Placeholder Heroines

female_placeholder I came across a link to an article from last year that still annoys me, so it got me thinking about a topic that comes up in romanceland from time to time – the placeholder heroine. This idea seems to come from two main sources. There is the discussion in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women primarily based around Laura Kinsale’s essay(“The Androgynous Reader: Point of View in the Romance”) which is really more a thoughtful discussion of viewpoint rather than an argument centering on the perceived uselessness of developing the heroine’s character and/or giving her a lot of individuality. Unfortunately, this latter argument is what many people discussing the placeholder heroine seem to mean when they get on the topic.

I’ve seen discussions on various blogs and forums(including our own message boards) from time to time where readers chime in on the topic, but in different terms. They’re usually not talking viewpoint, but rather which character we care to learn about. And that’s where I really start to disagree with some folks. I get that some people are more into heroes while others prefer a well-developed character for the heroine and still others are most interested in the dynamic between the couple. Where I start to get frustrated is where some take the leap to say that the heroine’s characterization is not as important as the hero’s because the heroine is just there as a conduit to bring the reader to the hero rather than to exist as an independent fictional character in the story.

And that brings me to last fall’s article on Mills and Boon . That’s the one that gets me every time. Not only is the author somewhat dismissive of romance, but she describes the heroine by saying, “Mills & Boon heroines are like madams in brothels. They essentially have to facilitate a sexual encounter between two other people – the reader, and the hero. They are the third person in the romance.” And she says that immediately after this little gem: “It is much harder to write the heroine than the hero, apparently, because she has to be bland enough not to offend millions of readers and interesting enough not to offend millions of readers.” Makes the heroine of a romance sound fascinating and appealing, no? I mean, for crying out loud, the poor woman has just been condemned to being a third wheel in her own love story!

As a reader, this approach to heroines makes me gnash my teeth. First of all, it seems to cry out for bland heroines, or what author Justine Larbalestier called Blank Page Heroines(thanks to Read React Review for the link). I personally read books to enjoy a story, not so that I can insert my own self into the heroine’s role and just fixate on/fantasize about the hero. I like to see a fully developed setting and plot because in my mind, all those characteristics that make up a good story need to be present in order to keep the hero and heroine’s relationship from simply feeling bland. True love does not exist in a vacuum and neither do the best romance stories.

I don’t read in order to fantasize about someone; I read because story captivates me and I want to get a window into another world. I love to see what creative, gifted people can do with words and how a good writer can move her audience, so I read to enjoy a good writer’s command of language. And I enjoy multifaceted characters, so I rejoice when I get a book with an interesting, memorable heroine, hero or even good secondary characters in it.

On a deeper level, the argument that a heroine functions only as placeholder irks me because it does little to support what I really believe, which is that good romance empowers women. If the female characters in our romances are interchangeable and we’re really only reading for the heroes, then the idea of women having their own adventures really doesn’t follow. If the women are just bland, unmemorable sidekicks bringing the reader into adventures that are all about the man, where’s the fun and empowerment in that?

In addition, the idea that readers should read their romance with the primary goal of falling for the hero makes me uncomfortable as a reader because it plays into the old stereotype about romances being porn for women to escape their dreary home lives. That’s an old idea that can’t die quickly enough and unfortunately, I see the placeholder heroine helping it to linger.

I know there are readers out there who read for the heroes and don’t see it this way (including some dear friends of mine), but I just can’t shake my discomfort with the idea that heroines act as placeholders or conduits primarily to bring the reader to the hero.

How about you? What do you read for?

-Lynn Spencer

39 thoughts on “Placeholder Heroines

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  4. You know what, I never thought of it that way. Makes plenty of sense now. Thanks for explaining it so clearly, it really helped me and I’m sure it will help plenty of other people too. All the best!

  5. You seem pretty articulate to me Marian.

    I’m the shallow person who reads fictional romance for the romance and finds television entertaining. Sometimes I imagine what it would be like to live in a given time period or what life would be like if I were in the heroine’s place. I’m not sure if these means I imagine myself as the heroine in a romance novel per se but I do completely immerse myself in the book. This makes 45 minutes on the stair master fly by and makes it appear as if I am attentive while day dreaming during a boring meeting.

