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Guest Post: The PlaceHolder Heroine by Moriah Jovan

Introduction

Except for those little moments relieved by the occasional huge moment, everyday life can be a drudgery. Whatever you are engaged in, be it work (no matter how glamorous or lucrative it is) or raising a family or fulfilling your calling at church or attaining some long-held goal (usually all of them at once), at some point, you’ll find yourself slogging through it and wondering where the magic is.

The truth is, there is very little magic, except that which we grab for ourselves. When in the midst of this drudgery, few women[1] think to themselves, How awesome am I? Super-awesome, is what! While she is in the midst of drudgery, she can be beset with feelings of inadequacy, hopelessness, and irrelevance, even if other people find her admirable or even inspirational in performing said drudgery.

And this is what TV and movies and books and games are for: little moments of respite from the drudgery. People decry escapistî fiction, but who really wants to read about other people’s drudgery while in the midst of one’s own?[2]

Fictional characters are not immune to drudgery. The writers just choose not to show you that part because . . . why?

Giselle slogs through her neverending days of law school classes and shitty second-shift transcription job and church attendance after being stripped of her precious bookstore she can’t afford to rebuild. She has little to lighten her load or brighten her days. Who wants to read about how tired and hopeless she feels?

Eilis slogs through the neverending heart-attack-inducing stress of building a business, fighting off enemies alone, and seeks her magic in meaningless sex with strangers which she never finds and leaves her feeling worse than she did before.

Justice slogs through farm work, housework, college, and then law school with absolutely nothing but the goal of becoming a prosecutor. Even then, her options are limited to the two counties she can actually drive to every day because she has a piece-of-shit car and no money to buy a decent one. She doesn’t even have time to have a crush, much less a boyfriend.

And why do they do this? Because they’re just trying to survive: financially, emotionally, and intellectually. It has to be done and there’s no one else to do it.

You, the reader, may not think about it much beyond the feeling that, Hey, that’s a lot more than I do.

No, it’s not. You do plenty. It’s just that you can’t see it and you probably don’t want to think about it because it’s depressing as hell. I don’t care where you are in your life, every once in a while, you stop, look around, and wonder what the hell you’re doing all this for.

And sometimes, you can’t answer the question.

But you keep going anyway.

The Obvious

Which brings me to one of those hot-button topics in genre romance: the placeholder heroine,î wherein the heroine is void of personality or otherwise uninteresting, whose role is to be the foil for the hero as well as a way for the reader to insert herself into the story and thus, in the hero’s arms. The heroine as written serves as the reader’s avatar.

These characters frustrate me. When I read, I want to experience someone else’s life. I do not want to be obliged to construct my own character out of the bare shell the author has given me. Nor do I want to put myself in that shell. I already live my life.

The most egregious example in recent memory is Bella Swan from Twilight. (I will not speak to her rehashed doppelganger Anastasia Steele, since I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey and have no intention of doing so.)

Bella is the epitome of the placeholder heroine in that her personality is a void, her opinions are nonexistent, and she does not act. She is acted upon. One could argue that because she is seventeen years old, this is normal. Seventeen-year-old girls have no power and so Bella’s reactivity is not untoward.

Then along comes Edward, who gives her things she (really any seventeen-year-old girl) craves: the complete acceptance of, doting attention of, and fairy-tale romance from a truly powerful male. Thus, I would expect that female adolescents and young adults to find this storyline attractive.

What has always baffled me, though, is why this is attractive to so many millions of adult women with husbands and families of their own unless the placeholder heroine isn’t just a theory.

I nearly cried when I noticed my husband changing a light bulb. Watching him perform this menial task with so little grace and elegance, so un-vampire like, was a depressing reminder that there was no Edward in my life. My husband didn’t float on air, change the bulb at breakneck speed or pounce off into the forest to protect me. Instead, he fumbled and ultimately dropped it on the floor where it shattered. The whole episode sent me into a depression.

A kiss from my husband is simply a kiss; there’s no woozy feeling or butterflies fluttering in my stomach. We don’t get lost in each other’s eyes while discussing our son’s report card or arguing over bills. Anyone who thinks otherwise has never been married. Bella and Edward live each moment in their own private world, with little else to divert their attention . . . [3]Twi-Moms aren’t just reading about Bella, we are trying to be her. We experienced her shock at the depth of Edward’s love, and her crushing anguish when he left her. Stephenie Meyer captured the longing, the desire and the total devotion that is a faint memory for most married women.

But why a seventeen-year-old sparkly vampire?[4] Surely there are enough hot, rich, controlling, stalker alphahole types in adult genre romance to give women their fix of the woozy.

But Edward himself is neither here nor there, really. The point is to escape the drudgery of life, as this article so explicitly states, into the arms of an Edward. The placeholder heroine is, in fact, an avatar for the reader.

