There are two kinds of romance heroines. (Yes, I just made that move. There are two kinds of people: those who divide the world in two, and those who ….) The first kind is naked aspirational. The second kind is self-sufficient. The two are easy to confuse. Let’s blame the confusion on Jane Austen and her most well known heroine, Elizabeth Bennett of Pride of Prejudice, who fits both categories.
First, there’s the naked aspirational heroine.
This heroine is common. In contrast, the hero is uncommon, on the order of Mr. Darcy, the hero of Pride and Prejudice. The heroine’s family is ordinary, maybe even vulgar as Darcy considers the Bennett family. As far as the heroine’s looks go, she’s nothing special (or so she thinks). She may even have a more beautiful older sister, such as Jane Bennett. Yet there is something about her that attracts the hero. We don’t have to know what that is yet. All we need to know at this point is that the heroine is: i) naked in the sense that she has nothing obvious to recommend her to the hero; and ii) aspirational in the sense that the hero is out of her league.
We know the narrative arc. In the end Elizabeth secures Darcy’s love, thus insuring that her otherwise humdrum life will become one of wealth and privilege. In a 1950s Harlequin the secretary from the school of hard knocks will end up marrying her upper crust boss. In a contemporary BDSM novel the average girl-next-door catches the eye of the billionaire tycoon and concert-level pianist, and before the end when they establish a conventional love bond, there’ll be lots of jet setting and great sex.
I don’t object to naked aspirational heroines – or heroes, for that matter.
In the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, Stieg Larssen created his hero journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, and described him as being not in terribly good shape. Nevertheless, Larssen made sure Blomkvist got all the hot babes. Okay, Daniel Craig was chosen to portray Blomkvist on screen, but the flabbier-abs Blomkvist was Larssen’s version.
And in TV Land James Belushi and Kevin James, who will never grace the cover of a romance novel, got hot wives on According to Jim and The King of Queens. (One could argue that guys with a sense of humor have their own sort of attractiveness.)
The point is, if you’re the one creating the character, you’re the one who gets to decide what that person looks like and what happens to him or her. Fine with me.
Now comes the tricky part. What is the ordinary heroine’s “something” that attracts the extraordinary hero?
This is where the second type of heroine, the self-sufficient one, comes in. She exists in relationship to herself and the story and in complement to the hero. This heroine has force of personality. She thinks and acts on her own, and she is admirable and attractive in thought and deed.
Certainly Elizabeth Bennett fits the bill here. She has stood the test of time as a heroine because, in the end, she is convincing both to Darcy and the reader as an appropriate match for Darcy.
It is worth noting that in the 300 pages of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth and Darcy are together on about 30 of them. The narrative weight thus necessarily tilts in the direction of Elizabeth interacting with her family and friends. She is the prime mover in the novel, since her mother is a ditz and her beautiful older sister has too gentle of a personality to take on the heroine’s role.
The key scene in the development of the love relationship with Darcy does not take place with Darcy. It takes place with Darcy’s formidable relative, Lady Catherine, who, near the end of the story, stages a “shock and awe” attack on Elizabeth to get her to renounce her claim on Darcy.
Since Elizabeth has already turned Darcy down, she thinks she has no further claim on him and therefore could easily give in to Lady Catherine’s wishes. But she does not. She stands firm against Lady Catherine’s assault. Later Lady Catherine, in her outrage, tells Darcy of Elizabeth’s impudence, thereby giving Darcy cause to hope Elizabeth still has feelings for him. And the story quickly thereafter comes to a happy resolution.
Austen’s minuet-paced narrative structure would no longer fly today. However, if you have a naked aspirational heroine with no self-sufficient dimension, then you are left with a rescue fantasy. Such stories are fun to read – but only up to a point.
What I always look and long for is a heroine who exists in her own right and is as worthy of the reader’s interest as she is of the hero’s. If I’m reading a wolf shape-shifter novel, and the heroine’s “something” is her special scent that alerts the Alpha that she’s his mate, I’ll go with it. Mostly, however, the story needs more than pheromones to convince me to read on.
This post was written by Julie Andresen