. Before I bought each pair, it had to meet two criteria. I had to be able to flee in the shoes. I had to be able to fight in them. That’s it. If I had to run from an attacker in a parking lot or kill a deranged maniac in a restaurant or wherever, my shoes could not in any way hamper what I needed to do. Could I vault over table tops, or crouch-walk beneath them? Could I run across the tops of a line of parked cars, jumping from car roof to car roof? (Yes, I’m still a good runner, I still have a good long jump, and I can both vault and crouch-walk. I’m not talking Walter Mitty stuff here.)

I own no handbags. The problem with handbags is defined in the name itself. Hand bag. You have to have one hand on them at all times. Otherwise they will fall off the shoulder that they have made lower than your other shoulder because you’ve been dragging one around for so long it’s bent your body. If you have to back into a guy who has grabbed you from behind, lever him over your back and slam him to the ground, and then take out his eyes with your thumbs, you need to have both hands free.

Yes. That’s what I think about on bright sunny days walking across parking lots.

Years ago, my friend Michael, who was an officer in the Army at the time, decided once to demonstrate something about women needing to be protected (we’d had a vigorous discussion on this some days earlier). So without warning, he lunged at me in my kitchen, doing some sort of attacker yell…and landed against a wall on the opposite side of the kitchen, with a bruised shoulder and a hurt expression on his face. “You weren’t supposed to attack,” he said.

Doing what you’re not supposed to do can save your life, I explained to him. And my instinct is not to scream and wait for rescue. Bad shit had already happened to me by that point. I’d learned when I was fourteen that you can’t trust strangers, and I learned when I was fifteen that you can’t trust the people you should be able to trust with your life. I was still a couple of years away from discovering that you can’t trust the person with whom you had two children…but I’d already learned to keep my survival plan active at all times. Flee if there’s a place to flee, attack if there isn’t. That’s me.

So I do not own a handbag, a clutch purse, a briefcase, or a hefty carryall. I have a backpack, and wear it over both shoulders so it does not impede either of my hands.

I’m never going to make it as a fashionista. Hell, I may not make it out of the parking lot. But if I don’t, I still want the cops to say, “Yeah. It’s a damn shame she didn’t make it. But they’ll still be digging pieces of the assailant out of the pavement next month.”

Back to characters.

I could not with a straight face write a novel where the heroine wears Prada and owns seventy pairs of kitten heels and spike heels and talks about how ani she is and waits for the man with the big bank account to come along and fall in love with her because she’s so…so…whatever the hell it is these characters are that men will fling themselves over cliffs to get.

If I were writing her, she’d be the woman found in pieces in the dumpster as the chapter two opener. I know me.

I could not write a novel where the hero is nothing but a vibrator strapped to an unlimited credit card. I wouldn’t want to hang out with that guy. I like to talk about hockey and writing and ideas and philosophy, and my guy pushes me to think harder, to ask better questions, and to evaluate every statement I make for flaws in logic and reasoning…which is what makes him the right man for me. But I have read a number of books where “vibrator+credit card” is the perfect definition of the hero. He rescues her from her helpless little self, he puts out, and then he stays out of the way so the heroine’s throng of yappy, shallow friends can ooh and ah over how big his… ah… bank account is.

Clearly somebody has to write those novels, because there are hordes of readers waiting to buy them. I ended up reading them because I was given copies and told, “You should write something like this. You’d make a lot of money.”

Writers and their characters don’t—or at least shouldn’t—work that way. Never write a character you can’t stand because you think it’ll make you rich. You’ll hate yourself in the morning, and for the exact same reason whores are not filled with pride and self-esteem from their line of work.

You have to write the people who resonate with YOU.

My heroines—like me—understand that bad shit can happen at any time, and they are determined from the first that if survival is possible, they will survive, and if survival is not possible, then they will not die cowering in a corner waiting for the rescue that never comes. And like me, they understand this because bad shit has already happened. And because they learned WHY you don’t wait for rescue—you save yourself. And because they have learned to value their own lives, not for what their lives mean to other people, but because of what their lives mean to them.

And so, my heroines do not consider shoes and handbags based on their stylishness, their designer labels, or their fashion cachet. If I have a need to discuss shoes, running shoes or walking shoes may get a mention. If I mention bags at all, look for backpacks.

My heroines will be self-supporting. And my heroes are not wealthy as a primary attribute. They may be successful, but if they are, their ambition and goals are what I admire about them. See, I spent a bunch of miserable years in a country club life, and I have discovered that I don’t like men who lead with their wealth, especially wealth they didn’t earn. My heroes are smart and honorable, and they can be pretty funny, but they’re earning their lives, too.

Your primary characters, your heroes and heroines, the people you write that you want your readers to care about, should not be carbon copies of you. Mine aren’t. But they are people I would be friends with, whom I want to spend time with. They are people who understand the importance of having your hands free. Of making sure your feet work the way they were designed to work at any given time. They’re people who understand that you have to actually like members of the opposite sex before you go to bed with them. They’re people who can watch their own backs, but will watch yours because they care about you and value you.

Before you can ask your reader to spend replaceable money in order to then spend irreplaceable time with someone you’ve created, you have to make sure that you’d want to spend time with those characters first. That they meet YOUR criteria for people worth knowing.

That they fit you like a good pair of shoes… however you might define good shoes.

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163 responses to “Shoes and Handbags”

  1. Sarah Avatar

    So if I want my FMC to be respected, I need to make her more paranoid? Don’t get me wrong, I understand that a MC, male or female, needs to be something more than swimsuit model. On the other hand, I’d really like to think a character can gain respect in ways other than expecting an attack at every turn. When I think of some of the people I respect the most–Nelson Mandela, for example–I can see that I respect them for their refusal to shield themselves to attack, physical or otherwise, in the name of a higher cause, along with their intelligence, their bravery, and their principles.