Or is she?

A Different Take

So I got to thinking about this one day, and it occurred to me that the vapid heroine might not be an avatar for the reader, but a reflection of how the reader sees herself.

First there are the women who have little enough identities of themselves. For whatever reason they have given their own goals, dreams, and desires over to someone else: husband, children, boss, church, clubs, volunteer organizations. They define themselves in someone else’s terms:

I am my kids’ mom.
I am my husband’s wife.
I am my deity’s creation.
I am my organization’s member.
I am my mother’s caretaker.
I am my boss’s employee.

Women who have little enough identities of themselves may feel that they are ciphers and so they understand Bella’s really rather subconscious feelings of emptiness, aimlessness, and hopelessness acutely. It’s her very emptiness that’s identifiable.

Whether Edward is good for her or not, whether he’s carving out her personality or not, he’s taking her somewhere because a) she doesn’t know there’s a there there and b) wouldn’t know how to get there if there were because she doesn’t have anything of her own.

But what about the women who do have an identity, love those identities, and take pride in those things?

I write.
I practice law.
I raise productive human beings.
I save people’s lives.
I live off the land and am self-sustaining.
I teach people to read and think.
I feed and succor the hungry and hopeless.

No matter how much we love our work (I defy anyone to tell me women don’t find their identities in our occupations and/or work we love every bit as much as men), drudgery will be involved. And in those moments when we are drowning in the boredom, the slog that feels neverending; when we are straining for that next big job to pay for unexpected expenses; when we are alone with our tasks that no one else can do because we’re unique; when we are exhausted and wondering what the hell we’re doing this for, we may feel as empty and colorless and vapid as any Bella: Thus we identify with her as a reflection of where we are at the moment, not a container for who we wish we were.

We are all Walter Mitty, if only for a moment.


[1] Sorry, guys. I know you experience the same drudgery, so feel free to substitute “James Bond” for “Bella Swan.”

[2] Barring Oprah picks, literary fiction sales may bear this out, but I’m not going to look it up.

[3] Until, you know, Bella and Edward devolve into drudgery . . . eternally.

[4] Yes, I know he’s 100. His entire situation makes no sense. Why are you a 100-year-old vampire going through endless courses of high school? There are better, more mature, things to do with immortality unless you simply never progress beyond the age you were turned. This is never explained.

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

40 Comments

  1. Ros
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 06:58:43

    Jane, I think the formatting on this post is borked.

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  2. LeeF
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 07:41:21

    I have read it twice and still don’t quite grasp the reason behind the rant.

    ReplyReply

  3. SAO
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 08:21:51

    Maybe what the placeholder heroines do is allow the books to appeal to a much wider audience. Twilight was a huge success among teenagers, but it also appealed to a much wider age set, who might have been turned off if Bella acted and thought too much like the teen she was.

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  4. Dabney
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 08:29:07

    I am my kids’ mom.
    I am my husband’s wife.
    I am my deity’s creation.
    I am my organization’s member.
    I am my mother’s caretaker.
    I am my boss’s employee.

    vs.

    I write.
    I practice law.
    I raise productive human beings.
    I save people’s lives.
    I live off the land and am self-sustaining.
    I teach people to read and think.
    I feed and succor the hungry and hopeless.

    Not to go all Donna Reed on you, but your examples do seem to give less value to women who’ve opted to stay at home. I like the idea that we claim our lives, however. I might take your first list and rewrite it for me to say:

    I am a damn good mom.
    I am committed, smart, sexy wife and partner.
    I am a heathen.
    I help to run my local charity.
    I support my parents and my family in many ways.
    I am a productive and ethical employee.

    I agree with your point about Edward and high school. Out of all the things he could be doing–curing cancer, explaining how history really works–he’s chosen to hear again and again the merits of the periodic table and 19th century poetry.

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  5. Lori
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 08:41:38

    When I first started reading romance the heroines all seemed to be vapid little British girls who spent the entire book saying “oh my” while the powerful men they worked for (usually) abused them throughout the story till declaring their love at the end (“oh my”). Turned me off romance for years.

    Jayne Ann Krentz turned me back onto romance with heroines who had some fight in them. Since then I’ve enjoyed any number of genres and writers but always with proactive heroines.

    I understand your idea but can’t make it work in my life or those of the women I talk about books with. We all like the heroines who have spark (not sparkly boyfriends).

    I’ve always said that I read for the heroines, not the heroes. If the heroine is decor, then I can’t relate and I won’t finish the book. The heroine must have agenda and she must show signs of life in accomplishing it.

