Conversations & Guests

What makes a heroine kick-ass? Feminism in Paranormal Romance

Welcome to our weekly Interviews & Conversations segment! Every week, we’ll talk with writers about books and topics in paranormal fiction. This week, Amber and AJ are discussing feminism in paranormal romance and urban fantasy. Join the conversation and leave a comment for a chance to win a launch week prize pack!

Happy Hour

AJ: One of the things I adore about paranormal romance and urban fantasy is that writers have a little bit more freedom with gender roles. In what other genre do we get so many heroines with mental and physical toughness to outmatch any man? But when I sat down to think about my favorite feminist paranormal heroines, the first two I came up with were Nicole Peeler’s Jane True and Marta Acosta’s Milagro De Los Santos. Neither qualifies as a traditional butt-kicking heroine—Jane refers to herself as “built for comfort”—but they both resist being defined by the men in their lives. I think that’s what makes a heroine feminist: she has an independent sense of self.

soullessAmber: Thanks for that great working definition, AJ, because there is so much debate about feminism, and whether certain stories are or aren’t.  To me, a heroine that has a distinct self apart from the hero is a great standard, because that’s also what creates chemistry and makes a character appealing.  But sometimes I worry that we expect a heroine to lack vulnerability in order to be feminist.  IMHO this leads to the proliferation of unmemorable leather-clad bad-ass characters who seem to be mysteriously reproducing like were-rabbits (now there’s a paranormal plot for you!).  A strong heroine can risk vulnerability and can need as well as be needed by other characters.

But I do also love when the tough female character has to learn how to love, like Xhex in the Black Dagger Brotherhood.  Those kind of stories are fun because they reverse the usual brooding alpha male trope. But, at the same time, I like stories where the female character is already strong enough to love–if she throws caution to the wind, risks her heart easily, knows her own worth and goes after the love she wants–that’s feminist too. Although there are shockingly few heroines I can think of like this, one that comes to mind is Alexia Tarabotti from Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate Series, once she figures out Connal McCann doesn’t mind how “Italian” she looks.

AJ: There is a lot of debate about what feminism is–and I definitely don’t feel qualified to define it! But I think you make a great point, here: Being feminist isn’t about lacking vulnerability. Unfortunately, sometimes invulnerability gets used a literary shorthand for strength.

One thing I do love about those badass, leather-clad heroines is that they usually aren’t shy about what they want in the bedroom (or in the back seats of cars, or on top of dining rooms tables, or up against convenient trees…) They know how to get their O.

sin200

Amber: So true!  And they’ve given me some good tips about it too 🙂

Another tough, learn-how-to-love character I adore is Sin from Larissa Ione’s Sin Undone.  As a succubus, she needs sex to survive, but she is a wham-bam-thank-you-sir procurer of it.  The scene where her hero teaches her to go slow and actually enjoy sex for the quality, not quantity of orgasms is, um, hot.  And even though she is aloof about sex, there is no shame associated with her needs in the book.

AJ: That’s something I think paranormal does particularly well: letting female characters enjoy sex for it’s own sake. Jane True talks about her libido like it’s a friendly pet she can’t wait to take for a walk, plus she has a close friendship with a randy succubus. I love that these books allow female characters to be highly sexual without slipping into slut-shaming.

Amber: Me too. Like Erica Hayes mentioned in her post on Wednesday, paranormal was my introduction to erotica.  I got hooked on vampires when I overdosed on frustratingly sweet regencies in which the bedroom door slammed closed at the end!  I love the way paranormal worlds can heighten sexuality–the rapturous pleasure of vampire bites, demons who feed on sex, werewolves that go into heat, etc.  It’s one of the ways paranormal shines light on the human condition, by turning up the intensity on our regular sexual experiences.

