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Beauty and the Heroine

Kitty Galore

Kitty Galore

I tend to read for three things: a visceral response, a delightful and interesting use of language, and character. While genre fiction often relies on plot rather than prose to compel the reader forward, I firmly believe that the best plots are rooted in character. Even if the plot of the novel is a quest or a spy thriller what will give the plot depth and purpose is the development of the characters through the plot and the plot through the characters. That is, the plot should arise not only out of the situations that it creates but out of the characters’ reactions to those situations.

Romance is an interesting genre in light of this particular view of plot and character because it actually does rely on both external events (plot) as well as internal events (character arc). One of the problems I have had recently when I read romance is that I have felt that there is a dearth of good characterization when it comes to heroines. It often seems to me that the heroine’s character gets swallowed by the hero’s, her primary plot purpose being a fixed virtue to his angst. Part of the reason I feel this way is because I think that too often authors rely on the physical beauty of the heroine to be her main virtue, or for her physical beauty to be the external manifestation of her worthiness as a heroine. That is, whether the heroine is plain or pretty, beautiful or stunning, her appeal is reduced down to a purely physical one. Oh, that isn’t to say that there aren’t passages that exist telling us of how different she is from other women, how witty she is, how kind or whatever it is. But those passages just tell us, they don’t show us. And what is shown is not convincing enough to answer that most unanswerable of questions: what causes love?

This is problematic because romance is a plot based genre. It always has been. Events must occur. Adventure happens.  It is a drama in the sense that it is performs or acts out through the characters things that in literary fiction happen on a psychological level. Actions are really kind of the essence of adventure, and adventure—the sudden embarkation upon a different kind of life—is kind of the essence of romance. So, the characters, like the characters in a play are revealed through their dialogue and their interactions with each other, with the events that occur and their interactions with those events.

But beauty as the defining characteristic of a female character, makes her not an actor in an adventure but the acted upon.

Maybe it’s just my sense of things and not really a fact, but it does seem as if the majority of conversations about romance tend to revolve around the hero. Which makes sense in same way that people are more interested in Satan’s character in Paradise Lost than in anyone else’s or why Iago is more interesting than Othello, and Edmund is more interesting than Edgar. Heroes often skirt villainy just enough that it makes ‘em interesting to think about. Oh, certainly it may not make them likeable but it makes them talked about. Because regardless of how hot a hero is, the ones that work the best are more than their beauty.

But I don’t believe that the same holds true for heroines. I think that they are confined by a need we have for female characters to be likable. Not even place-holders, just likable. But likable, isn’t always interesting. Nor does it allow for the development of a character arc. The character arc of the average romance novel heroine, whether historical or contemporary, is as follows: good girl, underappreciated, maybe even beautiful, gets the man she deserves. Her beauty proves to us, the readers, that she deserves the hero. But I don’t want to read a story about people who deserve to be loved, because that’s not really how love works. Love loves the undeserving. Plenty of people out there are loved and they do not deserve to be. And plenty of people who deserve to be loved, aren’t. But mostly, people, even fictional characters, deserve and don’t deserve love in about equal measure.

So, I think that the heroine’s beauty becomes like a shorthand for the relationship. We don’t get see the nuances of the hero falling in love with the heroine or vice versa. Instead, we get descriptions of her body, as if her body alone and the beauty that is attached to it explains why this time the hero falls. As if the reason that the hero hitherto has not fallen in love is that he hasn’t met the right combination of virtue and beauty.

Remember the show on TLC, A Wedding Story? It was on in the afternoon and my sisters and I were kind of obsessed with it. The show ran a half an hour and followed a bride and groom through the day before the wedding preparations, the rehearsal dinner, and the wedding. At the very beginning of the program, the bride and groom would tell how they met and how he proposed to her. At some point during this interview they must have been asked by a producer why they loved the other or why the other was the one or something like that because in every episode the bride and groom would wax poetic about what made the other one so damn special. The hilarious part about this was that they all said the same damn thing. “Oh, she’s so pretty, and wise, and sweet.” “Oh, he’s so funny and handsome and makes my life complete.” But those explanations really explain nothing. Because if all these people have the same qualities, then why are they not in love and getting married to just anyone?

So when I read on the back of the book that Devilish Marquis of Earl never thought love existed until he encountered the stunningly, beautiful Lady What-have-you, I get frustrated. Oh, I know it’s just copy. But I have read and read and read romances and there’s something about that line of thought that isn’t just copy and persistently makes an appearance in novels. Stunningly beautiful isn’t good enough for me anymore. In fact, it is the opposite of good. I want the opposite of good.

Wouldn’t it be more interesting to read a romance if the heroine wasn’t beautiful or good? What if we had a heroine who was neither pretty nor likable and still got the guy? I mean, plenty of heroes get what they don’t deserve. Why do we need heroines to be beautiful in order to understand that they are lovable?

So I’m looking for heroines who aren’t beautiful. Who have no beauty. Who are rotten on the inside and scarred on the outside. I want no virtuous women—and I don’t mean virtue in the sense of sexual experience. I mean, there are a lot of hookers with a heart of gold out there.  No. I want someone who might actually be kind of unlikeable, maybe even hateable. I want someone with one leg and an eye-patch and a terrible case of acne. I want them fat, not just pleasantly plump. I want them sarcastic and selfish, instead of sweet and self-sacrificing. I want them dark and devilish. I want them, in short, to be more human, more flawed and just plain uglier than they are.

So where, oh where, are my ugly heroines?

Lazaraspaste

Lazaraspaste came to the romance genre at the belated age of twenty-six. While she prefers historicals, she's really up for anything . . . much like her view of food! Some of her favorite authors include Jo Beverley, Anne Stuart, Lisa Kleypas and Joan Smith. Once a YA librarian, she is now working towards an advanced degree in literature with the mad idea of becoming a critic and teacher. Though she loves romance, fantasy has always been her first love. She hates never-ending series and believes the ending is the most important part.

