Writing Wednesday: the Heroine

While plotting my RWA workshop with Sarah MacLean, I had two major epiphanies (the fact that both coincided with the arrival of the waitress refilling our coffee cups has nothing whatsoever to do with it). Here they are:

1. We want our heroines to be likable and our heroes to be lovable;

2. We love our heroines for their flaws and our heroes for their strengths.

Feel free to quibble with either or both of these. I’ll be talking about the heroine side of that equation this week and the hero portion next week.

So let’s discuss the heroine, shall we?

Once upon a time, there was a trend for the heroine, particularly the romance heroine, to be the sum of all perfections. She was so effortlessly beautiful that rogue sailors had to be beat off with a stick– yet, of course, entirely unaware of that beauty. She was kind to children and animals. She spoke five languages and read ten others. She played a mean (and by mean, I don’t mean unkind, since this heroine was never unkind or vicious or competitive) game of chess. Men wanted her and women wanted to be her.

Yes, Flame and the Flower, I’m looking at you.

That heroine has gone the way of the dodo. Readers no longer want the perfect heroine. But what do they want? Sarah and I conducted an informal poll (of each other) of our more popular heroines. Her most popular heroine, hands down, is Callie, from Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake, with Penelope from A Rogue by Any Other Name as a close second. Whenever I hold a favorite character poll here on the website, it invariably turns into a landslide for Henrietta from The Masque of the Black Tulip, with Letty from Emerald Ring in second place.

The thing about them? They’re ordinary. They’re ordinary people placed in extraordinary situations and forced to pony up. That’s where the likable bit comes in.

But what about those compelling heroines who aren’t the girl next door type? What about those heroines who aren’t likable at all? Some of the more memorable heroines of our time include some people you would never, ever want at your slumber party: think Scarlett O’Hara, Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Sugar Beth Carey, and my own Mary Alsworthy.

There’s one thing that all of these difficult ladies have in common with their girl next door sisters: they all have strongly defined characters. Most importantly, they are flawed. Deeply flawed. Let’s take a cross section. If you look at Callie, Sugar Beth and Mary, what they all have in common is that, in order for the story to work, they have to conquer their flaws.

In Callie’s case, she has to get over her insecurity and break out of her less attractive sister/always the good girl persona. She has to go from being a person people overlook to the person everyone wants to look at. She forces herself out of her comfort zone and wins.

Sugar Beth is forced to come to terms with the legacy of her teenage arrogance. Returning to her home town, she takes a hell of a beating from the townspeople in an attempt to own up and repay the harm she did them in her youth. If you read the book, you learn that her teenage nastiness arose out of insecurity; her arrogance was a form of self-protection. In order to make reparations, she has to let down those shields and make herself vulnerable, something to which the fast-talking, wise-cracking woman is not at all accustomed. But she does it.

And then you have Mary Alsworthy. Mary is, not to put too fine a point on it, selfish. She’s spent her whole life working for her own financial and social security, and, as far as she’s concerned, the people around her are merely pawns to that end. The moment that she really comes into her own and becomes a heroine is when she chooses to stay with the wounded Vaughn, knowing that there’s nothing in it for her. He’s been very clear that he can’t– not won’t, but can’t– marry her. Mary is very much aware that she’s risking her reputation and with it everything she’s always wanted. There’s a ninety per cent chance she’ll be ruined. But she stays with him anyway, because she’s finally encountered someone she cares for more than herself.

Do you see what I mean when I say we love our heroines for their flaws? We want to see them taking on their weaker selves and winning. This struggle– not hair color, not bust measurement, not loving fluffy bunnies– is what makes a true heroine.

Who are your favorite heroines and why?


