How Heroines Are Like Cheerios. Really.

A journalist friend of mine recently interviewed a professional matchmaker. The matchmaker told my friend that everyone should have a personal brand. Your personal brand, just like your professional brand, helps you convey to the rest of the world who you are. It’s a few words or phrases that explain why you’d be the perfect person to invite to that upcoming dinner party. Ideally, you drop these words and phrases into casual conversation, as in, “Oh, yes! People often tell me I’m vivacious!”

Since my friend told me about personal branding, I’ve done a lot of thinking about my personal brand, though I’ve drawn no irreversible conclusions. I like the word “expansive,” which I chose after I discarded “prone to saying inappropriately sexual things in conversation with the well-groomed mommies at the third-grade French luncheon.” I’m pretty sure “recovering from a lifelong desire to be the valedictorian of everything, including physical therapy and house staging” is not going to cause the invitations to fly my way. And I just don’t know how to capture in a word or two the fact that I successfully keep my bossy streak at bay most of the time.

I’ve also been thinking about whether the idea of personal branding could be useful in developing characters, and I think it can. Characters, unlike real people, are supposed to be larger than life—they are, more or less, their brands. Sure, a really good single-title heroine has to be multi-dimensional, but there are still going to be certain aspects of her character that define who she is and make her memorable. More so, even, than the real people we know. So I think it’s worth taking a few extra minutes during the planning stages of any story to ask ourselves whether we’ve created a character with a memorable brand (Sally in When Harry Met Sally comes to mind here, and I don’t just mean the famous diner scene. Her high-maintenance personality is as unforgettable as the golden arches, brand-wise).

I’ve been realizing lately that even though my characters are multi-dimensional, they’re not as memorable as I want them to be. In the grocery store, wall-of-cereal world of romance characters, you want your heroine to be the Cheerios.

Lest you think I’m just slinging it now (“capable of turning a passing thought into a week’s worth of rumination, blog entries and DM conversations”), I believe the Cheerios brand is actually a good example of what it takes to make a good romance heroine. Cheerios is a physical standout—both the distinctive shape of the cereal and the bright yellow box. Cheerios is a feeling—childhood and toddlers and safety and nurture. And Cheerios is a solid experience—a reasonably healthy and pretty decent-tasting breakfast cereal. Those are the three levels on which romance heroines (and heroes) need to emerge strongly, too. They need to stand out physically among a whole throng of generic hotties (there’s a GREAT hero description at the beginning of Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Match Me If You Can, which I’m reading now—he’s hot and manly, but not perfect, and his imperfections make him real). They need to engage our emotions by being the kind of people we want to be—brave, passionate, ambitious, caring, devoted, loyal. And they need to deliver on what they promise by being real, too—stubborn, stupid, prone to leaping to conclusions, fearful of commitment, desperate for connection, or easily riled. And quirky. Prone to outbursts of too-rapid talking. Devotees of vintage clothing. Insomniacs, (low-level) hoarders, extreme sports enthusiasts.

Most of all, we need to convey all that about our heroes and heroines without ever using any of those words. By showing them in action. By spreading their quirks over the pages, by letting them act hot-headed or tyrannical and then thoughtful and democratic. You know, because you wouldn’t buy Cheerios if it came in a brown paper bag that said, “Nurturing, healthy, safe food for toddlers.”

Or invite someone to your dinner party after she casually dropped in conversation, “Oh, yes! People often tell me I’m vivacious!”

What do you think about the idea of personal branding? Any thoughts on what your brand would be?