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Who’s at The Center of Romance, the Hero or Heroine?

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Not too long ago I had a brief exchange on Twitter with Maili in which she stated her belief that Romance is a hero-centric genre. That view seems to reflect Mary Jo Putney's assertion in her Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance (New Cultural Studies) essay that "[a] romance can survive a bland or even a bitchy heroine, [my note: bitchy heroine = negative] but it cannot survive with a weak hero." However, just a few sentences later she points out that "the dark hero is obsessed with the heroine" and that it is the heroine whose "task and triumph is to civilize him, to turn him from a marauder to a worthy mate whose formidable strength will be channeled into protecting his woman and his cubs (sorry — his children)." The inference here is that the stronger and more "uncivilized" the hero, the more "triumph" in the domestication. In fact, I'm flashing back to virtually every Linda Howard hero I've read as I write this (remember Dane in Dream Man having sympathetic pregnancy and labor symptoms?!).

Anyway, back on track. My view is that Romance a heroine-centric genre, despite the strength, power, and controlling charisma of some of its more memorable heroes. I cannot deny the number of readers (like Joan/ Sarah Frantz), who read Romance for the hero, even if the majority who responded to Jane's post last week on the hero's point of view said they wanted dual pov's.

As to the question of whether the genre as a whole is hero-centric, though, I can see where some subgenres present that way, namely Paranormal and perhaps Romantic Suspense. Although as strong as some of Kresley Cole's heroes are, for example, the women still dominate that series, and their mates, in my opinion. And in general, I still perceive the genre, in its m/f form, at least, to be heroine-centric both in dominant point of view and in terms of the romantic idealization of the genre. For all the heroes who are tortured, transgressing, reformed, redeemed, and renewed by the love of a good heroine, at its core I would argue that Romance affirms a somewhat domesticated idyll for its protagonists – if not a white picket fence and 2.5 children, at least a core unit of romantic stability, which has, traditionally and historically, been more associated with the female point of view. The growing popularity of male/male Romance may challenge and even subvert this feminized perspective overlaying the genre, but I have not read widely enough among its offerings to make or refute this argument (hopefully someone will weigh in on this question).

Beyond the superficialities of a genre written and read largely by women (and the ridiculous idea that a writer cannot produce authentic and compelling characters of different genders, cultures, religions, etc.), and bypassing a simplistic Jungian analysis (we are all parts of the narratives we produce), for me, as a reader of m/f genre Romance, even most stories about the heroes are, essentially, heroine-centric in the narrative focus on a stable, utopic, romantic union. That genre Romance itself has descended from sentimental fiction of the 18th and 19th centuries, fiction that often focuses on courtship and domesticity, as well as sensationalistic fiction that was often a morality play (young, naïve woman is seduced and abandoned by dishonorable rake!), I also find a good deal of its literary ancestry still alive and well in the genre.

There may also be differences among subgenres. I find Romance influenced by Fantasy often heroine-centric, with the heroine on a quest, of sorts. Historical Romance to me often seems as if the primary journey is the heroine's. Even a book like To Have and To Hold, where Sebastian seems to dominate the narrative (and Rachel) at so many points strikes me as centrally focused on Rachel's empowerment. Sebastian is changed, reformed, rejuvenated, and redeemed by his feelings for Rachel and his desire to be a better man for her. At the end of the novel she is the one who faces the choice of whether she wants to be with Sebastian, and he must literally beg her for that chance. For me, his entire journey toward self-realization and happiness is ultimately circumscribed by his relationship with Rachel and by her approval and acceptance of him.

This is not to say that I believe the hero's perspective to be false, non-essential, or even less important than the heroine's. However, ultimately I think genre Romance in its traditional m/f form elevates and idealizes values and priorities traditionally associated with the feminine – home, heart, and family.

So what do you think? Is the genre heroine-centric or hero-centric? Both or neither? What do either of those terms mean to you? Does it make a difference that women are largely writing Romances, and if so, how? Does the centrality of the female or male protagonist vary across sub-generic categories? Has the genre changed over the years in its focus on either the hero or heroine?

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

58 Comments

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  2. helenb
    May 04, 2010 @ 04:31:59

    On the subject of m/m romances, even they seem to lean to the HEA settled down, sometimes married and with a dog. Whether that is because they are written by women or perhaps it is just the books I have read. Mind you domesticity features in books written about men by men as well. Perhaps most of us, regardless of gender, yearn to “settle down” if only to have some one to share the laundry with.

  3. Angie
    May 04, 2010 @ 04:43:17

    even most stories about the heroes are, essentially, heroine-centric in the narrative focus on a stable, utopic, romantic union

    This statement is begging the question, however. What it essentially says is that romances are female-centric because romance is female-centric. That’s clear enough as an assertion, but it’s not an argument.

    You’re saying that the stories about the woman’s journey are female-centered because they’re about the woman (even if the man is an essential catalyst in her development) and the stories about the man’s journey are female-centric because the woman is an essential catalyst in his development (even if the focus of the story is on the man). I could just as easily change around the gendered nouns in that statement and it would say that all romance stories are actually male-centered, regardless of whose story it is and who is acting as the essential catalyst. Again, this doesn’t prove anything one way or the other. It’s an assertion, not an argument, and in this case the emphasis in each chunk of the statement is given more or less weight depending on what you’re trying to show — the journey is what’s important if it’s the woman’s but not if it’s the man’s, and the catalyst is what’s important if it’s the woman doing it but not if it’s the man doing it) which isn’t a good way to prove your point.

