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And This Heroine Is Just Right

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Heroines in romance have great latitude. They can be rich and very poor. They can be successful and a failiure. They can be pretty, dumpy, funny, dour. They are not all extracted from the same hard body mold like the hero. The heroine’s own agency can provide a source of conflict for the romance. For instance, the wealth of the heroine can prevent the hero from believing he is good enough. A successful heroine can challenge the hero in the same way.  If there is one large difference in male and female protagonists it would be that I think the males can be taken to the extremes whereas the females cannot.

The male characters can be extra large (and in the case of JR Ward’s books so large that there is not enough XXXXs to describe their clothing size); extra strong; extra tough; and extra mean. Those same descriptions can’t be applied to a female in romance.  Instead, descriptions of heroines are often diminutive.  How often do you read of a heroine’s small hands?

From Stephanie Laurens’ Viscount Breckinridge to the Rescue:

With a kiss so unadulteratedly passionate that she gasped, then, small hands clinging, grasping wildly, she rose to him again…

From Robyn Carr’s Whispering Rock:

She touched the scar on his right shoulder, then caressed his chest with her small soft hands.

From Jennifer Cruisie’s Santa Baby:

Eric barely heard her; his rational mind stopped functioning the moment her small hand landed on his arm. She was warm and soft and her scent — that of sweet innocence and spicy sexuality — drifted in to him.

The outsized or outrageous heroine is a rarity.  She can be rich, but not too rich; successful but not too successful; strong but not too strong.

Are the limits those imposed naturally by the genre?  In other words, one has to be stronger than the other and thus it should be the male. (Have we ever read a story in which the heroine was taller than the hero?  In one of my favorite categories, A Lady’s Touch by Jayne Ann Krentz, the heroine is taller if she wears heels.  Also interesting is that small hands is a term you won’t often find in a Jayne Ann Krentz novel).

If a heroine has agency, if she is not in need of a rescue, what can the hero provide? I think that there is some concern amongst readers and authors that if a heroine has agency, there can be no conflict. However, you’d be hard pressed to find a female character who has more agency than Eve Dallas. Roberts successfully pulls off the extraordinary: pairing a dominant female with a dominant male and still striking enough sparks to keep the series pulsing at 28 books and counting. Or perhaps consider Marcelline Noirot and Duke of Clevedon in Loretta Chase’s Silk is for Seduction. More recently, of course, is Meljean Brooks’ Heart of Steel with Yasmeen and Archimedes Fox. Probably one of my favorite scenes from the Heart of Steel is when Archimedes rushes in to save Yasmeen only to find that she’s already dispatched the enemy and Fox saying in frustration that he’d like to save her just once.

Some commenters in last week’s thread suggested that a female’s agency arises from her emotional power. A female with less personal agency can be the equal of the male protagonist by virtue of strong emotional power and through the exertion of emotional power, she exerts or influences change.  Because she’s emotionally strong, she doesn’t overly challenge the masculinity of the hero or his “alpha” status.  (My interpretation, not the commenters)

But part of the problem that we readers may have with women with agency, and not just emotional agency, may come down to two things: Supply and Demand.

Supply:

Successful authors enjoy writing about men more than women. I remember Suzanne Brockmann admitting that she liked her heroes more and it is clearly evidenced in her work. While J.R. Ward hasn’t made the same overt claim, her heroines are distinguished almost solely by the color of the dress that they were to cerimonial events whereas her heros are so fully realized that Ward herself pretends to be them in her message board forums. They are characters that continue beyond the literary space and into the virtual reality of readers (and perhaps the author). Ward is an avid devotee of Brockmann.

Readers don’t help in this matter. It was the practice of forum posters at the old Simon & Schuster message boards for Judith McNaught for posters to claim the heroes calling themselves Mrs. Clayton Westmoreland or Mrs. Ian Thornton.

Other authors, when patterning a successful series, may have looked at Brockmann and Ward and believed that romance readers respond to male dominated series. They do respond to male dominated series, of course, but one of the most successful authors in romance also writes female centric stories and that is Nora Roberts both in her NR incarnation and her J.D. Robb incarnation.

There is also the issue of heroines and agency in historicals. When we have a historical debate, two defenses regularly come up: 1) writer’s write about extraordinary events and people and 2) most women in historicals don’t have agency. Those two statements are diametrically opposed. If writers can write about extraordinary events and people then why aren’t historical women written with agency? If the great majority of women can be those out of the ordinary spitfires, blue stockings, those who hate shopping and would rather sit inside and read all the time, then why not women with agency? If there can be Charming Mickey Rourke how about Charming Minerva Rourke? There are extensive records indicating women were involved in the criminal underbelly in Victorian England.

Demand: My belief is that readers have embraced cross over fiction because those stories are generally more female centric and contains stories about women who have more agency. It is expected in urban fantasy, particularly first person urban fantasy, that the female protagonist be proactive, have power in her own right, and has the ability to exercise choice and influence her own outcomes. Thus readers may demand the more emotional heroine in straight romances while demanding/expecting something completely different outside the traditional romance sphere. When a female protagonist with more emotional agency in urban fantasy or a female protagonist with more physical or political agency than emotional agency in traditional romance is encountered by readers those stories fall flat because of missed expectations.

The truth is that the female role in romance is not so easily categorized as the male role. That allows for quite a bit of freedom but I wonder if we aren’t limiting ourselves as readers, requiring the females to fit into certain categories and within certain boundaries. Thoughts?

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

124 Comments

  1. Jayne
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 04:04:44

    Have we ever read a story in which the heroine was taller than the hero?

    Yes, yes I have! In “Bride of the Rat God” by Barbara Hambly, which I reviewed, the heroine is a good 4 inches taller than her hero.

  2. Jayne
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 04:12:51

    If writers can write about extraordinary events and people then why aren’t historical women written with agency? If the great majority of women can be those out of the ordinary spitfires, blue stockings, those who hate shopping and would rather sit inside and read all the time, then why not women with agency? If there can be Charming Mickey Rourke how about Charming Minerva Rourke?

    I’ve always enjoyed the “Uppity Women” series by Vickie Leon. Sure these women might have been the unusual females of their times but they existed and are proof that historical romance heroines need not sit and wait for the hero to rescue them – literally or figuratively.

  3. Bronte
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 04:48:28

    If writers can write about extraordinary events and people then why aren’t historical women written with agency?

    My answer to this (and maybe I’m displaying my ignorance) is that traditionally women did not have much agency. They were kept within very strict confines, some of which exist even to this day. Interestingly I recently read Marion Chesney’s Diana the Huntress. In this book the heroine dresses up and pretends to be a man because she wants hunt and do the things that she wants to do. The hero is slightly disgusted by this and thinks this is unnatural. To teach the hero the error of his ways the author holds a discussion at the card table between the hero and several other older gentleman where they discuss actual historic women who dressed as men in order to achieve the things they wanted to. I think in historical fiction there is a fine line between being anachronistic by giving freedoms that were not the norm, versus giving the heroine agency.

  4. Rosario
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 05:31:09

    @Bronte: But that’s exactly why Jane says there’s a conflict between those two things! If you are writing about extraordinary people, why not write about one of those extraordinary women who did have agency, even if there were very few of them? As long as you clearly show that this is not the norm (by, say, showing how society is baffled and outraged by the heroine), then historical accuracy shouldn’t be an issue.

  5. Lorenda Christensen
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 05:42:57

    This isn’t a book, but I enjoyed the movie Notting Hill quite a bit, mostly because the typical roles had been reversed somewhat.

  6. RB
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 05:52:21

    “Those same descriptions can’t be applied to a female in romance. Instead, descriptions of heroines are often diminutive.”

    Really? I prefer to read about smaller heroines, and am so sick of the current trend for overweight heroines (who bitch and moan about those horrible blonde beauties from the start of the book all the way through to the finish!).
    Body image issues seem to be all the rage in all subgenres at the moment. It really, really annoys me how no matter how plain, overweight, tall, ugly, frumpy, whatever the heroine is, she always has some hot guy go crazy for her by the end of chapter one. Especially as she usually has a really negative attitude to go with that poor body image, making her an unappealing person to follow through a book.

    I do love heroines like Eve Dallas, but don’t want to see all “strong” heroines written in the urban fantasy mould. The main reason I tend to read that genre very sparingly is that the heroines are frightening! There’re ways to be strong that don’t involve intimidating all the women around them, and punching anybody who looks at them in a way they don’t approve of.