    I concur that people alter their appearance to reflect the way they expect to be treated, but I don’t think it’s beneficial in the long run to treat everyone according to that appearance. In my experience, people treat me the way I treat them. If I assume some chick in a short skirt and a head full of highlights is a bitchy airhead before I even know her name, and treat her accordingly, she has every right to act like one because I was rude to her first. I think the distance between “I don’t trust him, he wears his pants too low” and “I don’t trust her, she’s Mexican” is too close for comfort to make it my modus operandi. Sure, you can control your appearance but not your ethnicity, but you’re still making a decision on how you’ll treat someone based on something other than how they treat you. I’d rather give someone a chance to prove my stereotypes wrong than force them to prove it right.

    (I’m definitely not insulting those of you who take precautions against attack in the slightest; we live in a dangerous world and it’s foolish not to stay on your guard. I just don’t think that’s the only way for a character to be respected.)

    1. Emmett Avatar

      I think the main point she was trying to make was merely that you need to respect and understand the people you write about. In your case, your protagonist would be written best as a Mandela type of guy, someone who acts with a degree of integrity and higher ideals even if that gets them in trouble; that’s what’s compelling about those people, that we can understand them, and we best serve our readers by writing about people that we know well enough to write convincingly. In the same vein, all of my characters are people struggling with self-identity and trying to figure out where they belong, and how far they can realistically go in search of justice or peace. Holly writes defensive people because she is herself defensive, and that’s the strength of her characters. We just have to find our own characters to write.

  2. Soleil Noir Avatar

    Holly, did not really mean she had to be a “tough bitch”. (Bitch implies an attitude to me, though it might imply something different to you) Just competent, able to take care of herself.

    I do see where you are coming from even if I don’t agree fully. You have a right to your morals and to create characters the way you see fit.And from what I’ve read of your novels, you’ve done a good job since I’ve liked the Heroines of yours that I’ve read.

    I also agree that self-awareness, which is one of the finer points of your post, is very important to a writer’s process. Thank you, I think you gave us all a lot to think about.

    1. Jeanette Avatar

      Hi Holly

      I just love your sense of humour. Thanks for making me laugh. Also, I have learnt a lot from your courses which I really enjoy. You challenge me to be the best I can be as a beginner author.

      Thinking sideways :-)If ever there was going to be a strong heroine who is ‘damaged’ it could be this one who distrusts everyone. I can just see her in a romantic novel kicking ass and challenging the hero (sans handbag). I reacon you could write a great romance that’s different to the norm – with lots of conflict because she is so ‘damaged’- and therefore a bestseller. (Nobody said the heroine has to wear Prada…).

      On the subject of running shoes, I am reminded of a story: two guys in Africa are going on a safari. One slips on his ‘pretty’ shoes while the other is tying the laces of his running shoes. “Ha,” scoffs pretty boy, “If you think you are going to outrun the lions, I’m afraid you are going to be eaten alive.”
      Runner boy replies: “I don’t have to outrun the lions, I only have to outrun you!”

      And that is why I wear practical shoes.

      SO kick some ass Hollie, outrun the other guy. There is no shame in giving willing readers what they want and are prepared to pay for – it’s called Marketing 101.

  3. Holly Avatar

    Vanity —

    I’m 400 pages into Hawkspar – unless there is a big surprise in the last 80 pages, I don’t really see how you can make that statement. The antagonists are evil, granted, but even the protagonists are a group of crooks who don’t shy away from murder and torture – all with best intentions, of course. It’s a captivating read, but doesn’t quite fit the above description.

    I’m bewildered here. Neither the Tonk privateers nor the monks could be called a group of crooks by any stretch of the imagination, and absolutely none of either group engaged in murder. I don’t recall torture, but could be mistaken there. But murder? No. Unless you equate killing in self defense those in charge of a culture bent on genocide—the eradication of whole populations—with murder. I don’t. I call that self defense.

  4. Aurora Avatar

    I occasionally enjoy writing characters that are similar to people that I really, really, don’t… um… like to be around. My lead character is close-minded, always taking her hurt feelings out on other people, and unhealthily bent on fitting in. She has her good points, but she is definitely not the kind of person I’d want to spend my time with in real life. Even so, I very much enjoy writing her as a character – and it’s not just to bash her, or to make her see how wrong she was, or to show how everything is ruined because of her negative traits. The thing I like about her is that she gives me a chance to delve into the psychology of someone who is -completely- different from me.

  5. Cheryl Avatar

    Thanks, Holly, for another great post!

    I can’t begin to understand the constant “car park” vigilance you have going on (I live in country Australia – we don’t even bother to lock the door when we go out!) And, I’m very sorry you had to learn all that, but it does make you who you are.

    I have my own personal stuff, and I find my characters tend to reflect this, and as a new writer I’ve wondered about whether this was okay or not – whether I was putting too much of “myself” into each of them.

    Your post helped me to see what was really happening — so now I’ll just trust my instincts again (for a while, anyway! lol)

    Thanks for all your hard work,
    A long-time reader,

  6. D.S. Knight Avatar

    Interesting. This will keep me on better alert now when I am in public places. And I agree about sensible shoes. I am not a fashionista myself, nor do I want to be. And I wear a backpack because I can’t carry my work with me in a handbag. 😉

  7. Sal Avatar

    An interesting and inspiring way of describing character construction.

    I’m from the UK and many many years ago Lady XXXX, who dressed like a vagrant and spoke like the Queen, told me that a ‘lady’ always dresses appropriately to the occasion. She should know – she drove an ambulance in London during the Blitz. [Her husband had a very impressive eyepatch and I was most disappointed to discover that he had never been a pirate]. For every day she wore battered tweeds and down at heel brogues but looked magnificent in tulle and diamonds at the Hunt Ball. I’m sure that had any mad axe man dared enter the ballroom she would have sliced him to shreds with her razor sharp diction, and if that didn’t work she’d have taken off her stilettos, pattered across barefoot and trepanned him with a heel.

    They don’t make women like that any more. I’m jogging right alongside you in shoes I can run in.

