• Gracie Carmichael

How to be a Heroine: Finding Grace and Wisdom in a Literary Light

Dear kindred spirit,

I am delighted you could join me today. I've been a wee bit absent for the last two months from this dear corner; the last stretch of winter and even the dawn of spring have brought periods of difficulty with them that have taken my thoughts away from this here blog. But thankfully, as Ms. Alcott would say, "There is always light behind the clouds," and as the golden daffodils begin (at long last) to pop up, so also is my heart ready to embrace the books that bring me such joy, and the kindred spirits that make it all the more delightful to share them with.

I am one of those indefatigable daydreamers who cannot escape a period of difficulty without imagining I am in the shoes of a heroine—whether I am Margaret Hale of North and South for a week, determined to do my best for those I love dearest...or Sara Crewe of A Little Princess, feeling bruised and heart-sore yet finding peace in counting her blessings...or Elizabeth Bennet, regretting old mistakes and prejudices while embracing newfound truths. Perhaps we all love a heroine best because her trials are so reminiscent of our own hurdles. Even though I can't claim to have known the heartache of Jane Eyre on her almost-wedding day, we can empathize with her emotional responses based on moments we have felt similar pains, or when our hearts have known sorrow and grief.

I have felt quite a bit of kinship with the heroines in the last few months, as any time of hardship may remind us of the value of following their own tumultuous journeys. As readers, of course we fondly imagine ourselves as our favorite literary heroines from time to time, but lately I've come to realize that such daydreams have actually borne a bit of fruit, and have proven profound lessons of what it actually means to be a heroine: to take on the traits I so admire and uphold in the beloved ladies of literature so dear to me. Of course, I could never in my life claim to be as good as Polly Milton of An Old-Fashioned Girl or as gentle as dear Beth March of Little Women—and daydreams don't require us to!—but I really do believe that we can learn these noble qualities from them when we align our hearts to seek after what is pure, lovely, and of good report. That's when we find ourselves stepping into the shoes of a heroine...

Seek to be a Heroine, not a Main Character

There's nothing unusual about looking at one's life as though it were a story or film playing fact, I think society likes the idea, especially when pushed as an empowering one in the promotion of your self-seeking journey. But I don't believe this should be a self-seeking journey at all! At least, it certainly isn't for a heroine.

There's a concept that's been floating around for the last few years called "Main Character Syndrome." I first saw this term used as an expositional critique against people who live their life as though they are the most important person in it—in essence, they are the main character, while you and I are merely "supporting characters." They pursue gratifying their own ambitions or desires because it's their story, not ours. It's their line. From the first, I saw this concept as a profoundly true criticism of our self-gratifying, "self-love"-promoting society—but apparently society didn't take the concept as a critique at all! Lo, it's actually become a trend.

In the last year, social media has latched onto the Main Character concept as a trendy label. The main character of a group is identified as such, and the story revolves around them, while the rest are doomed to "sidekick" or "supporting cast." There are plainly quite a few issues with this, and I don't need to spell them out—but I want to focus in on the fact that there is an apparent lack of knowledge here on what it actually means to be the main character. To be well and truly honest, the main characters of the kinds of books I read simply do not match the criteria this concept sets! Perhaps I'm just too out of tune with contemporary fiction and films these days—I'll be the first to label myself a classics-and-period-drama gal at heart—but I just...wouldn't want to read a story in which the main character puts her journey before others, exuding the kind of self-confident attitude that takes her from pursuing her own desires to abandoning every single "supporting character" that slows down the pace of her story.

(Let's just insert a joke here that this kind of demeanor actually aligns quite heavily with the antagonist of any story, aha!)

Perhaps that's just me, and maybe some readers actually do like that kind of protagonist. But since you are here, on a book blog dedicated to celebrating Austen, Alcott, and other wisdom-filled, heartfelt classics in the treasure-trove of women and girls' literature, I dare to think you might agree that it's better, after all, to be a heroine than a main character.