    I think you’re right in that there’s a lot of traditional emphasis in our culture on women being the ones interested in romance and stability and marriage, and men being the ones interested in screwing around with as much variety and as little committment as possible, which makes genre romance female-centric in the audience it’s created for. I think it’s also true, though, that there are plenty of women who’d rather stay independent and play the field (and there’d be more if women could own up to this without having to put up take crap for being sluts and ball-busters) and there are plenty of men who crave committment and stability (and there’d be more if men could own up to this without having to take crap for being pansies and pussy-whipped and whatever.) Which is to say that I think much if not actually most of the male/female dichotomy here is a result of cultural conditioning and social punishment for those who deviate from the norm, rather than having much to do with how all men or all women “naturally” are.

    And yes, the existence of m/m romances does rather demonstrate that all of romance is not female-oriented. Unless you want to argue that gay men who crave love and committment and marriage are being girly when they do so, and I don’t think we want to go there. [wry smile]

    That said, I don’t think all of romance (even het romance) is oriented around either the guy or the girl. That question assumes it has to be one or the other, and I don’t think it does. Some books focus more on the girl, and some focus more on the guy. If you insist on corralling every genre m/f romance under a single umbrella, you’re going to end up using a big hammer on a lot of books which don’t naturally fit into your mold. Why do that? Books which focus on the girl are oriented around the girl. Books which focus more on the guy are oriented around the guy. There you go, there’s no reason to jam them all into any one slot.

    Angie

  4. Angie
    May 04, 2010 @ 04:44:19

    HelenB — I’ve read romantic gay erotica, written by men for male readers, where the characters settle down into a stable romantic relationship at the end, so it’s not just an artifact of the female writers and female audience.

    Angie

  5. Laura K Curtis
    May 04, 2010 @ 05:44:52

    I, too, think of the romance as heroine-centric, and I think that comes across in two ways:

    1) in the vast majority of romances (and I don’t read m/m or f/f romance, so I am speaking here strictly of m/f), the character whose arc is most independent is the heroine’s. While the hero may have an arc as well, his tends to be secondary to hers. That is, he may be healed of his terrible emotional scars by the end of the story, but it’s only through her (and only her–no other woman could possibly manage it), whereas her triumphs may come from loving and being loved, but it is less clear that only *this* hero could help her grow.

    2) If you consider that which separates romance from any other genre, the objective of it, to be the HEA (in whatever form that might take), it tends to be the heroines who take the biggest emotional beating on the way there. It’s often not until the final pages that the hero admits his vulnerability.

  6. Edie
    May 04, 2010 @ 05:56:18

    I generally think of the romance novel as more hero-centric.
    To me they get more page time, the bigger story line and more indepth character study..
    There is still a large chunk of place holder heroines in the genre, but that is just my cranky opinion.

  7. Kimber An
    May 04, 2010 @ 06:02:04

    I can’t speak for the rest of yas, but I can tell you this.

    If I don’t love BOTH the Hero and the Heroine, the book can’t achieve better than ‘good’ to me, as a blogging book reviewer.

    There is absolutely no reason why both the Hero and the Heroine can’t become living, breathing fully dimensional people in my imagination. Anything less, cannot achieve ‘Great!’ status in my opinion.

    My theory why is some readers put themselves inside one or the other character’s head. I don’t. I perch on the Heroine’s shoulder. I might yell things like, “Dang, he’s hot!” And smack her upside the head once in a while. But, I doNOT become her, or him.

  8. Mireya
    May 04, 2010 @ 06:26:27

    All I can say is this: if the heroine is a POS (in my eyes) the book is a wall-banger. I’ll go back to the book that I use as a wall banger example, but I will not use the title this time. I consider the book’s heroine a complete and utter idiot, and this is the main reason why I consider the book such. That heroine is a POS even though she went through some rather harsh things throughout her life… which in turn make her a TSTL type as she didn’t learn a thing from her past experience and her trust issues are so extreme, that she really does a great job in f’ing up… more than once. But I digress. Bottomline, if I don’t like the heroine, I don’t like the book. If I don’t like the hero, but I am fine with the heroine, I’ll be relatively fine, though to be honest, both main characters have to appeal to me for me to consider the story a winner, even if the plot is crappy. I go for character driven books. Period.

  9. Maili
    May 04, 2010 @ 06:37:00

    I say the romance genre is largely hero-centric for five general reasons. But first, let me say this:

    Yes, I know generalisations are never good, but these observations – see below – are based on readers’ discussions over years to now. There are always exceptions, of course, but I’m focusing on the majority.

    I do believe most readers enjoy romance novels a lot more when heroine and hero were well-characterised and balanced, but I feel that when having to choose, most would pick hero as the main reason why they read romance novels. Yes, of course – well written stories are good to have, but I think some don’t care about how well the story is written if the hero himself isn’t interesting (even if the heroine is interesting).

    I think authors in general are aware of readers’ preferences enough to ensure their stories meet readers’ expectations so I’m listing these reasons that may affect or influence the genre as a whole.

    (And some of those observations do apply to the m/m genre in many aspects.)

    a) the focus of a story is usually on the hero – his background, his motivation, and so on. Heroines tend to be generic and/or interchangeable.

    Of course, not all romance novels are like that (thank goodness! :D), but most of those I read were.

    b) readers tend to remember heroes more. Heroes are usually heavily featured in book discussions, too, yet heroines are rarely mentioned. When they are, it’s usually tied to heroes’ actions. Most times, it seems heroes are the make-or-break factor for readers. If a reader finds a featured hero too problematic, she’ll either diss the book or abandon it altogether. If you check out Amazon reviews of early romance novels, criticisms from today’s readers were largely directed at jerk or rapist heroes. A reader may tolerate a TSTL heroine or poorly plotted story if the hero is intriguing or interesting enough for the reader to keep reading.

    c) When a reader says she looks forward to future books of a series, it’s usually to do with wanting a male secondary character to have his own story. I don’t often see anyone saying “I want a [female secondary character] to have her own story.”