  7. Ros
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 06:12:02

    Loretta Chase’s The Last Hellion is one of my top two favourite of her books, not least because the heroine does have agency. She is a journalist and campaigner and gets annoyed by the hero who gets in the way. She doesn’t need him, but he, as it turns out, really needs her. The loveliest scene in the book is when he presents her with a beautiful writing box and related items, as a way of showing her how much he values her work and loves her for it.

  8. Ros
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 06:58:55

    @RB: Where are the overweight heroines?! Seriously, I’d love to read some if you have titles you can point me to. Especially if there’s one without body image issues. What I often find is that the so-called overweight heroine has a large bust/big hips but still manages a tiny waist and the ubiquitous small hands.

  9. Aly
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 07:09:20

    Great post!

    I’m frequently annoyed at books where the heroine is really weak, airheaded and submissive. Sometimes I’ll actually stop reading the book if the story isn’t interesting enough to overcome the heroine’s annoying personality.

    And I’m sick and tired of small heroines. When I first ventured into romance novels it wasn’t noticeable, but after reading several and detecting the pattern… it’s the most irritating thing ever. Small stature, small hands, small face, small waist… each time they’re mentioned I actually sigh in frustration. And of course, the almighty tough [slutty] hero is big and tall, completely shadowing the puny female.

    Nowadays I actively look for novels with strong female heroines. And the mystical virgin hero.

  10. Brie
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 07:31:24

    @Ros: Exactly! The closer we get to an overweight heroine is with the type of heroines Kristan Higgins writes, statuesque, tall, buxom, etc. They might feel self-conscious about it because when they look in the mirror they see themselves as huge, but they really are gorgeous, which explains why the hot guy falls for her during the first chapter…

  11. Heather Massey
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 07:44:04

    >Are the limits those imposed naturally by the genre?

    I don’t believe so at all. Romance encompasses so many settings, plots, characters, and time periods that there’s tremendous latitude for all kinds of stories. However, there’s the not so insignificant matter of who wants to buy what stories and when they want them. Tastes change; fantasies change. Some fantasies are more popular at certain times than others. I think it can *feel* as though there are limits when actually there are none.

    I’ve been thinking for a long time now about what kind of heroines I enjoy reading about. I want heroines who are equal to heroes in terms of their character development and agency, however those aspects are defined in the story. I want heroines with personalities as compelling as the heroes’. I want heroines who share in the heavy lifting when it comes to saving the day. And whose dialogue pops!

    I’m very much enamored of the idea of a hero and heroine sharing a joint heroic journey, especially in stories featuring an external plot that involves a threat they must overcome together.

    I become frustrated when a romance feels one-sided and is skewed toward placing the hero on a pedestal. Or an extraordinary heroine is overshadowed by an even more extraordinary hero. No matter how awesome he is, I only feel as though I’m getting half of the romance. I enjoy a romance best when both of them are on the pedestal. I want to be as entertained by the heroine as I am by the hero.

    The various subgenres, in part, shape the type of fantasy being delivered. My go-to subgenre is science fiction romance, and that’s the last place I expect to get the fantasy about a hero facilitating a heroine’s sexual awakening as part of the romance. Not that an author couldn’t write that story, but for me I would need to see a pretty compelling reason to do so in that kind of setting.

    Instead, I want the fantasy of feeling empowered by powerful, fascinating heroines whose agencies extend beyond that of the emotional kind. I’d like to read more “female centric” stories as you mentioned, Jane. Give me an outsized, outrageous, or unconventional heroine any day and I’m a happy camper.

  12. mishapley
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 07:52:39

    I’m just so sick of supposedly strong heroines that collapse the moment the hero appears. He can be all kinds of a jerk but once he gets her in bed (no matter how) she forgives him and discovers the joys of working him and his emotions.
    I’m learning to treasure the rare heroine who can fall in love without loosing herself.

  13. Treasure
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 08:02:29

    I’m finding that it’s not just in the m/f romances that we have a very small very young partner to an older/bigger partner. One of the tropes in m/m romance seems to be young/small to big/older, which I find somewhat annoying.

    There are a few romances that shake things up a little. Rida Allen in her Bandmates series has heroines that are taller and larger, woman with curves, tall enough to look into the eyes of their 6′+ heros. Fun quick reads like a handful of chocolate chips at the end of a long work day

  14. Rei
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 08:03:48

    I, for one, would really like to see a muscular heroine. The overwhelming trend is for heroes to be ripped but for women to be lightly muscled if anything and they’re always soft and squishy to the touch because they need to be soft to prove that they’re…womanly…or something.

    @RB – I don’t think a heroine needs to be physically strong to be strong, necessarily, but the fact that she is allowed to have a strong personality, even, *only so far as to not bring her into conflict with the hero*…bugs me.

  15. Deb
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 08:04:58

    Kristan Higgins’ “All I Ever Wanted” features a (sort of) overweight character- she drowned her romantic sorrows in cake batter (Duncan Hines, I believe) 6 months before the book started and has, as she puts it, “a food baby”. I qualify that she was overweight though because it reads as if she has thin legs.

    The ice prince hero doesn’t fall for her until at least one third or possibly halfway into the book.

  16. Keishon
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 08:28:23

    @Ros: Overweight heroines? I can give you one title: A Whole Lot of Love by Justine Davis (and it’s digitized). It’s not perfect but does feature a somewhat overweight female who actually accepts her figure and not stressing out over it if my memory recalls correctly. There aren’t very many of them that are written like we would like or I would like (with some self-confidence) and I hate it when the heroine who is overweight suddenly becomes thin (thinking of a Jude Deveraux title).

  17. Lori
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 08:36:49

    I am completely heroine-centric. The plot can be compelling, the hero can be Adonis but if the heroine doesn’t spark something inside me then I’ll put the book away.

    M. Noirot in Silk is for Seduction is probably the epitome of a heroine with agency. Even in love she was determined that her shop’s success over-rode all. Only her daughter and sisters superceded that. She should have been a harder character but her straight forwardness and honesty kept her sympathetic.

    I don’t know if I’d enjoy a lot of characters like that however.

    I tend to love the Crusie heroines because they have a goal/agency, there are a million complications in the way (oftentimes the hero is one) yet they persevere. Whether it’s whacking the bad guy with a frying pan or making a soft porn movie in an uptight small town, they somehow manage to come through with goal met, self still fully intact and the hero devoted.

    Now that’s a great fantasy!

  18. Keishon
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 08:41:27

    The truth is that the female role in romance is not so easily categorized as the male role. That allows for quite a bit of freedom but I wonder if we aren’t limiting ourselves as readers, requiring the females to fit into certain categories and within certain boundaries. Thoughts?

    The truth is that . . . romance readers through market demand will always have/want the same type of heroine(s). We can discuss how we want different till we are blue in the face but if we truly want different, wouldn’t we have seen that in the offerings out there? I’m for different – always have been – but I don’t always get it and the authors that write it aren’t writing it anymore (and it can be for various reasons for their demise). Fact is, I’m a reader who prefers the male POV and always have been but that doesn’t negate the fact that I like a strong, self-confident female.

  19. Melissa
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 08:42:59

    The heroine in Chasin’ Eight by Lorelei James is taller than the bull rider hero. The issue is dealt with in the story as the hero previously would not date anyone taller than him but he overcomes his own issues related to this and she even wears really tall heels with him.

    Night Play by Sherrilyn Kenyon and Too Much Temptation by Lori Foster are my favorite curvy heroine stories. They don’t spend the whole story calling themselves too big, though the heroine in Night Play is kind of shy about it sometimes.

  20. Ros
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 08:55:41

    @Keishon: Great, thanks.

    Kristan Higgins is a writer who sets my teeth on edge so I won’t check out that rec, but thanks anyway, Deb.

    Melissa, I’ll take a look at those.

  21. Mo
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 08:56:43

    Just a couple comments, though I am sure I will think of more as time goes on. First, compared to the men (um, BDB are good examples), how can a woman not be described as tiny? lol It is annoying if he can span his hands around her waist or something, but otherwise, yeah, she’s pretty small compared to him.

    Second, for women who are not “of the same mold”, I tend to look at paranormals. Kenyon’s Bride Kattalakis is a larger woman, one who is upset about her size, but not overly so. Joie of Feehan’s Dark Descent has agency, rescues the male protag. Lara Adrian’s Breed series has one woman who now has some “ancients” DNA (or something) in her which makes her bigger and stronger.