  8. David M Avatar
    David M

    Well now,
    if only I would stop getting yelled at for analyzing every word that my wife says. It isn’t any fun to just see one side of everything! I have to inspect it from every angle I can concieve

    Anyway, great essay. I know I look at how to do things like this as well and almost anyone who was in the armed forces in a combat zone has this ingrained as well (I’m not one of them, but every one of them I’ve talked to says the same thing)

  9. Ke-Yana Avatar

    Lol. I’m actually very similar to you Holly. I always look for potential exits and have something on me that could be used as a weapon (usually keys or a hair brush etc). I too prefer to buy clothes/shoes that make defending against an attacker easier and possible. Practical attire is important.

    I think, if you can’t understand a characters view point and values it makes it extremely difficult to write them. I had a character in my first book who used to drive me up the wall because he had a different view on the world to me. I was always re-writing what he did and said, and how he reacted to events because he was so different to me I had to do twice as much thinking and planning. But you know what? He taught me a lot about writing. So I think that perhaps the characters we write don’t necessarily need to be like us at all… more… we need to know how to get into their heads. If we can’t understand them, writing them is going to be very difficult and not at all enjoyable. But, even if they’re not like us or don’t hold the same values if we can learn to understand them and why they are as they are, then I think perhaps it’s possible to write about someone not at all like ourselves.

    I guess what I’m saying is I agree with you to a certain degree. 🙂

    1. Larry Woldenberg Avatar
      Larry Woldenberg

      Wow. This comment was a real breath of fresh air for imagination. If every character were like myself, I think it would limit my creativity. Especially when writing villains. I think the main thing is to create a character profile and make every line and action consistent to the profile. I love the comment that your characters can teach you things. But this does require imagination and consistency. Anyway, I agree with this posting.

  10. Mike Avatar

    I think we have a basic misunderstanding of what I said. I was talking about assumptions, e.g., accepting as fact without verification or proof. I believe you’re talking about a judgment call, e.g., the capacity to assess a situation and draw conclusions.

    I agree, judgment calls can save your ass. Assumptions can and will get you into trouble. I assume the man in the turban and full beard in the seat next to me on the plane is an Arab and therefore most likely a terrorist. Yet after talking to him, I find he is a Sikh. (Good thing I didn’t alert the Air Marshal!)

    Looking at your picture on the website, one would assume, “Hey, she’s laughing and smiling. Wears glasses too. Seems innocent; probably a very nice person. Better watch my language in front of her.” Yeah, about the language… 🙂

    We live in a world based on our judgment calls. They can save your life, or keep you from being the laughing stock of the school (BTW, never wear a Captain Kirk uniform to grade school; so NOT cool). We also live in a world based on ours and other people’s assumptions. Example: throughout high school, people assumed that since my friends and I all wore black Member’s Only jackets (okay, it was the 80s, see?), and hung out behind the Architecture building away from the crowds that we were a gang and sold drugs.

    Actually, we were playing D&D. (Haven’t been back to a high school reunion since I was asked “how long since you got out of prison?”)

    And I never asked you to compromise your principles. I suggested, as a reader who buys your books, that you might want to explore characters outside your safe zone. If you try it and don’t like it, well, you’ve learned something about your writing and about yourself. That’s growth. If you feel that you’re comfortable within your zone and don’t want to try something else, then that’s your choice to place those limits upon yourself.

    I could judge you as a snarky b*tch who gets uptight when someone questions her methods or motives. I face that in my profession all the time; someone’s pet project is the be-all, end-all answer to everyone’s problems, and how dare someone question it? But I’m assuming that you’ve been asked/forced to make compromises in your writing, and you’ve said, “Never again!” That was the undertone I got from your post. Am I wrong? Never mind. Professionals face challenges to their integrity all the time. It’s not just the outcome that matters, but how you faced the struggle.

  11. Lynn Avatar

    “I could not write a novel where the hero is nothing but a vibrator strapped to an unlimited credit card.”
    What a great line!

    Fantastic post, Holly. Your strength of character and conviction to the craft never cease to inspire and amaze me.

    Thank you.

  12. Jon Avatar

    I find myself making characters something like myself too… good to know I’m not alone.
    I guess part of my problem – is this common? – is that it’s hard to get the details you’d need about enviroments or jobs you’ve never visited or held, so it’s harder to put characters somewhere you’ve never been.

    Some of the best authors I’ve read (Alistar McClean, Desmond Bagley, Dick Francis, Louis Lamour) either had been everywhere, or close enough, and had had some sort of experience with all sort of things… or were awesome researchers. I’m not really an awesome researcher – and I’m seventeen, and haven’t really had much experience.

    How do you make your character do something real, in a realistic enviroment, that you’ve never been in? Or… rather, what sort of details do you include to make it feel authentic?

    (I love the shoe discussion. And… I think about the rampaging madmen attacking… wherever… a fair amount. You’re not alone)

  13. DasteRoad Avatar

    Hey there Holly, that was one interesting essay to read! Though I admit, I had little doubts that the shopping-mad heroine was absolutely not your thing, knowing how shopping annoys you from past essays and courses 🙂

    I didn’t find your essay offensive at all, I think it’s kind of normal to judge from appearances, as long as it’s done with reason: clothing, hair, attitude and all the rest are part of a person too, and they always say something about them, whether they realize it or not 🙂

    I said “with reason” because we may have our own prejudices based more on “feeling” than “thinking” (and yes, that was a quote from your latest course :)). Some old women I know are convinced that only a criminal would ever wear tattoos and that even a single small ear piercing is completely unproper for a male. Personally I find single, small ear piercings rather flattering in some men, but that may be just me (it’s not a coincidence, given that my guy wears two very small golden ball studs I gave him as a gift a loooong time ago). I don’t “think” tattoos or piercings make someone a criminal, of course, but when exaggerated and outrageous, they tell a lot about the person’s need to draw attention and shock, or perhaps to challenge some kind of authority, when in someone of young age.

