Perfectly Perfect Heroines

baggirlConfession: I’m not perfect.

Well, duh, you say.  No one is.  But judging by some of the romances I read, I’d never know that women lead imperfect lives.

I’m not talking about historicals, which are a little different.  Considering I already have to put myself – a second-generation academic Chinese immigrant – into the place of a marriage-ready Caucasian ten years my junior, anything else is not a stretch.  So I can imagine that a lifetime of eating meat and taking country walks will keep me thin, and that I’ll marry a duke even though I’m just the bailiff’s daughter.  A perfect historical heroine?  No big deal.

But contemporaries are different.  This is my world, maybe my life, that the author is describing, and I have a crucial interest in being able to relate to the heroine.  I know it’s not easy for authors – readers are damn particular, and if the heroine’s too flawed then we hate her.  But that’s our problem.  The issue arises when the heroine represents some mystical ideal of successful contemporary womanhood that frankly scares the heck out of me.  How can you possibly relate to someone who has everything she needs and most things she wants?

I mean, look at me.  I’m neither at the zenith nor the nadir of my professional career.  I am of very average attractiveness.  I have equal moments of sociability, snobbery and shyness.  I consider myself well-adjusted and happy, but I also have insecurities.  I am normal; I am not perfect.  So when I read about heroines who are gifted with professional success, emotional strength, financial security, material comfort, physical beauty, aerobic fitness, a healthy sex drive, and a man at the end – well, can you understand why I’ve got my bitch on?

Obviously not all heroines are like that.  But a lot of heroines have most of these qualities, and too much of the conflict arises from events or people perpetrated on them rather than as a result of the heroine’s faults.  And how realistic is that?  To be able to sail through life with few missteps and still live happily-ever-after?  Please.

I suppose it comes down to two separate issues: Characterization and execution.  I can’t fault authors for creating heroines who begin or end the book in unusually blessed circumstances – this is, after all, fiction, and some authors do it successfully.  But I can and bloody well will fault authors who don’t make these heroines human.  They’re given tiny quirks that shout “See?  We’re normal!”  Well, they’re not.

Right now you could be thinking, “What’s her problem?  It’s a story, for crying out loud!”  My perspective is that if romance is supposedly written by women, for women, then I’m not always reading that.  A book is not geared for me if it’s not written about a woman like me.  Plain and simple.

Do you get hit by too much heroine perfection in romance novels?  How do you define a perfect heroine?

- Jean AAR

24 thoughts on “Perfectly Perfect Heroines

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  2. I guess I feel that I have so many imperfections, flaws, and insecurities that I don’t mind reading about heroines who are more perfect than I am. That doesn’t mean that I want to read about perfect heroines. Maybe that’s why I got tired of books by Nora Roberts and Judith McNaught, since they have such perfect heroines. (I’m bad at analyzing why or why not I like a book–another fault.)

    Right from the beginning, when I first read them, I preferred Jayne Ann Krentz’s books to Roberts’s. Maybe it’s because Krentz’s heroines (in all her pseudonyms) need the hero in order to feel complete, though still not perfect. Though I have made no study of this, this has definitely been the import of her latest novels and has repeatedly appeared in her older ones as well.

  3. Laurie: I like sitting down with a totally over the top contemporary romance with a perfect heroine with the perfect life. It makes me feel good – kind of like junk food without the calories. Wouldn’t like it as a steady diet though. And I certainly don’t believe real life is like that. But as escapist fare, sure.

    I so agree with this, but with historical romance as well as contemporary. Usually a perfect heroine doesn’t bother me unless the storytelling annoys me all the way around. It’s a cliché, I know it, and I’m okay with it if it’s done in a way that I can personally tolerate.

    • Heather AAR: I so agree with this, but with historical romance as well as contemporary. Usually a perfect heroine doesn’t bother me unless the storytelling annoys me all the way around. It’s a cliché, I know it, and I’m okay with it if it’s done in a way that I can personally tolerate.

      I don’t mind a perfect heroine, but I do get frustated with a book if the author continues to tell me how perfect the heroine is in every way, shape and form from the start of the book until the end of the book. I, personally, would rather read about an average-looking heroine who shines in some other way, with the hero falling for who she is rather than what she looks like.

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  5. I read exclusively historicals because I want to immerse myself in a world so different from the one I live in that I’m not (often) tempted to ask myself how realistic is this. I know the world of the real and the present (I’m a bankruptcy lawyer) and I want nothing in my after hours reading that resonates with the problems I deal with daily.

  6. I loathe the average historical so I prefer contemporaries anyway, but even while I read up to 400 of them a year, I can’t say I come across a “perfect” heroine even 1% of the time. They’re all flawed, and if they’re too messed up, I put the book down (especially if it came from the library and there’s no $$ investment) Extreme dysfunction just bores me silly in all forms of entertainment, and it’s why I watch very little tv.

    Actually, I wouldn’t mind some books where the heroine is more pulled together.

