The romance heroine takes a lot of shit. Though I have no hard data out there to back this up (and you hard data people out there, feel free to offer some), in my experience, the heroine is more often the character a reviewer takes to task than the hero. The heroine is more often the one the reader hates, or disagrees with. We’re hard on our romance heroines.
And as for praise? That’s all on the hero. We have book boyfriends we argue over. We swoon over the hero. We’re ready to run off with him at a moment’s notice. We talk about all the sweet or amazing things he did for the heroine. And, let’s face it, the hero nine times out of ten gets to be the sex god while, more often, the heroine has to struggle (you know, until the hero’s magic penis swoops in).
That’s fine and dandy. I certainly have no problem with the hero being a sex god. But, for me as a reader, I’m heroine-centric. I love heroines. In fact, I care more about the heroine than the hero. Don’t get me wrong. I want to fall in love with the hero. I want him to be wonderful and sweet and totally blown off his axis by the heroine. But, I think that’s easy to find. What’s rarer?
The meaty, complex, multi-faceted heroine. You know why? They’re hard. They can’t come off selfish or cruel (all things we tend to give pass to in a hero) or whiny and weak. Likeability in a heroine is an almost-must.
I am not super likable at times. I’m selfish. I can be cruel. I whine loads, and there are times when in the face of struggle, I’m weak. I don’t want the heroine to be perfect. If she’s perfect I am reminded of all the ways I am not. I want her to be real. I want her to struggle. I want to give her all the things we give the hero without reservation. Compassion and understanding.
You see, I read anything, be it romance or classic literature or a biography, with the hope the book will shape me in some way. That I will learn from it or resonate with it or understand myself a little better for having read it. A heroine who is perfect or is only marred by some horrible past has a harder time of giving that to me than a heroine who has faults, who falters, who screws the fuck up. Who is sometimes selfish or does bad things, not for some grand purpose, but because that’s what people do.
I am not of the heroine as placeholder camp. I don’t want to BE the people I read about. I want to learn something from them or find some camaraderie, but I have no desire to go through their life. I love Gone With the Wind, but I certainly don’t want to be Scarlet or Jane from Jane Eyre or even the heroines I write. For me, personally, that’s not what I’m looking for. I’m looking for someone interesting and complex. Someone real, even when they’re not.
I’m so glad to see this becoming more and more common in romance. Heroines who aren’t just not-perfect, but are really kind of screwed up. Heroines who are selfish or antagonistic or who made/make mistakes. And still manage to work things out with the hero. Still manage to work out a problem or a life, because that’s what we all do. And sometimes, some revelation or understanding they have about themselves helps or resonates with me, and I feel less alone or more normal or something.
So, where are these books?
Molly O’Keefe’s Crooked Ranch Series: Tara, Victoria, and Maddie are three of the most complex, fascinating heroines I’ve read. When I think about this series, I think about the heroines first and foremost. Tara is selfish, Victoria is weak, and Maddie is ambitious. None of them are apologetic about these facets, and even as they work to overcome them, it’s never made out that this is some inherent weakness in their nature that only the hero can fix. In fact, neither hero or heroine gets “fixed”. More like together they support and help each other, not change each other.
Sarah Mayberry’s The Other Side of Us & All They Need and maybe everything she’s ever written ever? I love how real her heroines feel, and I particularly love the gender role reversal in The Other Side of Us and the physical description of the heroine in All They Need.
Tamara Morgan’s Confidence Tricks: Poppy is kick ass. She’s on parole and while I love Asprey and his almost total comfort in Poppy’s bad-assedness, it was Poppy’s complexities and issues that aren’t magically fixed by the right man, or fixed at all, that make her exactly the type of heroine I want to read about.
One Final Step, Stephanie Doyle: Admittedly, I didn’t love this book. I didn’t even particularly like the heroine, but I did like that she’d made mistakes for really interesting (read: not noble) reasons. Yes! I want more of this!
I am but one lowly reader and even more lowly writer, but I hope to see this trend continue. Also, if you’ve read a book with a complex, not-always-nice-or-likable heroine, dish in the comments, please!