49 Comments

  1. Nadia Lee
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 04:30:53

    I think Bettie Sharpe’s CAT’S TALE has a beautiful but virtue-less heroine, who has no qualm about lying, etc. to get what she wants.

  2. sarah mayberry
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 05:19:40

    I am doing a panel with fellow writers Marion Lennox, Anne Gracie, Kelly Hunter and Mills and Boon editor Lucy Gilmour called “It isn’t all about the Hero: The care and feeding of the relatable heroine” at the upcoming Romance Writers of Australia conference, so this is a subject I have been pondering a lot lately. I always try to write “real” characters – they certainly feel very real to me when I’m writing them, anyway – but I share your frustration that a woman’s chief and most valuable quality appears to be her physical beauty – in many, many spheres, not just romance novels. If you look at almost every single romantic comedy movie ever made (with a few exceptions) usually the only reason the hero is interested in/falls in love with the heroine is because she is beautiful. Sometimes she’s an utter biatch, in fact – and not in an interesting, sassy way, but more in a “make the hero jump through flaming hoops and provide some doubt about the HEA kind of way.” It doesn’t come out of character, not for a second. It drives me nuts. I often turn to my man at the end of one of these and say “why does he like her? I get why she likes him, because he’s had to grow and learn and change, but why does HE like HER? Apart from the fact that she has a killer rack?” My man (who is also a writer) talks about most heroes in romantic comedies needing to “grow up” and become responsible men, and I wonder if this isn’t often the dynamic in romance, too – the rake needs to grow up, the playboy needs to put away childish things, etc,etc. But what journeys do we take our heroine’s on? I think it’s much harder to articulate the “typical” heroine’s journey because, in a lot of romance novels, she is often very reactive to the hero, as you said. She is more of a “taming influence”, if you will, to affect his transformation. You asked for a recommend for an “ugly” heroine – I think Sherry Thomas’s Private Arrangements features a fabulous heroine – manipulative, determined, a little selfish and ruthless. Anna Campbell’s My Reckless Surrender features a mercenary heroine who holds to her goal very close to the end of the book, something I found very refreshing and challenging. Neither of these woman are ugly on the outside, but they are women with goals and journeys of their own and some people would find their actions ugly. The only plain heroine who springs to mind is Jane in Rachel Gibson’s See Jane Score – the hero describes her unflatteringly several times. Although he notices her enough to notice all those things about her, if you know what I mean.

  3. Jill Q.
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 05:39:45

    I will definitely keep a eye on this thread, I can’t think of any good examples, but I love a “difficult” heroine. I believe All About Romance used to have a list, but I don’t know how up to date it is.

  4. Laura Vivanco
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 05:54:29

    As if the reason that the hero hitherto has not fallen in love is that he hasn’t met the right combination of virtue and beauty.

    In other words, her Glittery HooHa is a perfect fit for his Mighty Wang and her Prism is just the right one to provide focus for his Phallus?

    But likable, isn’t always interesting. Nor does it allow for the development of a character arc. The character arc of the average romance novel heroine, whether historical or contemporary, is as follows: good girl, underappreciated, maybe even beautiful, gets the man she deserves.

    I think likeable can be interesting, even without a great deal of character arc. Anne Elliot and Elinor Dashwood are good examples of that, and neither is particularly beautiful.

  5. Jamie
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 06:31:58

    Yes, yes, and yes! Why can’t heroines be as flawed as heroes?

    I think in general, we like and forgive more about heroes because we want someone to fall in love with. It’s hare-wired in us to want to save him from himself, so he gets a lot of wiggle room. For our heroines, though, we aren’t looking for someone to love. We’re looking for someone we want to be or for someone we’d want to hang out with. Or at least someone to cheer for. As women, we’re tougher on our own sex than we are on the opposite sex, so that heroine has to appeal to us a whole lot faster than the hero. And maybe it has something to do with self-image. Don’t we all want to be beautiful and virtuous and worthy of love? How often do we cut ourselves enough slack to embrace that we are?

  6. Mary Anne Graham
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 07:01:40

    I get your point about needing to do more to make the heroine a real character than describe her looks. I try to do this in my books but I generally have to make an effort. I think that is because I love writing heroes who remind me of the jerky football quarterback or hometown lothario I grew up with. In books, I can make the Regency rogue like those guys in the beginning. And then I can change them into the men I wish they’d become.

    My heroes fall so insanely in love that they become downright batty about the heroine. That’s because it’s what I’d like to see more of in real life.

    But heroines do get neglected altogether too much.I try not to do that and to make the heroine as “real” as the hero. Still, I’d never make the heroine’s personality “ugly.” I think that particularly in romances readers need to like the leads so that they can root for them.

    I know women that I dislike in real life but I don’t want to spend 200-300 pages reading about them.

  7. Leigh
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 07:13:51

    While the heroine in this book is very beautiful, she has a lot of personal growth. The opening scene where she is in court for a DUI definitely got my attention.
    The Husband Lesson Together Again Jeanie London Harlequin

  8. joanne
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 07:22:49

    There’s a great deal of difference between a character, male or female, who is not ‘conventionally’ attractive from one that is “sarcastic and selfish’. The former can draw me into a story, the latter will get voted off my reading island very quickly if the author doesn’t show me early on the why of their behavior.

    I’m not the least bit interested in reading about a hero or heroine that doesn’t deserve to be loved. There’s enough of that in the media reports every day.

    A main character has to be likeable in order for me to continue reading. They DON’T have to be beautiful or even nice but they DO have to be relatable. I don’t have to like their behavior in order to enjoy their HEA but I do have to be able to understand the reasoning behind their behavior.

    Perhaps you know “someone with one leg and an eye-patch and a terrible case of acne” but I doubt very much that I could relate to a character with that many problems.

    Maybe it’s just semantics. I think writers spend way too many words describing the physical appearance of the protagonists and not nearly enough with their background and thought processes.