    “Strong, kick-ass” heroines can be as one dimensional as any other female archetype. As far as I’m concerned passive aggression, flattery and guile are underrated and often judged harshly. Speaking of which, I’m not sure the extent the ‘placeholder heroine’ can be analyzed without acknowledging that women tend to judge heroines harshly. As Laura Kinsale mentioned, it is a complex topic and one (in my view) that while enlightening has the potential to be overly intellectual, volatile and lacking in insight if the topic takes a wrong turn.

  6. Lynn, et alles: Thank you for your post and replies.

    I too don’t care for placeholder heroines. If a character of either sex and any sort is to grab my attention, I must be able to relate to, but not necessarily identify with, this figure. And that takes some work on the part of the writer. As my creative writing prof once said, “A character should have both complexity and consistency.” I think he meant contradictions that make sense.

    Having said that, I must note that when I’m reading or writing fiction (romance and otherwise), I rarely see a protagonist as myself. I see him or her as someone I’d like to be. I’m already pretty familiar with myself. When I’m reading or writing fiction, I’d like to get to know someone more interesting, preferably fascinating.

    Also, I’m uncomfortable with the way some—better make that many—romance writers avoid placeholder heroines and endeavor to make a female protagonist more of an individual, someone who will stick in the readers’ minds. They do so by making her more feisty (a word I hate), more combative, more spoiling-for-a-fight. A fight with the hero, of course. In short, they make her obnoxious.

    I simply can’t identify with Frances Feisty. Nor do I care to read about her alternately arguing with Arnold Arrogant and making love with him.

    If they do nothing but fight each other when they’re not getting it on, it implies that all they have going for each other is sex. What else can it possibly be? There’s no chemistry of the more interesting kinds between them.

    What’s more, in real life a man and a woman who can’t stand each other to this degree typically don’t fall in love with each other. Or even fall in lust with each other. If some plot device is keeping these characters together, such as a marriage of convenience or he’s holding her captive, it’s a sheer contrivance on the part of the author.

    Real love can’t be forced. To paraphrase a famous quote from John Keats, if love doesn’t come as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all. And if the author insists on turning her heroine into a harpy, it definitely won’t.

    So much for the wrong way to make a heroine interesting; what’s the right way? IMHO, the author should put her in a situation that’s at least as interesting as the hero’s. Or more precisely, since the overall situation of the story matters most, the heroine’s part of the overall situation should be at least as interesting as the hero’s.

    She doesn’t have to be strong and assertive. Much can be made about a weak, passive woman dealing with the consequences of her weakness and passivity, and (if fitting) overcoming these traits. But there must be something going on in her life, and hers alone, that grabs the reader’s sympathy, or at least allows her to relate to the heroine. In short, it’s not just what she says, or even what she does. It’s who she is.

    Did I get a little long-winded? Okay, I got a little long-winded. But this discussion is so fascinating I just had to put in my thoughts.

    Keep up the good work!

  7. I have to agree with many of the comments. A strong heroine generally makes the book for me and if I don’t like the heroine I won’t like the book. My favorite heroine is Claire from the Outlander series. Now I know a lot of people love Jamie Frasier and lust after him, but while I enjoy him immensely, I read the series mainly for Claire. When I got the newest book and I finally reached the chapter with Claire’s first person narrative, I felt like I was hearing from a long lost friend. Not to sound too much like a sap but it actually made me a little teary since I missed her voice.

    I love the bitchy flawed heroines and I love the sweet shy heroines as long as they are written consistently and developed well. If the heroine is perfect, beautiful, accomplished etc with no flaw or no room to grow, then I will generally not like the book. As a woman I like to fall in love with the hero through the heroine. In other words, I certainly don’t imagine myself as the heroine because if the story is written correctly you wouldn’t want the hero with anyone but the heroine and vice versa.

  8. I read for ideas, language, characters, story, and a whole host of situations and themes that convey emotional interest, a sense of wonder, or engagement with societal issues that interest me. I love some romances for their characters (male or female), some for the relationship, some for other reasons. There isn’t a strict formula.