    (Example: I once said I desperately want Chloe Mitsumi (from Michele Albert’s Off Limits) to have her own story. Zero response from readers. In the same conversation, I speculated whether Chloe’s bad-boy brother should have a story of his own, there was a reaction.)

    d) readers tend to get irritated or impatient when heroines are tormented or angst (“Get over it!” is the usual reaction) but can be very understanding or/and sympathetic towards tormented heroes.

    e) yes, most romance novels feature heroine’s journey, but sometimes I felt the sole emotional focus of heroine’s journey is on the hero, and the journey doesn’t end until the hero acknowledges there’s a future between him and her (via a ‘I love you’, a proposal, a baby, a wedding, or whatnot).

    Bonus: readers’ blogs and conversations tend to share photos of male models or actors who they imagine to be what certain heroes look like. I rarely see this happening with heroines (I think authors are usually the ones who share photos that they imagine how their heroines look).

  10. Nadia Lee
    May 04, 2010 @ 06:57:31

    I agree with everything Maili said.

  11. Joan/SarahF
    May 04, 2010 @ 07:02:11

    I’m with @Angie and @Maili (obviously :).

    But I’m also wincing at my perception of your conflation of romances being heroine-centered because the hero’s “entire journey toward self-realization and happiness is ultimately circumscribed by his relationship with” the heroine and her “approval and acceptance of him” and your argument that “genre Romance in its traditional m/f form elevates and idealizes values and priorities traditionally associated with the feminine – home, heart, and family.” To my mind, these are two entirely separate arguments. Having the heroine as the catalyst to the hero’s change and having the genre itself focus on themes traditionally viewed as “feminine” are not the same thing. And focusing on “feminine” themes do not necessarily make the book “heroine-centered” to my mind.

    I’m also getting increasingly…testy? with theories that attempt to sum up the genre as a whole. It seems instinctive to DO it, I just am increasingly of the opinion that it should NOT be done. But that’s me. :)

  12. Blythe Gifford
    May 04, 2010 @ 07:02:25

    One writer’s perspective: Some of my stories are driven by the hero’s journey and some by the heroine’s. Interesting, though, the comment that readers are more tolerant of the hero’s angst. Is that our training to strive for perfection in ourselves, but tolerate imperfection in a man?

  13. Joanne
    May 04, 2010 @ 07:18:50

    The LOL cat reminds me of Sister Mary Horror Show from my time in the 5th grade.

    For the rest, I dunno. I guess, if I actually thought about it, which I don’t, I think of every new book as an exercise in re-visiting the Pandora’s Box myth.

    Hope. The willingness of the characters to take the journey to their HEA. The HEA and all it takes to get there. Hope for the future. Hope for whoever ventures into the wild ride of romance and love.

    So, I guess I do know what I think. A good romance book is HEAcentric.

  14. Terry Odell
    May 04, 2010 @ 07:29:13

    At a Deb Dixon workshop, she mentioned that when she was working on a new book, her niece (I think — sorry if I’m wrong about the relationship there) asked if it was going to be a “his book” or a “her book”.

    I agree with her response. Although in romance, there’s supposed to be a balance between hero and heroine, it’s never a 50-50 split. But I think it can be different in different books.

  15. Susanna Kearsley
    May 04, 2010 @ 07:29:42

    Great post, Janet. (Although it’s making me think way too deeply and abstractly for this hour of the morning, when I’ve only had one measly cup of coffee…)

    I think maybe some of the confusion comes from the fact that the stories in romance are most often told from the heroine’s viewpoint — even when POV shifts back and forth, it’s her view that predominates, nine times out of ten.

    But HER focus (and through her, our own) remains fixed on the hero. She’s looking at him, not herself, throughout most of the story, so that’s who we’re looking at, too, when we read.

    Like Kimber An, I don’t ‘become’ the heroine when I read (or when I write, for that matter) but I do tend to walk beside her, and given that the hero stands in front of her a lot, he tends to fill my field of vision, too.

    But it’s still the heroine’s journey that I’m following.

    So I don’t know the answer to your question, yet. I’ll have to have another cup of coffee, and go think some more…:-)

  16. Edie
    May 04, 2010 @ 07:29:57

    Actually Maili’s point C) reminds me of a pet whine.. too often there is no possible female secondary to look forward to her story, whereas we get five million spare blokes. Or on the occasion we do get an interesting female secondary she is either already involved or has a minor romance that is resolved by the end of the book.

  17. Jody W.
    May 04, 2010 @ 07:34:13

    I have read a lot of romances that were heroine centric and a lot that were hero centric. I wouldn’t say a majority of the genre is more one way than the other, based on my own reading.

    On the other hand, I definitely have noticed the phenomenon Maili’s talking about with the reader groups’ interest in the male characters and lower tolerance of ‘negative’ behavior in heroines than in heroes. I don’t know that it makes romances as a genre more male-centric, though, just because many readers focus on the heroes.

    Either way, I’m coming to realize my tastes are not the norm, which may explain my career stagnancy — I keep writing books *I* want to read *laugh*. I doubtless seek out a certain type of book — well, hell, clearly we all seek out the type of book we want to read — and that would give me a perspective of the genre others don’t share. Blind men + elephant = lots of opinions, all valid.

  18. Jen X
    May 04, 2010 @ 07:37:32

    Hero-centric for me (agree with Maili’s points) but a subpar heroine can undo all the good in a worthwhile hero, so it’s not all black & white. Even though I may talk about & remember the hero best, I have to want to root for the couple first.

  19. BevBB
    May 04, 2010 @ 07:40:27

    I get tickled whenever this discussion comes up nowadays because people’s comments will invariably get all tangled up with everyone trying to be all pc about m/f, m/m, f/f when all they have to do is step back and ask themselves what story is being told?

