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Guest Post: Difficult Heroines by Molly O’Keefe

Guest Post: Difficult Heroines by Molly O’Keefe

If we had thumbs,  we would be snapping


This guest piece comes to you from author Molly O’Keefe whose books Can’t Buy Me Love (reviewed here) and Can’t Hurry Love are out in stores now.  Robin and I really love O’Keefe’s writing. It’s smart, sexy, and thoughtful.

I love the show Girls on HBO. Are you watching this? I’ll spare you the recap, you can read about it here.  But the reason I love this show is the very same reason it’s getting criticised. Every character on the show is selfish in turns. Petty and  self-absorbed  as only twenty-something girls can be. They are in a word, difficult.  Which isn’t to say they’re unlikeable. To me, anyway. They’re real, and they’re human and they’re fascinating.  But the creator, Lena Dunham took a huge risk creating these characters and trying to find an audience for them.

I was reading Anna Cowan’s great piece  about difficult heroines and reader thresholds – and it made me think about difficult heroines and writer thresholds.

The largest criticisms I’ve gotten on my recent releases are that the heroines and some of the other characters are unlikeable. It’s not surprising criticism, I took a chance and I knew not everyone would get Tara Jean or Victoria.  Which is weird, because I’m trying to make a living as a writer, why would I alienate some readers?

I honestly don’t have an answer to that, so I asked some writers who have written some difficult heroines to see why they did it.

“Difficult heroines bring a lot of conflict to a romance, which is always a good thing,” said Cecilia Grant author of  A Gentleman Undone (reviewed here). “They tend to make the hero-heroine power dynamic more interesting. And for readers who like to sort of vicariously experience the romance, I think a sharp-edged heroine makes just as good a “placeholder” as the softer-edged kind. Better, even, because she carries with her the idea that someone might see all your worst qualities – pettiness, coldness, poor decision-making – and fall in love with you despite or even because of those things.”

For Stephanie Doyle author of the Rita Nominated book The Doctor’s Deadly Affair, it’s much more simple. “ Difficult women are way more fun than easy ones, “ she says.  “I know this because I am in fact a difficult woman and I’m a lot of fun. But seriously – I think my characters are a reflection of the people I want to know. The difficult people are just more interesting”

Sarah Mayberry,  author of Her Best Worst Mistake (reviewed here) comes at it a different way. “Romance is full of difficult heroes,” she says. “It’s all about equality between the sexes when I write! If I would portray certain behavior or ideas in a man, I figure I should be able to portray them in a woman. The challenge, as always, is giving readers the information they need to understand what’s behind the character’s difficult-ness. If that’s even a word.”

The complicated nature of creating these difficult heroines is not lost on any of the writers I talked to. Caitlin Crews author of the Replacement Wife understands the inherent challenge.  “The fact is, not everyone is going to like your heroine no matter what you do.  But I think readers want to know a heroine’s motivation, and if you give it to them, they’ll follow her to a lot of dark places.”

All of the authors have tried to balance the “likeabilty scales” as Crews called them. According to Ruthie Knox, author of About Last Night (reviewed here); “I think there’s a difference between asking readers to sympathize with a character and asking them to like her. It’s difficult to like a heroine who hates herself. I can sympathize with her plight, but I want her to show some get-up-and-go, you know?”

Grant agrees.  “As a reader, I have a huge tolerance for unlikeability as long as the character gives me a few things with which to sympathize: a difficult backstory, a humiliating experience, an aspiration or interest that I can relate to.”

This, of course, doesn’t work for every reader and as writers who try to push the envelope in terms of the kind of heroine to be found in romance novels, there is a risk that the heroines and ultimately the books won’t find an audience.

“Real people – which is what I hope my characters resemble,” says Doyle, “are going to meet people who like them and don’t. And it’s the same way with readers.”

I can attest that it is both that simple, and a million times more complicated.  Part of my choice is wanting to grind as much emotion out of a character arc as I can, and that requires some serious highs and lows.  Redemption and forgiveness stories are powerful,  but someone has to do something bad to make them believable.

But largely, and I think most of the authors who take chances on setting, or conflict, or plot – the appeal is the challenge. The challenge of trying something new, of changing some minds, of breaking the molds.  It’s not easy, and it doesn’t work for every reader, or writer…but it’s fun.