  9. HelenB
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 07:34:18

    Try for determined and strong minded rather than selfish, it sounds better also let the woman have a mind of her own after she has met the hero not just desolving into a puddle of mush and giving up her life to fit in with his- which seems to me a popular theme. One I really and truely hate!

  10. Lynne Connolly
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 08:01:56

    You might look for the upcoming Ellora’s Cave series “Skin Deep.” A group of us got together to show that plastic surgery wasn’t all bad. And no, we’re not talking about fake breasts and the like.
    We were tired of the “other woman” being the one who has had the work done, as if wanting to look better was a crime. And aware of the need for it, and what it means to some people, that a change on the outside might not be reflected inside. I don’t want to spoil the series before the initial announcements, but we’re not working with the average heroine here.
    And yes, it is a bit of a plug, but only because it fits so well into what you’re saying here.
    One of the main requirements of the series was that the surgery mustn’t affect the way the hero feels about the heroine, ie an exaggerated “but you’re beautiful, Miss Smith!” reaction.

    I do disagree, however, that the romance is plot driven. I think it’s all about the characters, and their reactions to situations. Something has to move the story along, but in the best romances it comes from the outside.

  11. Chelsea
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 08:32:10

    I agree with you on some points, less on others. I could go one forever on this topic, but here are my shorthand thoughts on heroines and beauty.

    1) Nine times out of ten, she has to be pretty. She can have a flaw or two, be a little overweight or a bit too tall or have a larger than average nose. And certainly, she rarely views herself as pretty, because vanity isn’t an attractive trait as a heroine. But the hero thinks she’s gorgeous right off the bat, which is what signals to the reader that she’s his one true love. He doesn’t notice or doesn’t care about the flaws, because readers wouldn’t like it if he did, because–

    2) The perception is that readers want to be able to place themselves in the heroine’s shoes, or at least be able to relate to her. So not only is she hot as possible to the hero, but she’s something of a blank slate personality wise. Give her too outrageous of a personality and some of your readers are bound to dislike her. So you keep her understated.

    3) IMO, romance is (or should be) character driven. But often the hero is in the driver’s seat. This is unfortunate and unnecessary but I’ve seen it time and time again. The focus lately has been on what the hero feels, what he’s doing, whether or not he’s going to stay. Once he comes to terms with the relationship (using her physical and personal beauty as his emotional compass) she pretty much falls in line.

    Of course their are exceptions to all of this, there are heroines with loads of personality. But every one that I can think of, when I check the reviews, many people make the comment “I really did not care for the heroine…” And you don’t see comments like that about heroes as often, whatever their personality flaws might be.

  12. Isabel C.
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 08:39:43

    What Joanne and Mary Anne said: I know plenty of people with whom I wouldn’t want to pass five minutes at a party…but if I wouldn’t want to pass five minutes with them at a party, why on Earth would I want to read about them for an entire book? People clearly do–Thomas Covenant, Catherine and Heathcliff, etc–and that’s cool, but that doesn’t interest me.

    As far as physical beauty goes…hm. There are different standards, and what does it for one person isn’t what does it for another, and it would be great if more novels recognized that. On the other hand, finding the other person attractive seems like a pretty necessary step in most sexual relationships: I don’t care how nice a guy is, if I don’t look at him and go “damn,” I’m not dating him. And I don’t want a guy to date me if my looks don’t get his motor running.

    Now, I do like heroines who are ruthless, who have their own goals, and so on–and I myself am not interested in jerk-ish heroes, so it balances out somewhat. There’s a line, granted: break a few laws, tell a few lies, whatever, but don’t be That Guy. Or That Girl. I have to deal with them quiiiite enough in RL, and they have an inconvenient habit of not getting eaten by giant leeches.

  13. Helen
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 08:49:27

    I know you mentioned that historicals are your favorites…but maybe you should try a different genre within romance?? I read just about every genre under the sun and I have found that the one with the most realistic (well character wise anyway!) heroines can be found now in urban fantasy. Take Chess from Downside Ghosts, Dante Valentine by Lilith SaintCrow, or Kitty from Carrie Vaughn’s series. There are literally dozens more.
    I think part of the problem with realistic heroines in historical’s is that the author has to stay within the constraints of the time period they are writing in. If they write an anachronistic heroine they take the chance that their readers will hate her because she does not fit in with the time period. It is kind of a catch 22.

  14. Laura Florand
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 08:54:44

    Jayne just reviewed a book with an ugly heroine that the hero found unattractive at first. :) Although there is an Ugly Duckling-Swan scene, alas. But I thought it was overall very well done. (The Kate Hewitt book: The Man Who Could Not Love.)

    I understand your frustration with this, because so many times I have picked up a book that was recommended and dropped it as soon as the heroine is introduced, because she is introduced with her “raven locks” and “lush lips” and honestly, I must be one of those selfish women you’re talking about, because my reaction is somewhat similar to the one I would have if I met a gorgeous woman who had all the men at her feet in real life: not instant affection, let me tell you. If the heroine is introduced via her “lush” anything, I’m probably done at that point.

    But this seems to me very superficial writing, and I don’t associate it with the top writers in this field. (Top in terms of my personal assessment of their quality, not necessarily in sales.) I do think there are plenty of authors who don’t use beauty as a shorthand for character. Alternatively, for example, Meredith Duran’s Written On Your Skin had a beautiful heroine where her pocket Venus beauty was an important aspect of her character, not just shorthand. She’s not the first author to do this, and that “real” incorporation of beauty works just fine for me. I don’t have a problem with a heroine being beautiful, just with that being her only dimension, as you said.

    I don’t read romances where the heroine is just a beautiful cipher, and I do read a lot of romances. Just one example of one of my favorites: Jayne Ann Krentz always describes her characters in terms of character and energy. They’re never ugly, but they’re never beauties; the energy is what draws. (And I think this is actually a considerably more accurate idea of how real-life attraction occurs between people. There are a lot of reasonably attractive people. Once we’re in 3 dimensions and not looking at a magazine photo, it’s the character and energy infusing that physical body that draw or repel.)