    I read a historical once (title/author escape me) where the male protag fell in love with a larger woman. To be fair, she lost weight before they got together though. And someone, good heavens, I want to say Johanna Lindsey maybe, has a historical where the female protag erm, forces the male protag and then leads him and the male antagonist on a merry chase. That was a medieval, if I recall correctly, and I admit that while it broke the mold, I wasn’t a fan. For, imo, a good historical that also features both a female protag with agency and who is different, I’d say look no further than Christina Dodd’s Candle in the Window. It is still one of my favs.

    As for the strong male protags in romance, I am willing to stand up and shout, I totally get more into the guys than the girls. Not in a “Mrs. So and so” way, but I often “get” them and their motivations far better than I understand the women’s motivations.

  22. Mo
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 09:02:10

    @Lori (#17): For me, love is about compromise. Imo, saying that her business (an inanimate thing that yes, could be replaced with another business) is above her love is a total non-starter for me.

  23. quill
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 09:06:31

    From now on, every time I pick up and enjoy a book where yet another duke or earl or marquis is the hero, I will think of this post. If we can believe that there were hundreds of wealthy dukes, earls and etc. walking around simultaneously in Regency London why can we not accept one or two’historical women with agency’ as plausible? If we can suspend disbelief on one, why not the other? (And this is if we assume that such women didn’t exist…and we know they did!)

    Until the number of historical women of agency outnumber the dukes and etc…gracing the pages of our romance novels, I probably won’t have a problem.

  24. Ros
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 09:08:09

    @Mo: Tiny? Really? Take a look at the women you see around you. Sure, on average they are a little shorter than the men you see, but tiny? Some will have broad shoulders, some will have big frames, some will work out and have defined muscles, some will have large bottoms and breasts and stomachs, some will have small hands and some will have much larger ones. Most women are not tiny.

  25. Sarah Belliston
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 09:10:22

    @Ros: Girl of Fire and Thorns. It’s YA and fabulous. And the MC’s weight is an issue throughout the book.

  26. Anne
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 09:10:53

    I just read the Iron Duke, and the huge size difference between the two leads was a total turn off to me. When the female’s shoulders are only half the width of the man’s chest and she’s more than a foot shorter— I’m sorry, I feel like I’m practically picturing a grown man and a child and it’s gross.
    Maybe because I was 5’6″ by the time I was 13—-I have never been the tiny girl and hate reading about every heroine and her tiny hands and tiny self. Especially when the hero paired with them is 6 foot plus—why then do the girls need to be barely scraping the 5 foot mark? It annoys me, rather endlessly.

  27. Mo
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 09:11:45

    @Ros, I said, up against men like those in the BDB, how can you not use the word tiny? Because when the guy is 7 foot, built like a tank, even most guys are gonna be pretty small compared to them.

  28. Sarah Belliston
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 09:13:31

    Isn’t it also true (I may be sticking my foot in my mouth because I don’t read romances much) but the majority of readers are women and would therefore be more interested in the male character? The Demand part of things: aren’t all those bare-chested men on the shelf in the grocery store there because women want to fantasize about them?

  29. Darlene Marshall
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 09:23:15

    I look to SF rather than historicals for consistency involving women with agency. Linnea Sinclair’s novels are standouts for that reason, and in Lois McMaster Bujold’s books all the women are strong. Even the ones who have more “feminine” avocations, like Ekaterina, still leave no doubt that they bring a deep core of strength and ability to play.

    And of course Miles Naismith Vorkosigan, the hero of Bujold’s SF series, is shorter than nearly every woman around him.

  30. Ros
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 09:25:52

    @Mo: Okay, I have no idea what BDB stands for, but your comment read to me as though you intended it more broadly with BDB as just one example. Maybe that’s not what you meant. Though even then, I would point out that there are some women who are significantly bigger/taller/stronger/fatter than most men.

  31. Ros
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 09:26:38

    @Sarah Belliston: I don’t read YA, but thanks. Also, my preference is for overweight heroines where the weight isn’t a big issue in the book.

  32. Lil
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 09:27:01

    Isn’t Agency the ability to control your own life? I don’t see that it requires physical prowess or belongs only to “kick-ass” heroines. I rather like the heroines in historicals who figure out how to acomplish this in the face of legal and social restrictions. Loretta Chase is good at this—all her heroines seem to have Agency. Joanna Bourne, Jo Beverley and Jo Goodman as well.(Does being named “Jo” help?)

    Having Agency does not mean never needing help. I don’t think I have suddenly turned into a helpless ninny if I ask my husband to open the pickle jar for me—I can do it, but he can do it faster and easier.

    I might add that the goal of marrying the man of your choice and having children is not one to treat with contempt. A heroine can have that as her ultimate goal and still possess Agency.

  33. chris booklover
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 09:27:59

    Ros: There are quite a few plus sized heroines in romance. See , for example, the listing here:

    http://likesbooks.com/curvy.html

    or in this thread:

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-forum/romance/ref=cm_cd_search_res_ti?ie=UTF8&cdMsgNo=1&cdPage=1&cdSort=oldest&cdThread=TxDYCAVMF41GR2&cdMsgID=Mx1AP7XHXG5WS2Z#Mx1AP7XHXG5WS2Z

    or this one:

    http://www.amazon.com/forum/romance/Tx5OKF85655IF9/1?_encoding=UTF8&cdForum=FxM42D5QN2YZ1D&cdMsgNo=1&ref_=cm_cd_search_res_rm&cdSort=oldest&cdMsgID=Mx2VFBDLFJI9ASB#Mx2VFBDLFJI9ASB

    In fact, heroines are allowed much more freedom in terms of physical imperfections than heroes are. Almost all romance novel heroes are over six feet tall with broad shoulders and six-pack abs. Short, fat or balding heroes are very rare indeed – much rarer than plus sized heroines.

  34. Ros
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 09:28:17

    @Sarah Belliston: I think that is a big factor. Though women also want to identify with the heroine.

  35. Ros
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 09:35:13

    @chris booklover: Ye-es. I’ve seen those lists before and I’m afraid that when they include ‘Size 12 Is Not Fat’ as a book with a plus-sized heroine it doesn’t entirely inspire me with confidence. In particular, I can’t bear books where the heroine loses weight in order to get her happy ending, or books with average sized heroines grumbling about their weight. I’d rather not have anyone grumbling about their weight, but certainly not Bridget Jones’s 9 stone (126 lb) heroine.

  36. Ros
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 09:37:37

    @Ros: Also, I should warn anyone else looking at those and other lists of books with plus-sized heroines – they almost always turn into discussions of body hatred and fat hatred and so on. Not my idea of fun reading.

  37. kara-karina
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 09:48:30

    Jane, most of the books you named are my favorite :) I can not stand a weak heroine. This is an offence to me, personally. That’s why Loretta Chase, Joanna Bourne, Sherry Thomas and Amanda Quick’s female leads always inspire me. I don’t understand the appeal of a woman who waits until the hero saves her and resolves all her problems, there has to be a partnership, a balance. The weight, height, proportions difference is not as annoying in paranormals because guys there have a semi-plausible reasons to be that big. It’s historicals that make me snort when he is huge and she is tiny :)

  38. dick
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 09:48:42

    Maybe it’s just tradition again, or maybe it’s biological, who knows. From a very early age, I think, males and females naturally gravitate to pairs in which the male is taller than the female. Beginning in grade school. those females who can challenge the males in the class at anything–height, weight, ability–are avoided as one half of a pair. We fondly believe that these sorts of situations are invoked by nurture rather than nature, but perhaps not.

  39. Becca
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 09:53:31

    I love this series of posts. I’m beginning to understand why I like the books and authors I do: I love heroines with agency, who are strong in their own right and who sometimes rescue the hero. And I seem to prefer heroine-centric books: Nora Roberts and Jayne Ann Krentz are two of the few authors I still collect in paper. I have a very low tolerance for the “alphole” hero, and really couldn’t get into the BDB books, although I tried. (I don’t like Laurie King, however, because it seems to me she emasculates Holmes in order to show up how clever Marry Russell is.)

  40. Mo
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 09:54:35

    @Ros: Ah, sorry. No, I really did mean that when the male protags are often giants, even an average sized woman is gonna be tiny in comparison. The BDB is the Black Dagger Brotherhood (J.R. Ward) and they are huge. Many, many paranormal or uf guys are described as way over huge. Even some “regular” guys are described as way over huge. And in that context, it doesn’t bother me when they look at a woman’s hand and it is tiny.

