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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