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No leniency for heroines

512px-Sad_WomanOn the few occasions a reader has expressed dissatisfaction with one of my main characters, it’s been with the heroine. This is a theme I’ve noticed when reading reviews of other authors’ books too.

The hero can be a womanizing playboy, an arrogant jerk (wounded underneath, of course), or a self-blind martyr and most romance readers will love him anyway. They’re incredibly forgiving of the hero’s flaws. But a flawed heroine? Not so much.

Sure, no one wants to read about a woman—or man for that matter—who’s too stupid to live (TSTL, as we say in the biz), cheats on her man, whines incessantly, or is perpetually helpless. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

Aren’t we all a bit selfish? Don’t we do the things that make sense for us, our goals, our situation, even at the expense of others sometimes? Don’t we all make errors in judgment?

As a writer, I can’t start with perfect characters, otherwise there’s no room for them to grow. If they don’t grow, the emotional element of the story falls flat. One character will generally have a bigger growth arc than the other, but both should face, and ultimately overcome, a fear or incorrect belief about themselves. It’s only after their metamorphosis that they earn the happy ending in the reader’s eyes.

A heroine can start out as a pushover, but by the end of the story, she needs to stand up for herself and refuse to let others tromp all over her. A hero might begin the story unable to ask for help, but he can’t have his happy ever after if he doesn’t learn.

As a romance reader myself, I’ve found that I too am less forgiving of the heroine. And yet, if she’s without fault, I’ll dislike her even more for being too perfect. It bothers me that I’m like this, and I’ve been trying to figure out why.

Since most romance readers are women, why are we so hard on the heroines? (And hence, ourselves as a gender?)

I’m sure a psychologist would have some thoughts on the topic. I only took Psych 101 in college, but I have my own theories. I’d love to hear yours.

– Secretly, we’re jealous. When it comes to attracting a man, (usually) other women are our competition. In our mind when we read a romance, we fall in love with the hero, and if the heroine doesn’t seem good enough for him, we’re angry.

– We can’t understand why the heroine would push away or spar with the hero—can’t she see how emotionally wounded he is? how much he needs her?—even though she doesn’t know what’s in his mind the way we do (thanks to mutliple points of view in most romances). (It would be a really short story if there were no conflict.)

– We live vicariously through the heroine. We want to feel like she’s reacting to her situation in a way that makes sense. The way we would act if put in her shoes. We want her to be the strong, brave, beautiful woman that we want to be, but sometimes forget that she has her own backstory that informs her goals and desires. It’s more important that she act in a way that makes sense based on who she is and what she thinks she needs.

– Sometimes when a heroine has a trait or flaw that hits too close to home, it makes us uncomfortable, even if we don’t realize that’s why.

– We’re still a product of our culture. I believe the idea that women are the “lesser” gender is internalized within us subconsciously, even as we rail against it outwardly. For example, even another woman might consider a woman who is aggressive in business negotiations to be a bitch, whereas a man doing the same thing is seen as powerful and confident.

(This Pantene commercial does a nice job of illustrating the dichotomy in perceptions about men and women under the same circumstances. I think both men and women subscribe–knowingly or not–to many of these stereotypes.)

While romance novels these days often provide great examples of women who learn to stand strong, speak for themselves, and push for the treatment they deserve, I’m not sure society has embraced that type of woman as a whole. You only have to look to the Internet and all of the mysoginistic comments on news stories and blog posts to see that we have plenty of room for improvement.

When a man reads a romance—yes, it happens—does he have the same but opposite reaction? Does he fall in love with the heroine? Is he more forgiving of her flaws? Does he feel like the hero is a schmuck who isn’t good enough to kiss her feet?

Or is this something only women do to themselves? And if so, how do we stop?

