Sweetheart or Shrew? Sister or Skank? AAR announces a new yet to be named series!

'PRIDE AND PREJUDICE' FILM - 2005

Keeper or Kick-Her-to-the-Curb?

In July, AAR introduced the new series “Dreamboat or Douchebag” in which our staffers weigh in on the merits and demerits of famous literary heroes. These pieces have been some of our most popular and have generated a set of robust comment streams. They’ve also been a hell of a lot of fun to write.

Thus, we’ve decided to begin a similar series about heroines. Over the next year, we will set our critical sights on some of literature’s most contested heroines and pass judgement upon them. (We may even add in a movie heroine or two–wouldn’t it be fun to assess Vivian from Pretty Woman or evaluate Princess Leia?)

There are two things we are considering as we begin. The first is what makes a good heroine? There is, unsurprisingly, no consensus on that. Maggie likes a heroine who’s “well written and can make me sympathetic to her point of view.” Melanie prefers a woman who is “human – she has her flaws, but they aren’t the focus of the book” and who “feels real.” Shannon’s favorites are “self-reliant, but not afraid to ask for help when needed.” Caroline prizes “a sense of ethics,” “a spine,” and “self-awareness.” Lynn goes for “a smart, confident heroine who knows her limitations.” Lee wants a woman who stands up for herself. For me, a good heroine is one who deserves her happy ending–a criteria so vague it can be summed up as “I know it when I see it.

The second–and likely to be far more contentious–is what to call this column. There are those readers who acutely dislike “Dreamboat or Douchebag” and others who love it. We are sure no matter what we call our heroine column, the same situation will prevail.

I asked the staff to come up with suggestions for the column–serious and not–and their list was quite inventive. Suggested were:

First Class or Trailer Trash?
Sister or Skank?
Keeper or Kick-Her-to-the-Curb?
Bangable or Brown Bag?
Darling or Diva?
Wonderwoman or Witch?
Honey or Harridan?
Sweetheart or Shrew?
Captivating or Contemptible?
Special or Spoiled?
Treasure or Terror?
Catch or C**t?
Babe or Beyotch?
Hall of Fame or Walk of Shame?
and
Babe or Bint?

 

I’m not sure what we will pick or even if this is our final list. I give the staff points for wit.

We hope you will enjoy our new series and we welcome suggestions for heroines you’d like to see us consider. As always, we love to hear from you.

Dabney Grinnan

A Dinner Party with Heroines

IMG_0861-001I rarely throw dinner parties. So much work for too little time. But that doesn’t stop me from imagining ones I’d love to attend–these always involve me staying far away from the kitchen–and whom I’d love to have there with me. I’ve imagined tables of my favorite authors, of fascinating historical figures, and, this week, a table of my favorite romance heroines.

Here’s the thing about the imaginary dinner party concept–you can’t just pick cool people. You have to pick interesting people who can share a meal, offer scintillating conversation, stay reasonably sober, and not get into raging arguments. For me, this rules out the terribly shy, the overly arrogant, and the cutting. (Sorry, Tam, you’re not invited.)

My dining room table seats eight if we squish, so I’ve picked seven heroines I’d love to have to dine–we’d order out, of course.

I’d put Marguerite de Fleurignac, better known as Maggie, from Joanna Bourne’s The Forbidden Rose at one end of the table. I love both the young and the old Maggie. I imagine her dispensing advice on raising independent kids, staying friends with old lovers, and exploring Paris. Plus, after dinner, I’d hope to talk her into showing us just how she gilded her toes.

Many of Lisa Kleypas’s heroines would be great guests, but if I had to pick just one it would be Lillian Bowman from It Happened One Autumn. Lillian is brash enough to make sure the conversation stays away from trite topics and smart enough to ask others their opinions. She’s an expert on scents, a topic I find fascinating, and has a head for business. I’d love to hear her views on America vs. Europe and ask her how she deals with her witch of a mother-in-law.

Hope Spencer from Rachel Gibson’s True Confessions would have fabulous stories to share from her days of writing for the tabloid The Weekly News of the Universe. Everything I’ve ever wondered about Bigfoot, alien abductions, and Elvis, Hope’s covered. She’s got great taste in clothes and would compliment everyone on their shoes–if appropriate. She also loves dessert, a must in my book.

Eloisa James’s Lady Eleanor Lindel of A Duke of Her Own is such an interesting open-minded woman–she’d enrich any conversation. She could discuss raising illegitimate (or not the norm) children in a conservative society and what it’s like to have a husband more fashionable than she. I’d ask about her sister Anne–I love Anne–and how they’ve stayed close despite living very different lives.