    • Susan: I loathe the average historical so I prefer contemporaries anyway, but even while I read up to 400 of them a year, I can’t say I come across a “perfect” heroine even 1% of the time.They’re all flawed, and if they’re too messed up, I put the book down (especially if it came from the library and there’s no $$ investment)Extreme dysfunction just bores me silly in all forms of entertainment, and it’s why I watch very little tv.Actually, I wouldn’t mind some books where the heroine is more pulled together.

      Interesting comment. Somewhat OT, but I’ve seen a number of posts on this forum in which someone claims that a trend exists and another person states equally firmly that it doesn’t. In this thread it’s obvious that people disagree about how widespread is the phenomenon of the perfect heroine.

      In principle it should be fairly easy to resolve this empirical disagreement, but having taken part in a couple of these debates I know that matters aren’t so easy unless someone has the time and inclination to access and review a large database (which I don’t). My only recommendation would be that people post examples of trends/cliches/stereotypes etc. that they observe, so that others can see why a particular claim is being made.

  7. “Isn’t this phenomenon a function of the general tendency to portray a world that is too idealized – in the same way that, for example, sitcoms show supposedly middle class characters living in New York City apartments that only the likes of Donald Trump could afford?”

    Chris, I so agree. I also agree with the cliched Snow White heroine. That is usually a sure fire way to get me not to finish the book unless it’s incredibly well-written. However, sometimes when my day has been REALLY REALLY bad, I like sitting down with a totally over the top contemporary romance with a perfect heroine with the perfect life. It makes me feel good – kind of like junk food without the calories. Wouldn’t like it as a steady diet though. And I certainly don’t believe real life is like that. But as escapist fare, sure.

    Two of my favorite contemporaries feature rather flawed heroines with imperfect lives. Mary Potter from “Mackenzie’s Mountain” is one. Imperfect life, imperfect body, little money but very smart and strong. And Cat Cochran from Elizabeth Lowell’s “To the Ends of the Earth” – now there was a woman with problems.

  8. Isn’t this phenomenon a function of the general tendency to portray a world that is too idealized – in the same way that, for example, sitcoms show supposedly middle class characters living in New York City apartments that only the likes of Donald Trump could afford?

    Similarly, heroes in many contemporary romances are also expected to be perfectly perfect – handsome, wealthy, charming, sensitive and ALWAYS ready to marry. And I’m not even talking about the Harlequin offerings.

  9. I remember reading a historical where the heroine was not only beautiful, smart, brave, and kind but could embroider beautifully and had a singing voice to die for. I couldn’t stand her. It’s not that I’m imperfect so I can’t stand perfection in others, it’s that the story has to have an arc. If the heroine is already perfect, then she has nothing to learn and nowhere to grow and the story becomes static and boring.

    OTOH, some authors can take a pretty close to perfect heroine and make her shine. Rachel, in Penelope Williamson’s “The Outsider” was pretty darn near perfect, but Williamson managed to make her human and vulnerable and the result was quite wonderful.

  10. I recently read a book in which the 30 year-old heroine was a doctor (not a resident, mind you) who’d been in practice for several years AND had a career as a model. Uh-huh. That would happen.

    Then there was the also absurdly young vet who’d come from a humble background and who charged her poor patients a fraction of what her services were worth. I’d bet Sallie Mae (to which the poor vet undoubtedly owes a 100K for her schooling) LOVES that.

    And I do think Nora Roberts (and I’m a fan) overdoes it on the sap sometimes. I’m sure other authors do, too, but I don’t read them. Her families aren’t just good, they’re perfect. There are no nuances there and it just doesn’t resonate with me.

    I don’t read many contemporaries any more either. Small town syndrome and perfect heroines are certainly two big reasons.

  11. “So when I read about heroines who are gifted with professional success, emotional strength, financial security, material comfort, physical beauty, aerobic fitness, a healthy sex drive, and a man at the end – well, can you understand why I’ve got my bitch on?”

    I don’t see a lot of those heroines. I see more of the “Snow White” heroines – sweet, gentle, docile, kind to animals, always giving money to every loser in the world. Never irritated or angry when taken advantage of – a doormat, in other words. (Actually, I wouldn’t mind the doormat heroines so much if they GREW OUT of it and cut off the leeches in their lives.)

    And I just couldn’t get into”Death Angel”. I tried. I really liked the idea of a heroine who was a gold-digger.

    She starts out interesting, but turns into a cliche – cutting her hair short, living on a minimum wage job rather than off the money she took from the bad guy. How is it more moral to live with (and presumably be supported by) a guy who earned all HIS riches by murdering people for a living?

    • JMM: “So when I read about heroines who are gifted with professional success, emotional strength, financial security, material comfort, physical beauty, aerobic fitness, a healthy sex drive, and a man at the end – well, can you understand why I’ve got my bitch on?”I don’t see a lot of those heroines.

      Four words: Nora Roberts and Judith McNaught.

      And what AAR Sandy said.