  41. Jane
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 09:56:56

    @Mo: That may be true, but if the heroes in PNRs are oversized, why can’t the women be oversized as well? It’s not like biology is a constraint here. All the above examples I quoted were from non PNRs.

    Oh and for the BDB series, this is approximately what all the men look like in comparison to the heroines.

  42. Bettie
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 10:07:38

    There are extensive records indicating women were involved in the criminal underbelly in Victorian England.

    Note to writers of historicals: I would buy this in a heartbeat.

  43. Junne
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 10:14:39

    @Ros: if you think you have to weigh 200 lbs to be a “real” overweight heroine, fine. But do romance readers really want an obese woman as heroine? I, for one, don’t.

  44. Jill Myles
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 10:15:20

    In the YA Romance, Anna and the French Kiss, Anna is several inches taller that St. Clair (the hero). It’s an adorable book.

  45. RRKovar
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 10:16:38

    If writers can write about extraordinary events and people then why aren’t historical women written with agency?

    All the heroines in Joanna Bourne’s books have agency, which is part of why I read them. The gorgeous language and unexpected humor is the main reason, of course. No one can argue that Justine does not have agency, nor that Annique lacks it, even though they are both hamstrung by the time period and societies in which they live.

    Katie MacAlister has a solid, size 18 heroine in The Corset Diaries, and while she is concerned about her size, I think it reflects accurately the issues that many larger women feel, especially when their romantic interest’s ex-girlfriend is thin. The important part is that the hero (who is not super-built but is a decent guy with a normal job) thinks she looks just fine. That is a common desire – not matter what your size – being accepted for who you are, not just how you look. I think outside of historicals, romance heroines do come in various sizes, just not as various as real women do.

  46. Mo
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 10:16:52

    @Jane: In my opinion, the reason that Mary is much smaller than Rhage is that she is human and he is not. If I remember correctly, even Beth is larger, given her mixed ancestry.

  47. Mo
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 10:21:10

    @Jane: Oh, oops! I misread your comment. My bad. No, you are right that when it is 2 humans it can get quite annoying at times. I just read so many PNRs and other non contemporary romances that it really has little impact.

  48. Deb
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 10:26:28

    I’m not overweight or obese, but I have gorgeous, interesting friends who are. Some of them have romantic, sweeping real-life stories, and I would love to see that reflected in commercial romance.

  49. Rosario
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 10:35:10

    @Bettie:

    There are extensive records indicating women were involved in the criminal underbelly in Victorian England.

    Note to writers of historicals: I would buy this in a heartbeat.

    Have you read Heart of Deception, by Taylor Chase? It’s Elizabethan England, not Victorian, but still, you’re in for a treat!

  50. Jane
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 10:39:55

    @Mo I equate small hands with children. The small hand thing doesn’t really resonate with me. Seems kind of creepy. Like a doll is feeling up the male or something.

  51. Suze
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 10:45:42

    @Junne: “But do romance readers really want an obese woman as heroine?”

    Come now. Surely there’s an author who can make the reality of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, wheezing, degenerative joint disease, and intertriginous yeast infections totally sexy.

  52. chris booklover
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 10:46:39

    @Ros: It looks as though we are moving into “no true Scotsman” territory. However concerned we are about body image issues (as I certainly am), it is fairly obvious that weight affects physical attractiveness and that attractiveness matters for both men and women.

    As I pointed out, heroes are even less likely to be overweight or physically unattractive than their heroines. There is a good argument that romance novels should depict more “realistic” – that is, physically imperfect – characters (think of the movie Marty). But if one is looking for a six foot two hero with six pack abs falling madly in love with an overweight heroine who is not at all concerned about her weight, it’s not surprising that there are relatively few examples to be found. I would not expect to come across many novels featuring supermodels paired with short, balding janitors either.

  53. Ros
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 10:47:19

    @Junne: I would like books that are identified as having ‘plus-sized heroines’ to actually have plus-sized heroines. I would like heroines who wear clothes from non-plus-sized ranges and stores not to be identified as plus-sized, even if they do happen to have a bigger bottom than they would like.

    I’m sorry you don’t want to read about romantic heroines who weigh 200lbs but that’s entirely your prerogative. Me, I would like to read romance heroines who are comfortable with their body whatever size it is.

  54. Ros
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 10:48:05

    @chris booklover: Yes, you may be right. Still, a girl can dream.

  55. Mo
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 10:48:51

    @Jane: Oh, I can see how that might be troublesome. I actually have a ridiculously small head and small hands (especially compared to my huge feet!) lol So, maybe that is also why it doesn’t impact me as much. My hands are almost a full knuckle smaller than my husband’s hands. We laugh about it all the time. I wouldn’t call my hands tiny though, just small.

  56. Jane
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 10:50:40

    @Mo Now I feel bad about calling small hands creepy. I’m sure your hands are lovely!

  57. Mo
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 10:56:08

    @Jane: Jane, it’s all good. Please don’t feel bad. I was just trying to say that in physical descriptions, to each their own. In real life, and in reading, the physical attributes of people are something I rarely spend time on. I’m far more interested in the person than in what they look like. I’m actually probably one of the few women who find washboard abs rather unattractive – no offense to the guys out there who have them. Just not my thing.

  58. Lynn S.
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 11:10:56

    Wow, I think I’ll steer clear of the weight issue as that debate looks to be turning ugly fast. I do find it interesting that certain authors put such focus on their heroes, interesting and creative focus, and yet leave their heroines basically unformed. I wonder about the underlying reason for that as it certainly isn’t a lack of descriptive abilities. Do you think maybe women are a mystery even to themselves?

    Personally, I prefer a balanced presentation with less focus on the physical appearance and more on the emotional life and connection between all of the characters. When you love someone you see them first, and the body they are housed in is secondary.

  59. Christine M.
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 11:11:47

    @Junne: I’m sorry but I weight 205 lbs, I’m 5’4″, I’m a size 14-16 and while I’ve ghot a bit of a belly and large thighs, I’m far from obese thank you very much. And my friend who’s 5’2″ and weight 145 lbs is a size 8 for crissake. That’s no overweight either. When I was weighting 137 lbs, I was a size 5-7. Let’s be realistic here. A number of pounds does mean shite. Everybody is shaped differently and a number’s just a number.

  60. Bettie
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 11:14:27

    @Rosario: Haven’t read it. Just looked it up. Thanks!

  61. Mo
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 11:28:33

    @Lynn S.: Other women can certainly sometimes be a mystery to me. On the “fully formed” vs. “unformed” part of your comment, I would like the say that many authors write about their characters “talking” to them. Perhaps, only one of the pair does a lot of “talking” and whoever it is gets more fully formed in the book? I know one author who actually said that until one or both of them (speaking about a character pairing we know is coming up in the series) talk to me… So, in my view, that means only one has to really talk for her to write the book, maybe.

  62. Heather Massey
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 11:35:51

    @Sarah Belliston:

    And here I was thinking that readers were in it for the romance, meaning the couple as a whole vs. a blow-by-blow (ha!) description of a fantasy lover.

    I agree with you that the marketing of romances is frequently hero-centric (and I understand why even if it’s not my preference).

    I hope that ebooks can create more story choices for women readers who are as interested in heroines as they are in heroes.

  63. Jane Lovering
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 11:42:01

    The thing that creeps me out about the male/female size differential (and possibly the whole agency thing) is that it reads (purely to me, you understand) as though the heroine has extreme ‘Daddy’ issues and is looking for a ‘big, stwong hewo’ to fill the gap left by her growing up and away from Daddy. Maybe it’s purely my own prejudices (I had a lovely father, and no desire to replace him in the form of a lover) that makes me feel that some of these heroines come over as just wanting a father they can sleep with.

  64. CK
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 11:47:46

    I have to admit that I’m squicked out by petite, delicate (read: child-like) heroines hooking up with 6’5 bigger-than-life, ubber masculine heroes. It’s not the size difference as much as the description of the heroine that bugs me. I adore Shelly Laurenston’s heroines – big, brash, bold with a side of mad-cow crazy. Even when they are small in stature, they are never described as child-like.

  65. chris booklover
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 11:53:45

    A number of posters have stated that they only enjoy reading about heroines who have agency, (or autonomy, which would be my preferred term). I think that at the end of the story we definitely expect our characters to have autonomy, because happiness is impossible without it. That is part of the reason why heroes and heroines are never poor at the end of the novel. Poverty is, generally speaking, incompatible with autonomy.

