A few weeks ago in my “What I’m reading” post, I mentioned I had just begun reading Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis. I’ve finished it since then and it’s the best book I’ve read in a long, long time. It’s paranormal/time travel, but not a romance at all. I rarely read things with zero romance, but it is very much about love and I could sing its praises for a week.
The novel especially got me thinking about heroines. The female main character in this book is a naïve graduate student, strong and smart but kind of annoying in the beginning, until she began to emerge as an incredible, admirable heroine. Her emotional depth and courage taught me about being human.
Unlike a lot of readers, I rarely put down a book if I don’t like a character. Usually it’s the prose or the plot that does me in. But I do see a lot of reviews based on the likability of characters, and that’s gotten me thinking.
First off, statistics tell us that women read more than men, and that romance readers are primarily women. So, I wonder if we aren’t especially hard on heroines? True or not, it’s certainly the common wisdom that women are harder on other women than we are on men. And romance readers do seem willing to tolerate flaws, boorishness, and bad behavior from male characters, because we like to witness them redeemed by love and their own heroism.
I’ve heard some of my dearest writing friends say they prefer heroines who are kind of blank so they can project themselves onto her and enter into the fantasy of the romance. And I myself have enjoyed reading books with thoroughly unmemorable heroines. They seem to possess an innocuous mixture of strength and vulnerability that a reader can thoroughly relate to, but nothing distinct. Even if not every romance reader prefers the bland or unmemorable heroine, it seems to me a female lead is held to higher standards: she can’t be a wimp, but she has to be both more sympathetic and more charming than we expect male characters to be. Or she should be the kind of woman we might want to be friends with in real life.
There are exceptions to this blankness, of course, and A.J. and I brainstormed a list of truly kick ass heroines from urban fantasy and paranormal romance in a Friday Conversation a while back. I mentioned Kresley Cole’s heroines in that conversation, because I think she does a great job writing quirky, complicated, ambivalent females–QueenBeeotches that could hold their own with any Alphahole. I can’t get enough of her Valkyries, especially Regin and Nix!
The more I hear criticism of unlikable heroines, the more I want to read books about them. I don’t mean wimpy heroines, and I don’t mean senselessly snarky ones. But I do want heroines who are contradictory, larger than life, and as wounded, and morally complicated as the heroes I love to read about.
In the end, unless our heroines start out as flawed as our heroes, we aren’t really writing stories about their redemption and empowerment, and it’s still all about the men. Maybe that’s what readers want, but just like in real life, when both lovers find redemption, the passion is that much more powerful and I think perhaps the very best books are the ones like that.
Do you have a favorite story where the heroine gets redeemed?
Which traits in a heroine make you hate her?
Which heroines stand out as the strongest and most memorable to you?