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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

Give me a black moment

BrokenHeartI’ve noticed a distinct lack of gut-wrenching black moments in several of the books (by major authors) I’ve read recently, and it’s bothering me. I hope it’s not a trend.

What is the black moment you ask? It’s that all-is-lost moment in the story just before the final act begins. It’s  the absolute worst thing that can happen to the main character, and if done well, it should break the reader’s heart. They shouldn’t be able to imagine a way out of it, yet it should set up the final act and the satisfying resolution.

For some examples, let’s turn to movies (spoiler alert!).

– In Avatar, the black moment is when the humans attack and destroy the Na’vi village. Our hero, Jake, has lost the fight, lost the girl and his place with her people, and lost his chance at walking again.

– In The Hunger Games, it’s when Rue dies.

– In Star Wars, the black moment happens when Obi Wan Kenobi lets Darth Vader kill him.

– In Toy Story, it’s when the van drives away with Andy and his family and leaves Buzz and Woody behind.

Okay, enough examples. The thing is, if the black moment isn’t devastating enough—or is hinted at but never actually happens—I feel cheated. The happy ending/resolution isn’t nearly as satisfying if the main character(s) in whom we’re emotionally invested, don’t have to work for it.

Or put another way, the ending is exponentially more gratifying when they do have to work for it. The black moment forces them to reevaluate everything. Their goals, and their perceptions of themselves and the world. It’s the catalyst for change. It forces the character to arc.

Imagine if Rocky had just clobbered Drago (the Russian) easily at the end of Rocky IV. BORING! Wouldn’t you be angry? Don’t you want some excitement? Don’t you want to feel like he just might lose, and be biting your nails on the edge of your seat, wondering if he can pull it off? Don’t you want him to dig deep to find some inner strength and purpose that he hadn’t yet discovered within himself?

Make the lovers part ways over an issue that seems irreconcilable before they get their happily ever ever. Force the sleuth to face a dead end before he solves the mystery. Have the spy fail, get pulled from the case, and lose her job before she finally stops the evil terrorists.

The stronger the black moment, the more emotionally satisfying the resolution is.

Go ahead, authors, torture me. Break my heart. I’ll love you even more for it.

Image credit: By Corazón.svg: User:Fibonacci derivative work: InverseHypercube (Corazón.svg) CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), via Wikimedia Commons

Epiphany at a workshop

IdeaOver the weekend, my local RWA chapter hosted bestselling romance author Virginia Kantra for an interesting workshop on characterization, gender roles, and the struggle our characters face between developing intimacy and maintaining control.

She talked about starting with gender stereotypes to meet reader expectations, but taking it further to create unique, compelling characters. She discussed how gender differences can be a source of conflict (e.g. her desire for independence vs his need to protect/provide, their different attitudes toward sex, and so on). And she went over the three character arcs in a romance: his, hers, and theirs. (And people think romance is easy to write.)

But the biggest value I got from the workshop was possible insight into one of my characters. Tara starts out as a secondary character in Blind Fury and becomes the main character in my second manuscript in that series. She has a fairly promiscuous background—something she’s trying to move beyond because it eats at her self-esteem—and the main reason is her desire to feel loved. Unfortunately, all she’s getting is a temporary connection.

(I think the motivation is important for making characters unique. For example, another woman might gravitate toward casual sex to avoid the intimacy and loss of control that comes with a long-term relationship.)

My epiphany was that Tara’s willingness to keep jumping in the sack on the first date—despite her desire for a lasting relationship—might also stem from the sense of feminine power she feels during the seduction and the act itself. I like the idea of having another layer to her behavior.

I don’t even remember what it was Virginia said that made me think of it, but I’m glad I was in the workshop.

This is the reason I often attend chapter meetings and conference sessions, even if they’re not strictly a topic of interest for me (though this one definitely was). Ideas often come from the most unexpected sources. An offhand comment by the speaker, a conversation with another workshop attendee during lunch. You just never know.

Had any serendipitous moments of your own lately?

Image credit: By Producer at ar.wikipedia (Transferred from ar.wikipedia) (Public domain), from Wikimedia Commons

Lightbulb moments

Writers who talk about structure often reference the concept of story beats. Like beats of music in a song, story beats are the little moments that are strung together to make a novel or screenplay.

But I never quite understood how long a story beat was until I started reading STORY by Robert McKee. He’s the first author I’ve read that clearly defined it, and he basically said that a beat is one unit of cause and effect. Or action/reaction. Which made me think of Dwight Swain’s motivation-reaction units. Hmm.

In other words, every time someone says or does something and the other character reacts to it, that’s a beat. Or the character sees, feels, hears, tastes, or smells something and reacts to it with thought, action, or both.

Lightbulb moment.

I love how the more books I read, the more concepts overlap and gel together to solidify an idea I hadn’t yet grasped.

Another one that I didn’t think I’d seen in quite this way before—but, of course, the next day I saw the concept mentioned in Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT! GOES TO THE MOVIES—was the idea of taking the character from one state (or charge) to its opposite. For example, when we talk about character arc, we’re taking our character from unloved to loved, or afraid of fire to able to run through fire, or risk-averse to daring.

So – to +, or the reverse. Boiling it down to two opposing charges really clarified things for me. Such a simple but powerful idea that should make it easier to put the character arc into words and see quickly if it’s really a change.

McKee believes we should not only do this for the whole story, but for each scene, sequence (a string of scenes with its own climax, like a chapter), and act.

I can envision + and – signs alongside my goal/conflict/disaster notes for each scene, and going through my outline when I’m done with the first draft to make sure I flipped the character’s circumstances or way of thinking. Somehow it’s easier when you break it down to employed/unemployed, married/divorced, safe/unsafe, sad/happy, hot/cold, poor/rich.

I’m only on chapter two of STORY, so I expect to have more lightbulb moments along the way.

Had any of your own lately that you’d like to share?

Photo credit: LAPTOP IDEA © Yanik Chauvin | Dreamstime.com