    So I absolutely understand your frustration and have felt it myself, but I don’t think it’s everybody.

  15. Moriah Jovan
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 09:01:53

    I don’t understand the idea heroines must be relatable. I just need them to be INTERESTING. I know lots of relatable women in real life who have similar lives as I. Maybe they have a bit more ooomph in their lives, like my neighbor across the street. She’s a judge, but she lives across from ME, so she can’t be all THAT exotic.

    Even if it makes me uncomfortable, I’ll take interesting over relatable (and especially likable) any day.

  16. LVLMLeah
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 09:14:16

    This is one of the reasons why I read lesbian romance.

  17. orchard
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 09:28:15

    I agree with Jaimie: For our heroines, though, we aren’t looking for someone to love. We’re looking for someone we want to be or for someone we’d want to hang out with. Or at least someone to cheer for.

    I can understand wanting a character arc with a sense of growth and change in the heroines. And I readily accept that in other genres. In romance? Not so much.

    I’m not saying I like the cookie cutter Mary Sue – just that I tend to gravitate towards heroines that are immediately likeable in the persona that is presented.

    I work in a high pressure, very competitive corporate environment where logic, strategy, and technical acumen gets you through the day – and keeps you from getting thrown under the bus (sometimes by players on your own team) on a continual basis.

    When I sit down to a romance, I don’t want to be reminded of my inner barracuda but rather the softer, gentler me that doesn’t always have a chance to come out. One who likes to feel pretty, likes how considerate my husband is, pets kittens, and tries to be an honorable loving person. So I guess those are the heroines I gravitate towards when I read a romance.

    One example that comes to mind is Maya Banks’ Play by Play novels. I read The Perfect Play and enjoyed it. Since I’ve enjoyed many of the author’s books, I even had the follow up book Changing the Game in my TBR. But the heroine for Changing the Game was kinda the villian in the Perfect Play. She put her job before everything, she was willing to manipulate people, regardless of their feelings, for what she wanted or thought was right. This might be great for someone looking for a warts and all character who through the course of a novel becomes a better person. Personally I’m not that interested.

  18. Bettie Sharpe
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 09:28:34

    Wonderful post! So insightful and well-put. In the future, instead of trying to explain my motivations for writing difficult and/or unlikable heroines, I’m just going to link here.

    Plenty of people out there are loved and they do not deserve to be. And plenty of people who deserve to be loved, aren’t.

    This. This, exactly. And to add to it, the amazing, wonderful thing about love is that true love sees flaws and loves not despite, but because of those flaws. Love is diverse, love stories should be, too. There is no universal standard of lovability. The very qualities that make me hate a person could be the reason someone else is head-over-heels in love–and I think that’s awesome.

    I know quite a few very nice men who are married to very mean women. For a long time I wondered what they saw in each other, until I realized that perhaps each saw in the other qualities that they, themselves, lacked. The reason those men are so nice is because they don’t have to be mean. Their wives are the ones who demand better seating in restaurants, and tell people talking in movies to shut the hell up, and bitch out people who don’t treat their husband right.

    As cheesy as the phrase “you complete me” is, if we’re lucky, that’s just what we get when we love–we are complete. Not completely good, but whole and functioning and happy. And when I get to the end of a romance novel, that’s the way I want to see the hero and heroine–not shagging from sunrise to sunrise, not having scads of babies or fostering deserving orphans, just happy, whole, and better than they were before.

  19. LG
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 09:30:26

    @Laura Florand: Count me as one of the people who doesn’t really associate this issue with what I consider to be the better romance writers. And also, I don’t mind if a heroine is pretty (I do tend to roll my eyes when she’s drop dead gorgeous, unless that gorgeousness actually has some effect on her life other than to make the hero pant after her – I think Julia Quinn had a heroine who was beautiful, so people tended to assume she didn’t have a brain and never looked past that beauty).

    I think I’m a more hero-centric reader, so, while it might be nice if the occasional heroine is interestingly flawed in some way, I don’t mind if it’s just the hero that’s got the interesting flaws. And if the heroine is actively difficult to like, I’m far less likely to enjoy the book.

  20. Angela
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 09:33:22

    When I really sit down and think about it, I’m not sure that I want my heroines ‘likeable’ and maybe not even ‘relateable’ is the right word.

    But like joanne said, I do need to understand their motivations, actions, and thoughts. It has to make sense to me.

    A friend of mine jokes with me that if there’s a villain in a story that’ll end up being my favorite character. And it’s usually the truth. I find the shades of gray a lot more fascinating than I do the straight black and white. Villains, when done well, stretch those shades of gray and can become more interesting than the hero/ine.

    There are a lot of different things that work for a lot of different people as far as ‘beauty’ is concerned. I wish there were more variety written into the books I read, but it doesn’t really bother me when it’s not. I think that’s a case of I don’t miss what’s not there. But if it were there more often, I’d probably miss it more intensely.

    But I don’t want to read about a heroine that I can’t like, can’t relate to on some level, and can’t understand at all. And that goes for the hero too. Pretty sick of the jerk heroes, I can do without moving that onto jerk heroines.

  21. Eboni-Rai
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 09:38:14

    I find myself less drawn to stand alone romances lately, just for this reason. In a series where you’re following a single character through a story arc you may get a view of their faults. This can go the wrong way also, for instance Anita Blake or Sookie Stackhouse. The character is all faults and I find myself wondering why anyone would be bothered. As a reader you want the pay off of the HEA, and if the hero is Alpha Awesome an unloveable heroine would be a hard sell. Here’s Mr. Awesome & he loves her?! There are authors that can pull this off. Shelley Laurenston creates women that are smart and often brutal, but at the end I’m totally sold on hea.