    There’s a reason that Twilight and 50 Shades have authors who write one series that hits and then fizzle. And La Nora has written 200 books and is still going strong. I think most of us prefer a Nora heroine who has goals and guts over the vapid teenagers gnawing on their fingernails.

    I don’t want Eve Dallas’ life. But I do like to step outside my drudgery to read about it.

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  6. dick
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 08:52:57

    Whether dynamic, active, kick-butt or passive, waiting to be awakened, whatevers, I think all heroines and heroes in fiction are place holders for readers during those moments when they are being read about, if the reader identifies at all with the character. It’s almost essential that they be so, isn’t it, in order for the story to hold the reader’s attention long enough to complete it.

    And that old Greek would agree with you: An unexamined life is not worth living.

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  7. joanne
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 09:38:36

    Gah, what a depressing point of view. If you were someone I knew or a friend I would just tell you what you should already know: there are medications and support groups if you’re willing to turn to them.

    Women crying over the way their husbands change light bulbs instead of getting up off their asses and doing it themselves… and then ridiculing his efforts because that’s so much easier than lending a hand so that the bulb doesn’t drop. Jesus, really? Nothing better to do?

    What you’re describing is a bunch of bored and boring women who hunger after the class hot guy that they didn’t have in high school. What they need is to get over their teenage selves and make new goals, perhaps ones that include age appropriate hot guys in the fiction they read.

    Last year I was ‘feeling a little colorless’ due to some life changing decisions I was making but I was looking over my facebook page and Angela James had her feet pictured with blue toe nails. The next day I had blue! toenails, a new wardrobe of nail colors and a different outlook on my life choices. I got that from another crazy woman not from some sparkly 17 year old vampire.

    After 40 years of marriage I’ll take a not-so-woozy-feeling-kiss from my husband over damn butterflies in my stomach. Now see, If it weren’t for the intelligent women I see writing here and on other blogs, I’d be saying I’m just scared about who is raising the next damn generation.

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  8. Moriah Jovan
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 09:38:51

    Dabney, the difference in the lists are that in the first, the woman is finding her identity as someone else’s Something and is therefore passive. In the second, the woman is finding her identity inside herself and is active.

    But in either case, I haven’t placed any value on anything. Value here is only relevant insofar as that the woman assigns herself, and many women just don’t themselves that much credit.

    Let’s use your example of a productive and ethical employee. Let’s say you work in a place where there are unproductive and unethical people working. Your being productive and ethical is nice and all, but it’s hard to watch when the other people, who are productive and unethical, get rewarded time and again and you get…nothing. We want production to be rewarded and sloth/deceit to be punished.

    So you might go home and read a book where production is rewarded and sloth/deceit is punished.

    Whether you like the work or not, the drudgery plays out in having to watch “bad” go unpunished. In this instance, I would ask you if you would then walk around thinking, “I am a productive and ethical employee” without a bit of bitterness that…it doesn’t seem to matter to anybody but you.

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  9. Moriah Jovan
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 10:07:13

    joanne, there are plenty of very, very smart and successful women out there who a) make foolish choices and b) read stuff I don’t care for. I’m not judging. I’m parsing out a nuance in why these sell so well, but it’s probably a lot less deep and a lot more pragmatic, as SAO points out. That said, I am very happy that you don’t let life get you down.

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  10. Jill Sorenson
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 10:31:14

    I haven’t read Twilight, so I don’t know if Bella is as vapid as you say. The high school vampire premise has always bothered me though. I just don’t get it.

    I like this part:

    “Thus we identify with her as a reflection of where we are at the moment, not a container for who we wish we were.”

    I don’t know any woman who feels fulfilled and complete and strong all of the time. There was another thread here at DA recently about the tendency women have to stay quiet & withhold opinions. I’m much more likely to regret speaking out than staying quiet–is that because I’m a loudmouth know-it-all (don’t answer), or because I’m conditioned to believe that having a strong point of view is somehow unladylike or unattractive?

    I had another thought about alpha heroes the other day, relating it to the number of times an average woman accepts bad behavior from their significant other. In real life, groveling apologies are rare. In romance, the heroine is rewarded for putting up with the hero’s bs and everything works out. My point is that we (I?) expect a certain amount of controlling or selfish behavior from men. I give heroes more leeway to misbehave and have higher expectations for heroines.

    Your point about drudgery. I don’t want to be bored with minute details, but I actually like reading about hard work and hard times, as in The Hunger Games. Makes me feel…lucky. Or hopeful.

