Heroines are the life’s blood of the romance novel. Even though I hear time and time again “I read romances only for the heroes,” the heroines of romances are just as, if not more critical to drawing the reader into the book.
If a heroine is unlikable early on in the novel, chances are the reader isn’t going to enjoy the book and may simply put the book down and refuse to read more. One friend recently said that she’d been reading a first book in the series but didn’t think she’d go on to the second one. When asked why, she stated that the heroine of the second book was to be the sister of book one’s heroine and she was such an unlikable character she didn’t want to read her story.
I personally believe that we have sort of a double standard where unlikablilty is concerned. I’ve found—at least with myself—that I’m more forgiving with unlikable heroes. I’ll read much further in a book, pulling for the hero to redeem himself, than if it’s the heroine I don’t care for. My biggest case in point is Claire in the Outlander series. I’m still reading the series (about at book 4 now) even though I still don’t like Claire. But if I have to put up with her to have Jamie Fraser, then so be it. 🙂
So yes, we feel very strongly about our heroines, for bad or for good.
Then what makes a good heroine? In her article “Three Characteristics a Heroine Should and Should Not Have,” Jeffe Kennedy states that the most important characteristics a heroine should have are to be believable, be relatable, and be admirable. These are certainly “must haves” for today’s heroine. My personal opinion (again) is that our heroines have changed (at least in the historicals I’ve read) to reflect the changing times and our changing sensibilities about these three characteristics.
To be believable, relatable, and admirable today, heroines in historicals must have a bit more spunk that would usually be found in women of the period. (This may also be true in contemporaries, but I don’t read very many of those so I can’t vouch for them.) I teach my classes in theatre that theatre holds a mirror up to society. If you want to see what people thought during the time period, look at what they put on stage. I think the same is true, recently, of romance novels. Because of the feminist movement of the 1970s that convinced women that they were just as capable as men in every arena, women today have grown up with that sensibility.
Readers today want to see a resilient heroine who can meet every challenge without waiting for a man to rescue her. (Not that she can’t be rescued by him, but if she can do it one her own, she will.) These heroines are sympathetic and very entertaining—I wrote one myself in Only Scandal Will Do—but are they a reflection of today’s woman or the woman of the period?
Remember, our heroine has to be believable. How man women throughout history knew how to fight with sword and pistol? Could drive a carriage? Was adept at piloting her own ship? Was head of a spy ring? There may have been some, but I suspect they were a small minority throughout history. If we hold these activities up to the industry standard—Miss Elizabeth Bennett—she falls short on each one. Yet she is one of the most beloved heroines of all time who is believable, relatable, and admirable.
I remember refusing to read the end of an historical series because all the wives of one particular group of men were extraordinary by the standards of the day. I mean, you’d expect one or two to have unusual attributes, but eight? That stretched my willing suspension of disbelief. These heroines were admirable and relatable, but sadly not believable to me.
Historical romance authors walk a fine line today with regards to their heroines. They have to find ways to make these women appeal to their audiences, while still holding true to the period. One way to do this is to research your time period—be it Regency, Georgian, Medieval, or Victorian—and find those stories of true heroines and how they managed to win their men and overcome their obstacles. Then use these ideas to create a likeable heroine who is true to herself and her niche in time.