  22. Isabel C.
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 09:45:28

    Interestingly, now that I’m thinking about it, the flaws that make heroes and heroines hard for me to like are some of the ones that are often associated with “virtuous” characters in a number of genres: naivete, whining, jealousy, overprotectiveness, machismo. On the other hand, I quite like cold-heartedness, deliberate manipulation (in a good cause), rakishness, etc. Sarah Connor, Faith (before the “wounded little girl” thing, because ew), the Vicomte de Valmont, James Bond…I’m on board with all of those. Sailor Moon or Riley Finn? Ugh, *no*.

    So, while I demand likeable protagonists in my reading material, my definition of “likeable” perhaps isn’t everybody’s.

  23. In Praise of Difficult Women – Sharp Words – bettie’s blog
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 09:54:13

    [...] Lazarapaste has a great post on Dear Author about Romance heroines, beauty and virtue–with the upshot being that she’d like to see some heroines with a lot less beauty and virtue, or with beauty decoupled from virtue. I’m probably saying it wrong. You should go read it. And if you’ve ever wondered about my motivations for writing difficult heroines, you should really go read it.  I commented, but there are a lot of comments (many of the “heroines ought to be nice” variety) so I’m reposting my comment below. [...]

  24. Bren
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 09:57:13

    This is problematic because romance is a plot based genre.

    I respectfully disagree. I’d be hard-pressed to find another genre more character-based than a romance. That’s the whole point. We are asked to examine these two characters, hero and heroine and observe the change in them (their arc) that results from the two of them coming together and falling in love.

    Any of that extra stuff comes as a result of the sub-genre (i.e. mystery plot for romantic suspense, “foo” plot for paranormal romance, etc.) But the crux of a romance, what makes it a romance by definition is a focus on the characters, their resulting relationship and their establishment of the happily ever after.

    Nevertheless, this is an interesting article and a very worthy question to pose. I have my own theories about why it is the way it is for heroines but I don’t have the time right now to posit them. Maybe later.

  25. Marumae
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 10:39:11

    See I don’t necessarily want a heroine/hero who is completely ugly all around because ugliness doesn’t automatically equate depth. Flaws and good points? Three dimensional personalities and being more then the sum of their character description? Yes.

    For our heroines, though, we aren’t looking for someone to love. We’re looking for someone we want to be or for someone we’d want to hang out with. Or at least someone to cheer for”>

    I agreed, I’d rather not follow someone I can’t stand unless there’s some serious character redemption going on there, now a good story will have IMO, two people who redeem each other, who are flawed and help the other realize the good (or develop or even plant the seeds) of being a decent person in each other and grow to love the other. Or two characters who help the other realize what may or may not be wrong or right in their life and make the best of it or correct it. I agree on not liking books where the heroine exists only to make the Hero better however, like she’s walking prozac, I used to love that but now I’d like her to have a plot or purpose of her own besides “fixing” him. Probably because I served that function once before in my life, and without getting all TMI, in the end I was miserable and felt useless. It’s not a fun place to be if that’s all your good for. I’d like to be a person that he loves, rather then a therapist.

    As for the “stunning beauty” I’m particularly fond of the “as love grows the character becomes beautiful in the eyes of the Hero/Heroine” even while the rest of the world is all (o_O; eugh?!) or finds them not that attractive. One of the reasons I enjoyed the (*Book*) version of Beastly by Alex Flynn was the “beauty” really wasn’t that beautiful, she wasn’t HIDEOUS, but she was average, mousy, quiet and as the hero got to know her, suddenly he found her beautiful, and what was on the inside magnified that. He acknowledged her flaws and loved them just as they were.

  26. Jill Sorenson
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 10:40:50

    @orchard: “When I sit down to a romance, I don’t want to be reminded of my inner barracuda but rather the softer, gentler me that doesn’t always have a chance to come out. One who likes to feel pretty, likes how considerate my husband is, pets kittens, and tries to be an honorable loving person. So I guess those are the heroines I gravitate towards when I read a romance.”

    I love this! Yes, yes, yes. Too often, I’m not a sympathetic character in my own life. While I enjoy reading (and writing) deeply flawed heroines, I also like heroines who are pretty and nice.

    I don’t want to read about awful, undeserving people living happily ever after! That sounds like a literary novel. My favorite heroines have good intentions and work hard. If they have no redeeming qualities, I don’t care about them.

    Of course there are exceptions. The Countess in Alison Richardson’s trilogy is a snobby bitch, but I loved her snarky voice. She also gets a fine comeuppance before the HEA.

    I prefer likeable heroes, too. If he’s an unrepentant ahole, I’ll pass. Elizabeth Hoyt’s The Raven Prince features a pockmarked, boorish hero, but he’s a good man underneath.

    I think there needs to be some kind of character reveal, growth, or trial to make a satisfying ending. Mean and ugly can be as flat and one-dimensional as beautiful/perfect. We want sacrifices to be rewarded and good to prevail.

  27. chris booklover
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 10:45:34

    Flawed heroines are not especially difficult to find. Without doing any research I can cite the heroines of Heidi Betts’ Knock Me For A Loop, Shannon McKenna’s Ultimate Weapon, Mary Jo Putney’s Silk and Secrets, Karen Robards’ Maggy’s Child, Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’ Shanna, Tracy Grant’s Daughter of the Game, Linda Howard’s Death Angel, Taylor Chase’s Heart of Deception and Lisa Kleypas’ Then Came You – to name only a few.

    I tend to agree with Joanne that there is nothing especially admirable or fascinating about selfish or unlikeable heroes or heroines. Flawed characters may be intriguing, but I have to understand and, to some extent, sympathize with them in order to care about whether or not they achieve their HEA.

  28. Tina
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 11:07:09

    Eh. I don’t want to be the heroine nor do I need to relate to her. I just need to find her interesting to read about and I want to root for her to get her HEA. And no she doesn’t have to be 100% likeable but there has to be something there that I want to see her happy.