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  11. Christine
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 10:39:52

    I always have trouble understanding why people get so incredibly worked up over the popularity of things like Twilight, 50 Shades, etc etc. I’m of the opinion that generally speaking, people reading anything is better than people reading nothing (I do of course have exceptions to this rule.) If the books in question aren’t racist, hate filled, dangerous or in some other way negative or damaging I say to each his own. I read the Twilight books because a friend loved them and gave them to me as a gift. Having read a lot of vampire themed books from “Interview” back in the day to the Sookie series, I wasn’t bowled over, but I didn’t see them as the downfall of civilization either. I can think of dozens, perhaps hundreds of heroines more passive than Bella going all the way up to full on victims. I guess it’s the success of these books that galls people?
    Not to get on my feminine high horse but I’ve noticed overwhelmingly on different boards and blogs that series singled out for these rants tend to be by women authors. Perhaps it’s because so many books in these genres are written by women- but I wonder if there would be so much outrage directed at the books if they were written by men. I can think of a number of far more offensive books and series written by men that don’t receive a fraction of the criticism directed at them.
    As for the examples mentioned above- you could find any number of women (of varying ages and mental states) who have fixated on anyone from superheroes to actors to obsess over and compare their husbands too. I hardly think the woman quoted above is “typical” of the mass of Twilight readers.

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  12. Moriah Jovan
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 10:39:53

    I think I need to clarify something: *I* am not the one bitching about my husband. That blockquote thingie is from a TwiMoms website (linked) wherein the author of the post was sincere and without irony (which is why I used it to illustrate my point).

    (My husband is totally the most Ordinary Dude Ever, and I adore him for that. I could not take all that nonstop DRAHMAH.)

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  13. Moriah Jovan
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 10:42:20

    @Jill Sorenson:

    I don’t know any woman who feels fulfilled and complete and strong all of the time.

    Yes, thank you. That was my point.

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  14. Stephanie Doyle
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 11:14:34

    Sing it sister! It seems particular in romance fiction the “business” woman is the woman who just hasn’t figured out that what she really wants instead is love and family.

    Absolutely my identity is tied to my career. If I were married and I had a family – it would be both. Not one thing or the other.

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  15. Stephanie Doyle
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 11:15:43

    @Stephanie Doyle:

    I was quoting this line in particular… “I defy anyone to tell me women don’t find their identities in our occupations and/or work we love every bit as much as men”

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  16. Tamara
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 12:28:15

    @Moriah Jovan:

    “Your being productive and ethical is nice and all, but it’s hard to watch when the other people, who are productive and unethical, get rewarded time and again and you get…nothing.”

    That is the point at which you remind yourself that you are ethical for a reason, and if you were similarly rewarded after being unethical, the reward would be empty and unsatisfying. If you have integrity, all the accolades in the world won’t spare you the awareness that you didn’t earn or deserve such reward.

    This is an interesting opinion piece and I agree with a lot of it. I think the popularity of Twilight and the copycat books that came after is primarily driven by women of all ages who are still seeking Cinderella’s happily ever after. I think Twilight’s average reader wants to be swept up out of drudgery and into the arms of a wealthy, powerful man who will save her ever having to do anything more strenuous the rest of her days beyond keeping him happy sexually and emotionally. And that is of course easy to do, because she is his whole world, his obsession, his reason for facing each new day (despite his glorious wealth and power) and he can’t endure life without her. Give him that added air of danger so she can be the one woman who semi-tames him and the fantasy is complete.

    I find it hard to fathom that any woman who views her husband as friend, support, equal, and someone who’s been there and will be there with her through hell and back can find any particular enjoyment in books like Twilight (Feel free to correct me on that. It’s just an opinion.) I just think such a woman has reached a viewpoint about life that surpasses the experiences of a “heroine” like Bella or Ana to a laughable extent. For the woman bitter about her husband’s lightbulb changing abilities–yes. She may be filling those empty places inside with fantasy like Twilight and, if so, I feel for her and root for her to wake up and realize the guy up there struggling to get a lightbulb into one of those crappy, ill-fitting sockets is a good guy who loves her–and that’s the best thing you can ask for in this world.

    I’ll admit to liking reading about drudgery. I like reading about other people’s life experiences and how they cope. I like seeing how they change through dealing with drudgery and how love makes the drudgery easier to bear. I think I enjoyed a placeholder heroine when I was young because I was so inexperienced and formless and without direction. These days I don’t need to try on a heroine like a new outfit to see how I’d look in her life. Now I prefer to follow her story out of interest, as a fellow human being living out my own story and intrigued by what others go through. Thus, she needs to be a heroine with interests, ideals, strength and spirit, a whole person, a real person to whom I can relate.

    Bella Swan or Ana Steele, she’s not.

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  17. JL
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 12:42:39

    To be honest, the main thrust of this post seems to be a little over my head. But it did get me thinking about Twilight and why it is successful. Yes, Bella is absolutely plain and boring and vapid, but many women and especially young women do feel that way. Sometimes I get absolutely sick of reading about heroines who are assigned worth because they have a funky job (local distillery owner! Forest firefighter! Super-special FBI unit crime solver! Owner of her own super successful multinational fashion business at age 25!), or a super spunky/snarky personality. These are, unfortunately, used quite often in place of actual character development.