    Like Wendy, I probably appear to be heroine-centric, and it’s partly true, but mainly because of the issues often raised by interesting female characters. Of course, the appearance of preference is heightened because I tend to show up and disagree when there’s a discussion assuming the hero as the focal point of the genre ;) And that’s connected to one of Lynn’s points:

    On a deeper level, the argument that a heroine functions only as placeholder irks me because it does little to support what I really believe, which is that good romance empowers women.

    I don’t believe that the genre as a whole necessarily empowers women, or even that the best of the genre necessarily empowers women. (That is, I don’t believe it’s an innate characteristic of the genre.) However, I absolutely agree that it’s a quality that individual books in the genre can have, and in my experience *do* have more often than books I read in other genres. That’s precious to me, and motivates me to argue with the “heroine = placeholder = blank slate = role-playing porn for women” viewpoint.

  9. @Laura Kinsale – Thank you for taking the time to clarify this concept further. The difference is interesting. I admit to being a reader who is harder on the heroine and will probably put a book down if I don’t like her and the choices she’s making, even if the rest of the story has a lot going for it. You’ve given me something to think about in the future and I may not give up on a book so quickly next time I run into a “placeholder”. :-)

    @Jenn – You’re not alone! I enjoy the more complex heroines too!

    @LeeAnn – LOL…at least you’d get to be the most colorful of characters!

  10. I was an only child until I was 13 (when my sister came along and saved me). My books and my pony were brothers, sisters and friends. I didn’t want to be the heroine or hero…. I wanted to be their best friend and adventure with them…. they WERE my best friends. Now fifty years later, I want to be Eve and Roark’s best friend…. OMG that makes me MAVIS!

  11. @Laura Kinsale – Thanks for dropping in! I read your essay and it really made me think about how I perceive characters. I find the idea of a character who is not necessarily a blank slate, though still one that readers don’t identify with rather interesting. I don’t have the experience of arguing with the character as I’m reading come up for me in romance very often, but I do notice it much more often when I’m reading other genres or literary fiction.

    And I think I’m with both you and Jenn on the Mary Sues. Overly perfect heroines just annoy me.

  12. This is so interesting to me because I love heroines that are oftentimes considered ‘bitchy.’ And a lot of women, I would say that the majority of romance readers, simply don’t find tough, scarred, dark heroines to be very interesting while they loooove this trait in heroes.

    I think that placeholder is a bit simplistic for what a lot of readers apparently want. From my take, there seems to be a greater need to ‘identify’ with the heroine in a way that doesn’t exist for the hero.

    For myself, I want a heroine who kicks major ass and is super amazing and great at her job, but can be the character from Prime Suspect in her personal life. (Completely messed up, in other words.)

    I’d love to see more heroines with drinking problems, or just more screwed up in a manner that we don’t get.

    Heroines are so often super nice, super perfect, super good caretakers, and I just want to barf. Yuck.

  13. I’m actually writing a paper on this for my Lit class, only about Oliver Twist. I find him to be a pitiable-identifiable character with little individuality or development, for the purpose of lower-class readers to put themselves in his position. I had never thought about it in terms of romance, though. Very interesting… I hate bland heroines. I always like well-developed heroines because they make her seem real. If I question why the hero fell for the heroine, clearly something failed in the development of the heroine. There should be distinct reasons beyond the physical that cause a man to fall in love with a woman. if I don’t see those reasons in her personality, then it’s not realistic nor enjoyable.

  14. Oops, forgot to finish!

    …the conundrum of why heroines are judged more harshly, etc. Which I won’t address cause it’s REALLY deep. ;) Though I did through a mainstream literary novel at the wall lately because the male protag was such a whiney lamer. And there was nothing else in the book to hook me besides him. So he didn’t even rise to placeholder status for me.

  15. I just want to add again, because I feel responsible as the person who made up this term “placeholder” heroine, that I myself was not talking about “bland” or “dull” characters. I was talking about characters that a particular reader does not identify with emotionally.

    This is what I described in my comment above about Adelia in the mystery series. That particular character is quite “unique”–she’s independent, examines dead bodies, she’s feminist, intelligent, educated, pacifistic and a whole huge list of strong characteristics. I personally just don’t find her or her motives convincing in the medieval setting, and so she annoys me. She’s a very strongly written character, I just don’t like her myself. I want to shake her about every third page, the way you’d want to tell a friend they really need to kick the bum out.