When the heroine lives in a world with these intense parameters, and it’s just a given that she will need and enjoy sex, it provides a great antidote for slut shaming.  Maybe that sounds like a big job for the lowly genre of romance, but the romance novels I read in high school were an influential part of my sexual education.  I wish I’d read paranormal books instead of those old fashioned bodice rippers, because heroines who embrace their sexuality are just plain old good for women to read–they excite and inspire us, and probably get us all laid more often.

jrw-cover-dl-medAJ: I think you may be right about that. 😉 Seriously, I think romance does a lot to help women see sexual pleasure as not just acceptable but great. And in paranormal, writers can play around with sexuality in ways that might be considered over-the-line in other genres. Blood bonds are a great example–it’s the classic marriage-of-convenience trope taken to it’s emotional limits. Your point made me think of J.R. Ward’s Dark Lover, in which the heroine Beth has sex with Wrath moments after she meets him, and it’s due to her vampire transition lust. On the other hand, is “explaining” sexual encounters this way anti-feminist?

Amber:  Hhmm. Good question. I don’t think it is anti-feminist to create a world where our longings and desires are something we have to wrestle with, just like in the real world–we have to learn to manage the realities of our physical and emotional existence as women.  Feminism comes into play with the way the character responds–does she find her own power, make her own choices, refuse to let herself be controlled by others, AND can she risk vulnerability, intimacy, and sometimes chose not to be in control?

That is the complexity of life as a woman, and a heroine that does those things is a worthy one!

Phew. Okay.  Time to crawl out from underneath the analytical wet blanket–Let’s give away some books! There are several ways to increase your chances…

Here’s how to enter. You can do just the one entry, but read on, and you’ll see that you can earn additional ones as well!

Answer this (or tell us you disagree with everything we said) in the comments for your first entry:

Who is your favorite Urban Fantasy or Paranormal Romance heroine?

For additional entries…

… do any or all of the following, and leave a comment for each thing, to count as the entry.

  1. Tweet this: Today on @ParaUnbound, @ajlarrieu and @AmberBelldene ask: What makes a heroine kick-ass? Stop by and win some great books! <– Click to tweet
  2. Follow us on Twitter leave your twitter handle in the comment
  3. Like us on Facebook

And here’s what you can win if we draw your name!

  • ebook of Blood Vine (Amber Belldene)   
  • ebook (Kindle only) of Anchored (AJ Larrieu)
  • and YOU PICK one ebook copy of any of the books mentioned in this post

This contest will run until tonight (12 AM Pacific) – Winner will be drawn and announced tomorrow!

Disclaimer: Winners can be US or International. Prize must be claimed within one week of the winning announcement.

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49 thoughts on “What makes a heroine kick-ass? Feminism in Paranormal Romance

  1. Great discussion Ladies! 🙂

    Two of my favorite heroines are from Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series. Elena and Paige. And it’s funny the two heroines are completely different, but I think they’re both strong in their own way…

    Elena is the only female werewolf and eventually is next in line to be Alpha! She’s not only kick ass, but super smart too.

    And Paige isn’t physically kick-ass, but she is smart and fearless when it comes to protecting her own. I think knowing she’s not physically super strong, makes her courage even more heroic…

    There’s my two cents! LOL

    Lisa 🙂

    • Lisa, Kelley Armstrong is one of my all time favorite. Authors. A friend gave me Bitten, and it’s still on my keeper shelf. Armstrong really knows how to write strong women!

    • Aye, Aye, Aye–who knew joining this blog was going to make my TBR shelf explode the confines off my house? Check–Otherworld Series added.

      Thanks for sharing about these two characters–I love what you say about their differences, Lisa. Just like in real life, strength takes many forms!

  2. Great post!

    I guess it’s always a touchy area… what works in a heroine (or any main character) for some readers drives other readers batty. I, for one, don’t enjoy reading about heroines who are snarky and sarcastic all the time for no reason — except apparently to prove to the reader how kick-ass they are — and no one ever calls them on their bullshit. No other character ever says, ‘jeez, why are you so nasty all the time?’ Everyone just puts up with her (or wants to have sex with her, usually). In real life, no one would even want to hang with this woman.

    A heroine I like is Zoe from the TV show Firefly. She’s tough, competent, cool in a crisis, funny, sexy, confident. There’s no nonsense about her. On the other hand, I would throw Inara out of the nearest airlock…

    • LOL, Inara doesn’t bother me, but yep, love Zoe! But I also love Kaylee as she’s very earthy and is not ashamed of her sexuality. But you can’t depend on her so much in a gun fight…

    • Erica, LOL–that is funny. I think the time the sarcasm works for me is when it is SO clearly a defense mechanism and she DOES get called on it.