    When I was seventeen, I felt like I had no personality, no real sense of my own interests. Maybe the rest of the world didn’t see it that way, but I sure did. Even now, I have what could objectively be seen as a fascinating career, great education, lots of travelling, a family, yada yada yada. But I still feel like the most uninteresting person in the world. The difference is that now I know and insist that I deserve love and respect despite any feelings of inadequacy. Just because Bella is boring and has yet to find herself, she is not deserving of a happy, healthy, fulfilling relationship (sparkles and stalking aside)? Twilight really is the ultimate cinderalla story. Plus, I think many young women enjoy living through Bella as she explores her own sexuality without any pressure or fear of being labelled a slut, and absolute confidence that her partner loves her. There’s a lot of good in that experience that young women, especially ones lacking in self-confidence, rarely get to experience in real life.

    I’m not suggesting placeholder heroines are always good or the only heroine I want to read about. I guess I’m just suggesting that, in my reading experience, tacking on an ‘identity’ to make her interesting isn’t any more empowering for female readers.

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  18. Moriah Jovan
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 12:44:53

    @JL:

    But I still feel like the most uninteresting person in the world.

    JL, you got the point perfectly.

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  19. joanne
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 12:46:14

    I don’t know any woman who feels fulfilled and complete and strong all of the time.

    Yes, thank you. That was my point.

    That was your point? Well I missed it entirely, sorry.

    As for your not judging the “smart and successful women out there who a) make foolish choices and b) read stuff I don’t care for.” Well, I try not to judge, really I do, but I’m often not successful. I do most often succeed in keeping my opinion of their whathefuckery to myself since I’m sure they would have the same reaction to my choices in both life and reading material and they would be right.

    More to your point I think is that my place holder heroine is the anti-me. She’s either Cinderella or Bat Girl. Both types work well for me and I have no clue why but I’m glad neither is a Bella SwanSong.

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  20. JL
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 12:52:29

    @Moriah Jovan:
    Yay! Baby brain has totally destroyed my comprehension skills yet :)
    I just had another thought (two in one day – it’s a record!). We often use the term Cinderalla story disparagingly. But I feel like Prince Charming and the riches he offered was the place holder (for self-worth, success, etc.), not Cinderalla. She had spunk and personality and determination, and we watch her go from being mistreated to deciding she deserved more and fighting for it. I doubt anyone can remember anything about Prince Charming other than his name. Average women finding self-worth and as a result finding love is a pretty great plot to me.

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  21. Moriah Jovan
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 12:59:56

    @joanne:

    I hear all the time, “I can’t identify with that heroine.” I, personally, don’t HAVE to identify with a heroine. She just has to be interesting.

    Firstly, the idea that she has to be identifiable to the reader is foreign to me. Secondly, the idea that Bella Swan IS identifiable for 17-year-old girls isn’t totally off the wall because, as JL said, “I felt like I had no personality, no real sense of my own interests.” That is totally normal. But I couldn’t figure out why Bella Swan was hitting the right notes for grown women…unless they didn’t see themselves as having anything more than Bella Swan has.

    Thus the lack of a personality becomes the identifying trait.

    For women who KNOW they have something going on, they, too, have inescapable moments when, no, it doesn’t feel like they’re any more interesting than Bella.

    @Tamara I like a little drudgery. Just enough to get the flavor of the journey the heroine is about to take and make the payoff work. But I doubt anybody wants to read about it unrelentingly. [Also, there is drudgery-as-virtue trope (e.g., Cinderella working nonstop for her family).]

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  22. Jill Sorenson
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 13:11:05

    Is part of Bella’s appeal that she doesn’t challenge the reader to make a real-life comparision? If we are all stronger and more confident than Bella, she doesn’t make us wish we were those things and feel dissatisfied when we don’t measure up. On the other hand, a supermodel heroine with a degree in astrophysics is more likely to create dissonance. Even if we’d like to be that character, maybe the success of a placeholder heroine depends on how easily readers can slip into the role, not on how appealing or admirable the role actually is. Also, is it more comfortable to slip into an undemanding role, to lower ourselves? We’ve all been lesser women. I was a vapid teenager once. I’ve never been a secret agent or a high-powered executive.

    For those who aren’t familiar, is there a link to the original placeholder article? I can’t remember who wrote it. I don’t see “placeholder” as a negative term referring to a blank-slate sort of character. Any romance heroine is a placeholder for me as a reader when I’m immersed in the story.