Image credit: By Jiri Hodan (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

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  1. Reply

    Gwen, I’ll skip Abraham Massolw’s thoughts on the subject and leave him to wander through the corridors of Self-actualization. 🙂 Don’t look now but for my money you demonstarted his theory better through the vehical of Romantic fiction analysis (fiction, really) than most, if not all of the Psy. 101- 1909 texts on the planet get accomplished.

    I love “distilled thought.” This piece is the result of just about everything you have read, thought, written and felt on the subject of character development since you started down the writer’s road. This post is so good on so many levels.

    Anyone looking for a brief but thorough treatemnt of the compexities of charcter development from the writer and readers perspective with cultural anylasis thrown in for good measure. —The search stops here.

    (Well, now that I’ve been my snarky self to Prof. Massolow, it would be worth the trouble to Google Self-actualization read through the brief explination and take a look at the pyramid of development, aka hierarchy of needs, associated with it and re-imagine it in terms of characters.)

    • Reply

      Wow, Curtis, thanks! I do remember Maslow’s hierarchy, but hadn’t been thinking about it. Had an interesting read when I went to review his theories. I didn’t remember that he later added three more levels to his pyramid. 🙂

  2. Reply

    Bravo, Gwen. This is so true. I’ve noticed it very much in the workplace over the years. Women are often vicious to/about one another. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it myself. I’ve also noticed that whenever a man cheats on his wife, the other woman gets the lion’s share of the blame. She is partly to blame, of course, but so often it’s twisted in a way that if “she” hadn’t come along he never would have strayed. What a load of crap.

    How do we stop? I wish I knew.

    • Reply

      Maura: What is up with blaming the “other woman” instead of the louse who cheated? Especially if the other woman didn’t even know he was married. That’s probably more of a defense mechanism than anything. Easier to blame her than the man you love (or yourself), right?

      • Reply

        Chase these issues in a novel. Raise more questions. Probe even deeper. You are onto something here. It lights your fire. That happens for a reason. Don’t settle for less than everything you can uncover about this/these issues. Name names. They will become your character. The tention is as old as time.The questions are as old as time. Why in one of the earliest stories of creation did Eve not Adam come away with the blame? “The woman thou gavest me, she….” Good ol Adam blamed God and Eve in the same breath. They were n a i k ed! Nope, not me Eve says, it’s the snakes fault. Chase it in a novel. Chase it. You are onto something.

        • Reply

          Thanks, Curtis. I’m sure the reason this is on my mind is because the heroine in book two–which I’m still struggling with–has a promiscuous past and I’m trying to handle her story in a way that treats her fairly and helps us examine how we think about women, but doesn’t beat people over the head with a “message.” 🙂

          • Reply

            Augh, go ahead and beat. 🙂 But, really tear us out of the frame. Hand me the reader about four messages to wrestle with. That will create some internal tention, depending on how you structure it, throughout the book. Resolve the novel in satisfying fashion, but leave that issue unresolved. Would a Romance allow for one thread of ambiguity?

            I’ll stop now.

  3. Clive Harffy


    Very thought provoking Gwen. I enjoyed grappling with the ideas in your post. I liked the commercial too!

    We are all a complex blend of experience, selfishness, perceptions, conflict, failure, confused morality, questions. Or is that just me? One thing you didn’t mention, and that I think we need to be aware of, is that no man is 100% macho and no woman 100% feminine. Each of us is a complex interweaving of hormones, etc. Stereotyping is all too easy for anyone of us, but we should resist. Perhaps we should also resist such phrases as “we women” and “you men”. This ongoing stereotype sets us in two camps, the truth is much more complex.

    • Reply

      Great point, Clive. It’s definitely not just you. 😉 I absolutely agree that masculinity and femininity are more of a scale, and are definitely imprecise concepts. Growing up with a dad who was a nurse (he is both “manly”–whatever that means–and caring) opened my eyes to the fact that while women still have great strides to make, the world can also be tough for men, especially those who don’t fit a certain mold. There’s no easy answer here for any of us. Thanks for your input!

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