    Off the top of my head I can think of Francesca in Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Fancy Pants. She was a piece of work! But she was a fully realized, big personality piece of work that made for a heroine who was as interesting as the hero. She was also divinely beautiful, but SEP deliberately wrote her beauty as a negative not as a positive. Francesca was the only one who was impressed with her beauty.

  29. Annabel
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 11:20:47

    I like a book to start out with someone flawed, and then the person (the hero or heroine, or both) finds their way to redemption.

    I agree with you that I really dislike the picture perfect heroine, whether in looks or manner, simply sitting around and waiting to be appreciated and loved. I want strife and emotion and people knocking each other out of their comfort zones. To me, that is romance.

    At the same time, I don’t want super ugly morally bereft h/h’s either. I just doesn’t jibe with my fantasy happy place.

    I’ve been reading Ogas and Gaddam’s book A Billion Wicked Thoughts and there are a good two or three chapters in there about how women’s deep dark desires are reflected in the pages of romance novels (as men’s are reflected in internet porn). I don’t agree with everything they write, but they did do a fairly good job of dissecting the romance genre in a very interesting way.

    One thing they discussed in depth was the common qualities of the hero from romance novel to romance novel. They pointed out that there are some qualities that are always okay, and some that are NEVER okay in a hero.

    I wonder if it goes the other way too?

  30. Bianca
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 11:34:05

    @Isabel C.: I totally agree with this. And I agree with Laura Florand that this isn’t so much an issue with the better romance writers out there (Meredith Duran, I ? you). BUT.

    I think people’s idea of what sort of heroine they can “relate” to is very different depending on a lot of different things. To bridge this gap, it seems like many romance writers try to find heroines that are socially acceptable to the largest audience: i.e., someone you’d find in a rom-com. You know — beautiful, pleasant, kind, passive, borderline placeholders.

    Judging by what I’ve heard from some of my fellow readers over the years, anyway, a lot of people are just there for the hero. They need the heroine to be nice enough to like, but not have a strong enough personality to intrude on the hot hero fantasy fest.

    Slight tangent… The Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil for the win. ;) They were both average-looking, ruthless, hardhearted and rather unlikeable. But they’ve held people’s attention for over 200+ years as romantic protagonists (not in the modern romance novel sense, but still). Your characters don’t have to be saints who look like supermodels for people to identify/be fascinated with them.

  31. Bianca
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 11:42:21

    @Bianca: Ugh, sorry for the double post, but that was supposed to be “Meredith Duran, I heart you” — not “I question you.” LOL. She has great novels with complex, interesting characters; I highly recommend.

  32. Janine
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 11:44:20

    What I want is more variety, a greater diversity of romance heroine types, and also greater dimension in these characters. For me, that includes but isn’t limited to heroines with unattractive qualities or physical imperfections. And I’m definitely tired of heroines who minister to the sick, feed the hungry, and befriend their servants.

    Some recommendations for you:

    Beast by Judith Ivory — Has a heroine who is physically gorgeous but to start with, spoiled and self-involved. She grows a lot in the course of the story (and so does the hero).

    The Proposition by Judith Ivory — The heroine in this one is physically unattractive but a nicer person than Lulu in Beast.

    Ain’t She Sweet by Susan Elizabeth Phillips — Probably my favorite book by SEP, though I also liked Fancy Pants which was mentioned above. Sugar Beth did some bad things in her past, but she has matured since then, so I’m not sure if she’s exactly what you’re looking for. Still, I loved her.

    The Dream Hunter by Laura Kinsale. Some readers hated this heroine for being so possessive of her daughter and mistrustful of the hero where their child was concerned, but she was driven by her insecurities and I loved her.

    The Slightest Provocation by Pam Rosenthal. In the course of the dissolution of their marriage, the hero and heroine treat each other horribly, and the heroine sleeps with the hero’s best friend. I reviewed the book here and you can find my review here.

    Dirty by Megan Hart. This heroine isolates herself due to a past trauma. She also uses men for her sexual pleasure including sleeping with her married boss. Jane didn’t care for it and said she “wasn’t able to find a reason to cheer for Elle,” but I loved her. My A- review can be found here.

    The Countess’ Client, An Impolite Seduction and The Birthday Present (The Countess Trilogy) by Alison Richardson. As mentioned above by Jill Sorenson, the heroine of this trilogy of short stories is snobby and snarky. She too has no qualms about using men for sexual gratification, and I found her candor refreshing. You can find my reviews of all three stories here.

  33. Janine
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 11:53:20

    @Jill Sorenson:

    @orchard: “When I sit down to a romance, I don’t want to be reminded of my inner barracuda but rather the softer, gentler me that doesn’t always have a chance to come out. One who likes to feel pretty, likes how considerate my husband is, pets kittens, and tries to be an honorable loving person. So I guess those are the heroines I gravitate towards when I read a romance.”

    I love this! Yes, yes, yes. Too often, I’m not a sympathetic character in my own life. While I enjoy reading (and writing) deeply flawed heroines, I also like heroines who are pretty and nice.

    I like all types of heroines too, but I found your comment and Orchard’s so interesting because that’s how I feel about flawed characters. I spend so much time in my life trying to be virtuous, thinking about what’s ethical, how to be considerate, etc., that reading about characters who are more self-focused (regardless of their gender) feels really liberating.

    I do agree with what you said in the last paragraph of your post though:

    I think there needs to be some kind of character reveal, growth, or trial to make a satisfying ending. Mean and ugly can be as flat and one-dimensional as beautiful/perfect. We want sacrifices to be rewarded and good to prevail.

    Yes, totally agree with that. But I often want the sacrifices to be deep and meaningful and for the characters to have a hard row to hoe to get there.

  34. Moriah Jovan
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 11:58:56

    @Janine:

    I second all Janine’s recs for the same reasons, except Dirty and The Proposition, because I haven’t read them yet.