    However, I can still enjoy the book, because of other elements in it. She’s a placeholder for me in that story. And also something of a yardstick–because I think of what I would do in her place.

    So the placeholder heroine by my original definition is not neccessarily bland, or defined by any particular characteristic. She could easily be intelligent, unique and strong, and still function as a placeholder if the reader doesn’t care much for her. My particular hot button is the Mary Sue’s, because I don’t relate well to “perfect” people (not being one myself.)

    The clue to a placeholder is when you are arguing with the character as you read. With a non-placeholder you experience what they feel, be it despair or joy or fear, and that is part of the pleasure of reading the book. I call that reader identification.

    Those are my definitions and concepts for the terms.

    I think this is a more subtle and difficult set of concepts, actually, than the “placeholder is dull blank” idea. It takes paying close attention to the emotional experience of reading fiction to notice it happening.

    The placeholder heroine is any heroine you wouldn’t read if she was all there was to the book. But you read the book anyway, because there is something else (in my example above, it’s the mystery, in many romances it’s the hero) that keeps you enjoying the story in spite of the heroine.

    In that sense, a placeholder main character could be either sex. But in the romance genre, it’s generally the heroine–which brings us to that other conundrum of

  16. Interesting. I alway equated “bland heroine” with “bad writing”. It never occurred to me that an author may be writing that way on purpose and find it patronizing that they would. I prefer all of the story elements to be strong and my characters fully developed but the first thing that turns me off any story is a poorly written heroine. I don’t want to BE her but I do need to LIKE her.

    I just enjoyed a book (thanks to good reviews here!) in which the hero and heroine separate for a time so the heroine can face some fears and make changes in her life on her own before committing to the relationship. How refreshing!

    Also, Eve Dallas is nobody’s stand-in. The long-lived popularity of that series would seem to indicate readers enjoy strong, intelligent and unique heroines.

  17. I don’t react to reading first-person narrative that way. Sure, I’m in her head with her thoughts, but that’s as far as it goes. I am not her and she is not me. To me, it’s not that much different from when an author is describing the emotions and feelings of all the characters in third-person style. You’ve got them all detailed, usually with rich description, right before you, but that doesn’t make them me. First person is limiting if you want everyone’s thoughts, for sure; but it can be helpful at times if you’d like to figure out the rest of the story along with the main character.

  18. Tumperkin~ I read your post and had an “aha” moment. I also prefer the third person POV but couldn’t articulate why. I came to me as I read your comment that I like 3rd person because I like having insight into all the main characters. I’ve read some books written in 1st person past tense that are really good, but it takes more work for the author to convey depth in someone other than the narrator. I actually enjoy it very much when it is done well, but still prefer 3rd person overall, especially 3rd person omniscient or semi-omniscient. Once I’d thought this through, I realized why I don’t care for 1st person present tense. I never get out of the heroine’s head, and I’m left to guess what’s motivating everyone else. I have to do that enough in real life. I don’t want to be totally inside the heroine’s head, since I don’t ever think to put myself in a story that way. I don’t want to envision myself in the heroine’s place. I realize now why 1st person present takes me out of the story and isn’t comfortable. I can also now see why some people would enjoy it. It makes sense.

  19. My favorite books of all time, the keepers that I pull out every three or four months to read over and over again, all have wonderful heroines as well as heroes. If the heroine doesn’t “fit” with the hero or with the plot in general, I can’t get emotionally involved. So much for the “placeholder heroine” theory!

  20. I read for the story. My most memorable books feature a well-written hero and heroine. For example, Dance by Judith Ivory features a hero and heroine who are both very developed. Wonderful book where all of it comes together in a special package. However, I realize that in this genre that is not always the case. Sometimes the heroine is written like 50 other heroines, just to put the hero on display. And quite frankly, I would bet that those books have their fans as well. I try to stay away from them simply because I find them boring and uninteresting. But that is just me.

  21. Elizabeth Bennett, Jane Eyre, Min (“Bet Me”), Blair (“To Die For”), Phoebe (“It Had to be You”), Jess (“Lord of Scoundrels”) and a thousand other great, memorable heroines from books people have loved for years (and in some cases, centuries) have lasted and been loved, partially, because the heroines are unique, hardly “placeholders.” Only people contemptuous of romances (and women) would put forward such a brainless theory.

