For some readers, the ideal sort of heroine is one for whom the hero is her first and only lover. Fortunately, there are a lot of those in the romance genre. For others, a heroine who has loved and lost, perhaps made a few wrong turns along the way, or has entertained a few options before meeting the love of her life, are what get their reading motor running. Fortunately, there are a lot of those sorts of heroines in the romance genre as well. What counts as an experienced heroine? Let’s take a look.
First of all, let’s throw out some definitions. What counts as an experienced heroine, for a particular reader? For some readers, this means that the heroine has had consensual sex before meeting the hero. Perfectly useful definition, but, for other readers, experience covers a little (or a lot) more than that. So, who’s right? As often is the case in romance land, both.
If the ingénue/virgin heroine is at one end of the spectrum, the experience heroine…well, she’s not at the other end, because experience can be seen as a continuum. All depends on the kind of experience we’re talking about, which is going to be different for each individual reader. For each individual writer, as well, and that’s a good thing. Variety is the spice of life, after all, and even the sweetest of romances can use a dash of spice for added flavor.
Readers who find a virgin heroine, at least after a certain age, (again, individual to each reader) a bit of a stretch, may expect their contemporary heroines to have a previous relationship or two (or more) in her past. Whether those relationships ended well, or otherwise, is up to the author, and up to the reader’s interpretation. Odd as it may seem, divorced heroines were rare in contemporary/category romance, until relatively recently. Move over in to the realm of romantic suspense, and the odds of an evil or at least treacherous ex rise exponentially. but that’s not a surefire bet. Heroines with amicable exes exist, whether or not they ever officially tied the knot. Some of them co-parent the children they have in common, and the new love interest is going to have to find out where they fit into that equation.
Widowed heroines have been a mainstay in both historical and contemporary romances, whether they lost their first love in the Wars of the Roses or in modern Afghanistan, or anywhere in between. When we get into futuristic romance, the sky is literally the limit. Widowed heroines may or may not come complete with children from their first marriage, and that marriage may have been happy, or it may have been, well, not so happy. Straddling this week’s topic and last week’s, the virgin widow seems to be here to stay. Some readers see this as the perfect way to have the best of both worlds, especially in the historical genre; widows had more freedom in many eras than their unmarried sisters, which opens a whole new realm of possibilities. Other readers find that the reasons for the heroine coming out of her first marriage without consummating her vows, convoluted, but, as with anything else, in the hands of the right author, it can easily work.
There’s more to any heroine beyond her sexual experience, or lack thereof, which leads us to dip a toe into some other waters. No heroine springs to life, fully formed, on page one, with no history of her own. Even if she’s been raised in seclusion, on a remote island, space station, or mountain cabin in the middle of nowhere (heck, even the top floor of a haunted skyscraper would count for this sort of thing) she’s already a whole person, with goals, regrets, and experiences of her own. Those are what make her the woman her lover falls in love with; if anything had been different, she’s be a different person. Perhaps she’s always had a passion for translating ancient hieroglyphics, worked side by side with one or both parents, learning the family trade, watched younger siblings until taking care of others is second nature (or her worst nightmare) or she’s a talented performer, who’s studied her craft, a sharp-minded mathematician, hardened soldier, or, well, pretty much anything.
No matter what the heroine has experienced in the past, whether she’s kissed (or slept with) a few frogs before she finds her prince, has a PhD, or dropped out of tenth grade, what she brings to the story is the sum total of everything she’s seen, done, thought, wanted, regretted, given up on, and strived for. Sure, her intimate history is part of who she is, but it’s also more than that. The question isn’t “is she experienced?” but “what’s her experience?” The answer is different for every heroine, which means the variety is never ending.
So, dear readers, I turn it now over to you. What, to you, constitutes an experienced heroine? Does that mean only her sexual/romantic history, or does it go further than that? Do you prefer heroines over or under a certain age? Do you have different definitions of an experienced heroine for different subgenres, for example, in a historical romance versus contemporary, versus paranormal? Have a favorite heroine you would call experienced? Pull up a chair in the comment section and tell us all about it. Rolling your eyes at the whole idea of experienced versus inexperienced? We want to hear about that, too. There’s room for everybody at this table.