Looking for a few good women

I am very hard on romance heroines.

I don’t know why.

I sometimes wonder if we romance writers as a whole put twice the amount of effort into our heroes as into our heroines. Certainly over the years there have been lots of remarkable heroes created and I’ve read my share of hot, interesting men.

And yet if you ask me if I have a favorite hero, I would stare blankly at you. I don’t. I don’t approach romance that way, I don’t read it for the men. If you were to ask about my favorite heroine, however, I would instantly rattle off Louise Vandermeer from Judith Ivory’s Beast and Princess Melanthe of Monteverde from Laura Kinsale’s For My Lady’s Heart.

Do I read it for the women, then? No, I read romances as I read any other works of fiction, I read for the story, for the journey, for the pleasure of immersion into another world. The importance of the heroine is that they are what often make or break a romance for me.

Perhaps it is because we women as a whole tend to judge other women more harshly than we judge men–I don’t know, I tend to judge men more harshly in real life–there is a lot of concern about making our heroines sympathetic. Nothing wrong with a sympathetic heroine–why would we want to root for the happiness of an unrepentant Wicked Witch of the West? But so often, it feels that the crafting of a heroine stops at inoffensiveness and proceeds no further. Or if it does go further, it is frequently an exercise in drumming up more sympathy, giving her more burdens and more sorrows, taking away her family, her friends, her house, and what little savings she has left. Is it any wonder that there are so many heroines who only have their innocence and their spunk going for them?

If you typical alpha hero is the grilled steak, then your typical spirited, virginal/not-very-experienced heroine is the baked potato. Baked potato is good. It’s a great way to get your carbohydrate and there are lots of ways you can spice up the baked potato: cheese, bacon, sour cream, chives, chili–the choices are practically endless.

But if you are like me and you just don’t like to eat the same thing over and over ad nauseam, whatever that thing is, then there are days, lots and lots of days, when you’ll be screaming, “Not another @@#$ baked potato! And I don’t care if that’s caviar on top of it, it’s still a @#$% baked potato!”

How about polenta, you moan. A loaf of good, crusty French bread, maybe? Some naan and roti? Risotto, oh risotto would be so good. Or briyani. Pasta in its infinite variety. Rice noodles. Buckwheat noodles. Oh, I know, blinis. Blinis, please?

I want some variety. We’ve had so many noble, self-sacrificing heroines that my heart actually flutter a little when I come across a heroine out for her own best advantage. “You go, girl!” I shout.

I want some depth. The characterization of a heroine tend to be a mile wide and an inch deep. She smiles and rainbows arc across the sky. Those mean to her are assured of a nasty end. Her magic hooha cures STD and roving eye with one dip. Such a heroine is wonderful. But when I’m faced with hundreds of such heroines every year, the wonder factor wears thin and the next fresh, lovely paragon to come along will have my shriveled, mottled hands around her throat before she can utter her first feisty, spitfire-ish line.

I want her to have an understanding of reality. Her love should have some limitations–no continual enabling of gambling papa or drunken brother, no endless forbearance of stupid mothers and sisters–they don’t get better with her coddling, they get worse. And she should spare a thought for herself since there is no one else to look after her: if she must sleep with the rake to save the house/the orphans/the farm/the nasty other guy her guardian wants her to marry, then she is to bring a condom with her–and yes, they’ve existed since antiquity–and save her brave, nutty self from the pox.

But above all–and this is the most lacking aspect in romance heroines–I want her to have an understanding of power: not just the power of love and forgiveness, and not the simple physical power to literally kick ass or stake vampires, but power in all its dirty, rotten, wondrous incarnations.

Power of the mind. Nothing psychic or supernatural–just the power of a centered, clear-seeing mind that knows itself.

Power of cleverness. Being the physically weaker of the species, women have had to depend on their wits and adaptability to survive. I could stand to see a lot more cleverness in romance heroines.

Power of sexuality. Innocence is great. But innocence doesn’t last. For all the pages devoted to love scenes–there aren’t enough heroines who really harness the power of their sexuality, not even in erotic romances.

Power of the purse. I’d like to see the rich heroines wield their wealth like a weapon, because it is. And it’s one of the best around.

Power of conviction. Quiet conviction that doesn’t need to be shouted from the mountaintops and the inner strength that comes of it.

And seldom mentioned, maybe because it’s not romantic, but fundamental to any relationship that hopes to last, she should strive for a balance of power between herself and the hero. Because if there is not a decent balance of power, then twenty years later we end up with a relationship that’s ripe for women’s fiction.

Now that is an awfully long list of what I want. I don’t expect to see everything I want in a romance heroine–heck, I can’t even manage half of it in my own heroines. But I think of it less as a list of must-haves than as the menu in a restaurant, wherein a few choice selection of those qualities would be quite enough to make an interesting heroine.

Which is, in the end, all I want. We have so many nice girls and nice women populating romance, but not that many who are interesting in their own right, and precious few I’d consider fascinating. I want more fascinating women in romance, characters as layered and complex and nuanced as a bar of Scharffen Berger dark chocolate or a bottle of Chateau Margaux (and no I haven’t had either, I just like saying those names. :-P)

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to find a few good women.