    In the modern romance novel, I mean.

    Because I defy anyone to take either one of the two protagonists out, of any of them, and still have a romance. Because if you can, it ain’t a romance. Which means, that we aren’t talking about either one of their stories. We’re talking about something else. Something that has evolved in the narrative form and the dual perspective is simply a reflection of that evolution.

    These books are are the story of The Relationship and have been for some time. They are no more women’s fiction than they are men’s fiction, her journeys than his.

    Now, does that mean that there aren’t individual romances that might read more one way or another? Heck yeah. But collectively the center of modern romance novel is The Relationship as an entity unto itself and it takes a minimum of two to tangle for one of those, gender non-specific.

    Unless we are talking about me, myself and I. ;-)

    Bonus: readers' blogs and conversations tend to share photos of male models or actors who they imagine to be what certain heroes look like. I rarely see this happening with heroines (I think authors are usually the ones who share photos that they imagine how their heroines look).

    How many readers are male? I mean, why wouldn’t female readers be more likely to fantasize about the heroes as opposed to the heroines? For them to do otherwise would be the more strange behavior. And yet if romance had male readers and they were posting pictures of the heroines…

    o.O

  20. Christine Rimmer
    May 04, 2010 @ 07:41:38

    Fine post, Jane. But then, I totally agree with you, so I guess it’s not surprising I love what you wrote.

    In the end, a great romance for me is when I want to BE the heroine and find love with the hero. So the heroine is usually the central character in terms of the story arc, I identify with her. Some of the classic romances don’t work for me because the heroine is TDTL or just plain annoying. In that case, I don’t care how wonderful the hero is, there simply is no story for me to get involved in.

    Dark heroes are wonderful to me because they operate so well as both co-protagonist and antagonist.

  21. Sue Moorcroft
    May 04, 2010 @ 08:01:58

    For me, it all depends on what is meant by ‘heroine-centric’. My books definitely tell the heroine’s story and the hero is part of that, so … heroine-centric, right?

    Hmm. But I write (and read) romantic fiction for the hero and I like strong heroes. Sorry, but I do. A novel with a strong hero provides a nice safe way of having the fun of affairs without actually endangering my marriage. So maybe I put myself in the place of the heroine and enjoy the attention from the hero? Maybe.

    On the other hand, I do write from the hero’s point of view and thoroughly enjoy it. In fact, my publisher, Choc Lit, only publishes books where the hero’s point of view is developed. As a reader, I like books with both hero and heroine’s point of view. I guess I like the company of men.

    So, having talked myself around in a circle, I don’t think I see my fiction, or the fiction I love, as heroine-centric or hero-centric – it’s ‘them-centric’. That’s what I like. How they are together. The sizzle, the chemistry. The love affair.

    http://www.suemoorcroft.com

  22. Carolyn Jewel
    May 04, 2010 @ 08:03:58

    I just don’t think there’s a correct answer to this question, other than, “It depends.”

    It depends on the author.

    It depends on the reader.

    It depends on a combination of the two above.

    It depends on the culture being depicted.

    For every “rule” (Romance is hero-centric) some author somewhere will write a story in which that is not the case.

    Romance features (at minimum) a couple. Therefore, an author or reader is free to privilege one over the other if she/he prefers to do so.

    I think the comments so far tend to bear this out.

    It depends.

  23. Kaetrin
    May 04, 2010 @ 08:14:27

    Aren’t romance novels “relationship-centric”?

  24. Deb Kinnard
    May 04, 2010 @ 08:32:29

    Spot-on, Blythe.

    Disclaimer: I read only m/f.

    It seems to me that even when the story seems hero-centered, it’s still “about” the heroine. Some authorities say we fall in love because it is the most powerful way to feel good about ourselves. The loved one helps us feel we are becoming the best we can be. So if we read romance, IMO we are reading about those positive self-image creations, and recreating them for ourselves afresh every time we pick up a good romance.

    Since a great majority of romance readers are female (plus my husband who sprinkles the odd romance in among the science fiction), it may well be about how we women choose to reinforce our self-image. Fall in love! It’s a great character builder.

  25. dick
    May 04, 2010 @ 08:47:15

    At the risk of shocking her, I agree with BevBB–romance is relationship-centered; Cinderella’s story wouldn’t work without the prince.

  26. CupK8
    May 04, 2010 @ 08:50:21

    I agree with @Joan/SarahF regarding shoving the genre into one classification. I have read stories I would consider heroine-centric, and stories I would consider hero-centric. I will say that, for my money, the m/f tends to lean towards heroine-centric, in my experience. Take that for what you will. In a larger number of the romances I have personally read, the hero’s change is reliant on the heroine. She has to do something that triggers the change. The heroines I read tend to have their change come from inside.

    This is not a 100% case in any way/shape/form. I think it’s more an interesting view of my tastes as a reader than anything. I read a novel recently entirely from the hero’s perspective, in first person no less, and it bored me to tears. There was almost no journey for the heroine at all – she was just suddenly okay with his faults. Blech.

    @Carolyn Jewel: Now I want to see a Romance of One. Just for kicks.

    Edited for redundancy.

  27. Kalen Hughes
    May 04, 2010 @ 09:10:03

    @Carolyn Jewel:

    Carolyn said what I was thinking: It depends on the story and the reader.

    @CupK8:

    Isn’t there a quote about a romance with one’s self being the greatest love of all? I think someone could have quite a time writing Flashman: The Romance.

  28. Jane
    May 04, 2010 @ 09:11:36

    Dr. S, don’t you often argue that the genre is hero centric? How is that not a genre generalization?