    I don’t really think I could read, let alone write, a novel about a fashionista if there’s nothing more to her than that. Unless it is a comedy with a very weird sense of humour. Or unless, I don’t know… she loves fashion and she also works in the fashion field. And something very bad happens in that glamourous world that suddenly turns creepy for her, and her knowledge of that world’s mechanisms and her attention to details will help her solve the mystery. I’m brainstorming here of course, but I think that even if I had an idea for a plot in that field (and that more-or-less was a plot idea), I’d have a lot of problems, simply because well, I like looking pretty in the mirror, I like putting make up, earrings and choosing clothes with my friends, but I’m not THAT interested in fashion at the point of wanting to write something about that world. Heck, I can sleep comfortably even if I only buy medium-cheap stuff, as long as it’s decent quality stuff (as in: I have spent my money for something wear-resistant that will not become a mop after the first time I wash it). I don’t own a credit card, I only spend the money I actually have and I can’t afford super-expensive stuff: well, who the heck cares.

    The key though, I think, is that appearance IS important, especially when writing a novel since the reader will assume that details are important, with reason. If there’s nothing more to our heroine than her wonderful dresses, she’s flat as a board and we have nothing to tell about her. If our heroine’s ultra-glamorous appearance is only there for the sake of glamour and doesn’t fit with anything else about her character, well, why are we writing whole paragraphs about it?

  14. vanity Avatar

    “I don’t compromise. In any debate, when the person who is right compromises with the person who is wrong, the person who is right loses everything. The person who is wrong loses nothing, because he had nothing to lose in the first place.

    Feel free to judge me on this. I chose my principles because they’re right.”

    What happens when both people think they are right? Just today I had a discussion about the conjugation of “to fit” – I claimed it was fit, fit, fit, whereas my co-worker insisted it was fit, fitted, fitted. Turned out we were both right, in a way.

    In any case, it’s certainly good to have principles and to stick to them and if they appear right to you, then that’s what counts. On the flipside, surely you’ll acknowledge that I would regard my own principles as right, even if you might view them as wrong.

    “I’m not willing to validate the scumbags of the world in my fiction to make the real scumbags of the world feel better about themselves”

    I’m 400 pages into Hawkspar – unless there is a big surprise in the last 80 pages, I don’t really see how you can make that statement. The antagonists are evil, granted, but even the protagonists are a group of crooks who don’t shy away from murder and torture – all with best intentions, of course. It’s a captivating read, but doesn’t quite fit the above description.

  15. oliver Avatar

    When designing my characters, I base them around the person I want to be, they are my dreams incarnate. I wish I could travel the world, uncaring and free, I know I never will but my imgination can, so my characters are everything I want to be, but am not.

  16. Laraine Avatar

    Love you, Holly. And now I don’t feel so bad about shoes that simply can’t be worn with skirts (and don’t look all that good with trousers, come to that). As for my handbag, it’s an “organiser” type, small and lightweight, and I wear it with the strap over my head on my right shoulder, so it hangs on my left side, which leaves me with two free hands.

  17. Lorraine Avatar

    Loved this article, everything discussed resonated with me in a big way.

    Incidentally, Keen makes very cute shoes and sandals that are better for running than most running shoes. I use mine for boulder hopping.

    I used to do the same things, looking for danger at every turn because in my experience, it was there.

  18. Marti Verlander Avatar

    And I thought I was unusual, because I do the same constant scan and “what if” review as I walk anywhere! Eighteen years in the martial arts has conditioned me to put my back to a wall if possible in a restaurant or other public place, to be ready to either use my bag as a weapon or to abandon it at a second’s notice, if necessary, and to use body language and attitude to put off the “bad guys” rather than fight, if I can.

    I’m fortunate that I’ve not encountered any of the bad stuff some of you have, but a lot of that may be because my body language makes me not very approachable. I HAVE counseled my karate students on little things that have completely turned around an unpleasant situation for them, such as a high school girl being picked on by a group of other girls–and learning how to turn it around so that the ringleader wanted to hang out and be friends (not that my student was that stupid, of course).

    Even the well-trained, in-your-face, confident character, though, has a side (often hidden from all but those closest to them) that is vulnerable, even weak. For me, much fun results from writing a character like that who grows enough that she is tough and self-confident inside, as well as physically.

    As far as the character twist, I was recently privileged to hear James N. Frey, the thriller author, speak on the topic of premise (and would have liked a couple more hours on that topic). He said that a “dramatic story” (as opposed to an action story) is about the dramatic transformation of a dramatic character through a dramatic struggle. A dramatic character is not a normal person but someone on the outer edges of the bell curve of humanity. I believe this is the same concept as the character with a twist, with something of the unexpected.

    Holly, I love how your blogs and your lessons raise new questions, new thoughts, and cause me to explore aspects of my own writing I’d been unaware of previously. Thank you for your openness, your honesty, and your generous sharing.

  19. Craig A. Eddy Avatar

    Well, whadayaknow! Thank you. All this time I was under the impression that a “hero/heroine” had to be a construct, and that I was putting too much of myself into a character. You don’t know what a relief it is to be able to write what I know rather than what I think someone else wants (and I REALLY should have known better, because I usually don’t care what other people want).

    First, let me say that I write for my own amusement. That doesn’t stop me from wanting to write something that I’d like to read again a year or ten after I’d written it. It just means that (at this point in time) I’m not considering contesting the publication game. For me, it’s a hobby for my old age (I’m 64). Second, I was heightened by your comment about religion. Even when it’s something that is only meant for personal consumption, it’s hard to overcome the prohibition built into western society that one shouldn’t put down religions (it’s not politically correct). Since the rest of the story I’m working on is definitely not politically correct (it involves religion in general, not in specific, but more so on philosophy and ethics), you’d think that I’d realize my basic mistake. So thank you for shaking me out of that unconscious thinking.