To Be a Heroine

What defines a heroine most of all, above any other required trait, is found in the word itself. It stems, obviously, from hero—heroic—heroism. We can conclude very easily that a heroine therefore has heroic traits. A heroic person is self-sacrificing, not self-seeking; they face great conflict and surmount it by holding true to what is good or right; they put others before themselves (or else their journey causes them to learn to), and they commit themselves to doing the right thing (even when it means making mistakes along the way and learning from them).

What an easy life it must be to be a "Main Character," who does not fall under the weight denying themselves to support others! How easy it must be to be selfish, and pursue our own desires without looking back at those whose needs are greater...

But it was never a simple thing to be a heroine. From the books I've read, heroines went through bitter times and faced many periods of sorrow, heartache, mourning, poverty, and all the very-real conflicts ever-present in our own lives. No, it isn't a simple thing—and yet I believe we can relate far better to that heroine, than we can the Main Character whose ambitions are self-serving and unattached to the pains and hardships of others.

When we think on the heroines of our favorite stories, and specifically the attributes that endear them to us, or make us admire them, we begin to understand how we can be a little more like them. They hold a purpose to us, because when we see our own hurdles mirrored through their fictional stories, we can trust that they will find a way out of them—and always with growth, heart-change, and acquired wisdom. We can look to them to show us how to endure. Our own trials might not resolve in the very same fashion as theirs happily do, but while we undergo those trials, we can persevere just as they—learn and grow, just as they—and look forward with hope to the healing of our hurts and the undoing of our troubles, just as they too receive in the end.

If you've ever had a pang of conscience when some long-hoped for ambition comes shining through, just when a humbler, quieter call is placed on your heart...then you would know what Anne Shirley felt when she chose to stay another year at Green Gables instead of going off to Redmond College, choosing Marilla's comfort above her own desirous ambition.

If you have ever felt cast out in the repercussions of choosing to do what is right, then you would know what Jane Eyre felt as she walked the Moors, homeless, penniless and in dire heartache after leaving Thornfield Hall.

Even the smaller pains of the heart, our heroines too felt. Even if you have ever said something unkind in a moment of intended jest, and been harrowed up in heart for it in shame and bitter remorse, you would know what Emma Woodhouse felt when she said a hurtful thing in jest at a picnic among friends.

It isn't merely the trials our beloved heroines face that make them important to us—it's how they teach us to conquer them. They humble their hearts when they've done wrong and undo their mistakes, even when it's very hard to. They serve others with love, even when their own hearts are desirous of being loved. They give of themselves freely, choosing to respond with mercy and grace, even when it's rather difficult to let go of past grievances. They persevere, even when it looks far easier to simply give up. They cling to hope when there doesn't appear to be any.

If a "main character" seeks to serve their own story, then I would rather be a heroine, who deserves her happy ending because of the good works she sows along its way. She isn't a perfect being, but none of us are. She makes plenty of mistakes, but she learns to overcome them—and we love her for that.

No, it's not a simple thing to be a heroine...but I think we might just learn to be one, after all.


Let Literature be your Guidebook

If you would like a few "literary guidebooks" featuring heroines that exemplify endurance, teaching us to walk in light and grace in the darkest of periods, then I heartily recommend you the following favorites:

  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë - the masterclass in heroism!

  • The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë - a heroine committed to righteousness who I think about almost every day of my life

  • Persuasion by Jane Austen - a kind, meek heart that serves others above herself will always deserve her happy ending

  • Mansfield Park by Jane Austen - a lesson in finding independence through following one's own heart in spite of timidity and familial pressure

  • A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett - how to discover true wealth of heart in spite of poverty and mistreatment

  • An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott - a true guidebook for every heart, reminding us what is important in all trials, however they vary


Thank you so much for stopping by today, dear kindred spirit. It is my sincerest hope that this post may touch you in some way, and give you a little courage to endure, as our beloved heroines did, in whatever you are facing. May there ever be light to pierce the moments of shadow, and hope to cast out all fears. We are not alone in our stories, and perhaps that's exactly why literature lasts in the hearts of the readers who cherish it—because in fiction, we see the truth mirrored back to us, teaching us along the way of the heroine.

Until next time, dear soul,



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