  29. Robin
    May 04, 2010 @ 09:29:57

    @Joan/SarahF: Hey, Sarah, would you be as “testy” if my argument were that the genre is hero-centric? ;D

    All kidding aside, I’m kind of confused at your insinuation that I’m conflating the two sentences you cited above (I mean, they’re not even in the same paragraph!). Beyond the fact that I’m writing an 860 word post full of conclusory statements in order to provoke discussion, I don’t think I anywhere suggested that the statement I made in reference to Sebastian in To Have and To Hold is *the same argument* as the point about the genre elevating domesticity. Do I believe that they are related to a larger argument? Yes, of course, or I would not have included them. And yes, I completely understand that they are both debatable assertions that deserve and require much more analysis than I gave them here (although wouldn’t it be nice, for once, to be able to say,’this argument is perfect and sound-there will be no contenders!’).

    Just to clarify, my statement about Sebastian was actually designed to connect back to the Putney quote I offered (with which, by the way, I’m not even in comfortable agreement), and the domesticity argument is simply one of the reasons (many not even articulated in this piece) I believe what I do about the genre (and FWIW, I do believe it, albeit with exceptions and even completely accepting and agreeing with what Maili and BevBB and others arguing for a relationship-centric view assert). That I used a somewhat blunt instrument here instead of surgical analytical precision is, obviously, a point of weakness in my post, no question. But I was hoping a very incomplete, assertive post would allow plenty of room for discussion, and indeed, to my delight, it seems to have worked in that way.

    I completely respect that you do not agree with my view and that you could — and likely would — take some of my arguments and assertions in a completely different direction, but that’s the fun and the work of argument, right?

  30. Janie Church
    May 04, 2010 @ 09:37:23

    @Maili: I feel that most of this is true. It wasn’t always so. This topic brought up a conversation that I was having with some writers, and most of them felt they were better at writing the men than the women and I guessed that was probably because the hero was the center of their story, not the heroine.

  31. Lori
    May 04, 2010 @ 09:40:14

    My immediate thought was that I read for the heroine because I’m woman-centric in my life. I am a woman, I’m raising a daughter, my friends are mostly female, my co-workers mostly female …

    Then I thought of some of my favorite authors/stories and realized that it gets murkier.

    Victoria Dahl wrote a series of three books (The Tumble Creek books) and the heroines were the stories, the heros were unimportant in comparison. In each story: Molly’s, Lori’s and Jane’s, the focus was completely on the journey the woman took and the man was quite secondary to her personal journey.

    Thinking of Lord Dain from Lord of Scoundrels (my favorite historical), I can’t even think of the heroine’s name. He wouldn’t have worked without her, she was strong and interesting yet he dominated the story and was the focus of it all.

    Apparently they can both matter but only one truly dominates the story.

  32. Jane
    May 04, 2010 @ 10:41:00

    @Lori It’s Jessica! She totally makes that story for me. In fact, I found Dain a bit ordinary in retrospect. How funny that we have such different viewpoints.

  33. Jane
    May 04, 2010 @ 10:42:38

    @Janie Church I’ve seen Suzanne Brockmann state that she is more interested in her male characters thus it seems natural that her books are more male focused (as are JR Wards) but I suppose the question is whether the genre is dominated by the male voices (written by women) for a more male centric view point.

    Probably the best selling line in romance are the Harlequin Presents. I’d argue that in the aggregate, HPs sell more than any one author does. These books are largely female focused and often times will not have any male point of view.

  34. Liz Fichera
    May 04, 2010 @ 11:03:18

    I think the lines get more blurred in the subgenre categories, and that’s probably why I find the subgenres a little more interesting to read.

    P.S. Love the photo with this post. Tres cute! And I see John Lennon, even though there are times when I’d love to see Harry Potter!

  35. Janie Church
    May 04, 2010 @ 11:18:58

    @Jane: That’s true. I don’t read a lot of series romance, but I have. When you consider Harlequin and even Romantic Suspense, well, those are very heroine-centered books. A generalization, yes. But probably true. That readers are less forgiving of a TSTL hero than a TSTL heroine is also probably true. The hero is the center of the fantasy.

  36. Joan/SarahF
    May 04, 2010 @ 11:29:13

    @Jane: I do try to say that the romances *I* read and like are hero-centric, but certainly not the whole genre. Don’t think anyone can argue that Jenny Crusie’s books, even the ones with Bob Mayer, are anything other than heroine-centric. Ditto Eloisa James’ books.

    @Robin: Well, I’d like to think I would. :) And not…conflating them, maybe, but by putting them together like that, it seems to me that you’re saying they’re related. And I REALLY don’t think they are. Or, perhaps, they should be separated. Because heroine-centered doesn’t have to conflate to domesticity. Heroine-centered, as we’ve seen in UF, can mean kick-ass and no settling down at all, just commitment to each other, and I don’t see that that’s particularly feminine. So I’m just leery of having those two things so close together without indication that they can and should be separated.

    And I do understand the issues inherent in a post of less than 1000 words vs. an 8000 word article. But, hey, I thought my comments might generate discussion! ;)

    And! my testiness is a recent thing and much nurtured by Eric Selinger. WHY do we try to make grand sweeping statements about the whole genre? I guess that’s my question. Where does that instinct come from?

  37. BevBB
    May 04, 2010 @ 11:39:07

    Thinking of Lord Dain from Lord of Scoundrels (my favorite historical), I can't even think of the heroine's name. He wouldn't have worked without her, she was strong and interesting yet he dominated the story and was the focus of it all.

    Apparently they can both matter but only one truly dominates the story.

    The thing is, don’t confuse thinking that The Relationship is the central focus with not believing that the two protagonists get their stories told. Or that one or the other isn’t focused on more than the other.

    Quite the contrary.

    Somebody has to be center stage at least part of the time or the books would be about two other people entirely. I tend to think of it more as a mental triangle, where the stories of the two support the story of The Relationship. They can’t be separated because to do that breaks down the structure of the entire thing.

