Where Every Heroine is Above Average

best Romance readers, especially those of us who read paranormals, know how it goes. It’s not enough for the heroine to be a gorgeous shapeshifter, she needs to have powers that no female in 9000 years has manifested. Or perhaps the animal familiar that only responds to men suddenly responds to the heroine, marking her specialness not only to the hero but to the entire community. So, what’s the everyday, average vampire, shapeshifter or psychic to do? Can’t they find love, too?

Though I’ve noticed this phenomenon in other books, I thought of this it recently as I read Ascension by Caris Roane. As the story unfolds, the heroine seems to unveil one amazing talent after another. First, she has been called to a higher dimension. Okay, fair enough, this needs to happen for the story to go anywhere. Then we learn that she’s telepathic. Again, plenty of people in the supernatural realm can go that, so good for her. However, the talents keep piling one on top of another until everyone sees that she is just the most amazing thing since sliced bread.

And it’s a little much. After all, it’s romantic when the hero and heroine find each other amazing and notice all those extra special things about one another. However, when the hero or heroine(though I’ve been seeing this more often with heroines) has to be The Very Best at everything, it makes them less relatable and sometimes the heroine seems more like a trophy than an actual character. When the heroine is too special a snowflake to mix with the rest of us mortals, the character just doesn’t seem real and it can be hard to see what drives the romance – unless they’re fated mates, which could be a whole blog entry in and of itself.

In the way these heroines get presented, I cannot escape the uncomfortable sensation that it smacks somewhat of sexism, too. I’ve read a lot of books where the hero is strong, competent and a wonderful shapeshifter/vampire/werebeast/whatever. He’s unusual, but he often has other guys around him who are also unusually super-talented and it’s the heroine who sees him as The One. However, when the heroine has superpowers, is amazingly good at what she does, and shows unusual ability, I too often see characters in the story carrying on like this is some kind of freakish and even mystical occurence. That’s not the case in every book to be sure, but it’s still out there.

Talent and power are wonderful, but they are better when not shorthand for actual characterization. The ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound is really cool, but what about the things that make a person want to actually talk to you, hang out on a Sunday morning doing nothing in particular, or build a permanent relationship? I like for my heroines to have a little more to their character rather than being tagged for the reader as “heroine” based upon their freakish level of talent. After reading enough of these books, I have to say I long to meet the everyday average shapeshifter and see what makes her tick.

– Lynn Spencer

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29 Responses to “Where Every Heroine is Above Average”

  1. Tumperkin says:

    Great post. I’ve often thought when reading ‘pack’ stories that I’d like something different from the usual ‘alpha mates’ (which was one of the things I liked about Patricia Briggs Alpha & Omega, albeit having the heroine’s position be ‘outside’ normal pack structure in some ways had the flavour of her being an ‘alpha in disguise’). And yes, an endlessly special talented protagonist eventually makes me sigh. A character so perfect doesn’t really need to change. Their character journey becomes ‘learning to live with my super-perfection’ and as a reader, that’s just not that interesting to me. I’d much rather read about a character trying to deal with their flaws.

  2. Jane AAR says:

    This doesn’t have anything to do with the blog itself, but I just wanted to say that I appreciate the Prairie Home Companion/Lake Wobegon reference in the title. Nicely done.

  3. Lauri Airman says:

    Great post! Do you think it’s at all market driven, that readers out there are looking for the perfect heroine as escapism? It’s not what I like, either — I’d much rather see someone fallible (like me) be successful and triumphant.

  4. Leagh says:

    I like the heroine to definitely be less then perfect like me. I am a very short person and like it when the heroine is like a foot shorter then the hero, lol, or is slightly overweight, or just plain not perfect. It makes me realize that you don’t have to be perfect to find happiness :)

  5. Tegan says:

    I agree that it perpetuates sexist notions that a man only has to be special tonhis lady while a lady has to be special to everyone. I love when ether ad heroine are less than perfect. We are reading to feel good and be entertained, and that is much more easily done when the charcters are more relatable. Plus faults and specialities allow for joking and teasing which always spices up an otherwiselovey romanceand makes it better as well

  6. kodi says:

    Perfect heroines are not fun. I like ones who know how flawed they or their situation in life is and decide to roll with it. I don’t really read paranormal romance because being asked to believe in true love and the supernatural in order to follow the story is just too much for me. I especially like when the heroine is particularly beautiful but has a really bitch personality and has to get over herself.