    Third, I sympathize with you concerning high heals, handbags, and dresses/skirts. Being of Scots descent I’ve had occasion to wear traditional dress kilts. They’re “boss”, they’re comfortable, and I wished that I could do so more often. But I saw the drawbacks to having a sporran obstructing my ability to deliver a front-snap kick where it was needed. I did find a solution – kilts with pockets. Kilts meant to be worn every day, thrown in the washer and re-worn at need ( That frees up hands and legs, and (because they’re non-binding) allows free movement. In some ways, they’re actually less restrictive than trousers, particularly jeans that can be very heavy to move freely in.

    Oh, by the way, if you should choose to view the link I gave, above, the motto is explained in the comments.

    Thanks again.

  20. Adria Laycraft Avatar

    Gee, Holly, I sure hope I run into you sometime along the way. You sound like my kind of person. (Yes, I am constantly running scenarios in my head, and after creeping out my family one too many times, I keep them for the stories.)

  21. Staci Avatar

    Shoes have to be comfortable, which means flats or sneakers. I definitely prefer the backpack style bag (though college days habit usually means that I keep it slung over one shoulder). And it’s gotta be roomy enough for a thick paperback and my .44 special, in addition to my wallet.

    And one more trick, that I learned from my husband: when you are going somewhere, PAY ATTENTION TO HOW YOU GOT THERE. If you have to leave in a hurry, it’s a lot better to know that you are heading back into familiar territory. My job takes me to strange cities on a regular basis, and picking out landmarks as I’m out walking has brought me back to my hotel without problems on many occasions.

  22. Alynia Avatar

    Holly –

    Loved your comments this week – both the column and those who commented – especially your statement on judging people by how they dress because that’s how they want to be judged. Massive applause from the North County! I see people go to court everyday in their ‘best duds’ and wonder why the judge doesn’t believe their words, but rather the results of the drug test. They seem shocked that the court and observers are not ‘bullied’ by their dress code or choosen dialogue. Great thoughts for today!

  23. catherine Avatar

    “and my guy pushes me to think harder, to ask better questions, and to evaluate every statement I make for flaws in logic and reasoning…which is what makes him the right man for me.”

    You should meet my boyfriend, I think you’d get along. Personally I think having my every word evaluated in that way gets frustrating, but yeah, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t want to be one of those people who lie to themselves about being happy and reasonable.

    I grew up in a small, safe town, and I need to pay more attention to safety, especially since I daydream a lot and don’t pay attention to the world around me. I can’t stand high heels though. I’m all for practical. I try to take that kind of thing into account when I’m writing, so I liked this essay as a reminder. The main character of the book I’m writing now, I decided that she wears make-up and spends some time on her hair, because she is insecure and wants to be loved, but she also wears sneakers and jeans and acts indifferent and strong, because she so wants to be. I can’t help falling in love with my characters, and I can’t write if I don’t. I can’t read books about characters I don’t care about either.

  24. Holly Avatar

    I think the ‘tough bitch in high heels’ has been overdone. I don’t see it as a twist, but rather as a cliche. And I don’t find these characters at all believable when they’re in running scenes. I too can run in high heels. I cannot, however, run fast enough to evade a man in running shoes (which is hard as hell even when you’re a woman in running shoes), and neither can any other woman. I cannot safely jump in them. By wearing high heels, I eliminate the possibility of running my best, of jumping with accuracy and distance, and of effectively carrying out one-footed maneuvers like kicks with maximum strength. In other words, I decrease my options for survival, eliminating some paths to safety entirely.

    High heels are designed to pitch the spine forward, to throw the butt out at the back making it look rounder, and to shorten the curve of the calf to make the leg look more curvaceous—while at the same time shortening the Achilles tendon and massively decreasing the lever action between the ball of the foot and the heel.

    So by design they are created to damage your balance, slow you down, make you vulnerable…and make you look like a willing target at the same time.

    They also cripple the foot and leg over time: when worn regularly, they permanently shorten the Achilles tendon, damage the bones in the ball of the foot (and usually the toes), distort the lower back causing chronic pain, and a few other goodies I forget right off-hand. They’re not as crippling as, say, a lifetime regimen of Chinese foot binding.

    But they’re nasty enough that I choose not to play. And I don’t write main characters who wear them because A) all of the above, and B) I’m an ex-RN and I still feel a personal responsibility to not promote things I know cause permanent, unfixable damage. I also don’t write heroes who do drugs, smoke cigarettes, or bungee-jump without a helmet. I might write characters who do all of these things…both secondary characters and antagonists. But not heroes.

    1. ER Avatar

      This is a fascinating article and the debate it caused is also an interesting read.

      As for my perspective on this… since reading more and more of your blog and taking your flash fiction course, I am finding I think similarly to you. Now that I’ve read this, I’m discovering that we have some similar experiences in our background (have survived some shitty stuff, and have experience in healthcare).

      On the whole girly girl stuff, mainly judging people on what they wear, I do it too. Honestly, I really didn’t at first because I care so little about clothing that I didn’t notice what people wear (of course I still judged people on appearance – everyone does… it’s not a negative thing, it’s what you do with that judgement that is good/bad). My mom is the same way. We’re also not into shopping pretty much at all. When I am forced to do it, I actively seek out friends to help me go shopping because it makes it bearable and they help me not buy terrible things. That being said, some time ago, some of my woman coworkers started talking about coach handbags. I was floored by this conversation. They were obsessed with these stupid handbags that cost *hundreds* of dollars. Since then, the coach conversation has come up in other discussions with women, and every time when the conversation comes to me I’m like, “my purse cost 20 bucks at wal mart. I’ve had it for 5 years, it’s got chewing gum stuck to the bottom of it, and animal feed ground into the pockets from when I took my daughter to the petting zoo 4 months ago, a strap is about to fall off… so I guess it’s time to throw it out and get a new one.” And then I wait for the awkward silence, and go back to day dreaming. I just can’t even imagine paying more than 50 bucks on a purse, and even that would make me really pissed off. I mean, wtf do you even do with a 300, 400 dollar purse? It’s *so* obviously a statement. It isn’t prettier than other purses, they aren’t even that attractive to me, but I’ve always thought shit with a brand name written all over it looks totally tacky anyways. Maybe they’re extremely well built and self clean when the baby pukes all over them (??)… but bottom line is, now when I see a coach handbag, I judge. And I don’t think, “she’s a winner.” I think, “I bet she’s in debt up to her eyeballs.” Don’t get me wrong, a lot of my friends are coach girls (and are in debt). But they are probably not going to be my besties… not because of the handbags, but because of other personality traits that oddly seem to correlate to coach bag ownership. And this one girl I met, one of the first things she said to me was how she didn’t get how people could spend 400 bucks on a purse when there are people and animals who are abused and starving in the world… and I loved her instantly. So yes, I judge. Granted, we all have our frivolous things that we spend money on, but some things I just can’t get my head around.