    The food for thought in that is that if they can be separated into individual stories, even secondary stories, then where does that leave the book in terms of today’s reader’s expectations. If, for instance, I see this description of a book sold as a romance – any book sold as a romance:

    Victoria Dahl wrote a series of three books (The Tumble Creek books) and the heroines were the stories, the heros were unimportant in comparison. In each story: Molly's, Lori's and Jane's, the focus was completely on the journey the woman took and the man was quite secondary to her personal journey.

    My mind says “woman’s fiction” because I’ve just been told that it’s all about her. I ain’t picking that book up. Wild horses couldn’t drag me near it.

    Unless I was in the mood to read a book that only about her… but it wouldn’t be my first choice when I was looking for a romance. Uh-uh.

    Question: anyone familiar with the A-plot/B-plot phenomenon in fan fiction? (And to some degree in non-romance genre fandoms.) Cause that’s what my mind keeps wanting to go back to in this discussion. ;-)

  38. Deb Kinnard
    May 04, 2010 @ 12:52:01

    Perhaps the need to make sweeping generalizations about WF/romance comes from the need to shove those orneryfeisty females back in the crate?

    Just guessin’.

  39. Sandy James
    May 04, 2010 @ 13:35:41

    @Blythe Gifford:

    One writer's perspective: Some of my stories are driven by the hero's journey and some by the heroine's.

    I couldn’t agree more! I write my books to tell the story demanding to be told. One book, it might be the hero — such as Murphy’s Law. That’s Seth’s book, his journey, and he shares it with Katie. But in Turning Thirty-Twelve, it’s hands-down Jackie’s book.

    I don’t think romance always leans one way or another, but it is women’s fiction. We would obviously identify more with the heroine than the hero. But I’ve read plenty of books I enjoyed that were the hero’s journey.

    @Deb Kinnard:

    Perhaps the need to make sweeping generalizations about WF/romance comes from the need to shove those orneryfeisty females back in the crate?

    Love this, Deb!!!

  40. Robin
    May 04, 2010 @ 13:56:08

    @Joan/SarahF: Sarah, I get that you disagree with my general position, and if your criticism is that neither of the specific assertions I’m making in my post *prove* my general thesis that the genre is heroine-centric, then I am certainly guilty as charged. But to be clear, again, the first statement you quoted was a specific statement about a specific book. The next sentence would never have been, “And this proves my thesis that the genre is heroine-centric!” Ditto with the points about how the genre elevates domesticity.

    Do I think both points are related to my general thesis? Of course! But they are not, in and of themselves, constitutive of that thesis, and it seems to me that you are insisting that they are not related because they do not lead automatically to my general thesis. But to me, that doesn’t at all mean they are unrelated, merely that they require more steps of analysis and assimilation to make all the connections clear and solid (whether you would agree with how I construct the argument is another issue, IMO).

    Beyond that, though, I’m not certain what your objections are. And, quite honestly, I find the conflation accusation to be deeply unfair.

    As for sweeping generalizations, well, I defy anyone, you, me, and Eric included, to speak about genres — about types and kinds of literature — without them. Pam Regis’s book on the genre, which I know you deeply respect, is chock full of them (and I do not offer this as a criticism, merely an observation). Of course some are more sustainable and defensible than others, and I get that you fundamentally disagree with the one I’m making here. But that doesn’t make it — or the specific points I make in the post — indefensible. You and I stand in disagreement on many issues in the genre, but that doesn’t make either of our positions untenable, because scholarship isn’t a zero sum enterprise.

    But I do wonder if part of the issue here is that you feel my assertion that the genre is heroine-centric is value-laden in ways I do not mean. And obviously this is partly my fault for not carefully detailing all the things I do and don’t mean with that label. For example, I am not suggesting that the genre is feminist. I am not suggesting that it’s all about women or that the heroines are more important or more powerful than the heroes (although IMO in different books these arguments can be made about specific characters — as I tried to with my statement about Sebastian in THATH, which, again, you may not agree with), or that some readers don’t legitimately identify with heroes more than heroines. For me, calling the genre heroine-centric is more about a thematic consistency in the genre and a structural relationship I identify to a) its literary ancestry, and b) its own generic evolution. Again, you may disagree with all that, but that’s the nature of this kind of work.

  41. Robin
    May 04, 2010 @ 14:00:27

    @BevBB: FWIW, I totally disagree that the heroes of Victoria Dahl’s Tumble Creek books are unimportant and less of a presence than the heroines. The first book, Talk Me Down, may be the most the most overtly constructed around the heroine, but I’d say that all three male protags in those three books are strong and most definitely present in the romantic relationships. Chase, from the third book (Lead Me On), is a very dominating presence in the heroine’s life and the book as a whole. YMMV, of course.

  42. dreamysusan
    May 04, 2010 @ 15:02:22

    Having been a careful cataloger of many category romances (public library cataloger)…

    I think in many romances the heroine is important as far as a character arc goes.

    But the hero is super important as far as “cool job” or plot hook. Cowboy romances? Policeman romances? Highwayman? Rich lord? Private detectives? FBI? Navy seal? Brooding vampire?

    Trying to assign subject headings for category romance can be very, very hard for the female characters and very easy for the male characters.

    Clearly, there are many exceptions…but the hardest thing for me while trying to categorize some of these books was figuring out a clear, compelling category for the heroine.

  43. Janine
    May 04, 2010 @ 15:12:11

    I haven’t read through the entire thread, but for me it all depends on the book. Some books I see as more hero-centric and others as more heroine-centric. It usually has to do with a variety of factors, such as which character’s POV is more predominant, which character has a bigger/deeper arc, and sometimes, which character leaps off the page more and is more memorable.