  7. maggie b. says:

    I agree totally. This is one of the things I loved about “Harry Potter”. The powers were spread out – Hermione had the brains, Ron the contacts, Harry the heart, soul and courage of the hero.

    Like others have said, the super heroine just isn’t relatable.

    maggie b.

  8. Melissa says:

    I agree with all the sentiments expressed here…and yet, as a girl, I glommed every Nancy Drew book in the library–and of course, she was the ultimate perfect heroine. She could swim and ice skate at the olympic level, scuba dive, ski, sail, fly a plane, jump out of a plane, hang glide, participate in archaeological digs, act in Japanese plays…and, of course, solve crimes.

  9. MB says:

    I get really tired of reading perfect heroines. They’re so one-dimensional. IRL our flaws are what make us interesting, and relatable. And why do all those customers continue to buy People magazine and the like if not to find out how the Rich/Beautiful/Famous are ‘like us’ with their problems and feet of clay.

    I know this is harsh, but an author that can make me interested in and like a flawed heroine, is someone I give kudos to, and look out for other books. Cookie-cutter heroines–perfect/unrelateable, no vote from me.

    Almost all heroes seem to be flawed, totally unrealistic, and ‘perfect’. That’s a whole other pet peeve. I give kudos to Ilona Andrews, Nora Roberts, Jennifer Crusie (some), and Diana Gabaldon among others for writing men that feel 3-d.

  10. Liz M says:

    The super-perfect heroine also goes against the conventions of classic fantasy, with its underdog heroes. Superhero saves the world? Where’s the suspense in that? But if a hobbit has to save the world, we’ve got a story. Like Tumperkin, I thought of Patricia Briggs as someone who does this right. Mercy Thompson is special but not perfect, and it’s often her “weaknesses” (stubbornness, recklessness) as much as her strengths that allow her to triumph.

    Excellent point about the sexism of this phenomenon, too. Only a perfect woman is good enough to succeed (or to stand on a level with men). Haven’t we seen that more than enough IRL?

    • Nifty says:

      Liz M: I have to say I long to meet the everyday average shapeshifter and see what makes her tick.

      I read this quote and immediately thought of Mercy Thompson. She’s a shifter and that’s a special power, but when she’s a coyote, she’s just a little ol’ 40-pound coyote. No super-human strength, no super-healing ability. She’s fast — her werewolf friends, she tells us, are faster than the average greyhound, and she’s a little faster than the werewolves. She has some immunity to different magics — and some magics affect her, but do so in an odd, unpredictable fashion. And she can see ghosts and sometimes compel them to do her bidding. And that’s about it. Other than that, she gets by on her smarts and her courage and her bone-deep decency, and while she is independent and always willing to go it alone — especially if it means protecting the ones she cares about or those weaker or more needy than herself — she DOES know when to call in the troops.

      I love Mercy because, in so many ways, she’s ordinary and likable: she’s got a dysfunctional-and-weird-but-still-basically-happy family life; she has confidence in herself and her skills, even as she’s niggled by the occasional insecurity; she’s got a mundane job and is constantly fretting about bills to pay; she lives in a trailer and makes chocolate-chip cookies or brownies when she’s trying to work through something in her mind; she gets together with her friends to eat popcorn and watch crappy movies; she gets going when the going gets tough and does whatever she must to get the job done.

      Pyschologically, she makes sense, and as a reader, I find that really attractive.

  11. CEAD says:

    I wonder to what extent it’s wish-fulfilment on the part of the author, and for those readers who enjoy the trope.

  12. Meggerfly says:

    I definitely want my heroine to be fallible. If They were perfect they wouldn’t have their own story. Who wants to read about Ms perfect who can snap her fingers and get everything that she wants? Also, who is perfect? We all have faults and I feel that the characters faults need to be shown to the reader so she is believable and we as readers can engage with her as shw grows throughout her story.