  22. Lynn – I think the question you raise is a complex one. I’ve not revisited the comments thread in Laura V’s post that I linked to but I do recall a conversation around reader’s exploring certain (more acceptable) desires through the heroine and other (more illicit/dangerous) desires through the hero. Was that part of Laura K’s essay in fact? Shamefully, I haven’t read it. My own most recent post touches lightly on the fact that my favourite POV form is 3rd person revolving between the hero and heroine because I want to be in both of their heads. In short, the heroines Is Not Me. At least, no more than the hero.

    Laura K – when I wrote my comment above, the first heroine I thought of that I fell in love with, was the heroine from Midsummer Moon. I’m kicking myself that I didn’t mention that in the original comment cos now it looks like I’m fawning. Sigh.

  23. Lynn, THANK YOU for getting what my essay was originally about! That is so seldom mentioned, that it was really about POV, though it also does say a lot about the relative importance of the hero vs the heroine.

    I can’t find my copy of the book now, dang it, but I did conclude my discussion of the placeholder heroine with a sentence that said something like, “In the successful romance, both the hero and heroine will be well-developed characters.”

    I’m reading a book now, Grave Goods by Arianna Franklin, which isn’t a romance. It’s a medieval mystery. I’d like to take the heroine/detective by the hair, shake her and and tell her to grow up. She’s just eye-rollingly annoying in her 21st century attitudes in a 12th century setting, besides several other issues. Whenever the plot needs a twist, this heroine can be relied upon to make a stupid emotional choice.

    But the book is a pleasant pastime and I’ll buy the next in the series and even recommend them. The story is good. As a reader, I can say what I think the heroine “ought” to do “if I were her,” so to speak. Though I have no particular desire to BE her. This is what I’d call a placeholder heroine. I can just sort of ride along and enjoy the book without committing to any identification with the heroine.

    If I could feel more emotional identification with this character, this might rise to a great book in my eyes. But with a placeholder main character, it’s still a good read.

    Magdalen and Tumperkin, I like what you said about the heroine in romances. The greatest are both appealing and compelling at once, which believe me is no small feat.

  24. “Or maybe heroes just have a lot more latitude.”
    @Tumperkin – I don’t know if this is the reason, but I do think heroes get a bit more latitude. Some readers seem more willing to tolerate a hero’s more unusual traits, his dark side or his weaknesses more than a heroine’s. Because of this, I keep thinking that this may keep us from getting to know as many layers of a heroine’s character in the same way we do a hero’s. What do you think?

    Also, thanks for the Laura Vivanco link. That piece is an interesting read!

  25. Laura Vivanco had an interesting post about this over at Teach Me Tonight – see link below.

    http://teachmetonight.blogspot.com/2009/09/readerly-desires-and-aspirations.html

    My feeling is that the notion that the heroine is the obvious conduit for the reader’s desires is far too simplistic a notion. When I think of the heroines I’ve loved, it’s the same as the heroes I’ve loved – there is almost a process of falling in love with them. I suspect there are possibly more appealing and compelling heroes because communicating that essence of an appealing, compelling person is about showing the appeal of the love object – and maybe for certain authors, they find that easier with a hero than heroine. Or maybe heroes just have a lot more latitude.

  26. Authors who write, and publishers who publish novels with ‘placeholder’ heroines AND heroes will not get my repeat business. Once burned, twice shy. That is a major pet peeve! I have no desire to insert myself into the character’s shoes (or bed, rather). I am reading for the STORY!

    Characterization and plot is what ‘sells’ me. That’s why I read (and often buy) the works of Linda Howard, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Jennifer Crusie et al.

  27. I cry at TV ads for cotton, and have to fast-forward through the PSAs about abused animals, they upset me so much. (I do support my local shelter, though.) Why? I’m not anything like the people in the cotton advert, nor am I an animal.

    It’s because someone has created an image, even a mini-story, that is designed to make me feel empathetically for the cotton-wearing family or the abandoned dogs & cats.

    It’s the same thing with romance novels. I’m not like any of the heroines in any of the books I read, and I really wouldn’t want to be. I like my life just as it is. But I can feel for a romance heroine — if she’s interesting enough — and when she thinks it won’t work out & she’ll have to spend the rest of her life without this great guy, I can shed a tear for her. Even though I’m very happily married to my great guy.