      And, of course you’re right–like everything, heroines are subjective. But since our readers are majority female (not entirely, and THANK YOU for that, men!), just like in real life, we are tougher on the other females than we are on the men, I think 🙂

    • Amen Erica! I too have trouble with snarky heroines… Too often I’m left going “Why is anyone still near you?” It’s a super fine line between sassy and bitchy!

      Lisa 🙂

  3. Tough choices. I really like Mercy Thompson, Kate Daniels, Merry Gentry as examples of women who had to learn how to love. They are willing to sacrifice for their loves, but initially, they just didn’t fit in anywhere. They are strong, independent women who become stronger in their relationships with their heroes!

    • All great examples, Liz, thanks for stopping by. I like your qualification that the heroines become stronger through their relationships with their heroes. Feminism aside, I think that’s the mark of a good relationship: both people become better versions of themselves through it. Then again, it’s probably feminist to assert that women deserve to be equal partners in a relationship, right? 😉

      • Liz and A.J. Great points! Yes! Growing stronger in relationship with the hero or other characters doesn’t make a character weak, it makes her human, and strong for being able to learn and grow!

  4. Great discussion! I think Mercy Thompson is my favorite heroine (sorry, Rachel Morgan!), because she is not so much physically strong as morally and emotionally strong. She’s a coyote skinwalker living among stronger, faster werewolves, but she is so smart that she knows exactly how to not only survive but thrive among them. And her relationship with Adam developed on her terms.

    • I personally didn’t connect with Rachel Morgan, and I’m not sure why. Another example of subjectivity, since so many people do like her so much.

      I keep hearing Mercy is awesome. So, if she is a Coyote, is she a trickster figure? I LOVE tricksters!

      • I had a similar reaction to Rachel M. I enjoy that series, but she doesn’t top my list of favs. I have yet to experience Mercy Thompson. Perhaps I’ll move that to the top of the enormous TBR pile. 🙂

  5. There are so many tough female heroines I like, it is hard to name them all. I love the character Dagmar Reinholdt from What a Dragon Should Know by GA Aiken (aka Shelly Laurenston). The character of Dagmar is whip smart and can run mental circles around any guy, friend or foe. I also love when in paranormal or urban fantasy books, that the gender roles are also loosened for the hero. I like a hero who isn’t a caveman, you know? A man who isn’t afraid to let the woman be the stronger, smarter, or more capable of the two.

    • ” I also love when in paranormal or urban fantasy books, that the gender roles are also loosened for the hero. I like a hero who isn’t a caveman, you know?”

      AMEN. I live for well-written beta heroes. And I keep hearing great things about GA Aiken. I really need to check out that dragon series.

      Thanks for stopping by, Klra!

    • Thanks for stopping by and sharing your recommendation! I like your comment about the caveman too 🙂 I have been working on a hero trying to learn to let the heroine be smarter in my WIP. It’s been an interesting challenge!

  6. I have always loved Kate Daniels by Ilona Andrews. I like her attitude, her vulnerabilities, and her world. And having Curran as a mate is a perk too 😉

    • Thanks for the tweet, Sharon! I love Ilona Andrews. Her On the Edge series is one of my favorites, and I hear nothing but good things about the Kate Daniels books.

  7. Great discussion! I agree that women don’t have to be harsh and ‘spikey’ in order to be strong and I love it when they do embrace their sexuality. I know Lisa has already mentioned Paige from Kelley Armstrong’s Otherworld series, but she has to be one of my favourite heroines as well as she is less physical, but all about the smarts. At the same time she is fierce and protective over what’s important to her. One of the elements I love about that series is that each of her heroine’s are different, but they are all strong and great role models!

    • I’m with you Mel!!! Sometimes I think the fact that a heroine isn’t physically strong, but she’s still willing to fight for the ones she loves, it makes her even more courageous if that makes sense! 🙂

      That said I also love her hero Lucas for the same reasons…

      Lisa

    • Hi Mel, thanks for dropping by! I’m TOTALLY checking out Armstrong now, based on that description. I think it is hard to convey “smart” in a character, so I want to check out how she does it with Paige.