      So anyways, I get you. However, when it comes to writing, I do think that anything like that you’ve learned about people as a whole can be applied to any character – even your heroes – to make a statement. Or at least I do that and I think it works (but none of my unfinished novels are published yet…). Most of my heroes have internal conflicts as well as outward ones, and one of my heroes starts out as a girly girl. Her main weakness is she likes money. This goes hand in hand with her being ambitious, competitive, etc, and she wants the trophy/gold star to prove she’s the best. When she realizes she has to compromise her morals and destroy her marriage to further advance her career, and that her profession as a whole is damaging to society, she undergoes a drastic change. At the end of the book, while she is still somewhat of a girly girl, all those fabulous things have lost their luster…

      At first it was kind of hard to write her character because I was a hard on her, but the more I wrote of her, the more forgiving I was of her obsession with nice things because even though she has the weakness, she is a good person – and there is a reason for her obsession/weakness. Someone else said that they write about people who aren’t like them and that made them grow as a person, but they didn’t do it to prove a point… and I guess what I’m saying is I do the opposite and it still made me grow. It’s not like I’m perfect, but neither are other people. I can recognize flaws in a person, and write those flaws into a character. I can also still respect and empathize with that person/character (and writing has helped me do this), and I feel like if I can do that, maybe the reader will be able to as well. That’s why I write. I want to inspire empathy in people, as well as tell a good story. While I did know I wanted to inspire empathy in people, I didn’t know this was how I was going to do it, it just happened.

      I also have a hero in another story who smoked a lot when she was a teenager. There is a reason for this, tied to what happened to her as a child/teen/young adult. It is a weakness and it highlights an even larger weakness that is emotional/psychological. Again, by the end of the story, she doesn’t smoke anymore – and it emphasizes that a change has happened in her. The main point of the story is the change she undergoes, not the smoking, but it emphasizes her overcoming her past. It was also extremely difficult for me to write because I hate smoking (with a fiery passion), but it totally was/is this character, so I had to do it. I have had to struggle with this personally as my best friend is a smoker. I have been strongly anti-smoking my whole life, so it was awful when my friend started smoking. But, I still love her to pieces. She’s the closest thing to a sister I have.

      I guess I feel like I want imperfect heroes – partly because I believe people have the power to change and many of us (including myself) are flawed. If the hero has to start out perfect, what chance do I, or does any other person, have at being a hero? The thread that ties them all together is that they are good people. I do worry about promoting the wrong thing, but I don’t enjoy those traits I mentioned, so I hope it doesn’t come across as cool to people. Hugging reality helps there – people who spend more than they can afford because they are addicted to things go into debt, and people who smoke end up stinky and sick.

      Anyways, great post and food for thought.

  25. Soleil Noir Avatar

    Holly, I understand where you’re coming from, been there and done it a few times. But I also agree with Jennsaf. I like characters with a twist. Especially in the form of women who seem vulnerable but can actually kick your ass without smudging anything. La Femme Nikita, anyone?

    I always scope out every parking lot, room, street that I happen to be near. Searching the crowd for a even the smallest reason to be distrustful of someone around me. I used to only wear flats until I found a few pairs of heels that I can run and kick ass in if need be. 😉 Though I do agree, I can’t read a book about a chick who wears Prada and the “latest designer wear”, isn’t willing to get her precious clothes a little dirty if it means survival, only thinks about the mean green and whose love interest is “vibrator + credit card” personified.

    Jen- “The fashionista with a pepper spray can is overdone.” And she needs pepper spray…why? If she has manicured/nail extensions, those would work rather well with Holly’s thumbing out the eye technique. Spiked heels are great and if her bag is heavy enough she can pack quite a wallop. Just sayin’

  26. PD Singer Avatar
    PD Singer

    I think I like your last reply almost better than the original post, which had me nodding my head and saying, “Oh, yeah.” I never enter a new room without finding the escape routes and at least two items that can be used as weapons, because the bad shit does not come with advance notice.

    But that last is refreshingly honest. Judgment is what you do when your brain works.

  27. Raven Oak Avatar

    And for all those religions that tell you not to judge, and THEIR crummy, reprehensible behavior? They want you to turn of your brain and believe, because if you judge THEM, you’ll see right through their pretense of “give up this life for the better one we have in store for you after you’re dead,” and realize that they are demanding you give them something you have (your life) in exchange for nothing (their unprovable afterlife).

    Preach on!

  28. Nico Avatar

    Wise advice, indeed. I see so many tv shows, and so many novels where the lead characters are basically wealthy people kitted up in designer gear, fighting to right some sort of injustice. They’re empty characters who don’t exist outside of their own self importance, and you wonder why you’re meant to care about what happens to them in the first place.

    I don’t think Holly was trying to say that a strong feminine lead can’t wear dresses, or carry a handbag, just that she identifies with like minded people and perhaps would wish her characters to display the qualities she admires in her friends. It’s her choice, they’re her characters and stories to tell, every bit as much as yours will be when you sit down to write. That was her point, know your character, know why they wear the things they do, and how it affects their performance in situations such as those mentioned above. If choose to have your heroine in designer gear, thats fine, but it has to fit with the persona you’ve created, as much as their actions. It makes for a three dimensional character readers can care about, rather than some of the flat and boring ones we’re subjected to in films and books.