  35. Kate McMurray
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 12:01:05

    Good post, I found myself nodding along as I read it, but I do have one quibble: I personally love a flawed character, but I DO need that character to be someone I can sympathize with and root for. I’ve put down books because I found the characters repellent and didn’t want to spend any time with them. (Or I’ve stumbled into the conundrum of liking one character but not the other, and thinking, “Gosh, I want him to be happy, and he wants her, but she sucks, and I don’t want good things to happen to her.”) Maybe “likable” is relative. Then again, a woman in my writers group was writing a romance with an unlikable heroine (she was sort of bitchy and mean at the novel’s outset), but she was a really delightful character. So I guess I’m fine with an unlikable heroine if she’s entertaining and engaging. But, really, I think this is a problem with shallow characterizations. I don’t want a heroine whose virtues rest on her beauty, or who is basically a cipher for the reader (see also Swan, Isabella). I want a fleshed-out, complicated character.

    But I think this is part of the appeal of m/m (or f/f, for that matter) at least to me.

  36. Janine
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 12:02:52

    @Moriah Jovan: Cool!!! I just realized I forgot to mention Emily Giffin’s Something Borrowed and Something Blue.

    In Something Borrowed, “good girl” Rachel sleeps with her “bad girl” best friend’s fiance.

    In Something Blue (my favorite of Giffin’s books), the self-centered, coast-on-her-looks Darcy grows up.

    Also, Loretta Chase’s Last Night’s Scandal has a flawed heroine, a sort of manipulative con artist in a lady’s guise.

  37. Isabel C.
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 12:10:10

    @Bianca: Yes! And honestly? If the Marquise cared a little more about avoiding collateral damage, and if her hardheartedness and ruthlessness were in the service of a greater cause, I would totally read a romance novel about her, HEA and all.

    Another example that comes to mind, since I’ve been watching the TV show, is Veronica from Better Off Ted : she’s snobbish, self-centered, sociopathic and tactless. She started off the show by deciding to have one of her employees frozen for a year. But she’s hilarious, she has a few humanizing moments, and I would absolutely love a romance novel heroine like her, in the proper context.

  38. dick
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 12:10:46

    Well, there’s got to be SOMETHING in the heroine to draw the hero’s eye or no romance can occur. And, since most romances take place over 300 or 400 pages, a long propinquity which might reveal something other than the heroine’s beauty to the hero seems difficult to achieve. And I think that is the difference between real life and romance fiction. In real life propinquity probably determines more relationships than anything else.

    Furthermore, nothing has been said about the hero’s physiognomy in the post, but in romance fiction, he too is given an appearance which supposedly appeals in much the same way as the heroine’s beauty–a blow to the eye, as courtly love would have it.

    As some posters have pointed out, one doesn’t read romance fiction to become better acquainted with reality.

  39. Kimber
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 15:16:55

    Try When He was Bad. Shelly Laurenston wrote the first short story and it features a heroine who isn’t entirely likable and is described as plain. It’s a great story and it is somewhat historical in that it is set in the 1980′s.

  40. Ridley
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 15:30:08

    @Bettie Sharpe:

    I know quite a few very nice men who are married to very mean women. For a long time I wondered what they saw in each other, until I realized that perhaps each saw in the other qualities that they, themselves, lacked. The reason those men are so nice is because they don’t have to be mean. Their wives are the ones who demand better seating in restaurants, and tell people talking in movies to shut the hell up, and bitch out people who don’t treat their husband right.

    Ha! That describes my marriage perfectly. I even asked my husband one day what the hell he saw in me, since my loudmouth ways were so different from how he and his family handle conflict, and he said he kind of liked how I wasn’t afraid to cut a bitch. He found it freeing that I could handle myself just fine.

    More to the point of the convo, you can’t draw sweeping generalizations about why people read romance. Some people read for the heroes and are fine with the placeholder heroine. Some read for the plot and prefer the escapism. Some crave deep characterization all around. And some really enjoy realism and parallels with their own experiences. The only generalizations you can make are about what is getting published.

    As for me, I love flawed heroines. When a book can take a heroine with a bunch of negative traits and make her relatable by the end of the novel, it lifts that book to the top of my favorites lists. It results in a meatier, more memorable book than one with a placeholder heroine.

    There are a number of books out there with flawed heroines. For example, I loved Jane in Lead Me On, loved. She was totally someone I’d avoid in real life, but I loved reading her story. Her character arc of learning to love herself was a welcome breath of fresh air. I liked that she drove her own story.

    Maggie Osborne wrote some fantastically fucked-up heroines. Alcoholic, filthy and lives like a man? The heroine of The Wives of Bowie Stone is pretty damned unusual. So is the uneducated, unfeminine heroine of Silver Lining, who wins her hero over with her hard work on his ranch rather than her stunning good looks.

    I have a hard time calling her flawed, since she was so damned likeable, but the heroine of Pamela Morsi’s Courting Miss Hattie is definitely not pretty. The townspeople call her Horseface Hattie and she’s just accepted that at 29, no one’s going to be marrying her. Her hero is 24 and her oldest friend, who realizes he’s a bit more invested in their friendship than he thought.

    Nessa in Madeline Hunter’s medieval Stealing Heaven is pretty much a stone-cold bitch, and I loved her for it. She’s dedicated to the Welsh rebellion, while he’s duty bound to squash it, and no amount of sexxoring will sway her. I loved their equal power dynamic and that each gave as good as they got. I admired her dedication.

    These heroines are out there. I just wish there were more of them. I’m a romance reader who loves realism and deep characterization. Love the chewier books.

  41. Lynn S.
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 16:04:06

    Not sure I’m ready for an ugly nasty slob for a heroine or one with a restricted license and an interlock device; but I’m with you on the prevalent lust factor in much of today’s romance fiction which does appears to occur more often in plot-centered historical works, and to the detriment of the supposed basic theme of romance. The heroine isn’t always portrayed as beautiful but her physical presence is the basis of the hero’s love for her. In the worst case you’re left wondering is a hero believable heroic in nature if he falls in love with an object?