    For me, a book like Seize the Fire by Laura Kinsale is more hero-centric, while Sweet Everlasting by Patricia Gaffney is more heroine-centric. So I take it on a case by case basis, and I don’t think there is a genre-wide answer.

  44. Kate McMurray
    May 04, 2010 @ 15:21:06

    This is a really interesting discussion!

    I’m in the camp that picks up a romance for The Relationship; that’s what interests me in the genre. I think sometimes romances can be about one or the other of the characters, but I don’t know that I’ve noticed that the genre as a whole leans one way or the other. I will tell you that, were I to encounter one of the examples Maili cites-’interchangeable, underdeveloped heroines-’I’m putting that book down. I like a strong heroine in my m/f romances. I want her to be an interesting, fully-realized, well-developed character.

    Likewise, m/m and f/f novels are sometimes about one character’s journey (usually in relation to the other protagonist, but not always). I’ve noticed (I don’t know if this is true, so feel free to correct me, but this is my observation) that there are a lot more stories told from the first-person POV in m/m. (If you had a first-person m/f romance told from the woman’s POV, you’d probably call it chick lit, right? Which is a heroine-dominated genre?)

    So. I don’t think m/f romance is entirely female-centric, I think the relationship is the center of the genre, but there are certainly female-centric and male-centric romances. That is my slightly wishy-washy conclusion. :-)

  45. BevBB
    May 04, 2010 @ 16:12:08

    @Sandy James:

    I don't think romance always leans one way or another, but it is women's fiction. We would obviously identify more with the heroine than the hero. But I've read plenty of books I enjoyed that were the hero's journey.

    To me this is a classic example of marketing that’s become accepted when it may not be reality.

    I will ask this, and it’s a question that comes from long observation, doesn’t the perception by many that romance is women’s fiction automatically predispose them to see the stories as heroine-centric – even before a book, any book, is cited as example?

    Because as long as romance is seen as women’s fiction, how can it ever be his story? Much less their story?

    Which is where I always hit a brick wall with the concept that romance is women’s fiction in my own head. It’s about The Relationship, not relationships in general in some woman’s life.

    Its roots also stretch back into the adventure swashbucklers and mythic tales conceived by men as much as they do into the hallowed pages of Jane Austen. Ignore them, but then we’d be missing out on what inspired half the sub-genres of romance nowadays, from detectives to pirates to creatures that go bump in the night.

    In all eras and locales.

    Yeah, the primary market for romances are women and has been for a long time because that’s who publishers decided to primarily market the books to. They ain’t dumb. They followed the money. But, does that equal the same thing as making of them into fiction about women?

  46. CEAD
    May 04, 2010 @ 17:00:19

    I’m definitely in the “relationship-centric” camp. @BevBB: I completely agree with you about the triangular structure, and with basically everything else you say as well. No book gets an A from me unless that triangle is balanced.

    Second to the romance for me is the hero. I want to like both the hero and the heroine, but my standards for him are higher. I want to fall in love with him; I only want to be friends with her. I don’t automatically identify with her, either; sometimes I identify much more strongly with him. As others have said, it does depend on the book, the characters, and the author.

  47. Sandy James
    May 04, 2010 @ 17:15:59

    @BevBB:

    I will ask this, and it's a question that comes from long observation, doesn't the perception by many that romance is women's fiction automatically predispose them to see the stories as heroine-centric – even before a book, any book, is cited as example?

    I don’t think that’s necessarily the perception, nor do I believe a romance novel has to focus on the heroine. What I meant was it’s probably easier for women readers to identify with the heroine. Doesn’t mean the story has to revolve around her. I love stories that are hero-centric, but I still “see” myself in the heroine.

    And you’re entirely right. Women sure aren’t dumb. We represent enough buying power to create culture. :)

  48. Melissa Blue
    May 04, 2010 @ 18:27:52

    On it’s face romance is the embodiment of feminism-’a women’s right to make her choice, but that doesn’t automatically make it heroine-centric. What it comes down to for me is that as a whole romance novels are about intimate relationships, which is pretty primitive. That basic need has no gender.

    In the end both the hero and the heroine have to accept each other’s faults along with the good qualities. To weigh who had a harder journey doesn’t speak for the entire genre. Just as much as the hero needs to be redeemed, forgiven, etc. by the heroine, (in the examples you gave) she can’t complete the journey without the help of the hero. The heart and center of the novel is the relationship.

    On a smaller scale genre can sometimes dictate who has the harder journey. If I only read Urban Fantasy or Women’s Fiction my answer would be heroine-centric. Not that the hero plays second fiddle, but the spotlight is focused on the heroine. All plot and characters end up back on her, showing the change. Her quest, her prize. Paranormals definitely hero-centric. *generalization alert* It seems to be about the hero trying to tame the beast within. Yet again the small scale doesn’t speak for the whole.

    But then you asked this “Does it make a difference that women are largely writing Romances, and if so, how?”

    I don’t think there is an answer that won’t sound sexist, but I’ll try. * So forgive me now. * I don’t think your gender qualifies you to write about love in a way that could resonate with readers. I also don’t believe all women see the world through the same view. So how would they interpret love in the same way? Yet it’s interesting that it’s much more acceptable for a women to write about intimate relationships i.e. “feelings”. That line of thinking would get me started on today’s society and mores. I’m having a good day so I’ll pass.

  49. Liza Lester
    May 04, 2010 @ 18:48:11

    I completely agreed with @Maili’s points in support of the hero-centric position, but then found myself also agreeing with @Robin’s idea about a “thematic consistency in the genre” that is heroine-centric. Or, at least, woman-centric. And so the concept of character-centricity got all tangled up in my mind and I’ve been working on sorting it out. As several commenters have pointed out, there is a swath of Romance that focuses on a story about winning the sexiest, most powerful male around, and really developing the mouth-watering and heart-melting character of the hero, to point of making the heroine into a cipher for the reader. All the attention is on the hero. I would say that Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood tends toward the extreme of this approach. At the same time, the fantasy is entirely centered around the care and taming of this powerful and sexy male by the heroine. It’s all about how he loves her and she changes him, and that could be viewed as heroine-centric, even if the heroine is a boring and underdeveloped character.