    On the other hand, in many of the best romance novels either the heroine or, less frequently, the hero has little or no agency. Candice Proctor’s Night in Eden is one of my two or three favorite romances. Its heroine is transported to Australia after being convicted of murdering her husband. For most of the novel she has no agency, and, in fact, only begins to gain it after and as a result of her marriage to the hero. Yet she is most emphatically neither a doormat nor a simple victim. The novel’s appeal lies in showing how two people who initially have good reason to distrust each other nevertheless come to overcome obstacles and fall in love. The story could not have been written to allow the heroine more agency – Candice Proctor would essentially have had to write a different novel.

    In Proctor’s Whispers of Heaven – also among my favorite romances – neither the hero nor the heroine has much agency (he is a convict in Tasmania; she is a sheltered upper class young woman living under the tyranny of a monstrous mother). The novel is not just about the development of their relationship but also about how they both attain agency – which they do only at the end of the novel. But a novel about its main characters’ journey to agency presupposes that they do NOT have agency for most of the story.

    These are just two examples among many that could be cited. I think, however, that they show how restrictive it would be to reject novels in which the heroine does not have agency (for most of the story). To each her own, as the saying goes. But I for one would never recommend that readers forgo reading some of the most captivating romances ever written.

  66. Lynn S.
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 12:02:43

    @Mo: The problem I have with the “talking to me” reasoning is that authors aren’t writing in their journals, they are writing works of fiction and presenting them for public consumption and I appreciate an understanding and usage of the mechanics involved in constructing a well-rounded novel. Excessive fantasizing/fetishsizing on the part of an author leaves me, as a reader, feeling like I’m alone on the seesaw.

  67. Mo
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 12:17:22

    @Lynn S.: That’s a legitimate argument when a book’s balance is particularly out of whack. I was just offering one possible reason that may happen. :)

  68. Mo
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 12:24:43

    @Jane Lovering: That’s a terrible image in my head. lol But the first thought that popped into my mind was the movie Girl, Interrupted.

  69. RRKovar
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 12:26:33

    Come now. Surely there’s an author who can make the reality of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, wheezing, degenerative joint disease, and intertriginous yeast infections totally sexy.

    Um… I’m over 200 lbs right now, and afflicted with none of those things. I have a great rack and great legs and a bit of a belly. No problem attracting handsome men, either.

    I have friends with diabetes or arthritis who are smoking hot, and my male friend with congenital heart disease is a total babe, so I find the notion that disabilities preclude attractiveness to be offensive.

    Maybe you only meant that you find fat people unappealing, but not everyone does, and a good author can make (and has made) them quite attractive.

  70. Kelly L.
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 12:54:44

    A recent book that had a good hero/heroine balance is Ilona Andrews’ Fate’s Edge, coming out in about a week. Both hero and heroine have agency, snarkiness, mad skillz, and physicality. (The heroine’s exact size is never stated IIRC, but her most oft-remarked features are her red hair, big rack, and shapely bum. I pictured her a bit like Christina Hendricks: not fat, not thin, but medium-sized and curvy.) And there’s a part where they talk specifically about how he’s better at some things than she is, and she’s better at other things than he is, and that’s part of why they are drawn to each other (after a long period of highly amusing bickering).

  71. Maggie
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 13:05:24

    Ditto to Melissa’s comment re: Lorelei James’ Chasin’ Eight. Many moons ago, SBTB did a hilarious review of the 3rd book in the Rough Riders series, particularly about the missing “g”s in the dialogue. While the g’s continue to drop, the series actually embraces non-traditional “romance” relationships. In Chasin’ Eight (see what I mean, now its in the titles!!!), the hero, a bull-rider, is 5’7″ and the heroine is 3 inches taller, a movie star and from a filthy rich hotel-conglomerate-owning family. Talk about her own agency. She could probably buy and sell her own actual agency ;)

    But, particularly interesting is that all of the hero’s family members (and in their own right, heroes of previous and forthcoming books) are very tall, dark and handsome. This hero is super alpha, super handsome, but, well, short.

    But this is not the only interesting James’ heroine. Thought most of the heroes are ranchers (I don’t want to use the word “simple” but there are all those dropped g’s…) the heroines have included a lawyer, numerous business owners, and a recovering drug addict who has a full-sleeve tattoo, piercings galore, and a history with prostitution. She also happens to be my favorite of all the Rough Riders heroines because she is KICK ASS, AND not a Valkyrie ;)

    Obviously, I’m a fan of the series, so take as you will.

  72. Hillary
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 13:17:01

    My hands are smaller than my husband’s, but still often the same size or larger than some men that I know. It often surprises them if I hold them up to compare, because they are pretty and feminine, but still very large. 7 inches from the base of my wrist to the tip of my middle finger. I’m 5’8″.

    I’ve also dated a man who was only as tall as my shoulder when I was in bare feet–that’s almost a whole foot shorter than myself! He wasn’t a dwarf, nor was he petite, he was actually very well proportioned and strong. I may have felt a little awkward the first time or two I kissed him, but not for long! I’ve also dated a man who was 6’5″ and I fit under his chin. It’s all sort of relative, if the person is right and the time is right, it’s all good.

    Back to my size… I’m overweight, but because I’m medium tall, I carry it well and my posture and confidence make a lot of the rest of it go away. I agree that overweight women can and should be romance heroines :) (not that I mind skinny ones, I just know that in real life attraction comes in all sizes).

    What I do find funny sometimes, is that I’m living in South America (in my husband’s hometown), and I am as tall as many of the men (or taller) and I’m huge compared to most of the women (but I rarely feel the height difference because they wear shoes with 4-6 in heels!). It’s very hard to find ready made clothing (without traveling back to the US to buy it), but I can have things tailor made so I get by; and there’s only one shoe store that carries my size, but they make beautiful shoes, so it’s all good. It’s the trouble to shop for my size that makes me feel the most different–there are women here who are as large in the chest or waist as I am, but the style here leans toward skin-tight…I like my clothes to fit and accentuate my shape, but not pull at the buttons when I sit down! :)

    Regarding agency: I have to say that in the year that I’ve been reading Dear Author, and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, I have thought a lot more about agency, and the sort of things that go into what I’m reading…so I’m a much better reader than I was before. Before I just let myself get swept up into the story without thinking about it too hard, and I really appreciate this approach to reading romance :)

  73. Janet W
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 13:26:01

    I’m not as much of an expert as some on the collected works of Betty Neels but her heroines run the gamut and she has many many splendid tall women, some as tall as the splendidly tall Dutch doctors they often marry. Many are plump (and not the fake plump you often read in books) but genuinely a little zaftig. Sometimes when there’s a “demand” for a type of heroine that is not to be found readily, it can be so helpful to check in with readers whose knowledge stretches back further than today.

    Loved the comment about the overabundance of peers. Still and all, presumably if these types of heroines were what we wanted to read more of (not that I’m not finding them, for I can & do), we’d be reading them? Or is that not the case? Do publishers give us what they want to give us rather than what we’d prefer to read?

    p.s. Speaking of Brockmann, I know one of her more recent heroines was both tall and not painfully thin — not sure how I’d describe her, maybe sturdy?

  74. Hillary
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 13:32:51

    I read a book recently, Jill Barnett’s Sentimental Journey, set during the beginning of the US’s involvement in WWII where there was one couple and a triangle…and the heroine of the couple was legally blind, and the heroine in the triangle was 6″ tall and an airplane pilot to boot! I put off reading this book for over a year, and I loved it. I was so surprised by how good it was. (Ok, there was a little bit of trouble that I had with the end, but I suppose it sort of had to happen that way…)

  75. Liz Mc2
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 13:34:03

    I’m surprised so many comments focus on bodies. Is that because we don’t agree on what “agency” means so it’s harder to talk about? (Of course, people don’t seem to agree on what “fat” means, either).

    To me agency means having the ability to act to achieve a goal. Nobody has absolute agency. In fact, a real-life Duke’s choices would be constrained. Most people have some degree, though; even a prisoner can set goals of some kind.

    I’m bothered by discussions of romance (and romance novels themselves) that view power/agency as a zero-sum game, where giving the heroine more diminishes the hero’s supply. I don’t see it working that way in real life. If the heroine doesn’t need the hero to rescue her, that creates MORE conflict, not less. He has to offer her something besides a bigger, stronger body/power/wealth.

