Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Kicking the Heroine Addiction

I recently had a note about one of my female leads not engaging in “heroine-like” behavior. It’s a common thing that comes up in Romancelandia, from editors and reviewers alike: Your heroine’s not acting like a heroine, your hero’s not acting like a hero. How much are we, as writers and readers, hamstrung by those words and their meanings? “Heroine.” “Hero.” At the core, they imply courage, nobility, feats that are somehow more than human. And I don’t know about anybody else, but I tend to write about guys that are clueless doofuses and gals who are, at best, a hot mess. They’re not noble, they’re not brave and you’re not supposed to look up to them. You might not even like them. They’re just people. They’re flawed, and it’s strange to have them held up to a higher standard just because they’re trying to navigate the pitfalls of love.

I mean, falling in love, for me, has basically involved crying into a whole lot of frosty beverages in public and generally embarrassing myself. I am not a heroine. In fact, I’m somewhere between a character in a farce and a tragedy. So, I don’t want to write about women in a paint-by-numbers relationship pattern, who can’t step one toe out of line lest they be seen as unworthy of a happily ever after. My female characters drink and smoke and cuss and check out guys (or girls) that aren’t their love interest. And why is that so bad? Why are we still expecting female protagonists in romance to be passive or sexless, to be "good" or "saintly" while standing on a pedestal?

Urban fantasy kind of broke the mold for leading ladies, letting women kick ass, but even in historical and contemporary romance, we're starting to see leads who can't be packaged into a neat little heroine box. Whether it's the awesomely ruthless Justine in Joanna Bourne's The Black Hawk, or Cecilia Grant, Courtney Milan and Julie Anne Long's courtesan heroines, there's a whole lotta "un-heroine-like" behavior going on. Not to mention that we’re looking at an era where the romance publishing industry is changing, with a widening demand for erotic romance and erotica, whose rules are far less rigid than that of traditional HEA-driven romance. Protagonists can spank each other into next week and bring other people into bed without being judged as less than worthy. If a guy or girl does something shady, there are just as many readers who will pick up that book as there are will pass on it. 

What it boils down to is that for every person holding out for a hero(ine), there are five who just want somebody to love.

As part of my Six Weeks of Spice giveaway, one commenter will receive a copy of the aptly titled anthology, Willful Impropriety.


  1. Lovely post. I liked how you pointed out the growing erotica market and how heroines are less expected to be perfect there -- in fact they often ring more true as real women. It's one of the appeals for erotic romance for me.

    I also loved your examples of historical heroines and a lot of my go to authors there.

  2. Jeannie, thank you! I definitely think that historicals are pushing the boundaries now, in terms of class issues, heroine behavior, etc. Your books, Carrie Lofty's Starlight, Meredith Duran's work...you're all changing the expectation, and that's awesome. Because we have to adapt and evolve along with readers who want more out of their romance!

    Erotica is definitely adding to the need for that evolution, and it holds the same appeal for me as it does for you: Characters can fail there and still find happiness.

  3. "Characters can fail there and still find happiness."

    I often see readers commenting on how they didn't like how a character did so and so or that it didn't make sense. On one level, sure, the execution is important and the writer has to make things work. But on another level, readers sometimes don't like hard choices and "wrong" decisions. But love and sex are messy, complicated things! As you said, I recall of crying and acting irrationally in my romantic past. :)

    I appreciate authors who can capture that essence of love just being an awful mess with a lot of bad choices made on both sides, but still worth it at the end.

    I would add Sherry Thomas to the historical list for that feeling. This heroine is a bitch. This hero is acting like a jerk. Everybody is just making it worse cause they're hurting. Yup...been there. Know that feeling. :)

  4. Sherry Thomas! Yes! You read her stories, and it's always like, "Ow. Yeah, that resonates, because I've done that/my friend's been through that."

    "But love and sex are messy, complicated things!"

    Yes, and I do think the key is to make the journey worth it. Obviously there's always going to be that subset of readers that only wants the idyllic path and the noble heroes and heroines, but a disastrous pairing with a hard-won HEA is just as valid!