    Or maybe it’s just fantasy-centric, in a genre enjoyed mainly by women (setting aside m/m romance for the moment). I was checking out the comments on the male POV post. I love hero POV. I like the thrill of learning how he really feels about the heroine–but sometimes it makes me uneasy, even when I’m deep in the thrall of the story. It often doesn’t jive well with my memory of how male writers write about love. It’s not that I think women can’t write male characters. The trouble occurs when I get the feeling I’m being fed too much of what I want to be true, just too much cake. It makes the fantasy thinner–less visceral.

    I don’t know, I’m still mulling these ideas. Great post!

    And I vastly prefer that the heroine be interesting and powerful, and, yes, bitchy if necessary.

  50. Joan/SarahF
    May 04, 2010 @ 19:18:58

    @Robin: God, Robin, I don’t “fundamentally disagree” with your argument. I find that, for me, it doesn’t hold true, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold true for other people.

    As for the issue of my choice of your quotes, maybe I should have paraphrased instead of quoted. I was uncomfortable all the way through with a nagging sense that, *to my mind*, you seemed to be conflating domestic writing as specifically “feminine” and therefore heroine-centric, but that was *my* reading and I wasn’t pointing it out to be unfair. I was pointing it out as an issue *I* had. I’m sorry I picked out specific words instead of saying it was a problem I had with the whole piece, but it was a problem I had with the whole piece. And I KNOW, having seen your academic writing, that if this were a larger, more formal argument, that you’d tease those things out and separate them. I was just…pointing something out to draw out discussion. I’m sorry I did it in what was taken as a combative tone. I was being flippant because…well, it’s a blog post and blog comments and I didn’t expect the third degree. But then, I guess you didn’t either. :)

    And I pretty much agree with everything you say in the last paragraph of comment 39, FWIW. My article “Expressing Herself” argues precisely that: that romance is all about getting inside the hero’s head IN ORDER TO SHOW how he submits to the heroine’s power over him.

  51. Kaetrin
    May 04, 2010 @ 19:36:59

    @ SarahF. Just as an aside, I don’t think Victoria Dahl writes women’s fiction at all. It’s definitely romance (IMO). I enjoy her contemporaries better than her historicals but they are all about the journey two people take to love (OMG! I just re-read that last line and I think I should start writing cover blurb for some sappy romance company – cue the cheesy music!!)

  52. Joan/SarahF
    May 04, 2010 @ 19:40:28

    @Kaetrin: Never said she did. Dahl definitely writes romance, to my mind. That was @Lori and @BevBB. ;)

  53. Kaetrin
    May 04, 2010 @ 20:02:22

    Sorry SarahF – my bad.

    @BevBB – I agree with your comments re romance being relationship-centred.

    But, Dahl writes romance!

    :)

  54. Kaetrin
    May 04, 2010 @ 20:14:49

    @ SarahF – I haven’t read all of the comments completely, I did more of a scan (as is obvious from above!). I’ve picked up that you don’t like the all inclusive generalities about heroine-centric or hero-centric. Later, it seems like you leaned on the hero-centred side though.
    It seems to me that the heart of romance is a relationship (usually between 2 people), how they fall in love and get their HEA or at least HFN. If the heart of romance is the relationship, then it doesn’t matter if it’s a m/m, f/m, f/f, or m/f/m etc – some stories may focus more on one party than the other, but for it to BE a romance, it must have a romantic relationship which is it’s raison d’etre. It seems obvious (to me at least) and it also happens to be inclusive in terms of m/m and f/f. I’m curious as to what you think – is it the relationship or the hero? Or do think it changes from book to book within the genre?

  55. Joan/SarahF
    May 04, 2010 @ 20:24:09

    @Kaetrin: The worst book I ever read was Dostoevsky’s CRIME AND PUNISHMENT because Raskalnikov was so fucking BORING because he couldn’t see outside himself.

    So yes, romances are ALL about the relationship for me. Absolutely. That aside, I, personally, just don’t enjoy romances that focus mainly on the heroine’s journey. I don’t like 1st person female POV. I gravitate toward romances that focus on the hero’s journey. I have elaborate theses about the issue (as does Janet/Robin, obviously). I *try* not to argue, although I’m not always successful, that my reading experience does not equal other people’s experiences. Other people very much enjoy female-centered romances. *I* personally do not.

    But yes, that aside, it’s about the romance, the relationship, the HEA.

  56. Kaetrin
    May 04, 2010 @ 20:36:20

    I prefer 3rd person POV because I like to know what everyone’s thinking. There are some 1st person books that I’ve enjoyed but I tend to prefer those that have a lot of dialogue so I can get to know the other characters better and form my own opinions about them. Reading 3rd person is my only chance in this life to be omniscient. (I kinda like it!! :D)

  57. BevBB
    May 05, 2010 @ 05:23:27

    Hey, guys, I never said Dahl didn’t write romance. I was making an observation about how a description, written a certain way, can sway reader expectations. And about how what we’re conditioned to believe about the genre can create a self-defeating mind-set.

    Or something like that. I may have lost track at this point. ;-)

  58. CupK8
    May 07, 2010 @ 23:34:27

    @Kalen Hughes: For Valentine’s Day, I went out with myself. I’m all about the self-love *snerk*

    @Joan/SarahF: All your female-POV can belong to me. We must balance each other out as readers. :)

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