Violet Redmond’s (from Julie Anne Long’s I Kissed an Earl) stories about her siblings would keep the table entertained for hours. She could share tips on how to play chess, how to peel a potato–I have to cook occasionally so that would come in handy–, and how to insult a catty rival in perfect French. After dinner, I’d challenge her to a game of darts–surely her aim isn’t always that good!

Mina (from The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook) could tell us about symbiotic mechanical body parts work and who she thinks Jack the Ripper really was. I’d ask about the bugs from the Horde and what she thinks about the computer. She and Hope could spin stories of sea beasts–the kraken would best the Loch Ness Monster–and she and Maggie could share tales of foreign invaders.

And, though this group is heavy on historical heroines, my last pick would be Lulu Davies from Carrie Lofty’s His Very Own Girl. Not only did she live in England during World War II, she was a pilot in the British civilian air force. Her views on sexism in the workplace–she was paid the same as her male counterparts, something unheard of at the time–would be amazing to hear. I’d love to know how–maybe if–she managed to draw straight lines with eyeliner pencil on her legs and what her favorite contraband items were. She and Mina could discuss fighting while flying. And I’d ask her what life after wartime was like and how she feels about the way women were defined after the war.

OK, obviously seven is too few. I haven’t gotten to Penelope Featherington (Julia Quinn’s Romancing Mr. Bridgerton), Beth Cantrell (Victoria Dahl’s Real Men Will), Laney Lancaster (Carolyn Crane’s Off the Edge), or Jia (Jeannie Lin’s Capturing the Silken Thief). Clearly, I’ll need to host more than one dinner of heroines. Maybe a potluck next time?

Whom else should I invite?

When Strong is a Stereotype

THE OUTLAW  Poster for 1943 film with Jane Russell directed by Howard HughesI recently came across this wonderful piece by Sophia McDougall called “I hate Strong Female Characters.” McDougall is not referring to female characters with physical and emotional strength (for instance, she likes Buffy and Jane Eyre). Rather, she means the archetypal Strong Female Character, who establishes her “tough” cred through arbitrary rudeness, punching, slapping, kung fu, gunshots, etc. (McDougall calls it “behaviour that, in a male character, would rightly be seen as abusive (or outright murderous)”). Men are more powerful in Hollywood, on which McDougall focuses, but the female-centric world of romance has its share of SFCs, most famously in Lord of Scoundrels but also in some of my recent review books, such as Jo Beverley’s Seduction in Silk and Lilith Saintcrow’s The Red Plague Affair. But what about our heroes? Do we do the same token oversimplification of the other gender that male writers do? Are they strong, or are they Strong? Continue reading

I’m Never – No, Never! Getting Married

no-weddingNick is a romance hero. He’s never – no, never! – going to get married. You can see why, of course; you need conflict to drive a plot forward, and if Nick sees Elizabeth, falls in love with Elizabeth, proposes to Elizabeth, and marries Elizabeth without a hitch you’ve got one short (and probably not all that interesting) book. A hero (or somewhat less frequently, heroine) who is never – no, never! – going to get married can provide that hitch in the relationship that makes for a good conflict and interesting reading. Well, except when it’s totally lame. If there is one knee jerk conflict that authors like to turn to, this is it. I see it more often in contemporary novels, likely because birth control is widely available and modern sexual mores more permissive. But if pops up fairly often in historicals too, usually for different reasons. I can hardly open a book without running into Nick or one of his ilk. Since the my most recent read with a marriage phobic hero got on my last nerve, I decided to provide this helpful list of acceptable and unacceptable reasons to never – no, never! get married. Continue reading

Special Title Listings: The Bad Girls

spear_of_summer_grass Bad girl heroines hold a special fascination for many romance readers because these women go against the grain of what we expect in a romance in a number of ways. They are aggressive, they take the lead, they act selfishly or irresponsibly, and they may even be without remorse. They don’t mind using their charm and attraction for their own advantage, and they even use their bodies to get what they want. Often they are outcasts, be it from choice or from necessity. However, as many of them are strong, independent characters, they are highly interesting to read about.

There are several special title listings at AAR that contain such heroines.

The Tormented Heroines are at odds with their role in society, and this results in their acting against the rules of sweet and caring womanhood. They may be cynical, eccentric, manipulative, selfish, or any combination of these. In any case they are mad, bad, and dangerous to know, and it takes a very special hero to bridge their defenses and let them find happiness. With these heroines, it is often clear that even the happy ending is only a single step forward in a battle of wits that will last for and enrich their entire lives. No conventional happily-ever-after here! Continue reading

Oh, the Mary Sue

marysue Oh, the Mary Sue. Frequently the bane of my existence. The few books I actively hate have Mary Sue characters as the leads. But what is it about the Mary Sue that enrages so many readers? And what is it about her that many others really enjoy?