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  23. Heather Massey
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 14:37:00

    @Jill Sorenson:

    Laura Kinsale wrote about the placeholder heroine in an essay she contributed to Dangerous Men, Adventurous Women. Here’s where I first learned about it:

    http://bevsbooks.com/notes/archives/421

    In the comment section, Ms. Kinsale clarified that

    “…I used the term placeholder to describe a FAILED heroine in a romance–ie, a heroine that the reader did NOT find admirable or interesting, who was Too Stupid To Live, and yet the reader keeps reading and even enjoys the book. My question there was WHY, and my answer was the sense that the reader could ride along with that character and think about how she herself would act in the failed heroine’s place. “

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  24. DS
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 14:47:46

    @Moriah Jovan:

    I hear all the time, “I can’t identify with that heroine.” I, personally, don’t HAVE to identify with a heroine. She just has to be interesting.

    I agree with this.

    I also confess that I read some of the Twi-mom stuff and it leaves me completely boggled. I hadn’t noticed these particular quotes but I feel a bit sorry for the husband who can’t change a light bulb without his wife feeling depressed due to his inadequacy.

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  25. Stephanie Doyle
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 15:33:46

    “…maybe the success of a placeholder heroine depends on how easily readers can slip into the role, not on how appealing or admirable the role actually is…”

    Jill – this was mindblowing to me… I think *this* is exactly hitting the nail on the head.

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  26. Moriah Jovan
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 15:38:27

    @Heather Massey:

    That’s interesting that Laura Kinsale (whose work I adore, even when I don’t) said that. She wrote one of the most traditionally “unlikeable” heroines ever in Melanthe. She was ruthless and bad-ass and I loved her for it.

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  27. Evangeline Holland
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 15:56:53

    I’m parsing how I feel about this piece with my own reading choices–and in particular, since it was mentioned, why I loved the Fifty Shades trilogy so much. In general, I’m a heroine-centric reader and a heroine-centric writer, but if I don’t like the hero and heroine, the romance has failed for me. So I have never read a book with the aim of inserting myself into the text because my enjoyment is predicated on believing the H/H are well suited for one another.

    To bring this to a more personal level, I read to escape my wretched adolescence. If I did not have books, I would have never known there were a whole host of experiences, people, places, etc out there that I could grasp for my future. I discovered romance novels at a particularly low point in my “new adult” life, and I can honestly say that they gave my a different kind of hope–that the bad relationships I saw in front of me were not the only types relationships that existed in this world.

    So when I open up a romance, I’m hoping to experience a variety of characters, settings, scenarios, and so on, and see how different types of people work to come together. When I choose a book I don’t have labels in my head (alpha, beta, et al) or tropes–I’m reading a book that looks interesting, and when I enjoy it, it’s because I enjoyed the characters and their journey to a HEA (personally, I found Ana Steele quite interesting as a character, and isn’t the point of internal and external conflict in romance all about the other protagonist?). Perhaps other romance readers feel the same.

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  28. CG
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 16:08:55

    I read this piece a couple times and I’m still not sure I got the point. I think you’re trying to draw a connection between vapid, empty characters, how placeholder readers may see themselves and escapism?

    I guess where I have a problem is the idea that a character must somehow be empty in order “for the reader to insert herself into the story”. To me, a placeholder reader is someone who imagines themselves in the place of a particular character, period. She (or he) may have certain individual, identity based preferences in a character that make it easier for him or her to inhabit that character, but there is no requirement that the character must somehow be “void of personality or otherwise uninteresting,” and “whose role is to be the foil for the hero as well as a way for the reader to insert herself into the story and thus, in the hero’s arms. The heroine as written serves as the reader’s avatar.” Did I miss this definition of placeholder reading somewhere on the interwebs, is there some consensus I’m not aware of (this is entirely possible)?

    Haven’t read Twilight and don’t plan to, but if “Bella is the epitome(!) of the placeholder heroine in that her personality is a void, her opinions are nonexistent, and she does not act” and “the vapid heroine might not be an avatar for the reader, but a reflection of how the reader sees herself”, then… See where I’m going with this? I just don’t think it’s accurate to say all (or even most) placeholder readers who read Twilight see themselves as lacking in personality, opinion and agency. After all, I believe a lot of the same placeholder readers follow the In Death series and no one can say Eve is any of those things. I may be wrong, tho. Interesting discussion, either way.

    I’m more of a voyeur reader, myself, so I’d be interested in hearing from placeholder readers and their reading experiences. Does a placeholder reader pick and choose whether to inhabit a character? Can you turn it on and off? If so, how do you decide who to inhabit? Does the male placeholder romance reader inhabit the hero? And are there other types of readers besides placeholder and voyeur?