    • Meggerfly says:

      Meggerfly: I definitely want my heroine to be fallible. If They were perfect they wouldn’t have their own story. Who wants to read about Ms perfect who can snap her fingers and get everything that she wants? Also, who is perfect? We all have faults and I feel that the characters faults need to be shown to the reader so she is believable and we as readers can engage with her as shw grows throughout her story.
      rootml1@hotmail.com

  13. When she is shaped like a barbie doll with implants,
    Has the face of an angel, not a single detramental attribute,
    Yet we are to believe she has no idea the first thing anyone
    Notices (enen if they deny it) is appearance. Paleeez. Lol
    Give me a heroine whos hips are an even inch wider around than her
    Chest and lets see how many heros show up=}

  14. Lynn AAR says:

    As some of you have mentioned, I guess there is a certain sort of wish-fulfillment at work. I often wonder who does that wishing, though. It seems like a lot of readers can relate to someone who has issues kind of like most of us do. And as Tumperkin pointed out, where’s the journey for the perfect heroine? I think she hit it right on the head with that point. There is really nowhere to go when you’re perfect.

  15. Sterling95 says:

    I think it honestly depends on what sort of books you read. Look at Twilight, one of the biggest things to ever hit romance. The heroine is a normal, supposedly plain, ordinary girl who has nothing special and no extraordinary abilities for almost the entire quartet. She’s also bland, clumsy, wishy washy and a “danger magnet” Bella Swann was ripped up and down for being an “anti-feminist” role model precisely because she was so average and unremarkable. Another one romance mega hit is JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood and a very common complaint among readers is that the heroes are all supermen while the heroines are “too nice” and too ordinary. Sometimes authors really can’t win: if the heroine is extraordinary, she’s a Mary Sue and its sexist, and if she’s too whitebread, she’s not a heroine and therefore anti-feminist.

  16. Sara says:

    Jane Feather writes books where both the hero and the heroine are less than perfect. The hero might have really white teeth but they are crooked, whereas the heroine might have a large nose or be very clumsy. It makes the story interesting and the characters endearing.

  17. Dalia says:

    Hi Sterling95, I don’t think Bella being average and unremarkable was the reason for her being declared ‘anti-feminist’. I think it’s to do with the view that her life completely revolves around a man. The fact that she’s a teenager when she makes several life-changing decisions (all linked to Edward) exacerbates the situation.

    That said, I agree with what you say about authors not being able to win – or more particularly, readers being hard to please. Authors A, B and C may have all written about heroines who were perfect at everything and for the reader who read Book A B and C in succession, it gets old quick. However, for Author A (and her two other colleagues), they’ve written that one book with that one heroine. But the reader response takes into account many things other than that one book.

    Dalia

  18. Bob Mayer says:

    I’m not sure where I’m seeing this as sexist– after all, I’m the only male author on the RWA Honor Roll and I don’t write female heroines. Jenny Crusie did that. So it’s women writing women.
    I suppose it’s the same way I get tired of the heroes who can do everything: martial artist (I’ve got a black belt and have hurt myself more than anyone else); expert shots (in Special Operations shooters were, well, shooters– that’s all they did all day long); expert chefs (I can boil water); speak six languages fluently (I can say “don’t shoot” in quite a few); in great shape yet never work out (the trails in the woods beckon for a run, but mainly to keep my two yellow labs from crawling all over me); have shaved chests (uh, why, and how did all the Scottish warlords do that with stone knives?); know how to fly helicopters (a very specific skill my ex-wife had); and are superb lovers who know exactly what a woman wants (no man knows what a woman wants– if he did, he’d rule the world– we make best guesses). Hell, in Don’t Look Down, Jenny wrote her heroine angry at my hero and I had my guy do what guys do: say he’s sorry. I still have no freaking idea why her heroine was mad at my hero to this day. But he’s still sorry. Cause he’s a just a guy.

  19. Abram says:

    Helpful information and facts! I have been hunting for things like that for a time finally. Regards!

  20. Susan/DC says:

    I agree with Dalia that it was Bella’s two-dimensional character that was the catalyst for criticism, not her ordinariness. Once Bella meets Edward, she is “turn me into a vampire” and little else. No thoughts about her parents’ reaction, no conversations about a possible future other than as Edward’s soulmate, nothing other than that relationship. The books are romances, so it is to be expected that the relationship is central, but I would have been happier if I’d had a bit more sense of an actual human being as 1/2 of that relationship. Since the books start when Bella is 16, I’d have liked to see her character arc include actual growth and increasing maturity, which I did not get. I enjoyed the first three books of the series, but Bella was my least favorite part.