Guest Opinion on Shame and the Heroine with Molly O’Keefe and Caitlin Crews

Guest Opinion on Shame and the Heroine with Molly O’Keefe and...


I asked Molly O’Keefe and Caitlin Crews if they would share some thoughts on shame and the romance heroine.  The two were obvious choices for me because Crews and O’Keefe both write about the topics in their books.  In the Disgraced Playboy, the heroine’s entire life is shaped by some modeling photos she had done as a teen.  She was made to feel that these photographs were shameful rather than a beautiful exhibition of her body.  Later in the book, the heroine learns to embrace her past and reclaim her self esteem.  In Molly O’Keefe’s upcoming Can’t Buy Me Love, the heroine had a rather disgraceful past and she attempted to earn her redemption through hard work and loyalty.   In Can’t Buy Me Love, the concept of a woman’s worthiness is played out in three women at different stages of self acceptance.  

Let us know your thoughts about shame and the romance heroine and we’ll enter you in a contest to win one of ten sets of books which will include one ARC of Can’t Buy Me Love and The Disgraced Playboy from Caitlin Crews.

From the desk of Molly O’Keefe:

I cut my romance reading teeth in the early 1990′ when the seductions were forced, the misunderstandings lasted the whole book and the heroines carried deep-seated sexual shame

In the historicals I loved, the shame manifested itself in the shameful past or secret. This usually involved terrible physical or sexual abuse, or rape (sometimes by the hero) which resulted in our heroine obviously being terrified of men and intimacy, but often she lost her virginity before it’s proper use as a commodity.  (Catherine Coulter, Katherine Sutcliffe, early Jude Devereaux.)  A twist on this, the hero would think that the heroine wasn’t a virgin, thanks to her shameful past, only to realize his error when they finally had sex. (Judith McNaught, Elizabeth Lowell).

In the contemporaries,  the heroine was shamed by her lack of sexuality. Having been convinced by some former lover that she was frigid, or “not woman enough” to satisfy a man. Again, Elizabeth Lowell was the master of this. The heroines in these books were just waiting for the right man to show her what a woman she was.

This device worked on several levels. First, the sex in these books was conflicted. It was epic. The plot advanced through sex and it was all emotionally-charged and angsty.  Those love scenes had plot lines of their own, and dialogue. Hot, heady stuff.

Second, the heroine had to work her way past the shame. She had to deal with it. It gave the heroine something to “do.” The heroines in these books never had jobs, or work. I can’t remember them having children. They were basically foils to the alpha heroes who needed to be redeemed.  And what better way to redeem a hero then having him fix the heroine? He wasn’t just the catalyst for her to get over her past, or forgive herself (for things that were clearly not her fault) he erased her shame with his touch.

He healed her past. Completed her. Oh! The power of fourteen page love scenes and expert cunnilingus.

With all this exciting growth and change romance authors couldn’t give heroines sexual shame anymore and romance readers no longer bought that form of conflict (for the most part—they’re still out there), it didn’t work.

But authors and readers still want her to feel shame. The emotional arc is just too powerful – from guilt to forgiveness, from self-loathing to self-acceptance. We’re seeing more and more heroines make some bad choices, suffer the consequences and drive the plot.

While heroes could do terrible things in the past and feel great remorse and shame, they handled it by being darker, more anti-hero. The worse his shame, the worse he behaved, but then the more powerful his redemption  (JR Ward’s Lover Awakened).

But our heroines with shame (Sugar Beth from Ain’t She Sweet) they’re plucky. They’re earnest. They do their best, running constantly into the glass ceiling of their own sense of self-worth. They know they don’t deserve happiness or love or to let all their skeletons out of their closets (Victoria Dahl’s impressive Lead Me On), they don’t get to be the people they really want to be because of what they’ve done.

For me and many romance readers, this is utterly endearing. It’s sympathetic and heart-breaking. The hero, who can no longer save her with oral sex, now has figure out how to get past all the land mines of her self-hatred and secret keeping, and then has to figure out how to make the heroine see the woman he sees. Our hero has to enable the heroine to break through that glass ceiling – and when this happens it’s magic.

We want our heroine to suffer for love, to be lifted free of something by love. Shame happens to fit the bill perfectly when it’s done right. That’s why we read romance. Well, that and expert cunnilingus.