    Thank you for an imformative post, I enjoyed reading it 🙂

  29. Raven Oak Avatar

    Awesome post, which I plan to share with others. Too many women don’t understand the need to protect themselves, and that includes those in books! Some of my favorite novels feature strong women who know how to kick ass when needed.

    Thanks for the great post!

  30. Holly Avatar

    Mike, actually I’m perfectly comfortable judging people, and judging them based on their appearances in an instant’s time. People choose almost every aspect of what they present to the world. A man with a lizard-tattooed face, a split tongue, and metal shit sticking out of every available bit of skin hopes to shock and offend, so he can then complain that he is being judged by his appearance. Damn straight he is. He is demonstrating that he is someone who thinks any sort of behavior should be acceptable, and that he should be able to force everyone else to accept his view of reality.

    A woman who totters around in shoes so high she wobbles wearing a shirt so short she can’t sit down, who has had so much plastic surgery her lips are where her eyebrows used to be is also making a statement, and it isn’t “I can take care of myself,” or even “I value who I am.” It’s “I value who I used to think I was back when I was so young I could get by on my looks alone.”

    I don’t actually give a shit what “they” say about people who make assumptions. Your judgment is all that gets you from wake-up to go-to-sleep without dying every day. Are you competent to judge when it’s safe to turn left in traffic? Competent to judge when a man is looking at your wife in a way that suggests she’s in trouble? Competent to judge when food has gone bad, when water is too dirty to drink, when the hurricane is lined up with your house and you need to leave?

    If you are, then you’re competent to judge people, and to judge them by their appearances, understanding that what they are saying with their postures, their clothing, their hair, their tattooes, their adornment, and everything else they choose to present is exactly what they mean.

    The only people who say you shouldn’t judge other people are the ones who don’t want you to judge them, and that’s because they’re engaged in some scummy, crap-ass behavior that anyone who dared to view with reason and evaluate would find reprehensible.

    And for all those religions that tell you not to judge, and THEIR crummy, reprehensible behavior? They want you to turn off your brain and believe, because if you judge THEM, you’ll see right through their pretense of “give up this life for the better one we have in store for you after you’re dead,” and realize that they are demanding you give them something you have (your life) in exchange for nothing (their unprovable afterlife).

    And writing characters you don’t respect doesn’t make you a great writer. It makes you a writer who compromised your principles in order to appease people who demand compromise.

    I don’t compromise. In any debate, when the person who is right compromises with the person who is wrong, the person who is right loses everything. The person who is wrong loses nothing, because he had nothing to lose in the first place.

    Feel free to judge me on this. I chose my principles because they’re right. I’m not willing to validate the scumbags of the world in my fiction to make the real scumbags of the world feel better about themselves, not even if it would make people who are throwing around veiled insults claim by my doing so that my willingness to compromise my principles makes me a “great” writer.

  31. Rachel Green Avatar

    No, it’s not just you. That’s exactly what i do all the time. And my girliest shoes are the boots with cuban heels.

  32. Kristi Avatar

    I totally agree with you about the whole ‘making your haracters people you’d hangout with’ because what’s the fun of writing and knowing a person’s personality, if you’d hate doing it.

    I just wanted to interject: I can run in any heel you put me in. Always have. I can un even faster barefoot, and actually prefer it. I think a well prepared heroine is the best heroine.

    Also, I carry the purse that gets slung across your chest or a backpack too… but there’s some instances where that just won’t work. In those instances, I’d just drop the thing. All my needed items, (ID, drivers liscense and cash are on my person (clevery concealed) if I need them. Or I take a coin purse, that will easily fit into my pocket.

    Just my two sense. And I hate simpering women, and useless men.

  33. Bill in Houston Avatar
    Bill in Houston

    Interesting idea, about characters being people you want your readers to care about and/or be friends with.

    Some of my unfinished books have characters like this. Most of the commentary I get is, “You write realistic dialog but your characters are predictable.” They aren’t carbon copies of me, but I tried to go with the “readers would like them” idea. I kept getting these comments so I started to develop characters who drive a story but aren’t necessarily those with whom you’d spend your spare time.

    My latest story (based on comments made by Jerry Pournelle on his daybook) has an engineer character who is a triple threat: engineer, tinker, and un-fun drunk plus raging alcoholic. Let’s see if that works.

  34. Kristen Avatar

    Holly, this post was such a refreshing read! I was beginning to think I was the only woman who scopes out the entry/exit points of every place I visit, and whose entire shoe collection consists of comfortable flats, sneakers, and a pair of hiking boots. The first thing my self-defense instructor told me was “Never leave the house in shoes you can’t run in.” I’ve been stalked, married to a man who turned out to be a drug dealer, and robbed at gunpoint while working as a bank teller. Experience has taught me it’s always better to be prepared.

    I write characters all across the board, with some who wear designer clothes and others who wouldn’t recognize a designer shoe even if they were hit in the face with one, but they’re always characters I’m comfortable with. If I don’t believe in the characters, how will my readers ever believe in them?

  35. Mike P Avatar
    Mike P

    Holly I just found out about your site yesterday. I must say that I love everything on here so far. It is a blast to finally find a writer that lacks ego and loves to teach/mentor so much.

    I must say that it really helps that you are so brutal and open with posts like these. Some might call the tone of this post crass. I call it entertaining and truthful. If my English teachers would have been more like you… Well, I might have paid attention.

  36. Valerie K Avatar
    Valerie K

    Wow. Me, too. Thought I was the only one. And thought that was because I was a CIA brat.

    In fact, on my sweet spot map under “I fear” and the usual list of suspects: assassination, kidnapping, etc. (the things my parents never mentioned, but were palpable realities when I grew up, in the air psychically) I have circled in bold: “ALWAYS WEAR RUNNING SHOES.”