    I’d like to see a more even distribution of focus not necessarily in every book but spread out among the books. A fully realized warts-and-all heroine who makes a journey of her own and ends up loved in part because of her warts and not in spite of them is infinitely relatable and heroines shouldn’t exist simply as God’s gift to the hero or the universe. Unlike Orchard, I’m actually more intrigued by Jaci Burton’s Changing the Game because of the heroine.

    I think part of the problem is that women readers in general are much harder on their heroines and this probably accounts for some of the heroine as object status; in other words, we do it to ourselves. Publishers publish what readers want and, historically, have a tendency to run way far away and take all of the balls with them. Or maybe it’s all a game of Love is Blind in reverse and, to quote (or paraphrase depending on my memory skills) my beloved Susan Napier, “I am attracted to you, therefore you must be attractive.”

    @dick:

    Furthermore, nothing has been said about the hero’s physiognomy in the post, but in romance fiction, he too is given an appearance which supposedly appeals in much the same way as the heroine’s beauty–a blow to the eye, as courtly love would have it.

    True that turnabout should work for the heroes as well although a discussion on the objectification and/or emasculation of heroes in romance fiction is a whole other topic.

  42. Evangeline Holland
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 16:12:05

    I have to piggyback on Orchard, Jill Sorenson, and Janine‘s comments. Even though I read for the heroine and try my best to write about different heroines undefined by their physical appearance (unless it’s part of the plot), I think simply beautiful, simply nice, simply pleasant heroines abound in romance because we–both writers and readers–project our own shortcomings into the genre. If you’re prone to stank attitudes or are 15 lbs overweight (in the wrong areas!) or can be forgetful, or selfish, or anything society says women should not be to get/keep a man, it can be jarring to read about a heroine who is just as flawed as we can be.

    Sarah Mayberry pointed out the fallacy in rom-coms, but isn’t that what society tells us? If we’re beautiful, we deserve the best of everything, and if you’re not beautiful, at least be good and kind and pleasant. We women know we cannot and don’t fit all of those molds, and even though so many romance writers and readers are in loving relationships, I think the notion that you have to be this way or look that way to “deserve” love creeps into our subconscious.

    As I’m typing this out, I have this unpleasant lump in my throat because it’s difficult to admit that many times I want my heroines to be what I am not because my imperfections, my quirkiness, my individuality, etc etc means I’m unworthy or undeserving of love (per the images the media bombards me with)–but it’s not true, and it’s definitely not true of my heroines. Thank you Lazaraspaste for this amazing op-ed; this has given me plenty to think about!

  43. GrowlyCub
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 16:27:37

    I disagree that romance novels are by definition plot driven, although I think that is part of the problem with many recent heroines. The new trend to plot driven rather than character driven stories has led to this shorthand that ‘explains’ why the hero is interested in the heroine because there is just not enough word count left after the spy, thief, bachelor plot to have a character arc.

  44. Lazaraspaste
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 21:43:59

    Thank you all for the interesting comments and book suggestions. I’m a bit brain dead due to having used it for the last three days for the other thing I do with my life. I definitely want to respond to all the points brough up, but I’m afraid that must wait til tomorrow after I’ve had time to think.

    But I think that my goal in writing this piece was really to bring up the difference between what makes a good character (story) and what makes a good person (life). I think there’s overlap, like Venn Diagram style, but not necessarily. Moreover, I think it is really important to think about how readers want differnt kinds of heroines in their stories, and different heroines for different kinds of stories. And perhaps that having an ugly or amoral heroine or immoral heroine might add something really amazing to the genre and that there should be room for those kinds of stories.

  45. catie james
    Jun 29, 2011 @ 04:04:29

    OMG lazaraspaste – you may be my reading soulmate! I feel *EXACTLY* as you do. Give me an unredeemable romance heroine who still receives a HEA and I can die a happy woman…the realist in me though says this is about as likely as the pontiff declaring himself a transsexual lesbian.

  46. Laura Florand
    Jun 30, 2011 @ 07:46:23

    I’m not sure what that says about me, but very time I check back on this thread, I feel the urge to have a Glenda the Good Witch moment: “Oh, no, dear. Only bad witches are ugly.”

    I can say it in a really lovely, lilting, fluting voice, too.

  47. jenga
    Jul 02, 2011 @ 16:09:34

    I am not sure if these novels are entirely romantic in nature, but there’s an interesting character in Game of Thrones called Brienne of Tarth. She is describe ironically as Brienne the Beauty, being plain and non-feminine physically, and so far in the series there is hints of a developing relationship between her and the handsome knight Jaime Lannister, who originally makes fun of her plainness. It’s a pretty well done storyline, and seems to be popular enough in fandom and Brienne is one of the few female characters in the series who is almost universally well-liked by fans.

    Terry Pratchett’s books are fantasy not really romance, but almost all his romantic pairings that are actually paid attention to in the book, are couples who are not attractive conventionally but still fall for each other.

    And Shrek is still my #1 romance movie of all time, and on my list of top ten movies of an genre.

    I don’t really look for beauty in a heroine, I just look for someone interesting, with an interesting storyline. Lately, I’ve become rather interesting in reading books with plain heroine (getting a bit sick of reading about the beautiful heroines falling for sparkly vampires) so I’ll be following this thread to see recommendations.

  48. Ridley
    Jul 02, 2011 @ 16:50:30

    @jenga: Oh! I love Sam Vimes and Lady Sybil. Gotta love a woman who raises dragons as her hobby.

  49. jenga
    Jul 02, 2011 @ 18:03:41

    @Ridley: Yup Sam and Sybil was who I was specifically thinking of (although there are many other examples in the series) when I made that comment.

    A lady who loves dragons, and comes out ready to whoop ass with a huge sword (although she trips and falls before she can use it)when being taken prisoner …yeah, Sybil’s pretty damn awesome ;)

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