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  29. hapax
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 16:16:11

    But I couldn’t figure out why Bella Swan was hitting the right notes for grown women…unless they didn’t see themselves as having anything more than Bella Swan has

    Well, for *this* grown woman, it was because it is fun sometimes to just sit and wallow in an overwhelming emotional experience, just like it is fun sometimes to forget about calories and nutrition and have a pint of Chunky Monkey for dinner.

    I don’t see anything wrong with placeholder heroines, even if they are empty and passive and TSTL; if a reader is looking for a bout of pure id-satisfaction. I thought it rather a blast to immerse myself in a couple of hours in the remembrance of when [strike] hormones[/strike][strike] passion[/strike] True Love were all-important and all-encompassing and agonizing over “OhMyGawd, he looked at me during Biology class!” could consume my every thought and emotion — precisely because I had grown up beyond that, thank you very much.

    My teenage daughter enjoyed the books very much the same way, except that she could say, “Okay, now I don’t have to do that in real life.”

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  30. Jane
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 16:19:30

    I took this piece to represent two things. There are times when we read when we are just visiting or being told the fantastic tale of someone else’s life. And there are times we read when we become part of the story. When we choose the placeholder role, in part maybe because the writing invites it, it can be for various reasons. However, the placeholder role is more easily assumed when the character is flat and less interesting.

    I appreciated this piece because I read about 5 or 6 self published New Adult books featuring fairly vapid heroines. Take the chick from my Molly McAdams book Taking Chances that I reviewed over the weekend. I don’t really understand the appeal (and nothing about her position is inviting for me to take her place) but the story is resonating with a number of readers. I think this piece can give some insight to why it would resonate.

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  31. Moriah Jovan
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 16:26:24

    @hapax:

    I can’t disagree. I liked Twilight, believe it or not, and for the exact reasons you cite. I liked Gabriel’s Inferno for the same reason, although my enjoyment was pretty much blown when I found out it was Twific. It was when I started seeing these scads and scads of TwiMoms I started really thinking about it.

    General aside: I will not speak to 50 Shades in my discussion of this because, as I said, I have not read it.

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  32. pamelia
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 20:55:04

    I for one actually enjoyed Bella as a character. She was funny and awkward and I thought a rather perfect example of how I felt when I was 17. I remember being completely emotionally overwhelmed by my first “true love” at about that age and in some ways reading Twilight was a little nostalgic for me. I wouldn’t say my enjoyment of Twilight or of Fifty Shades of Grey had anything to do with a lack of happiness or fulfillment in my own life any more than I would say reading the Harry Dresden books or even Charles Dickens does. I like books that entertain me. That’s the sum of it. Whether because they are funny or sad or dramatic or romantic or beautifully worded I read because that’s what I’ve done to entertain myself since I was a kid.
    I also think there is a lot of rancor directed at so-called “passive” heroines. I don’t mind them as long as their voice reads like a genuine person to me. I would grow a little tired of reading stories about nothing but “kickass” women all the time.
    I don’t insert myself into stories I read though. Like Evangeline Holland said, I like to read about other people. So, I don’t imagine I am Bella or Anastasia Steele or even Kate Daniels. To me they are separate from me in a similar way characters in movies or television are. I love “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, but I don’t have to pretend to be Buffy to enjoy the heck out of the show.

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  33. Ros
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 21:32:46

    @Jane: Okay, I think I finally get what the piece is saying, thank you. But it doesn’t match my reading experience at all. I just don’t do the ‘visiting’ kind of reading. I’m always in there, living every moment in my head as if it is the . So to me the flat character is just a less interesting person to be in my head. I want to see what it’s like being a person who has real depth and unexpected strengths and flaws and issues and is interested in the world in a way that’s different from my own experience of it.

    This is one of the main reasons I just can’t get excited about YA or even New Adult books. A teenage perspective on the world is necessarily limited by lack of experience. I didn’t much enjoy being a teenager when I was one and I don’t want to go back to being one in my reading life.

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  34. Angela Booth
    Oct 02, 2012 @ 22:17:10

    [4] Yes, I know he’s 100. His entire situation makes no sense. Why are you a 100-year-old vampire going through endless courses of high school? There are better, more mature, things to do with immortality unless you simply never progress beyond the age you were turned. This is never explained.

    OK. Now I’m intrigued. He’s 100 YEARS OLD, and still in high school?

    I haven’t read Twilight, or 50 Shades; I’m too squeamish. Vampires in high school just seems creepy. I prefer my vampires in horror fiction — I enjoyed Salem’s Lot. However, I’ve read the excerpt of Twilight on Amazon. Very bland.

    The idea that someone would go through the hell of high school for 80+ years — now there’s a willing suspension of disbelief for you.

    Re fiction, and identifying with the characters. I’m not sure about that. My feeling is that people (in general) read genre fiction for the emotional charge; literary fiction for ideas.