    I don’t think we identify with the heroine, I think we love her like a friend with an interesting life. If we don’t like her enough, we won’t like the book. So quite the opposite of writing the bland heroine role that everyone can slot themselves into, I think the heroine has to be particularly interesting and believable.

  28. @Tracy Cooper-Posey: “Even Mills & Boon heroines show backbone and character these days.”
    Oh yes – and I think they’ve had it for a while. It’s one of the reasons I read series romances.

    @Wendy – I read for books on the whole as well and part of that for me is having a good heroine. I think that’s why I tend to also like a lot of the books you rate highly on your blog.

    @Sue S – I think that’s definitely a true ciriticism of the theory for a lot of readers, and I know that’s a criticism I’ve levelled at certain books on occasion. Still, there are also plenty of readers out there who seem to think of their books as in who the hero was, what was special about him. And don’t get me started on all the herocentric advertising, cover model contests, etc…!

  29. I honestly read for plot first; then for the characters. With the characters, it’s not just the H/h interaction, but the whole ensemble. I prefer a book with well-developed secondary characters as well.

    If the plot is going nowhere, or either the H/h is obnoxious for some reason, I just stop reading.

  30. How interesting! I’ve never even considered “placing” myself in a story. Maybe because I’m new to reading romance novels after reading a lot of general fiction and mystery over the past 30 years. I read for the entire package, and it’s very important that both the hero and the heroine are strong, well-written characters. I want to be the observer. Books play like a movie in my head as I read them. I may think a scene in a book is really hot, but I never want to be IN the scene. Maybe I’m a voyeur! ;-)

    The characters in a book need to become real for me to be really drawn into a story. I don’t want to take their place, I want to immerse myself in the whole story. When I start thinking about the characters as I go about my day, when I start worrying about them or wondering how the story would have been different if such-and-such had happened, THEN I know the author has grabbed me. Then I know this is a great book.

  31. Pretty much verbatim what you said here is how I *feel* on the subject. I have a bit of a reputation for being a heroine-centric reader, but for the book to work for me as a whole, I need well-developed, interesting characters (both hero AND heroine), a solid plot, and a good story, well told. I want the whole package, preferably with a shiny red bow on the top :)

    And I never, ever, ever insert myself into the role of heroine. Not only does it give validity to the whole “porn for women” stereotype (blah!) but it also implies that women are so addle-brained that we can’t separate fiction from reality. That one drives me bonkers.

  32. One simple way to point out the fallacy of the ‘placeholder’ heroine is to note the number of times we see a criticism of a romance that says: “he loves her, but I couldn’t figure out why.”

  33. I think I’m a teeter totter for Heroine/Hero development. If the degree of characterization and interest for one balances out the other, I’m okay despite the gender. For me, the deficiencies of one character can be made up for by the other. Sometimes a main character is secondary, and that’s fine if the other shines. I think there are just as many placeholder Heroes.

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  35. I find it hard to believe that readers are reading romances just to get to the hero, if I use my own reader reviews as a yardstick: I get constant positive feedback on the strength and individuality of my heroines. The readers clearly like the characters that way and I intend to continue to write them that way.

    Gold must be reading sideways. Even Mills & Boon heroines show backbone and character these days.

  36. Entertainment. I rarely watch tv, so I read most anything. I read for the story first, if you can’t sell me on the plot.. I’m done by the 30th pg. If you can’t sell me on the characters, I’m done by the 50th.

    I don’t live vicariously through books… But I do “eye-roll” the double standard that TV is “ok”.

  37. I love a good hero, especially one who appears to have all the great qualities I think are important (those qualities probably differ from one reader to another). But if the heroine isn’t working for me in the story, I think I can honestly say the whole book isn’t working either. I’m trying to think back for reasons I may have DNFd books. Author’s style was important, but then so was how the heroine was drawn. If I didn’t like her, for whatever reason, the entire novel was probably a thumbs-down. Nora Roberts, as great an author I think she is, can write some lead female characters who push my buttons enough to not want to continue on.

    So I would say a heroine is very important for me. A hero who may not be written as well can be tolerated by me a bit more.

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