    I understand the argument that heroines have emotional power/agency, the power to bring a strong man to his knees, and I’ve enjoyed books that tell that kind of story. But I’m also troubled by this story, partly because it evokes arguments against recognizing women’s rights, like the right to vote: they don’t need it, because their moral/emotional suasion will ensure their husbands vote the right way. Celebrating women’s emotional agency can be a way of denying them the kinds of agency that are really valued in society, the kinds that count. I wish we were further past that state of things than we are.

  76. Keri Ford
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 13:47:03

    The thing that creeps me out about the male/female size differential (and possibly the whole agency thing) is that it reads (purely to me, you understand) as though the heroine has extreme ‘Daddy’ issues :

    :) I’m 5’2. my husband is 5’11. I promise that’s not why we’re together. the man I feel in love with happened to be taller than me. the end.

    as an author I tend to have short heroines/tall heros because my whole life people have been taller than me. I know how to write to that point of view. I do try to force myself outside of that limit of shorter heroines, but when I’m writing it’s natural for me to say she walked into his arms and rested her head on his chest…because that’s where my head falls. I have to remember to go back and make her stronger, taller, ect of what I want. Have them eye-level and make sure she’s not looking up to have conversation.

    this conversation has been fantastic! and I’ve made notes along the way for future heroines.

  77. Mo
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 13:50:45

    @Liz Mc2: I’m not sure that there is “agency that counts” and “agency that doesn’t count”, nor do I see the argument that women can influence the vote so they should not have it. I do agree with you that agency should not be a zero-sum game because, quite frankly, it isn’t. My consistent issue with it has been that I believe fundamentally in compromise in relationships, that some things matter more than others. Sometimes, the love matters more than the agency and sometimes not, and it’s cool no matter which way the story goes. As long as each needs the other in some way, whether it be physically, emotionally, mentally, that is what matters.

    I also take issue, sorry, this hit a personal nerve, that we shouldn’t celebrate a woman’s emotional agency. I’ve made more of a difference in many people’s lives because I am deeply and highly empathetic than I have ever made an impact in people’s lives because of my job. I celebrate my ability to make a difference in people’s lives that way every day and it is a fundamental to who I am. A female protag who has that ability no matter what her station in life is to be celebrated, imo.

    If I misread you, I apologize, but ouch, the way I read that really hit a nerve with me.

  78. Mo
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 13:53:15

    @Keri Ford: :) Me too on the head on chest thing. My husband can rest his chin on my head.

  79. Liz Mc2
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 14:07:29

    @Mo: Well, I’m citing a historical (19th/early 20th century) argument against women getting the vote. And I think there are echoes of that in the “oh, but the heroine has emotional agency so it’s OK” view. Historically, insistence on/celebration of women’s emotional power and influence has often been a rhetorical move intended to limit other kinds of power. “The hand the rocks the cradle rules the world” can mean “no need to let the ladies actually rule the world; they can get all the power they need by being mothers.” Well, no, they couldn’t.

    I didn’t mean that emotional agency is not important. (I think men should have it too). But if ALL a woman has is emotional agency, or if any power she has to act in the world depends on the hero loving and respecting her enough to GIVE her that power, she doesn’t really have power of her own. And that’s a problem. When I say some agency “counts” more than others, what I mean is that political and economic power are more valued in our society than emotional power. And I sure as hell wouldn’t give up my legal rights for all the emotional/moral authority in the world. That’s all I meant, not to denigrate emotional connection.

  80. Cecilia Grant
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 14:20:15

    Ditto to everything Liz Mc2 said. Personally one of the things I love best in romance is when the characters can admire each other for being good at what they do. Not “His devilish smile makes me go weak in the knees” or “Her pure heart is my salvation” (though those have their place), but “Damn, he knows his way around a firearm” or “Yeah! My wife is a kickass Victorian doctor!”

    And someone needs to write that story of Charming Minerva O’Connor. Particularly if her hero is some virgin vicar who makes up his mind to redeem her tarnished soul. I’d read that for sure.

  81. Ros
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 14:25:01

    @chris booklover: I agree that, in general, poverty diminishes agency (and conversely wealth increases it). However, I think it is possible to write a romantic happy ending without wealth provided that the constraints on the hero/heroine’s agency are shown to be overcome in another way. I’m thinking of the ‘forbidden love’ kind of romance, for instance, where the couple can’t be together in their own society but by escaping that – even if it means abandoning wealth – they can have the freedom to be together and build their own life. I love romances where agency is separated from wealth/status in that sort of way.

  82. Mo
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 14:28:03

    @Liz Mc2: Maybe it’s just me, but talk of power in a loving relationship bothers me. Each person has power over the other, yes, but that power is emotional power. My husband and I, well, we both admit that we are wrapped around the other’s little finger. It is something we celebrate. Maybe I just have views on these things that are outside of the “mainstream, modern woman” where it seems that relationships are always fraught with power struggles of some sort, especially fictional relationships.

  83. Ros
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 14:32:05

    @Mo: I think the point of agency is that it’s not just to do with the power dynamics within the relationship, it’s more to do with the power of the heroine in the world. Can the heroine achieve her goals and dreams within society? Can she make her own choices? Is she constrained by lack of money, status, opportunity? Those are the heroines who have agency, no matter how their relationship with the hero plays out.

    A while ago, there was a post on DA about the ‘diminished heroine’. I love to see a heroine whose agency is increased by the romance, but often the opposite is true.

  84. Mo
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 14:42:27

    @Ros: I remember that particular post well, and how hard it was for me to not get frustrated with it. The problem is that for many of the examples in that post, the issue of agency was not just within society but also within the framework of the relationship. A couple, her as a singer and then not singing in public because a lord’s wife wouldn’t, comes to mind. I’ve read other books in that series but not that one.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. To me, none of that matters. Compromise on the things that are of lesser importance for love is never, ever an issue for me.

    And I’d also like to say that if she doesn’t need him on some level, why is she with him? If he doesn’t need her on some level, why is he with her? The idea that she doesn’t need him to rescue her in some fashion and on some level, be it physically or emotionally does not a compelling romance make to me. Same way the other way around. He needs her to rescue him on some level too. Which levels and in which ways make no difference to me. And they both have the ability to rescue each other and that is what makes it magical.

  85. Ros
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 14:46:54

    @Mo: I think there’s a difficult line to draw between the compromise that needs to be made for a relationship to work and the diminished heroine. If, for instance, all the compromises are on the heroine’s side, that’s not a good sign for me. Or if the hero doesn’t recognise the compromises he’s asking the heroine to make.

    And you’re right, they do need to need each other. I suppose what I like to see is that need being at the emotional level rather than, say, financial or political.

  86. Jane
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 14:47:26

    @Mo It’s not that the couple’s don’t need rescuing. The question that I posed and I think the one that LizMc2 is asking is whether emotional savior is the only position for the heroine. How many times do we read about a female who can a) take care of herself financially and b) take care of herself physically even or particularly in paranormal romances? That’s the default position for men in books but it is not the default for women. Why is that? Is it because it is reflective of woman feeling powerless and thus a woman having financial and physical power is something readers can’t identify with? It is because a woman who only needs emotional rescue presents too little of a conflict? Is it because not enough authors are tackling the challenge and making it interesting for readers? I don’t know the answers to this. It could be one or all but the fact that the default position is a) for men and b) for females gives rise to a certain type of inequality that is questionable in literature designed by women for women.

  87. Mo
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 14:58:01

    @Jane: Actually, I think the questions you are asking are answered by one word: Cinderella. There are almost no romances I’ve read that don’t have some Cinderella underpinning to them and believe it or not, even P&P and Jane Eyre (while technically not romances, I guess) seem to go back to that same root. I think at heart and on some fundamental level that maybe authors have not considered even inside themselves, it all goes back to that. And who doesn’t like a good Cinderella story? :)

  88. Mo
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 14:59:34

    @Ros: “I suppose what I like to see is that need being at the emotional level rather than, say, financial or political.”

    Yes! :)

  89. Ros
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 15:02:06

  90. Mo
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 15:03:09

    @Ros: But not a difficult line to be drawn between the compromise that needs to be made for a relationship to work and the diminished hero? It’s a legit question, not a gotcha attempt.

    I think one of the most fundamental things for a man in a relationship is to know that he is her “knight in shining armour”. Very hard to achieve without making her materially better off than she was before, from his point of view. Or saving her from the bad guy. It’s how he feels needed. :)

  91. Evangeline Holland
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 15:05:19

    [W]hy aren’t historical women written with agency?

