This week, I read four books from two different series, both of which featured what I’ll call an ‘ordinary heroine’ – that is, someone who doesn’t use kick-ass powers, but is actually quite powerless (at least, in comparison to the characters around them). This is an Everyman sort of character; the ordinary Joe who steps up when the plot descends on him, wrecking his humdrum life, as opposed to someone who is already in a traditionally plot-prone position, such as a private investigator etc.
The first and second books were Written in Red, the first book in the Others series by Anne Bishop, and the follow-up book, Murder of Crows. In these books, Meg Corbyn isn’t quite an Ordinary Jo, because she can see the future when her skin is cut. However, that ability (in-universe, she’s a cassandra sangue – blood prophet) has meant she has been kept a prisoner for her whole life, forced to prophesy to make money for her captors. When she escapes, therefore, she has no life skills and no money. She therefore accepts a job as Human Liaison to the Courtyard in the town where she ends up. The Courtyard is where the supernatural creatures live, and in this world, the supernatural entities are in charge, and they eat humans.
Meg’s job is basically to be in charge of the post room, taking in deliveries and making sure that they get to the right place within the Courtyard, which actually appears to be quite a large compound. Human Liaisons don’t tend to last long – they either quit or get eaten, and even while alive they tend to be pretty uninterested in actually doing their job right.
So, moving on to what makes Meg the Ordinary Heroine. Despite her power of prophecy, she’s decidedly underpowered when living amongst vampires, wereanimals, a being that all the others are scared of, and elementals. However, she maintains her position as centre of the story not because she’s some kind of human MacGuffin, but because of her attributes as a person. She is the first Liaison to take the job seriously and actually do it right, and this means she becomes valuable to the fairly terrifying creatures living in the Courtyard. She also tries to go beyond just being a glorified post-girl, and tries to find solutions to problems – sometimes, due to her lack of experience of the real world, in innovative way. This leads to the supernatural creatures starting to see first Meg herself, and then other humans who work for the Courtyard, as something other than prey. Since she has been kept prisoner from birth, and has no experience of real life, the reader also gets to see Meg learning how to cope with the outside world – even deliberately trying out different types of music and writing down whether she likes them or not, for future reference.
Meg, however, remains decidedly underpowered. Her position within the plot depends on the relationships she forges with the other characters, and their reactions to her. We also get to learn more about the supenatural creatures by the way they react to Meg. By the end of book 1, she has changed the dynamic between the Courtyard and the human town, and further changes are afoot. In some ways, she is a catalyst for change rather than an agent of change – but the setup works very well. Meg learns and grows, and in Book 2, she is more confident, has consolidated her position, and is starting to use her power as a cassandra sangue to benefit her new friends and employers in the Courtyard.
The heroine of the Agent of Hel series is Daisy Johannsen, hellspawn – the offspring of a human mother and demon father. She lives in small-town Pemkowet, MI, which is one of the places which have a functioning underworld (this one being run by the Norse goddess Hel) and thus magic works and supernatural creatures exist. Daisy is a part-time file clerk with the Pemkowet police department, and for reasons which are not entirely clear, she is also Hel’s liaison with the mortal world and thus responsible for keeping the supernatural peace in Pemkowet. Although Daisy’s emotions can affect the world around her, if she embraces her demonic birthright, it will (we are told, although it’s unclear why) touch off Armageddon.
I really enjoyed the first book; Daisy was kind of ditzy and made a lot of mistakes, but she was dealing with her first real challenge as Hel’s liaison. The plot was pretty good, with some interesting moral ambiguities. Unfortunately, the second book didn’t live up to the standards set by the first book.
Unlike Meg Corbyn, Daisy Johannsen didn’t seem to have learned anything from the events of the first book – she was still ditzy, still careless, and still making stupid mistakes which put those around her in danger. Furthermore, since the Agent of Hel books are written in the first person, the reader doesn’t get to see anything from any other character’s point of view, or any scenes where Daisy is not present. This is a problem because with an ‘ordinary heroine’, since the main character’s powers aren’t making them the protagonist, it has to be character. Why do the other characters in the book let her take the lead, or take any notice of her at all? Why do they rally round? Why does she make a difference? Why, in fact, don’t they just ignore her and roll right over the top of her? Meg Corbyn did her best to help people, and we got to see her working out how to deal with real life (and werewolves). Daisy Johannsen, on the other hand, didn’t really seem to be making much of an effort at all.
On the romance front, being paranormal fantasy, there are the obligatory Hot Guys. One, in the case of Meg, and three in the case of Daisy. It was pretty easy to see what the Hot Guy saw in Meg: she was hard-working, loyal, caring, and sweet. With Daisy, it’s a lot harder. She didn’t seem to be very good at her job, didn’t seem to be interested in improving, didn’t seem to have any hobbies or interests other than watching old movies with her mother, and, all in all, seemed to be a bit of an idiot. What was making all these Hot Guys pant after her? I could believe one (no accounting for taste) but three? Daisy’s attitude to adversity pretty much seemed to be to ignore it until it went away, which it promptly did. She spent as much time worrying about which Hot Guy to choose as she did potential Zombie Apocalypse, which not only made me wonder about her priorities but also rather destroyed the pacing of the story.
Comparing the two, we have two heroines who are underpowered compared to the other supernatural characters in the book. Yet they each maintain a central role. In the case of Meg Corbyn, this is accomplished not only because of her own actions, but also because of the relationships she creates and maintains with the other characters, producing a domino effect of change which goes beyond anything she could have accomplished alone. In The Others, we therefore have a group of central characters tied to Meg, all of whom we get to know. Meg, however, remains the centre of the story about whom all of the others orbit. Meg also grows and develops throughout the two books, so while she starts Book 1 naive and pretty helpless, by the end of Book 2 she has greater agency – and we can look forward to more in Book 3, as she consolidates her position within the Courtyard and learns how and when to use her powers safely for the benefit of herself and her friends.
In the case of Daisy Johannsen, the same growth doesn’t happen. She’s as hapless at the end of Book 2 as she is at the beginning of Book 1. This is frustrating, because she never seems to learn from he mistakes, or to start to really take responsibility. The Armageddon thing, which is never explained, precludes her using her hellspawn powers, and many problems in both books are solved by other, more powerful characters, coming to the rescue (often because Daisy’s ditziness has created the dangerous situation in the first place). Although Daisy manages to have sex with two different men, both men are so two-dimensional that we don’t know what they see in her, and even Daisy doesn’t seem to have any interesting thoughts about them other than “he’s sexy”. Even an Ordinary Heroine has to grow and develop throughout the book/series – whether that’s power, skill, relationships, whatever. There has to be change. So Daisy not only fails to step up and really start to take responsibility as Hel’s liaison, but she also doesn’t grow as a person. Such a shallow, ditzy main character has neither the depth nor the grit to sustain an interesting plot over two books, so the plot of the second book fails. Or, possibly, if the plot had been better, Daisy would have had to develop some depth of character in order to deal with it.
The Ordinary Heroine (or hero) is one of the most difficult to write, because the character doesn’t have special powers to carry the plot and justify their central place in it. They have to have enough – well – character to make it believable that other, more conventionally powerful characters will follow their lead, or at least take notice of them. Even if they start out being pretty useless, they have to learn from their mistakes and use whatever skills or powers they do have to the best of their ability. Failing this, the story will start to come apart, or readers will lose interest in, or be frustrated by, a protagonist who does not seem to justify the way the other characters act towards her.