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?