    Because to write women in historicals with agency/autonomy, you would have to delve beyond researching the dates for the London Season and the proper way to address a Duke.

  92. Kate Pearce
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 15:05:40

    I havent yet read through all the replies, but I wanted to mention a couple of things I have found about writing strong, decisive heroines, especially contemporary ones with flaws. A lot of romance readers don’t like them. They are far more critical of a heroine who acts like a ‘dominant alpha male’ than they are of the hero, and I wonder sometimes whether that idea of agency is at the root of this.
    I also write historical’s, and I do believe there are ways to make your heroine into a strong believable independent character while still observing the mores of the time period.

  93. Mo
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 15:08:46

    I think it might have to do with who you as a reader identify more strongly with – the female protag or the male protag. I have almost always strongly identified with the male protag with only a handful of notable exceptions and none of them are “trad romances”. But, if you identify more strongly with the female protag, I think that agency becomes more of an issue. Food for thought. :)

  94. Ros
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 15:09:09

    @Mo: Well, there could be but I just don’t see the diminished hero appearing in the romances I read whereas I do often see a diminished heroine.

  95. Mo
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 15:12:09

    @Kate Pearce: I think a dominant alpha woman can work, when she is paired with an equally dominant man. She might also work with a true beta man. Or in a dom/sub relationship, except that of course, that puts him back in the driver’s seat. Unfortunately for that second option, I have no interest in beta men. :)

  96. Mo
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 15:14:35

    @Ros: You are right. But then, I don’t see any “diminished heroines” either and I am wondering if that is because of my observation at #93.

  97. Ros
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 15:18:12

    @Mo: Yes, maybe. I always identify with the female protagonist so I’m sure it’s more obvious to me when she is disenfranchised by the romance.

  98. Ridley
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 15:19:39

    I find this article interesting, Jane, because you’ve disliked Meg Maguire’s romances, and those heroines are mold breakers.

    Romance has been pissing me off lately. Maybe it’s me getting burnt out on the genre, but it seems every book I pick up lately has a heroine aiming for a gold medal in the martyr Olympics. Ladies with self-confidence, free will and backbone need not apply. Everyone else’s needs must come first.

    Gag. Me.

    I guess it’s a YMMV thing, but I don’t place a high value on selflessness. Women have been the world’s waitress, maid and nurse for way too long for me to find the theme charming. I want to read about women who can do for themselves and aren’t gonna apologize for putting themselves first. After all, making sacrifices/compromises for a hero isn’t special if the heroine does it for everyone.

    I like heroines who are tall, athletic or tomboyish. I like businesswomen, political activists and shady dealers. I want to read more heroines who have serious hobbies like playing beer league sports, knitting intarsia sweaters or tutoring city kids in math. Just once, I’d like to see a mom yell at her kids. No one has the endless patience of romance novel moms. I’m totally over the shorthand of patience + selflessness = woman who’s earned an HEA.

    I’m puzzled at the body snark in this thread. I don’t see what weight has to do with agency, in either direction. I also don’t understand why people also think it’s okay to insult people based on weight. Other people’s health is none of your damn business.

  99. John
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 15:29:16

    I just finished my first Nora Roberts book last night, The Key of Light, and I think you hit the nail on the head as to why Roberts has gotten so many fans – and why more people should look into the success of her characters.

    Her heroine had agency. I loved it. Her heroine was focused on making HER plans, getting HER life on track, and getting the man HER way. It was so fun and refreshing to watch her be the instigator in the relationship. She sent the hero flowers. She got the hero to cook food. It went beyond this physical liking for both of them. She was also very into her work and her friendship with other women.

    That’s the kind of thing romance needs more of. Less direct, same-old same-old relationships that are dated and unrealistic. Some people respond to and enjoy those ones, but it seems to me that the authors I prefer are ones who put their heroines on top and focus on how they can have agency and not give themselves up in order to get their happily ever after.

  100. Liz Mc2
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 15:38:03

    @Mo: I think we’re kind of talking past each other. I don’t particularly like to think of a romantic relationship as a power struggle either, and I wasn’t arguing for that. Agency isn’t exactly the same as power–or it’s the power to do/be something, not power over another. I actually don’t think my husband has “power over” me or vice versa. And depending on what you mean by “need,” I’m not sure we need each other either. I could survive without him. I’d just prefer not to. We help and support each other. Life is better with each other. And so we choose to be together and act to make that possible. And that’s pretty much my favorite kind of romance to read, too. I enjoy a Cinderella story sometimes, but I’d like to see more variety. It’s clear from the comments here that not all readers want the same thing or read the same way. I think romance is big enough to show us many kinds of romantic fantasies, and many kinds of real life relationships. And I do find that variety, but not as much as I’d like.

    In a lot of romances I read, the hero’s need for the heroine gives her a kind of power over him, but that isn’t really agency. She doesn’t choose it, or act to bring it about. It just happens, because of fate or her hotness or whatever. That’s not a kind of power or agency I, as a reader, find especially interesting.

  101. Mo
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 15:50:50

    @Liz Mc2: :) You’re right. I think we have been talking past each other. These topics are fascinating and I admit I enjoy them very much, even when they frustrate me. lol

  102. Mo
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 16:09:39

    @Ridley: Actually, a lot of those things also come back to Cinderella, or other fairy tales. The “good girl” gets the hero.

    What does YMMV stand for?

    I’ll keep my pleaser personality away from you. :) There are actually real people who have that type of selfless personality and many of them are “pleasers”. In point of fact, it is darn near impossible for a person with that type of personality to not act in that fashion, the need to please is too strong and yes, it creates a mini high. Being a martyr is not cool if you feel like a martyr, but pleasers don’t feel that way. As I often say, it’s hard to take advantage of someone who doesn’t feel taken advantage of. :)

  103. Mo
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 16:13:33

    @Ridley: On a different note, I agree with you on the body snark. Uncalled for. It started out as part of the diminutive female protags and how there are so few plus sized ones and devolved from there. I don’t think it was ever meant to be connected in any way to agency.

  104. Mo
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 16:17:57

    @John: Erm, heroines on top? Boo hiss!! :) To me, a romance is not about how one or the other is “on top”. It’s about moving forward together and meeting both people’s needs. Every time I read something like that, I get a visceral ick feeling.

  105. Ridley
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 16:20:44

    @Mo: I get that some people have the pleaser gene, but romance heroine’s give that a pass and head straight for martyrdom. Pleasers please because it brings them joy. Romance heroines sacrifice for others because it’s the Right Thing to do.

    Also, it’s not a uniquely feminine trait, being a pleaser, yet romance would have you believe it’s the essence of womanhood.

  106. Mo
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 16:24:04

    @Ridley: I think that is a great thing to do, sacrifice when it is the “right thing to do”, very noble. I get the issue with martyrdom though. And no, the pleaser personality is not uniquely feminine nor the essence of womanhood.

    Though that is a good question, and one I have not considered the answer to. What exactly is the essence of womanhood and how do our differing definitions for it impact how we see the dynamics in romance novels?

  107. Ridley
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 16:37:19

    @Mo:

    What exactly is the essence of womanhood

    Being female and over 18.

    how do our differing definitions for it impact how we see the dynamics in romance novels?

    I like a wide variety of heroine types – straight, lesbian, bi, selfish, giving, brash, timid, family-oriented, career-driven, tall, short, thin, curvy, straight-up fat, stylish, awkward, and so on. Consequently, I also enjoy a wide variety of heroes to complement the heroines.

    What I’ve had it with is the endlessly self-sacrificing heroine who lacks an identity of her own and the alpha hero who holds her on a pedestal.

  108. DM
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 17:29:05

    @Evangline Holland

    “[W]hy aren’t historical women written with agency?

    Because to write women in historicals with agency/autonomy, you would have to delve beyond researching the dates for the London Season and the proper way to address a Duke.”

    I agree that the Regency rut we’re in is part of the problem–but so is a lack of storytelling craft skill. Heroines without agency are classic “passive protagonists.” They’re tougher to troubleshoot in romance than in other genres because, to borrow a movie term, romances are “two-handers.” The active hero can obscure the passive heroine. The easiest way to spot the problem is to write two synopses–one for the hero, and one for the heroine. If he is always doing, and she is always being done to, you’ve cheated yourself and your reader out of half the potential drama and conflict.

    And I just don’t buy the whole “readers prefer their heroines passive” business. Which heroines with agency are these mythic creatures we all dislike? Examples?