  8. Great post, Amber and A.J. It is soooo hard to pick just one favorite kickass character. So, I’m gonna break Da Rulz — since we all roll like that around here, lol — and list a few of my favorites from TV/Movies and literature.

    Anita Blake (Laurell K Hamilton), Riley Jenson (Keri Arthur), Limos, Sin, and Tayla (Larissa Ione), all of the snarky and kickass Valykyrie from Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark Series.

    Buffy and Faith (Joss Whedon), Xena (Raimi bros), and any kickass character played by Michelle Yeoh.

    • Hi Celia, yes–you and I always agree about Kresley Cole. All her heroines are different, but I find myself thinking about them and remembering them more than almost any other heroines. I especially liked Ellie, from Lothaire, and actually had included her in this post before AJ and I pruned it down 🙂

  9. If we’re talking erotica books, I like Merry Gentry. Ironically, since they’re written by the same author, I can no longer stand Anita Blake. Too much whinging and self-slutshaming and needing her 20 partners to verify CONSTANTLY that they love her and tell her she’s desirable for more than her ardeur. Ugh. Over it.

    If we’re talking urban paranormal, I like Rachel Morgan (she’s conflicted! She doesn’t walk around with a chip on her shoulder having to prove everything! She’s not a cranky snark machine! She is fit in a fight but acknowledges that she’s not Mary Sue-levels of awesome at everything she touches), looooove October Daye (she starts out with small powers and has to struggle in her world, and her increase in powers in subsequent books is handled in a realistic way that is integral to the plot, AND she has a kid! In most of the books I read, the only other series I can think of with MCs with kids is the Otherworld series).

    • Hi Galena, your comments got me giggling, even though I haven’t read most of the books you are talking about. October Daye sounds fun! And I see she’s from San Francisco like me. I like your observation about her having a child. I’ve recently read some posts that debate whether too much is made of motherhood in romance, but they were talking historical and contemporary. In Paranormal, it is definitely not so prominent a part of the Happily Ever Afters. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Thanks for your comment, Galena! I also like finding UF & PNR in which the main character has a child. Have you read Kelly Gay’s Better Part of Darkness series? Her heroine, Charlie Madigan has a teenage daughter, and she plays important roles in the plot AND in Charlie’s character development. (Plus, the hero Hank is delicious.)

    Oh, and in Allison Pang’s A Sliver of Shadow, the heroine takes care of an adorable angel baby, but it’s not technically hers. 🙂

    Thanks for stopping by–hope to see you here again!

    • Hi! Thanks for stopping by. I like most of the BDB heroines, because I think Ward does a good job making her characters really conflicted and sympathetic–it’s hard not to like them. Jane is the only one I don’t like, and it’s just because I want Vishous all to myself 🙂

  11. I always love the heroines in PNR and UF books but I confess I have a thing for UF series, more than the other. It’s really difficult to choose one heroine. So many are awesome, I can think of Kate Daniels by Ilona Andrews or Darian (Shaede Assassin by Amanda Bonilla). They’re amazing. It’s true too October Daye is also a wonderful heroine. Once again I really need to read the BDB series, you’ll manage to make me read it at the end! I’m sure of it!

    • I just bought Shaedes of Gray on the strength of Megan Frampton’s recommendation (via Twitter). I’m really looking forward to it–I hear the writing is top-notch, and that’s something I really value in UF. Glad to hear you enjoyed the series, too!

  12. There are a lot of wonderfully strong heroines these days, but my favorite is Jennifer Estep’s Gin Blanco. She’s an elemental assassin who kicks ass and is a great cook too. 😀

  13. Food! That’s something I always love in a UF or PNR (or any book, really)–a character who loves to cook. I didn’t know Estep’s series featured a culinary heroine. I’ll defnitely have to check it out. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

  14. That’s really tough! Andrews’ Kate Daniels, Frost’s Cat Crawfield, and Briggs’ Mercy Thompson would be at the top of my list.

  15. And the winner, chosen by random.org, is….
    Sharon Stonger!
    Congratulations, Sharon! An email is on it’s way to you with details on claiming your prize. Thanks, everyone, for hanging out with us. Hope to see you back here often. 🙂

  16. Pingback: Paranormals are the Best: Part 1: Powerful Female Characters | S.C.Chalmers

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