  37. Lily Stone Avatar

    Ahh…and I thought I was the only female in the world who hated handbags. If it can’t fit in my pocket, it doesn’t go with me. And, yes, I only buy clothes–dresses included–that have pockets.

    Never had to defend myself & hope I never will, so maybe that’s why I never look for escape routes or watch for villains in parking lots. I smile at everyone and assume they’re good at heart. But my husband is always checking out things like that. Whenever we enter a new building, be it church or theater or gym, he tells me on the way home all the ways out in case of attack.

  38. Cynthia Avatar


    I learned that shoe thing watching monster movies from the 50s in which the hero always had to drag the heroine to safety as she tottered along on her high heels. In case of natural disaster or monster emergency, please wear sensible shoes.

  39. MarFisk Avatar

    I think I’ve grown beyond assessing my locations consciously, but I’ve proven myself able to survive in *uncomfortable* circumstances a time or two. I do, however, write idiot characters if only to show the moment when their eyes are opened. But ultimately, there has to be a reason for their idiocy and a reason to like them off the bat. Your “wanting to spend time with them” is so true. The ones I don’t want to spend time with are never my heroes, though they exist in my stories all too often :p.

    P.S. I used a butt pack cause my shoulders can’t handle a backpack all the time but I want my hands free too ;).

  40. Gergana Avatar

    Really liked it.I`m planning to show it to my BF.
    I`m prone to attract strange subjects to follow me,but I definitely don`t want and don`t like it,so it`s good to know that I`m not the only one….:)
    Успокояващо е! 🙂

  41. Storm Avatar

    Hey, Holly!

    I find it nearly impossible to get a decent story out of characters that I can’t stand. My heroes of either gender are fringe-livers. They exist at the edges of their communities, dangling off the mainstream like jeweled beading on a shawl. They sparkle, and sometimes they fall apart and shatter… but in the end, they are absolutely happy being on the fringes and not woven into the body of society’s cloth. I wondered if I should ‘mainstream’ my writing more, but the more I read from you, the more I understand that -why- I write is just as important as how much I earn writing.

  42. Jen Avatar

    Personally, I didn’t get offended by this take on characterization. The fashionista with a pepper spray can is overdone. That’s what people don’t get. Don’t go with the norm, the easy way out. You’ll only be writing dribble. Far too much is dribble, these days. . . .

  43. jennsaf Avatar

    Thanks, Holly. I had a feeling you meant more that YOU have to believe in your character. I just felt compelled to add the point that you yourself have made about characters with a twist. 🙂

    I did chase down my purse-snatcher once. 🙂 But I humbly admit I was wearing flats at the time. They were CUTE flats, though. And I got my cute bag back.

  44. Angie Mroczka Avatar
    Angie Mroczka

    Wonderful advice. Thank you!

  45. Mike Avatar

    I’ll agree with Jennsaf on this. Making an assumption about someone based on looks, well, you know what they say about assuming.

    I think you meant your article to be about creating characters you feel comfortable writing. However, you also ended up sending a message about your characters that I’ve seen reflected in your writing. All your leads (at least in the dozen novels of yours I own) have a ‘sameness’ about them. Now I know why. Despite the setting, I know what to expect from a Holly Lisle novel when I pick it up. When I want to read about a strong female lead whom I respect, I pick up a Holly Lisle story, or Tanya Huff, or Misty Lackey. It’s hard to write a strong female lead without making her unlikable, and you three do it well. Male authors do it as well; Heinlein is a great example. But you end up typecasting yourselves and your storylines.

    Writing what you know, and what you feel comfortable with makes for a great story. Writing outside your boundaries makes for a great writer.

  46. Holly Avatar

    Ladyrane—dress? What means that alien word ‘dress’? 😀

  47. Holly Avatar

    Jenn—I don’t think there’s just one kind of female lead, and a number of my heroines are decidedly not “tough”—but I wouldn’t write a heroine in high heels because I wouldn’t intentionally cripple her. And yeah, I do know that spike heels can crush and separate the bones in an attacker’s foot. I also know that I was wearing six-inch platforms when I was fourteen and grabbed by the man in Costa Rica while I was waiting at a bus stop…and it was those damn shoes that kept me from catching him and running him through with my umbrella.

    Yes, I attacked my attacker then, too.

    But that’s why I note that your characters have to fit you like YOUR idea of good shoes.

  48. ladyrane Avatar

    LOL! I totally do this too. I always thought I was crazy!! I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who thinks about stuff like this. My mother used to roll her eyes whenever I’d try on a dress and then say, “No, I can’t wear this because I can’t kick in it.”

  49. jennsaf Avatar

    But Holly, what about that surprising character with a twist? After all, I have an incredible penchant for high-heeled shoes and designer handbags, and I’m two months away from getting my taekwondo black belt. I’m always on hyper-alert, and I know my immediate reaction in a danger situation — if I can’t run anywhere, which is ALWAYS your safest option — is to attack, and attack with confidence.

    My heroines are never carbon copies of me, but I do try to make them surprising. And they’re never anything less than self-rescuers, no matter how they dress or where they come from.

    Wouldn’t a bad-ass fashionista make an interesting paradox? I know it’s possible from personal experience. I don’t count on anyone to rescue me. Frankly, I’m kind of surprised, based on your character-building work I’ve read, that you think there’s only one kind of tough female lead. If that’s not what you meant with this post, it’s how it sounded to me.

    And I feel kind of sad that if you saw me on the street walking in my three-inch heels and swinging my leather handbag, you’d condemn me to a Dumpster without trying to be my friend first and finding out what I am under the exterior, which I think is what make fiction character tick, after all. I may just have pepper spray in that bag. Pepper spray in a canister covered in Swarovski crystals.

  50. LisaHartjes Avatar

    What a great blog post, Holly. And you’re right. If you can’t like and identify with your characters, then there’s no way you can expect your readers to.

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