P.S. This is a reader’s rant.

12 thoughts on “Looking for a few good women

  1. This post is breaking my heart.

    One, because I whole heartedly agree with you. I, too, would like to see qualities such as you describe in a heroine. Why do writers and readers in general shy away from this type of character? I can’t entirely believe, though, that writers aren’t writing this type of character. Are the publishers refusing to buy the stories, or is there some greater collective denial at work?

    Second, I recently completed a manuscript with just such a heroine. In fact, the more I read the post, the more I became simultaneously excited and dismayed, for unless an agent and editor love the character (she starts out as a villainess!), neither you nor anyone else will be exposed to her. One agent has requested the full, so we’ll see.

    (It’s a science fiction romance, btw…and I read online that you were interested in writing in this subgenre (mayhaps that has changed?)).

    At any rate, if I am fortunate enough to get this thing published, I will send you a copy. You may or may not like the story, but I think you will at least appreciate the heroine, who is breaking I don’t know how many rules of the romance genre.

    Thank you, Sherry! I am going to save this post…I hope it is a good omen for me (how narcissistic, eh?).

    Heather M.

  2. You know, the books I love best are not ones with forgettable heroines, basically placeholders with long hair. Although there are some writers–some very famous writers–whose women are essentially nonentities who exist to suffer.

    There are some authors who regularly deliver awesome heroines. Jenny Crusie, for instance. Eloisa James does it pretty regularly, too. And I just read a book by Madeline Hunter last night that delivered in spades. And not to get my nose too brown, but I fell in love with Gigi–that one scene, where she talks about the old duke.

    Try this interesting test: do a Google search for “TSTL heroine” and then “TSTL hero”–with the quote marks. I’m not sure if we women are more aware of TSTL girls, or if authors are more likely to write their women as plot devices, or both.

    But the thing is, although we may allow our heroes more lenience in some areas, I think the steak is just as bland as the potato. I’ve seen very prominent authors say things about writing heroes that makes me very, very sad. Given what some people think about “alpha males”, I wonder if they have ever really spent any time around someone who is a natural leader. Apparently, alpha males don’t think; they possess, blindly, and are capable of only raw, unnuanced emotion when provoked.

    But, oddly enough, the book I’m planning on writing after this one features a heroine who is an unrepentant, amoral wicked witch. Not a villainness. And the whole idea of it just makes me cackle with glee.

  3. For all the pages devoted to love scenes–there aren’t enough heroines who really harness the power of their sexuality, not even in erotic romances.

    This in particular intrigued me. Can you give an example of a heroine who has harnessed the power of her sexuality? I’m curious to get a sense of what exactly you mean; using her sexuality to get what she wants, as her one means of achieving balance between herself and more socially powerful men. What does that harnessing look like and to what purpose?

    Great blog, btw. And I’ve been looking forward to your book coming out ever since I first read about it on your agent’s blog!

  4. I’ve sort of lost faith in romance novels these days. Everyone says they’re “fantasy” but nearly everything the genre seems to condone –if not stand for–is not my fantasy. I’m really sick and tired of character archetypes standing in for characterizations and both the readers, writers and editors treating this genre like a commodity, like an assembly line and just inhaling the books so indiscriminately they just want everything to be easy to read in order to get that “squee!” factor and move on to the next book. Everyone always boasts over the genre’s share of the market, but it’s that share that is strangling its lifeblood.

  5. Heather,

    The very, very best to you. I love me an anti-heroine.

    As for why do writers and readers shy away from this type of character? I don’t know that readers shy away from them–I know I don’t. And unless we have an equal offer of heroines and anti-heroines and receive statistically sound data that the readers are staying away in droves from the anti-heroines, no one would know.

    As for writers, I suspect writers might shy away either out of personal preference–they can’t conceive of such a character being the heroine–or out of expediency–a bland heroine is more acceptable than a flamboyant/harsh/devious/etc heroine. Also, an anti-heroine is more tricky to successfully bring off.

    And publishers, who have to watch their bottom line, cannot be overly faulted for going with what’s already working.

    As for my SF romance, I’m working on it as we speak. Here’s a glimpse of the heroine.

    Thirty-seven Adven-True employees had turned out for his arrival: thirty-three female attendants, three male drivers, and her. Not a single one of those thirty-six people, for all that they thought her an odd duck, had the least idea just how incongruous her presence among them was: the deadliest captain of the Most Loyal Guard, a killing machine if there ever was one.

    The most sex-crazed too, from what he’d heard–quite a distinction to be had among legions of nymphomaniacs.

    Let’s hope I can do her justice.

    Good luck with the full request. May it lead to offer of representation.

    CM,

    I have a knee-jerk reaction against alpha-neanderthals. Give me a thinking man any day.

    And that steak post is somewhere down the road. I’m a fairly placid person, so it takes a bit to get me to rant. But I will rant about cookie-cutter, dumbass heroes one of those days.

    Can’t wait to see how you bring off the wicked witch.

    Robin,

    Although I’m quite intrigued by the concept of a woman using sex as a ladder up, that wasn’t quite what I meant.