  1. Christine on August 8, 2012 at 11:24 am

    I can’t think of any specific characters, but the heroines I like tend to be a particular type, which is very much in line with the friends I choose. I like heroines who are strong and not afraid to do things for themselves. I don’t like the simpering “waiting for a man to rescue me type.” Some of your heroines don’t always do the smartest thing, but they’re being decisive and taking action rather than being the good little girl who sits and waits because that’s what she was told to do. Along the same lines, I don’t take very kindly to the type of friend who always likes what her boyfriend likes and does what he wants to do. I would definitely be friends with Henrietta or Amy because they’re normal and fun. I might even invite Mary to Starbucks sometime 😛

  2. Joanne M. on August 8, 2012 at 12:30 pm

    Echoing Christine’s sentiments, I enjoy heroines who are strongly defined by their passions and interests in life. There are a few characters who are so well-defined in my imagination such as EP’s Amelia Peabody, DG’s Claire Frasier, and Loretta Chase’s Jessica Trent. I’ve long forgotten the physical descriptions (if there were any), and I imagine them as interesting, well-rounded people who do not relinquish their independence in their relationship. Amelia is passionate about travel and archaeology, and Emerson’s presence in her life enhances that. Claire is a doctor and healer whether Jamie is in her life or not, and Jessica has a business sense and head for finances and antiques. Whether they are beautiful or plain, fiesty or shy, rich or poor is not as interesting as their passions in life.

  3. Caroline on August 8, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    I agree and disagree with the ordinary rule. I think a character can have extraordinary traits–it contributes to their depth. I think the trick is to draw a line somewhere. Yes, a character can be too perfect. I recently read a historical romance where the worst thing about the heroine was her tendancy to be nosy. Not compelling at all. There are some women who can play a mean game of chess AND are beautiful AND can speak different languages. But add in flaws and they are suddenly compelling. My own heroine reads philosophy, speaks three languages, and can play a mean game of chess, BUT she also has a very tart tongue, is slightly embittered, and has no problem lying about/hiding things if it comes down to protecting herself and/or getting what she wants. She pays the consequences as a result. Now that’s compelling stuff, in my opinion.

    With that being said, I really enjoyed Mary and Vaughn’s story. I remember not being too sure when I bought the book, but I ended up rooting for them both.

    I won’t get specific, but I generally enjoy heroines who may appear to be perfect but are hiding some dark secret or are somehow “damaged”.

  4. Vicki on August 8, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    Interesting discussion. I have more trouble stating what I like in a heroine than I do a hero. I do tend to like more complex heroines. For example, Jo Goodman is one of my top 5 romance writers. Love her stuff! That said, I always start out hating her heroines and end up admiring the hell out of them. She writes her heroines in a really unique way, putting their flaws on display early on and then slowly letting the reader in on what may have contributed to those flaws. It’s sort of brilliant and one of the many reasons that I adore her writing.

  5. Julie H on August 8, 2012 at 4:35 pm

    I don’t think she can be considered a “heroine”, but one of my favorite female characters is Briony from McEwan’s Atonement. Talk about flawed! It’s so hard to decide whether to love or hate her for what she does in the story. I love that book so much.

    Romance wise, one of my favorite heroines was Jemma from Eloisa James’ This Duchess of Mine. She definitely plays a mean game of chess, is beautiful, and speaks a few languages, but she’s made a lot of mistakes in her marriage, she’s prideful, and she’s more sensitive than she lets on. I think she’s fabulous.

  6. Hayley Ann King on August 8, 2012 at 10:14 pm

    It’s interesting that this came up. I was just working on a piece about one of my favourite characters in literature- Scarlett from Gone with the Wind. She was the character that made me realize that even if we don’t love them, we relate more to characters who possess the human quality of imperfection. (And Henrietta is my favourite PINK heroine too.)

  7. Chartreuse on August 9, 2012 at 6:01 pm

    My favorite Pink heroine is Mary Alsworthy, though hopefully she will be overtaken by both Gwen and Jane. After all it’s the season for “Citius, Altius, Fortius”.

    I’m looking forward with particular fascination to finding out what pressure on Jane will break through the parts of her personality glimpsed in “Garden Intrigue”.

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