Helpless, hopeless, and harried: The fate of heroines in romance

I was scrolling through social media recently and read a post that mentioned how romance tended to routinely put the heroine in embarrassing situations as a matter of plot convention. This couldn’t be true, I tried to convince myself. Then I started looking at my own stories. Yep. I’d used the hapless victim scenario several times to put her in a situation where she’d have to rise above.

The fact that she had to rise above, I told myself, justififed it somehow. But then I started paying attention to the other stories I was reading. In one, the heroine walks out of the bathroom with her dress tucked in her panties. In another, she falls out of a truck and knees the hero right in the crotch. In yet a third, she drops a very expensive item in the lap of the hero’s date.

I loved all the stories. All the heroes were successful women – strong, independent, confident. They found love being themselves, not bending to become another version of othemselves for the hero to notice them. So why did they have to go through the embarrassing moments in the plot?

Our readers are mostly women and as authors we’re writing to our audience. I think, in real life, we’ve all faced situations where we’d rather crawl away and hide in a dark cave than face the people who witness our humiliation. But that’s usually not an option. Therefore it can’t be for our heroines.

So then is it empowering to the reader to see a character face the same kind of moment embarrassant, come out the other side, and still have the hero fall for her? I’d like to think it is. I know I’ve read stories that have touched me on a personal level because the character mirrored a struggle I’ve endured or a worry I’d harbored in secret. I’d like to think people see a little bit of themselves in the characters I create.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I don’t pretend I’m writing great literary fiction. I’ll never win a Nobel or a Pulitzer with my romance stories. But I’ve won plenty of other awards that mean just as much to me because readers just like myself recognized the humanity in my characters and their struggles in my plots. And I’ve had readers tell me I made them laugh or cry.

And that’s all I really need.

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