Find out more about Molly O’Keefe at and look for her back to back releases beginning the end June of 2012 with Can’t Buy Me Love or you can try out a couple of my favorite Harlequin Superromances from Molly now such as His Wife for One Night and Baby Makes Three.

From the desk of Caitlin Crews:

I don’t know that my own thoughts are as linear as Molly’s, sadly.  I’m going to throw them out here and hope for some clarity…

I’m interested in the ways in which shame informs and shapes women (and thus my heroines), and while it seems there is always a link to something sexual in there (a sad commentary on our society, I’d say, and the experiences that too many girls have on their way to womanhood and then through it) I wonder if what I’m most interested in has more to do with my heroines’ sense of their own essential worthlessness.

I think the women I write about have forged their identities in response to, or in revolt against, various feelings of powerlessness (and subjugation, and an often imposed-upon-them or self-imposed notion of some kind of “dirtiness,” and whatever else lurks in that dark little cocktail they carry around inside) and those that made them feel that way.  Often, they have turned on themselves, beating themselves up with their own sense of shame.  Often the hero is specially crafted to really push the boundaries of that shame, forcing the heroine to examine it and eventually move through it.

But shame is so versatile, and so hardy, and sneaks into so many aspects of their lives.  Dark pasts, desperate secrets, consuming horror at old choices or others’ responses to them.  Suspecting that deep down they are, in fact, worthless, and that if the hero (or anyone) knew “the truth” about them, he (they) would agree and be forced to act accordingly.  When things blow up, there is usually some sick sense on the heroine’s part that she should have expected this—that it was always going to come to this and it was, in the end, inevitable.  It’s always my hope that what she does next is move forward anyway, that much stronger for facing her deepest fear.

Many of the women I know are incredibly strong, and yet are also involved in complicated daily vigils, keeping watch for the other shoe, which, they are certain, is going to drop because it always does.  It always will, sooner or later.  There’s a fatalism in this (and perhaps a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy?), but there’s also that feeling of inevitability.  We don’t deserve [insert good thing].  It will be taken from us.  It’s only a question of when.

It’s that worthlessness, isn’t it?  That suspicion the truth will come out and everyone will see the ugly, shameful truth.  And we’ll be left alone.

I set out to write Larissa, the heroine of my book Heiress Behind the Headlines, by accident.  I’d originally intended to kill her off in the book where she first appeared as more of a plot device, but saved her at the last minute because I thought it might be a lot of fun to write a “bad girl” heroine en route to her own redemption.  Larissa is filled with shame over the things she’s done, but she also realizes that there’s no possible way to apologize for them; she can only live, survive, change, and pay the price for her earlier choices.  The price is pretty steep.  I’m fascinated by the way our press (our culture) demonizes celebrities, forcing them into harsh narratives and roles in the media that have very little to do with the real people behind the famous names.

I’m also fascinated by how much harder we are on the women we believe have toppled from great heights.  Charlie Sheen, for example, received a national tour and the most amount of Twitter followers in the least amount of time while Lindsay Lohan, who appears to share similar substance abuse and addiction issues, is crucified.  Why is that?  What about pretty girls with problems brings out the mob mentality in us?  And why, to bring it back to romance novels and to echo a point Molly made, do we forgive a Dark and Shameful Past in a hero so much more readily?

I wonder, are we all complicit in that sense of shame, of worthlessness, so many women feel—even if they don’t happen to be scandalous heiresses chased hither and yon by the devouring, vicious press, like my Larissa?

In books, we use love to light up those dark places, to chase away worthlessness, to bring heroines the kind of joy they never previously imagined they could ever feel, much less be worthy of feeling.  This is what romance novels do, as Molly said.  What heroes do for their heroines (and vice versa).  This is what love does, or should do, in my opinion.  And what romances do so well.  Take away the shame.  Make us new.  Make it all okay.  Or so we hope.

Find out more about USA Today Bestselling author Caitlin Crews at  Caitlin writes some of my favorite Harlequin Presents. I really love her voice and facility with words not to mention the intense emotion she brings to her books.  I’ve reviewed several Crews’ books here.

Don’t forget that by participating in the conversation, you will be entered to win one of ten sets of books which will include one ARC of Can’t Buy Me Love by Molly O’Keefe and The Disgraced Playboy from Caitlin Crews.