So first, who is Mary Sue? Well, you know you’re reading a Mary Sue novel if your heroine (or your hero, known to some as Gary Stu):

  • has no real faults as a person/characters, except those that are “adorable”

 

  • is liked or loved by every member of the desired sex (whether male or female)

 

  • is only hated or disliked by the bad guys or people who are jealous

Continue reading

Just Not My Type

gypsyheiress Do you ever find certain types of characters difficult to like? I wouldn’t say that any particular type of hero or heroine is completely a “no go” for me. I firmly believe that, in the hands of a good author, just about anything can be made to work. However, when I come across certain character types on a book blurb, the description is not going to have me clamoring to pick up the book – often because it’s something I’ve seen handled less than skillfully way too many times before.

Pirates definitely fall into that category for me. I don’t know if it’s my background of having studied European and Middle Eastern history, but nothing I know about pirates makes them terribly romantic to me. Most historical accounts I have read make them sound uneducated and brutal, and conditions onboard ship sound filthy and unappealing. While I will admit that Jennifer Ashley’s pirates worked for me, the first pirate hero I remember encountering came in Joanna Lindsey’s somewhat infamous A Pirate’s Love. If you look up “rapey ‘hero’” in the dictionary, you just might find an image of Tristan there.

Other pirate/privateer novels I read over the years tended to have similar issues. However, even among the ones that didn’t feature rapist “heroes,” I just couldn’t move beyond the difficult life of a pirate to see the story as particularly romantic. Various authors, including Meagan McKinney, wrote pirates or privateers that one could consider dashing, but Jennifer Ashley was the first author I found who managed to humanize that sort of hero and make him truly appealing.

On the heroine side, while I haven’t found too many in recent novels, I used to run across gypsy heroines in older books and I have to admit that they have yet to work for me. As any of us who cut their teeth on Barbara Cartland novels knows, Cartland had a huge interest in gypsy culture that extended to founding several gypsy camps in England. This interest seems to have extended to a hugely romanticized view of gypsies in her novels. Continue reading

Heroines and Aging: A Bit Painfully

birthdaycakecandles Back in July of 2006, Robin Uncapher wrote an At the Back Fence column (#232) that is so timely for me as to be kind of eerie. She discussed the role age plays on romance novels: in who buys them, in how the age of the heroine is perceived, in what is considered acceptable versus creepy…well, just go read the article because I’m not doing it justice.

This particular topic is timely because next week I will celebrate my birthday. I’ll confess that this particular one shifts me closer to fifty than to forty, and if I think on it too long, I tend to get a big panicky. I know I’m still in the prime of my life, hopefully with at least another four or five decades to go. To call myself ‘old’ is as insulting and ridiculous as the size 2 supermodel calling herself fat. Continue reading

Can You Hear Me Now? – An Open Letter to Romance Authors

5843405057_af77f6bfb4 Dear Writers of Romance Novels,

Most of you are aware that one over-used source of conflict in a fictional relationship that drives nearly all readers absolutely batty is the Big Misunderstanding. You know the trope. The hero or heroine witnesses something or overhears something or is told something that leads him or her to a wrong conclusion about his/her love interest. Rather than confront the potentially wayward lover as soon as possible to ask her/him to explain the situation, the discussion never happens and the romance grinds to a complete halt. Too often, this Big Misunderstanding drags on and on to the point of ridiculousness, causing the reader to want to shake the fictional characters silly and throw the book at the wall.

The problem with the Big Misunderstanding these days is not so much that they happen – people frequently do jump to the wrong conclusions – it’s that the conversation it would take to clear things up is so easily arranged. At least in historicals or any story set before telephones, the character who gets the wrong idea can flounce off the scene in a snit, making a soul-cleansing heart-to-heart chat much harder to happen until their unjustly maligned partner physically hunts them down. Continue reading

What’s With All the Female Victims?

Clock at Ravenswood by Lou Marchetti A few years ago, one of my Literature professors asked me, “Aren’t romance novels just about a woman finding a man to take care of her?” I had to explain to her what we all know, that modern romance novels are about partnership and mutual love and support – not finding a “protector.” It’s a misconception I often come across.

Unfortunately, there are some circumstances in which it is uncomfortably close to the truth. Romantic Suspense novels are particularly and oddly contradictory in this. So many heroines are strong women and strong characters – who then find themselves made victims by the author and put in the role of a damsel in distress. Continue reading