    The poster child for the increasingly unbelievably perfect heroine is Laurel K Hamilton’s Anita Blake. Attractive, smart, funny heroines can be wonderful, and I liked the first books in this series. But as the series went on and Anita developed more and more powers, I lost interest. It was fun when she was human trying to deal with the supernatural around her, but then she became the Great and Powerful Oz. The stories no longer felt organic (even if the world was highly artificial), and the authorial hand was far too heavy. The sense was that Hamilton gave Anita a new power whenever she painted her into a corner, or else she just wanted her to be the Bestest Heroine Ever, but at any rate I stopped reading at “Narcissus in Chains” (great review on this site) and haven’t gone back.

  21. Sterling95 says:

    @ Susan and Dalia. You’re both right, the majority of the anti feminist criticism came from Bella’s focus on Edward, but I’m pretty sure that a lot of it did stem from her very normal personality. “All the appeal of paint” and “nothing appealing about her” was something that came up very often. Not to mention how Twilight’s very whitebread author got pounced upon for being a plain ordinary housewife with no great accomplishments. That was one aspect of Twilight backlash that really irritated me.

    @Bob Mayer. Bob has a very good point: we ask an awful lot of our heroes. While a lot of times, the hero is among equally special men, that may be due to the trend of sequel baiting more than any interest in equality. And while we get chubby, flat chested heroines everyday and keep asking for more, when was the last time you heard of a hero with a beer gut, thinning hair and/or a pasty complexion?

    BTW, did you ask Jennifer Crusie why she had the heroine angry at the hero? I know that there was a long discussion around the “it’s not infidelity if he’s not in a relationship yet” in ‘Don’t Look Down’.

  22. JMM says:

    But if a heroine is flawed (other than being “too nice”) she is often torn down. Look at Eve Dallas. I’m not really a fan, but I did enjoy the fact that she has an edge. But there are plenty of Eve-bashers who moan about how mean and unfeminine she is.

    Anyone watch “The Closer”? Oh, the hate some people have for Brenda – for bascially being a better detective than her male counterparts.

    Heck, look at the worship that the dead Mary Stuart receives; compared to Elizabeth Tudor. Basically because she was more feminine – she married and had a baby. The fact that Elizabeth I ruled a country successfully for 44 years means nothing to some people who prefer to adore the “Saint Mary”.

  23. Sterling95 says:

    @JMM. Well, yes and no. It seems sometimes that there are very specific things that each gender gets a pass on, and they get ripped to pieces if they stray outside of that boundary. Take the typical secret baby scenario then try to imagine a hero denying his child the chance to know his/her mother for 8-10 years because he didn’t feel like it. He’d get ripped to shreds. There’s also a general tendency for the audience to dislike male characters who aren’t the equal or superior of their love interest in terms of financial or physical power, even if the male characters contribute emotionally or otherwise. We’re also more tolerant nowadays of women hitting men or treating reluctant men with sexual aggression than of the reverse.

    Sometimes, I wonder if readers don’t project a little too much onto the female characters, expecting them to reflect our set of values. To our male readers: do men ever see other male characters as representative of your gender?

    • chris booklover says:

      Sterling95: @JMM. Well, yes and no. It seems sometimes that there are very specific things that each gender gets a pass on, and they get ripped to pieces if they stray outside of that boundary. Take the typical secret baby scenario then try to imagine a hero denying his child the chance to know his/her mother for 8-10 years because he didn’t feel like it. He’d get ripped to shreds. There’s also a general tendency for the audience to dislike male characters who aren’t the equal or superior of their love interest in terms of financial or physical power, even if the male characters contribute emotionally or otherwise. We’re also more tolerant nowadays of women hitting men or treating reluctant men with sexual aggression than of the reverse.Sometimes, I wonder if readers don’t project a little too much onto the female characters, expecting them to reflect our set of values. To our male readers: do men ever see other male characters as representative of your gender?

      The answer, generally speaking, is no. As part of my research in genre fiction I have asked men about the characters and scenarios typically found in romantic novels. Very few men find romance novel heroes to be credible characters – men are portrayed as women would like them to be rather than as they really are. In particular, few novelists describe male sexuality in a realistic manner.

      Of course, there is a fair amount of variety in this respect – some novelists are clearly much better at writing male characters than are others.

  24. JMM says:

    I certainly don’t project my values onto female characters; I don’t like doormats. Let’s face it; doormats don’t get happy endings. They get people who scrape the poo off their shoes on them.

    I do agree, there’s pressure for the hero to be “powerful”; to rescue the heroine from her bad situation.

    OTOH, many heroes are so “powerful”, they become bullies. “I must rescue you from the horrors of having a job and living a life *I* don’t approve of!”

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