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.