  109. Moriah Jovan
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 18:24:18

    @Ridley: There are days I just adore you.

  110. Jane
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 18:34:28

    @Ridley Um, surprise?

    I’ve only read one book (or is it two) of “Meg Maguire” and both of them featured heroines with absolutely no agency. A heroine who is forced to pose nude for someone else’s gratification so that her nude form will be immortalized in stone and available for his wankage? Or the heroine was literally saved by the hero, fed, clothed, and given money so she could survive?

  111. Merrian
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 18:49:11

    @Bettie:

    In Australia two rival women ran the brothels and crime scene in Sydney in the ’20s and ’30′s. There has just been a TV series ‘Underbelly: razor’ (cut-throat razors were a weapon of choice). Worth wtaching for the costumes alone. The website has lots of little making of snippets which give you some of the history they based the story on. http://channelnine.ninemsn.com.au/underbelly/

  112. Merrian
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 19:07:10

    @Liz Mc2: I really agree with your comments and concerns but at the same time though It feels that the agency expressed through the physicality of the UF heroine is reductive. It is as if agency for a heroine can only be found in being like an alpha male and action can only be taken through the body not the mind. I find this diminishes different ways of being male as well.

    I have a pet peeve which is prevalent in many PNR books – the heroine is called ‘little one’ (Diane Feehan comes to mind) by the hero. It isn’t her physical smallness that is the issue for me it is the implied littleness of her scope for action. If she is always the little one then she is always dependent.

  113. Ridley
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 20:13:58

    @Jane: Huh. I guess you have a point on The Reluctant Nude, though I liked that the book played it as a dumb bargain, even if she was the last to figure it out, instead of making it an example of her inner goodness.

    I felt differently about Trespass as well. They helped each other, I thought. She never felt at his mercy. He offered her an opportunity after she drugged his dogs and robbed him and she took it. He didn’t want to let the pretty lady go and she didn’t want to go to prison.

    When I think of “lacks agency” I think of Bethany in Phantom Waltz, where the hero gets her brother’s permission to date her and later to sleep with her, but never bothers to worry about her thoughts on the matter. I equate a lack of agency with being plankton – going along with wherever the plot and hero takes them. If a heroine asserts her will or individuality, she’s not agency-less, even if she’s in a difficult situation.

  114. John
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 21:30:47

    @Mo: When I was referring to “on top”, I should have clarified what I meant by that statement.

    As to the preference of tops/bottoms in sexual relationships in romance, I like variety in all of those and do think more women topping would be useful in the genre (and indeed, Key of Light does feature the heroine being the top and instigator with the first moment of sex.) However, I was referring more towards the focus of characterization.

    A big portion of Jane’s article relates to the definition of the romance heroine. The romance hero is defined because a lot of very successful authors in the industry have shown that women like a highly defined and complex hero (JR Ward and the like do this to the extreme, and they sell books like hotcakes.) What I like about Nora Roberts and the book I recently read was the woman was on top.

    Meaning in this case that the heroine was what mattered. The hero was characterized excellently – don’t get me wrong – but Nora makes it clear to the reader that it is the woman’s story. That this character is a fully-fleshed individual who has her own agency – her own goals – that are aided by the hero but not overpowered. The problem we’re seeing is that authors seem to refuse to let their heroines shine as potentially devastating and complex characters in order to exemplify the hero.

  115. JMM
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 23:33:03

    “I guess it’s a YMMV thing, but I don’t place a high value on selflessness.”

    A big thumbs up to this. Some heroines like to tie THEMSELVES to the railroad tracks!

  116. willaful
    Nov 23, 2011 @ 00:40:44

    @Mo: I would say Jane Eyre is the opposite of a Cinderella story, if anything. Jane refuses to be Cinderella (or the begger-maid) and the lovers are reunited — through her efforts, not his, she is the one rushing to his rescue — only when they’ve become equals.

  117. Junne
    Nov 23, 2011 @ 03:14:20

    @Ridley: I agree about Phantom Waltz, but then, a LOT of Catherine Anderson’s books feature very offensive themes: there’s almost always a physically or emotionnally disabled heroine ( blind, or brain damaged, or rape victim etc.) who is literally treated like an object and has no free will. Everybody ( and I mean by that her family, the hero, her neighbours, friends- so pretty much anyone but her) knows what’s better for her and decides what’s good for her because she’s, you know, too weak to make her mind.

  118. Kaetrin
    Nov 23, 2011 @ 05:14:36

    @Mo: I’m not exactly sure what the “essence of womanhood” is but I think you’ll find it shelved next to “the scent that is somehow uniquely, him.” :)

  119. Mo
    Nov 23, 2011 @ 08:16:34

    @willaful: They re-unite because she chooses to, but he spends ages trying to find her. He just couldn’t. You are right that it is not a “perfect” Cinderella story, but I see that more as a function of the morality tale in it than because of anything else. I do not see it as the opposite though, perhaps because for me Cinderella is more of a rags to riches tale and a good girl gets rewarded tale than a rescue story.

  120. Mo
    Nov 23, 2011 @ 08:29:04

    @John: I’m sorry if my comment led you to think I was referring to erm positions. I understood what you meant. I find that when people talk about this as a power thing – on top, etc, that it has a tendency to come from a “men have been in control for so long, it is time to tear them down” thing and I have a visceral negative reaction to that. I strive for balance. You clarified that there was balance in the story between the protags but this was the woman’s story. OK – that sounds fine to me. :) Thanks!

    However, you are right that in the genre there are many books that are the man’s book. Heck, all I have to do is look at the titles sometimes to know that, or see that it is a “band of brothers” series. There are strong sisters series too. While, I hesitate to recommend Feehan’s Drake Sisters series (even I had issues with some of those guys), her follow on Sisters of the Heart series features some interesting female protags who are the focus of the books and strong. The first one surprised me. However, they are also PNR so that may be an issue for some.

  121. Mo
    Nov 23, 2011 @ 08:39:13

    @Merrian: I agree with your first comment. On Feehan’s Dark series (I’ve read them all), yes, most of the woman are wholly dependent on their Carpathian mates. Because it’s PNR, I give it a pass. Worldbuilding can go either way or in the middle, but I accept that it is a different “world”. There are exceptions to every rule though, even in her series. Joie saves her dork of a Carpathian mate, not once but twice in their novella. Three of the women are born and bred fighters and their guys might worry about it, but they would never stop them from fighting. So, they deal with their hang ups. Granted, 2 of those 3 are in much later books so you do have to get through all the others.

    I guess in PNR I am more open to a wider range of relationships because I recognize it as “this is not reality” and accept things that I would not be ok with in a contemporary since I have already suspended my disbelief. :) I also tend to read far, far more PNR than any other sub genre.

  122. Mo
    Nov 23, 2011 @ 08:39:48

    @Kaetrin: Love it! I do believe you are right. :)

  123. lijakaca
    Nov 23, 2011 @ 10:09:52

    Both this post and the hero’s agency post have been really interesting to read, and finally I have something worth saying!

    This issue is a big one for me in romance; I really don’t like stories where I feel the heroine has no agency.
    One of the reasons I love Joan Smith (OOP trad Regency author) is that her heroines always feel like they have agency, even when they’re constrained by society. They don’t have exceptional talents and stay within polite bounds of behaviour (usually), but they are confident and pretty much the opposite of martyrs. At various points (NOT throughout the whole book), they can be jealous, selfish, and petty, but they’re self-aware enough to recognize it and they feel human to me because of it.

    I suspect that this type of heroine is unpopular with most romance readers, though, because most heroines are definitely more self-sacrificing/undemanding than that. I’m always happy to find an author that writes heroines like this without going over the top – I’m not fond of jerks either as heros or heroines.

    Also, I enjoy heroines who have their own business or hobby that they remain involved in after the HEA. But it does seem like many readers are turned off by women who have things outside the romance that they consider equally important – unless it’s ‘accepted’ things like kids (perhaps only if it’s kids).

    On the size thing, even though I’m technically petite (5’2″), I still get annoyed sometimes by endless descriptions of how tiny the heroine is, how she’s light as a feather, blah blah blah. I mean, I’ve been in relationships with guys a foot taller than me and I’m pretty sure he still couldn’t carry me around that easily. Paranormal is different because they are superhumanly strong, but I’d love to read stories where the paranormal heroine is just as big (I was disappointed when I found out the Valkyries in Kresley Cole’s series were petite).

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