The Perfect Heroine – Is There One?

In the past seven years, I have had the opportunity to craft female characters by the names of Suzette, Desiree, Charlotte, Angelique, Rachel, Ann, Mary, and Caroline. Each woman is unique so that their character fits the theme of the story that I pen.

However, it’s been interesting to learn that crafting a female character who pleases the vast array of preferences that exist among readers, is a unique challenge. It’s safe to say that each one of my imaginary leading ladies has been a victim of harsh criticism, but a few have been lauded as brilliant.

The ratings appear to hang upon whether the reader likes or dislikes the personality of the heroine. Since historical romance books are inherently written for the fantasies of the female audience, it makes perfect sense that female readers can be harsh critics. As I have said before, writing romance is a tough gig.

What I find utterly fascinating is that female readers appear to be more critical of their heroines than heroes. The damaged or flawed character of a handsome man is easily forgiven, rather than the shortcomings of a woman. The heartless rake who seduces a virgin in a passionate love scene is given absolution. His less than honorable motives are overlooked as well as his reputation. As long as he’s a good lover, is portrayed handsomely on the cover in a kilt or frock coat, all is well.

After all, ladies want to fall in love with the hero of the book for many reasons. We wouldn’t be reading them if we didn’t feel there was a void to be filled in our fantasies of what love should really be like. That is why we read historical romance to take us back to another time we blindly believe to be much better than the sneaker and blue jean society of our day. However, if the heroine doesn’t fit our preconceived idea of what we envision ourselves to be in her shoes, there could be trouble brewing in the ratings.

Why are we so critical of heroines? What is it about women who are harsh on other women – even if it’s just a make-believe character with no flesh, bones or soul? Is it because women relate more closely with their gender than they do with men? I think it boils down to what I believe I’m learning about this phenomenon – the men or heroes are fantasies in the mind of a female reader, while on the other hand heroines tend to be more personal as we walk that path of romance with them page by page vicariously.

Any author, who has taken a course or read a book on character building, will tell you that it takes talent to craft a hero or heroine and bring them to life. We’ve all read complaints about cardboard characters (no depth) or characters that are run-of-the-mill remakes with no individuality. The law of character building includes the pros and cons of that imaginary person. Can an evil person experience a pang of guilt or a saint have a sinful thought? Of course they can, because without dimension they are not human. It’s the things we love and despise about people that make for good characters. By the end of the story, the fictional individual should have grown in some way or changed for the better in spite of their flaws while conquering that obstacle that looms between them and their happy ending. Let’s be honest – not every living being is perfect – so why do readers sometimes expect our characters to be as well?

I will raise my hand and admit that I tend to write prickly people because conflict is the spice of my stories. After reading other popular authors in the historical romance genre, I’m finding that I often dare to stray from the regulated norms. You will no doubt find more amiable and agreeable ladies elsewhere. An interesting exercise is to stroll through one-star reviews on best-selling historical romance books, and you’ll get a feel for how readers really view the heroine. It’s usually a love/hate relationship based on personal preferences when it comes to romantic encounters between the pages.

From my own experience and reading the thoughts of other readers, here are some of the negatives that women do not like in their heroines:

Prickly women who come across as bitches.
Weak women who can’t stand up for themselves.
Disabled women who don’t match the standards of beauty or perfection.
Gullible women who swallow men’s lies and have no good sense.
Arrogant women who are snobs.
Unforgettable and uninteresting women with bland personalities.
Women with poor self-esteem.

I am sure the list could be expanded, but those complaints are the most obvious. It makes me wonder though if readers have placed twenty-first century expectations of behavior upon women of the Regency and Victorian eras. I wouldn’t be surprised if our thought processes actually wish for stronger women, which may not have been the case until the later part of the 19th century and early 20th century when women found a voice due to the suffrage movement.

Frankly, I think it is impossible to please every reader all of the time when it comes to historical romance. Each reader, like each character, is frankly unique in what they are looking for in a story. They have their perfect hero and heroine already in mind, and it’s the journey that the two must traverse to find an everlasting love that is the entertainment readers seek. I would only caution that sometimes a character can possess negative characteristics early in the story, but the author has plans to mellow them out or heal their flaws. Unfortunately, tales that instantly irritate are often discarded before the best is yet to come.

So is there a perfect heroine? I sincerely doubt it. If one existed, every historical romance writer would be a New York Times best-selling author because they didn’t irritate a reader with a less-than-stellar heroine.

Now as far as heroes? Well, that’s an entirely different topic that I may tackle in another post.


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