Quick: describe the typical romance novel heroine. You have five seconds. Go. Having difficulty whittling it down? That’s no surprise, because romance heroines are a varied lot. While there certainly are both great beauties and shy wallflowers, (and some who are both; hey, it can happen) that’s only scraping the surface. Since March is Women’s History Month, this month, we’re all about the wonderful women of romance, whether their stories take place in the past, present, future, or another realm. Think you know what a romance heroine is? Might be a little more complicated than that. Let’s toss some ideas around.
First things first. What do we mean when we use the word, heroine? Merriam-Webster says it’s this:
a : a mythological or legendary woman often of divine descent having great strength or ability
b : a woman admired and emulated for her achievements and qualities American heroines such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosa Parks remembered as the heroine of the flood
a : the principal female character in a literary or dramatic work the heroine of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
b : the central female figure in an event or period
That works pretty well actually, and those Merriam-Webster folks do seem to know a thing or two about the English language, so we’ll go with what they said. For the TLDR (too long, didn’t read) version, let’s say female lead in a romance novel. Outside of M/M (male/male) romance novels generally have at least one heroine. If we’re talking F/F (female/female) romance, then there are two. If we go into menage, well, that’ a whole other post in itself, with a lot of variations. In most romance novels, you’re going to find at least one woman, and the story, most of the time, is going to be her story. What kind of woman she might be, however, is a harder thing to define.
The only thing absolutely required of a romance heroine is that she be (or identify as) female. That’s it. She might be in her young teens (females under twelve ate probably not going to be romantic leads) or be a silver vixen in her golden years, or at any point in between. Usually, we’ll see heroines in their late teens, to late thirties, but there is still some variation, as love can come to anybody, at any age, and there’s no age limit on the ability to carry a story. Not that romance heroines sit around and wait for the love to come to them. Oh no, these women, no matter their age, socioeconomic status, time in history (or the future) or even species (again, paranormal opens an entirely new offshoot of this discussion, which we will save for a later time) go out and get what they want. Whether it’s a Regency miss setting her sights on the most eligible gentleman of the ton, a modern woman whose agenda includes love and career, or a futuristic mercenary, who discovers a whole new world (possibly literally) with the last person she’d expect, every heroine starts the book out, wanting something, and, by the end, she has it.
One of the best definitions of the role of heroines in romance fiction is that romance is the genre where the woman always wins. Always. No shrinking violets, or damsels in distress, romance heroines know what they want, and have a plan to get it. Does that mean it’s always their plan A that works? Far from it, and that’s where the stories get interesting. Romance heroines are more than placeholders, for readers to project themselves into the story (though that’s totally cool, too; a memorable heroine usually has something that allows us to connect with her, some aspect of our own personalities, hopes, desires, or goals) They are, by definition, the heroes of their stories, and they have their own journey, as individuals, that is separate from landing the man (or woman) of their dreams.
For some of us, the heroine makes or breaks the book, and is the deciding factor if this book ends up on our TBR list, or stays on the shelf. When I was a very young romance reader, the heroine was always key. First thing I would do, after ascertaining the book was set in a historical period I wanted to spend the next four or five hundred pages in, was to check the heroine’s name. Pretty, unique, or memorable names caught my attention every time, and I probably did put a few spectacular reads back on the shelf, because the heroine’s name was too common, too clunky, or didn’t inspire anticipation of a great adventure ahead. Good thing there are used bookstores and e-versions of older titles.
The type of heroine can make a huge difference for some readers. Some need hear nothing but the word, “bluestocking,” or “nurse,” or “virgin,” and know immediately, whether or not this is a book they want to read. Others will not ever, ever, ever, read a particular hair color, occupation, or personality type, for personal reasons, while yet others will say it’s all good, and choose based on some other factor. Who has it right? The answer should be no surprise: everybody. The best thing about romance heroines is, that, while reading these books, we are heroines as well. This doesn’t mean we all put ourselves in the heroine’s place (I usually don’t) but, that by the mere act of choosing exactly the sort of character we want to come with us on this journey, we are in charge of our own experience.
So, dear readers, I turn it now over to you. How important is the heroine to your romance reading experience? Is there a certain type of heroine you prefer in general, or do you have different preferences in different subgenres? Do you have a particular favorite heroine, overall? If you could design your ideal romance heroine, what would she be like? Pull up a chair in the comment section, and tell us all about her. If you’re in romance for the dudes, in M/M, or otherwise, we want to hear about that, too. There’s room for everybody at this table.