I read this amazing blog by Jae Jones (@sjaejones) this morning about kickass heroines and it got me thinking: am I a Buffy fan or an Alanna fan?

I certainly liked the tv series of Buffy and enjoyed her power, but as pointed out in the blog, her powers were “granted” to her magically. Part of her whole issue was that she was chosen to her duty, and that given the choice she would not have picked this life for herself.

Tangent: Reminds me of how annoying the “star-crossed lovers” motif has become for me in recent years. I’m tired of people being thrown together by fate and falling in love with each other “because it was destined to be so.” I feel that such a ploy is lazy and removes responsibility from the writer’s shoulders to create believable characters and situations, and nurturing their relationship, otherwise the attraction is merely physical. Sure, some people only take together because of physical attraction, but I’m a romantic. I want a deeper connection then that.

On the completely other side of the spectrum is Alanna from the Tamora Pierce books (I admire them so, so much – anyone who even slightly likes fantasy needs to go read ALL of her books IMMEDIATELY). Alanna chooses her destiny, switching places with her twin brother and dressing as a man in order to become a knight. She trains hard, has her own shortcomings (that are in direct relation to her sex, not just limitations that would make her an “interesting” character) on top of other complications, and she’s got an attitude a mile long. She is, without a doubt, a kickass heroine. Because she’s a woman who kicks ass? Partially. But mostly it’s because she has no problem getting her hands dirty and has a spine made of iron.

Even though I like both characters, I identify more strongly with Alanna precisely because she chose her own destiny – grabbed it with both hands and took everything that came with that decision (the good and the bad). Buffy, on the other hand, somewhat passively accepts her role and gets beaten around by Fate a lot, never quite finding a silver lining to her position. Sure, you can argue she changed the rules up a bit and did some shocking things, but in the end she is the Chosen Slayer who Fights the Bad Guys and Waits to Die and Be Replaced by the next Chosen Slayer. And even though you can also argue that Alanna was chosen by the gods, she fought for everything she got – she was never handed anything. Every bruise and scar was hers to earn.

All of this explanation leads me to the topic I really wanted to talk about: how do you create a main character worth spending time with? For me, whether a character is kickass, a strong heroine, all of that stuff is completely unimportant if I don’t identify with that character. As I said, I certainly like Buffy as a character: I feel she is well-rounded, reacts in interesting ways to her situation, and has a witty way of phrasing things that amuses me. But on the other hand, I didn’t get very far into the series before losing interest. I couldn’t identify with her because my personality is more active – I don’t like the idea of settling for your lot in life. I like a character like Alanna, who doesn’t care if she’s a woman – she’s going to be a knight because she damn well feels like it!

And because I think like this, I came up with some things that I always want to find in the heroes (male and female) that I read about. This is my personal preference – what I know that appeals to me – but everyone has their own favorites.

1) Depth – I don’t want to hear about “the typical high school girl” or “your average college sophomore” or anyone you can stick a label on. It’s one thing if other characters label the main character, it’s quite another if the main character labels him or her self. Everyone is an individual and everyone has traits they share with a particular group but they are never just what people see on the outside. I want to hear about their deepest, darkest, most impossible desires – I want to hear what makes them different from everyone else. I want to be in someone else’s head. And because I know I think very deeply, I do not enjoy delving into the mind of someone who does not do the same.

2) Strength – this isn’t just physical, although I have no problem reading about a character who is strong. I want to read about a character who, even if scared, will come at a challenge head-on and surge beyond. I want to see a character triumph over adversity, to be forced into the worst and most dangerous situation possible (even if that situation is facing down the school bully in a verbal confrontation) and I want to see the character step up and meet their destiny. I’m not saying they have to do it right away but I cannot stand cowardly characters, I have zero patience for them.

3) Positive outlook – I don’t mean that the character has to be all sunshine and rainbows. Hell, I love reading about angry, depressed, frustrated, traumatized characters. What I mean by this is that they never think “This situation is hopeless, I can never get out of it!” I don’t like lazy heroes – I like imaginative, sly, clever heroes who always find a way around their problem. I like characters who, even if they despair, never really accept defeat. Let the other characters say it’s impossible – let the main character prove them wrong.

4) Wit – mentioned this a couple times and this is definitely a personal preference, but I love witty characters. I love cleverness and intelligence more than brute strength or dumb luck. I like characters who can solve riddles, find secret passages, trick their enemies into confessing to their crimes, and who lie as easily as they smile. On the same thread, I love when characters surprise themselves with their own cleverness. This is part of making a character unique, to me, because I want to read about someone extraordinary. That and I want to laugh.

5) Complexity – combine everything I listed above and I’m in love, male or female. I like my characters the way I like my strawberry shortcake: each layer is different and more delicious than the last, with a few hidden surprises along the way. If the plot is simple, I want a complex character. If the character is simple, I want the relationships to be complex. There must be something in the story to draw me in – most of the time, because I am so character-centered, I want that complexity to originate within the character I follow.

So those are my five must-haves. Got any of your own?