Discussion

The Hero, the Heroine, or the Love Story?

When you read a romance novel, what are you reading it for? The romance? The heroine’s journey? The hunky hero? Or something else entirely?

The Placeholder Reader

Recently, I came upon a quote by author Laura Kinsale. Rather than add it to the Kathleen E. Woodiwiss page, I thought it would make for a good conversation piece. In her essay “The Androgynous Reader” in Jayne Ann Krentz’ book, Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, Kinsale cites the heroine of K.E.W.’s Shanna as proof that the average romance reader does not identify with the heroine, but rather, s/he imagines her as a placeholder for themselves to be with the hero, for:

“[A] sillier and more wrongheaded heroine than Shanna would be difficult to imagine… Feminists need not tremble for the reader–she does not identify with, admire, or internalize the characteristics of either a stupidly submissive or an irksomely independent heroine. The reader thinks about what she would have done in the heroine’s place.”

I agree and disagree with Kinsale’s assessment. As a woman, I do not internalize a foolish heroine’s poor decision-making. When it comes to reading romance, unless feminism is an explicit theme of the book, that topic doesn’t enter in how I judge the story. A stupid main character is a stupid main character regardless of their sex.

Is Kinsale claiming that a “blank slate” heroine is all readers need because they want to self-insert themselves into the story, fantasizing they are the object of the hero’s affections? That it’s easy to overlook the antics of a TSTL (too-stupid-to-live) heroine because ultimately it’s the hero who makes the book worth it?

Why Do Read I Romance?

It’s a cause for introspection. When I come upon a female MC (main character) who is “irksomely independent” or “stupidly submissive,” I hope that she changes for the better as the novel proceeds. If a love story is goofy and silly, I can accept a goofy and silly heroine AND hero.

I looked at my Goodreads shelves to see how I judge heroes and heroines differently. I picked fourteen shelves, one dedicated to each sex, and counted the net positive rankings. It seems that I examine the hero more harshly and admire heroines more than their male counterparts. However, there are no masculine equivalents for these shelves castigating females: heroine-so-perfect-she-farts-potpourri ‎(16); heroine-dumb-dumb-dumb ‎(22); heroine-feisty-in-a-bad-way ‎(18). Still, heroines come out on top. 😉

HEROHEROINENET POSITIVE
hero-deserves-a-better-heroine ‎(4)heroine-deserves-a-better-hero ‎(9)HEROINE (+5)
hero-greatest-hall-of-fame ‎(10)heroine-greatest-hall-of-fame ‎(14)HEROINE (+4)
hero-love-him ‎(28)heroine-love-her ‎(44)HEROINE (+16)
hero-needs-to-grow-the-beep-up ‎(18)heroine-should-grow-the-beep-up ‎(11)HEROINE (+7)
hero-loser ‎(27)heroine-loser ‎(5)HEROINE (+22)
hero-jerky-pig-hall-of-fame ‎(17)heroine-jerky-sow-hall-of-fame ‎(1)HEROINE (+18)
hero-hate-him ‎(37)heroine-hate-her ‎(32)HEROINE (+5)
On the left the heroes’ shelves, in the middle the heroines’, & on the right the net positives.

The female protagonist doesn’t need to be a super-strong woman, or the very best at what she does, or even someone I like. Simply put, I need a heroine I can respect. That’s all. If she’s absolutely horrid, but the hero is swoon-worthy like in Highland Velvet then it depends on the writer selling me the plot.

Holding Out for a Hero

Kinsale argues that Romance readers want to see less of the heroine and more of the hero. They want to be inside his head, feeling his emotional upheaval as he falls in love. He is the object of the readers’ desire, not the heroine.

Her argument has merit. Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women was published in 1992. Romance has changed immensely through the years regarding how heroes express themselves. In the past, there was little, if any, head-hopping into his thoughts. The hero was inscrutable and stoic. At most, we felt his frustration or desire for the heroine. “I love you”s were not revealed mid-story, but in the last few chapters or pages.

In the late 1980s and through the 1990s, the genre grew to show both perspectives. Rere was the book told only from the hero’s point-of-view (third-person omniscient, of course). Today there are a plethora of romances told strictly from the hero’s 1st-person-POV. If a book is written from the heroine’s side and sells well, expect a sequel that tells the same story from the hero’s POV.

The Universal Tale

I know straight men who read romance—gay men and lesbian women too. Not everyone who reads Romance does so out of wish fulfillment. Sometimes folks are just looking for engaging stories, which happen to be Romance. When looking for a cozy detective mystery or an alien-packed space opera, I’m not searching to find myself, but for an escapist adventure. It doesn’t matter who the characters are, so long as they engage me. Then again, some people appreciate an MC who is relatable, which enhances their reading pleasure.

Books are so very private yet wonderfully universal to experience. There’s no right or wrong in the way we enjoy or take part in them. It’s ok to judge or not to judge the characters or the plots, so long as we don’t judge each other as readers. Fiction is an alternate reality that can mean so many things to different people. There are multitudes of worlds for us all to experience in unique and deeply personal ways and we have authors to thank for that. (And editors, don’t forget editors. I wish I had one.)

Do you read Romance for the fantasy of being desired by the hero or of being the hero in pursuit? Is neither more important, and you enjoy the overall love story, the plot, or the character development? Or is it the sex, be it the anticipation or the consummation? There are no condemnations here; we do this for the shared fun! Please drop a comment, and let’s talk romance!

8 replies »

  1. Thanks so much, Jacqueline. Wow, lots of food for thought! The reasons I read romance would require a whole article, not just a comment. I’ll write one and submit it to you, but in the meantime allow me to make a few points.