    I want a woman who’s comfortable with her sexuality, her attractiveness. We have tons of gorgeous heroines who have no idea of their effect on men and wouldn’t know how to use it if the life of a fluffy bunny depended upon it. This is a particularly romancelandia thing, I’ve rarely come across gorgeous women, or even just reasonably pretty women in real life who don’t have some basic grasp of how they affect the opposite sex. Or how they can use it, whether loudly or subtly.

    For an example of harnessing sexuality, the thing that particularly comes to mind is Laura Kinsale’s Shadowheart. That’s not a book for everyone (mild S&M involved). But the way the heroine commands and vanquishes the hero in bed is quite unique and utterly powerful.

    Angela,

    Chin up. I believe things run in cycles. For a while, there was nothing good on TV. Now I hear there are many intriguing programs.

    I don’t read as many romances as I probably should. But my friend Janine of Dear Author does–she and you probably have some similar tastes. And she tells me that while a few years ago reading in the genre, for her, was really bad, now things are looking up.

    And books are a commodity, at least in physical form they are. I have to accept that. But as in any market, there will be those who care more and who put more effort into putting out a good product.

    I believe the demographics of romance is changing, both in terms of readers and writers. I think the performance of PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS would be closely watched, because it was a relatively big deal for a debut romance, and because it is different in many ways. And if it does well, I sincerely hope that means more unusual, well-crafted romances would be in the pipelines.

  6. oh, cool excerpt! I have a kick-butt female Captain of the Guard in one of my other stories. I love that type of character (obviously!). I am first in line to buy your book!

    I started a discussion at AW based on this post:

    http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=79001

    I agree, to do this type of heroine, it has to be pulled off in just the right way. Layering in enough sympathy and allowing the character to achieve redemption, if applicable, seem to be key. I’m sure there are other keys, such as motivation.

    I wonder if some readers think that a strong female heroine risks emasculating the hero, and that’s why this type of character isn’t cultivated more often. Certainly she can, if the hero isn’t as strongly developed. I guess the “bottomline” issue says it all, which is a shame.

    But I can’t for the life of me understand how someone (well, editors and agents) can get excited enough about a bland heroine to publish a book with one. Unless, of course, it has to do with different people’s definition of “bland.” What’s bland to someone may be fireworks to someone else. Or maybe the hero is so exciting that it takes all the attention away. I’m sure there are many reasons, ranging from social to cultural and financial.

    Heather M.

  7. Heather,

    I think you have something there about bland heroines. I don’t think editors and publishers are necessarily excited about them. But as you said, perhaps the plot is great, the hero to die for, and the sexual tension enough to hold up the Golden Gate Bridge. And a bland heroine was let slide.

    But only think, how much the book could be improved if the heroine was on a par with the rest of the elements. Sigh.

  8. Based on a todays RTB post, that may be why “bland” heroines slide through the cracks. Readers want their romance heroes to be larger than life, to ooze sexuality and brawn while being a kitten at the heroine’s touch. A valid fantasy considering that many, many readers turn to the genre to enter into a fantastical land. e.e

    I admit that I don’t understand the phenomenon of falling in love with the heroes of romance novels. I’m more of a heroine-centric reader and a book only really works for me if I find both the hero and heroine well-developed.

    I’ve just re-read The Indiscretion, a book many people claim is Ivory’s most mainstream as well as being a bit pointless(I guess cuz 3/4th of the book have Sam and Lydia roaming Dartmoor), but I now can better appreciate Lydia as a character than my first read a few years ago. I saw her as a bit of a shrew: shrill and combative and creating conflict where there was no need to be. Now I see her as a woman who was grasping for her own identity and purpose in a social station she’d never before questioned. Which was awesome to me because I’m a sucker for characters struggling with “society vs the individual”.

    What I do find amusing is that while Judith Ivory states that she’s all about the hero, I find her heroines’ journeys a lot more provocative than her heroes’–Marie and Hannah in Dance and Bliss, respectively, had a greater character arc than Sebastien and Nardi–both of whom decided they wanted the heroine unconditionally a lot quicker than they reciprocated the feeling.

    I guess I’m rehashing my initial thought: I read primarily for the heroine’s journey, not the hero–obviously a rarity in this genre.

  9. Angela, great points, all!

    Sherry, you should see if you can re-post this blog entry over at RTB. That would be cool!

    Also, a question for you. Do you prep your agent and editor regarding your desire to write a “good woman” i.e., anti-heroine character? Or is it more the story premise that either one is concerned about? Because what if you conceived of a wonderfully against-the-grain heroine, but neither agent nor editor connected to her?

  10. Boy, Angela,

    That reading slump is deep, isn’t it? Cuz it would be some reading slump that would have me read The Indiscretion again. Beast, on the other hand, is on loan to a friend. And I miss it all the time.

    Anon,

    Is that you again, Heather M? Use other, that would let you type in a name without having a blogger id, I think.

    How do I post anything to RTB?

    As for the prep, before a book is contracted, there has to be a proposal. And it becomes quite clear, even in a 3-page proposal, what kind of characters I’m writing. Editors and agents are free to reject or request serious changes to proposals.

    Kathleen,

    Thanks.

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