  12. Frankly, I am a history nut so I rarely step outside historicals. The only thing that gets me to read a contemporary is a compelling story and compelling stories rarely involve perfect people – at least not in my mind. I think the last contemporary I read and truly enjoyed was Linda Howard’s Death Angel. An assasin and a mafia girlfriend are hardly perfect people. Their growth and change made the story great for me. Come to think of it, that is what generally makes a great story for me – character growth – and “perfect” characters by definition don’t have any more growing to do.

  13. The one “flaw that is not a flaw” that drives me nuts is the perfect heroine whose one big fat glaring flaw is that she doesn’t realize how beautiful she is. LOL. That’s a favorite of Julie Garwood and Judith McNaught, and I like to think of it as a romance trope dinosaur but alas, it does still pop up in some contemporaries I’ve read recently. Roxanne St. Claire uses it, for example.

  14. When reading the newest Nora Roberts’ Wedding Qaurtet series, I do get annoyed that these women (and men) are described as (mostly) perfect. They are thin, always workout, never overindulge, have only minor scuffles with each other, apologize easily, and they all live and work in one big house! I have a little bit of hard time sympathizing with their problems. Mostly though, it makes the read a fluff piece, which is ok if you are in the mood for it and are not expecting a lot out of a story.

    I do like reading Kristin Higgins’ books. Her contemporaries have varied women types and they are not perfect heroines. Another newer author to the contemporary scene is Louisa Edwards. She writes about women (and men) who are not perfect and but very likeable characters.

  15. I don’t have a problem with organized, strong, productive, and otherwise “inner goddess” type traits in a heroine, but when the heroine has her act together 100%, would never make a blunder in boy/girl relationships or interaction, and is physically so perfect you wonder why she’s not in movies… then I get annoyed.
    No scratch that, then I loose interest. Because I don’t care what happens to the victorias secret model that is a top attorney and has a million friends.
    I guess if I feel like an author is giving me a woman that seems perfect inside and out – then it feels super fake and I don’t care.

  16. I don’t read a whole lot of contemporaries for this reason alone. I can’t relate to a heroine who is either to perfect or so stupid that she let herself end up stuck in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, snowbound, with a stranger who may or may not be a serial killer. And oh by the way she’s pregnant. And super rich but hiding from her crazy grandmother’s ex cousin-in-law. Or something. But really, I can’t handle the perfection. Especially when they meet the hero and screw up at the same time and act perplexed about why they did that because she NEVER does something so silly.

    Not all heroines are like that, as you said. I’ve read lots of contemporaries that have awesome, relatable heroines whose lives are full of problems just like my own. Authors who right those sort of women are the ones I prefer to read. We all make mistakes, gain weight, have crazy families, and/or get ourselves into massive debt. Why wouldn’t I want tor read about women just like me?

    I like to escape in a romance, but I don’t like to escape to a world where the herione is so perfect I want to stab her. JK…sometimes :)

  17. I think my pet peeve is the contemporary “Snow White” type heroine. She’s beautiful, sweet, hard-working, loved by cranky old people, children, and all animals. You expect birds to be twittering around her head. And yet somehow there is no man in her life. Oh and of course she’s always a virgin or very close to it. Not for any particular reason that I could respect and understand, such as religious or moral beliefs. It’s just “never felt right.” That might be believable up to a certain age, but once a heroine is past 22 or so, I’m thinking she’s met at least one half way decent man that was interested in her.
    My heroines don’t have to gritty or tough. They can even be a little better than reality. I don’t need hairy legs and cellulite described in loving detail. But perfect? No thanks.

  18. I remember when I was very young, my mother brought home some Nancy Drew books from the library. After reading the first one, my first reaction was, “She’s perfect–just too perfect!”. For that reason, I never was as big a fan of the books as a lot of my friends were.
    As an adult, my opinion hasn’t changed–while a heroine should certainly have admirable characteristics (that is, after all, the derfinition of a “heroine”!), not all of her characteristics need to be admirable. An author need not dwell on negative characteristics, but a reader should be able to identify with a heroine, and if said heroine is a “Nancy Drew”, well, it’s hard to identify with perfection!

  19. I’ve wondered about that, too, Jean. Are we looking for heroines who have the traits we wish we had or are a bit weak in? Or do we want heroines who mimic our qualities, both good and bad? Maybe it’s a little of both and that’s why authors are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

    If I’m weak in a particuarly desired characteristic where I would like to be stronger, then I am probably looking for it in a fictualized heroine. Or if I’m totally lacking in some area, then I’m also probably looking for that trait in my reading. Is that for sure? No, but I suspect, for me, it’s probably pretty close to true.

    Also, those traits that I cannot stand in myself or others, I certainly don’t want to see them in my “ideal” heroine. Someone else may not mind them, but I do and it just may be the fine line between hating and/or loving the heroine.

    But perfect—absolutely not. Those kind of people scare the heck out of me, because perfection always begs for more, so it remains unattainable, as far as I’m concerned. Reaching for perfection is one thing; actually attaining it would be boring. What goals would one strive for after that?

  20. I can relate to what you are saying.
    I like a strong heroine who doesn’t submit to anyone.

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