What Makes A Great Heroine?

Eloisa James' Once Upon A TowerA few weeks ago, I mused on what makes a great hero – and asked for your own definitions of the ideal man.

Today I’m wondering, what characteristics in a heroine appeal most and least to you?

I’m pretty sure I read somewhere once that romance novel heroines are intentionally less well-defined and sketched out than the heroes are, because authors know that we the readers want to be able to imagine ourselves in the place of the heroine. At the time, I balked at that notion, thinking of all the descriptions of flowing hair and heaving bosoms that I’ve read over the years. I certainly was never a diamond of the first water with an enviable waist size and the ability to outride, outshoot, or outfox the handsome devil determined to stir up trouble (and my hormones).

And yet, I think there is some truth to it. Or at least some truth to the fact that I want heroines who feel like someone I think I could be – or would want to be. Perfect heroines don’t interest me. Neither do perfect heroes. I like flaws. I like challenges. I guess most of us do – perfection may seem fine for models in a magazine, but for characters in a book, give me depth, give me quirks, give me faults and foibles and challenges to be overcome.

But a heroine with spunk? Yes, please. Anxiety rules my own life, so it’s fun for me to pretend, if just for a little while, that fear doesn’t dictate my every action, that I would be willing to sass the Duke, to defy the Viscount, to seduce the Earl. An adventuresome, bold heroine can make me feel like I’m behaving in ways that I’m not, just because I’ve immersed myself in her story and taken on her identity, if you will.

Yet there are definitely things that make or break a heroine for me, some character traits or idiosyncrasies that can make a heroine really pop – or really turn me off.

Maybe it’s because I’m, um, getting older, but I don’t usually care for the super-young heroines. In the 1980’s, when I first started reading romance, it seemed every hero was 32 or 34, and every heroine was 17 or 18. When I was 9, 10, 14, 16 (don’t tell my mom I started reading romances at 9), this sounded hot. Now it sounds creepy. So I’m grateful that many of the newer authors are giving us heroines in their 20’s, and sometimes – wait for it – even in their 30’s.

On the other hand, I’m such a traditionalist in romance that I still prefer my heroines not to have slept with everyone in town. Yes, it’s ludicrous as a feminist in the 21st century to want less sexually-experienced women to star in my beloved stories. Yes, it’s a double-standard in that I don’t expect the same of the heroes, but hey, I’m just being honest. That doesn’t mean I think everyone has to be a virgin – I definitely like that sexual purity is not the sole thing that defines a “good” woman anymore. And I appreciate the authors who throw in a virgin hero every once in a while, just to shake things up.

But I’m still not wild about novels featuring women who are courtesans or experienced mistresses or former prostitutes. Maybe because I’ve never felt the desire to be a courtesan, even a reformed one. For me sex and love are intimately intertwined, in real life and in romance. Not everybody feels that way, and that’s fine. Just a personal preference.  You can bet that fidelity between the hero and heroine is also a must for me. Rakes make great heroes as long as they’re reformed – or reform for the heroine.

My favorite heroines are the quirky ones. The ones who don’t quite fit the norm. I want them smart – very smart. Give them a love for books. Make them fascinated with bugs or maps or ancient history. Have them be less than physically perfect – maybe they need glasses, or walk with a limp, or have a darling lisp. Perhaps they’re even, *gasp*, slightly plump. When a heroine has something that marks her as a little different, a little more of an outsider, I immediately fall for her. Because *I* have always felt a little different, a little on the outside.

Stick those little differences on a beautiful, daring, witty, alluring heroine, and I’m enthralled. It’s like I get to be the weird me and the sexy seductress, all at the same time. A little Velma and a whole lot of Daphne, instead of the other way around.  And the best part? The hero is going to fall for it, all of it, the whole package. If he can fall for that, he could fall for ME, right?

How about you?

9 Replies to “What Makes A Great Heroine?”

  1. That quote that you’re remembering is from an essay by Laura Kinsale called “The Androgynous Reader,” but ironically, she’s saying that placeholder heroines (her term) means that readers don’t internalize the submissive (or vacant) characteristics of the romance heroine because they’re too busy thinking about what they would have done in her place. She says that it’s much more active than mere reader identification, which is the (to her view inaccurate) stereotype of how romance readers read. But I digress!

    I like strong, active heroines, but not those that are preternaturally feisty or too perfect. Jessica Trent from Lord of Scoundrels is a good example. She’s so fantastic, it’s just almost too much. While I can’t imagine any other woman on earth being as perfect for Dain, she also doesn’t have any sort of an arc or growth. But she also doesn’t put up with any nonsense, which is kind of fantastic. Other favorites: Marguerite from The Forbidden Rose (really, all the Joanna Bourne heroines) and Cameron from Something About You (really, all the Julie James heroines).

  2. Hey Emma – thanks for the reply, and for the reminder about Laura Kinsale’s essay. Perhaps that IS the one I read; clearly you remember better than I do, and apparently I misrepresented her point. Oops.

    I agree that too much spunk doesn’t work, either. I’ve seen that a lot.

    I shall look into the titles you mentioned. Thanks for reading!

  3. I’m in agreement that the heroine needs to be relatable but not so strictly defined that one can’t identify with her. As I’ve written reviews I started to see a pattern of ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the hero but not having a whole lot to say about the heroine. Although there are some that I absolutely adore. And, yes, I agree that intelligence, spunk, strength, and some quirkiness are my fav traits too. One of my favorite heroines is Sabine from Kresley Cole’s Kiss of the Demon King. She’s almost an anti-heroine: sneaky, manipulative, perhaps a little evil, nihilistic. I just love her though. Another fav is Margot from Shannon McKenna’s Out of Control. She’s strong and fights for what she wants, even if some of the time all she has is bluster. Kristen Callihan’s heroines are fab too.

    What I don’t do well with is a whiny heroine. Fortunately, I haven’t read very many like that but that’s an automatic DNF for me.

    Great post! 🙂

    • Thanks for the thoughtful response! I will look for the titles you mentioned. As to the whiny thing – I’m actually thinking that through as I edit my WIP, b/c my leading lady is a pessimist, by nature and from experiences, but I don’t want her to become unlikeable.

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