    1. I read that Laura Kinsale article in “Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women” shortly after it was published in 1992. Her idea of a placeholder heroine was striking. But also ridiculous. It never applied to what I look for in a heroine.

    I haven’t heard of any reader, then or now, who’s expressed a desire for such protagonists. Nor any author who’s claimed to create them.

    That doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t anyhow. But if they do, their fiction isn’t my kind of read. I require a heroine who comes to life. Someone who seizes my imagination. Someone I can worry about and root for.

    And yes, no matter what Kinsale said, I DO identify with the heroine. That is, I should be able to. If I can’t, that book is an instant did-not-finish.

    2. I think of a work of fiction as a unified whole. The elements should work together. If one does what it’s supposed to, it enables the rest to do the same.

    Therefore it’s impossible for me to isolate just one element and say, “I read romance for the ______, but not the _______.” I read it for the whole package. I can discuss one element at a time in writing a review. But that’s just a review. In the actual work the elements function as one.

    That is, they should. If they don’t, something’s wrong.

    More later, in an article.

    • An article from you on why love romance is wonderful, the kind of feedback I’m looking for! I’d initially wanted to run a poll, to see where opinions stand, but I had to get a few things of my chest after reading that chapter.

      Fanfiction has changed the way readers see books, tv, movies, or other kinds of media. I tried not using the term Mary Sue in this article, as it’s such a source of contention. In fan fiction many readers insert themselves in their favorite stories as a perfect character whom everyone loves, especially the hero. In the romance genre especially, fan fiction has been made into published works, so now many other writers copied the vague but perfect heroine that are now labelled Mary Sues. I don’t need a heroine who stands in for me, I just want, as you said, someone to root for!

      For me, it’s also hard to distill the reason why I read romance into one generic reason. I think that’s because, contrary to detractors, romance has SO MUCH variety. I treat each genre I come upon uniquely. Within each genre are sub genres, where rules may be also different. For example in a a basic romance, I’m looking for two characters whose relationship I care about, because I care for the characters. In a 1970’s bodice ripper that runs 600 pages, I’m looking for epic plots, and characters who grow from may be awful on page 1 but by 598, there better be character development. If it’s a Playboy Press or Pinnacle Books romance (which are the literary equivalents to eating Taco Bell at 3 am) I’m just looking for something bad that I’ll enjoy anyway.

  2. Hi, Jacqueline.

    Full disclosure, I am a straight man who has been reading romance novels since I was 8 or 9, which sadly wasn’t yesterday.

    When I started reading romance novels, I did so because I was attracted to the heroines as beautiful women. I never fantasized myself as the heroine, but I did occasionally fantasize myself as the hero if I thought the heroine was really attractive. I haven’t done so in many years. I’ve never quite been the “placeholder reader” that Ms. Kinsale references. I also disagree with Ms. Kinsale about wishing to see more of the hero than heroine. Ideally, the books I love the most are closer to a 50/50 split, and if there does need to be a focus on one or the other, I prefer the focus to be on the heroine.

    Answering the final questions: When I read romance novels, I want to see likeable characters, strong storylines and character development. Sex is also important: I have read many Georgian/Victorian era Regency romances which would fall into the “clean/sweet” category and liked them. However, if I have my druthers, I will always tend to prefer books with a lot of pepper in the soup. I also agree with Mary Anne that it would be great to write a separate article about why and how we became romance novel fans. I hope you will allow the space for that to take place.

    • Hello, Blue Falcon,
      You got an early start! I was reading Sleepover Friends books at that age. Then those preteen romances, finally at the ripe age of 11 or 12, I started reading REAL romance! But of course, I would adore articles from both you and Mary Anne as to why you read romance, and I think our growing audience will too. As I wrote, reading is such a personal matter, and everyone has a story to tell about their love of stories!

      I wanted to hear from your perspective why you read romance or how you view yourself when you read a romance. I cannot lie, sometimes I read a romance for the schmexy scenes, but I prefer a book that hints at events more than a how-to-manual, and I’m very boring. While I can, in a bodice ripper, accept a heroine who is separated from her hero and has other lovers (think Rosemary Rogers’ books), I don’t read modern love triangles where the heroine is active both heroes or books with multiple heroes and one heroine. Again, this is just my personal taste about books, and I can understand a different perspective. It just isn’t my fantasy. And by fantasy, I mean that imaginary world that is my home away from reality for a little while.

      I like to imagine a world of medieval women who are resilient in ways a modern like me (well, mostly-modern) isn’t, or how people had to live on rough frontiers yet were able to find lasting love, or just quick fun stories where people are rich and beautiful and melodramatic. And most importantly, I want characters whom I want to see win out at the end.

      Great points; please write more on your views (when you have a chance. I know life gets busy!)
      All the best,
      Jacqueline

  3. I really enjoyed this article , so informative! You portrayed the broad spectrum of romance readers SO WELL!!!! This dispells the myths about romance readers!

    • Thank you neil for your perspective! Romance–and books in general–have such a wide variety of readers. We romance fans get lumped into groups, like many genre fans do, but we’re from a huge cross-section of society. We’re truly a diverse union of people!

      • Thinking about it some more and Mary Anne, you’re absolutely correct! Just like there’s no such thing as an average TV viewer or an average eater of desserts.

        In general everyone is looking for something cater to their own tastes, it’s that some people are looking for the same things.

        Chocolate may be the most popular dessert, but it doesn’t mean the “average” dessert eater likes chocolate. As there’s so much to look for in romance, there are many different reasons people read them!

Please drop a comment and let's talk romance!