    I don’t mind placeholder heroines, as long as the emotion is there.

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  35. Lizzie R.
    Oct 03, 2012 @ 04:40:43

    “But I couldn’t figure out why Bella Swan was hitting the right notes for grown women”.

    I read Twilight at 36/37, loved it and fell back into reading because of this series.

    When trying to explain to a colleague why it was enjoyable – I said something like “it will appeal to 17 year old girls or anyone who has been a 17 year old girl” so I think that’s why it hit the right notes for grown women – we’d been there – all that self doubt, the invisibility, the perfect unattainable guy – and managed to live through it and become hopefuly whatever we aspired to.

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  36. Jill Sorenson
    Oct 03, 2012 @ 07:22:45

    @Heather Massey: Interesting. I consider myself a placeholder reader but that quote is the opposite of what I experience. When a heroine fails for me, the book fails. I can’t enjoy it. I think most Twilight fans would agree that Bella is a very successful character. She isn’t flat or uninteresting to them.

    @DS:
    I think that I do have to identify with a romance heroine or root for her on some level. Interesting isn’t enough. Ted Bundy was interesting. Moriah also made the case that Bella isn’t interesting, but she enjoyed Twilight anyway. I’m puzzled by this.

    I’ll use Easy by Tammara Webber as an example because I haven’t read Twilight. In the first half, I loved the writing and hero but hated the heroine. Almost DNF’d. Then the heroine made a wonderful transformation. It made the whole book for me. THIS is what I enjoy most in romance. The heroine’s journey.

    @Jane:
    “However, the placeholder role is more easily assumed when the character is flat and less interesting.”

    I would argue that heroines who are easy to relate to make the best placeholders.

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  37. Isabel C.
    Oct 03, 2012 @ 07:58:03

    I had, er, a *lot* of opinions when I was seventeen. The quality of said opinions was extremely debatable, but dear Lord did I ever have them. Aggressively so, even. ;) In theory, that might be why I loathe Bella, but I liked Sam from 16 Candles, who was not exactly up on the wider world, so I suspect my Twilight loathing is mostly related to other, less relevant-to-this-post reasons.

    That said, I don’t get the identification with passivity in this context. Yeah, there are moments in everyone’s life that involve TPS Forms or root canals, but if that’s going on, I’d much rather read about someone for whom it isn’t. If my life is full of drudgery at the moment, I don’t get why I would want to experience, vicariously, more of the same. (Also, I’ll admit that passive people, especially as protagonists, bug me: I want to shake them firmly and yell DO SOMETHING, DAMMIT! into their faces, which is a bit of a distraction from the book.)

    On the other hand, I feel the same way about Dark Grittiness–If life sucks, why would I want to read about life sucking *more*? And if it doesn’t, why not enjoy the non-sucking?–and I know plenty of people who like that, so in the end…meh, whatever, it’s probably like my anti-olive sentiments.

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  38. Kaetrin
    Oct 04, 2012 @ 00:02:28

    I haven’t read Twilight and I can’t say that I see myself as a placeholder reader. Sure, there are times when I might wonder what it would be like to be in a particular circumstance or how I might deal with that situation, but I’m always “me” when I think it. I’m more of a voyeur reader I think.

    As to flat, boring heroines, well, I am a hero-centric reader so I suppose I could have more tolerance for a boring heroine than a boring hero, but ultimately, if the characters aren’t grabbing me, I’m not going to enjoy the book. I may not even finish it. But I know others read differently to the way I do.

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  39. Lynn S.
    Oct 04, 2012 @ 16:17:52

    Although this post confuses the heck out of me, I know all of life for the gift it is and I know I’m lucky to be able to read this and feel the sweet burn of confusion.

    My take on the Cinderella/beggar woman/governess mythos is that the heroine was always the queen. The hero did not elevate her, he recognized her. The idea of being known resonates even when muted by a story’s trappings or writing that is awkward at best.

    I think the problem some readers have with Bella Swan has more to do with Meyer’s writing than with the type character that Bella is. In the right hands, anything is possible. In the wrong hands, anything is possible as well. In either case there is going to be someone who is mystified by the whole thing.

    @Heather Massey: Bless you for the Laura Kinsale link. Hopefully it will give people some clarity on the concept. Kinsale’s original essay sort of met itself coming and going and I’m sure she had no idea what a great djinn of co-opting and misinterpretation she was releasing upon our little corner of the world when she wrote it.

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  40. Third Time’s the Charm and Links on Readers Reading | Something More
    Oct 06, 2012 @ 18:11:48

    [...] Jovan has a guest post on “The PlaceHolder Heroine” at Dear Author. This post got some people’s backs up, probably because Moriah [...]

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