At the Back Fence Issue #227

June 5, 2006

From the Desk of Anne Marble:

When Good Heroines Have Bad Ideas

Years ago, Saturday Night Live ran a commercial parody for “Bad Idea” jeans. Each segment would have a person saying something incredibly stupid. (For example, “Normally I wear protection, but then I thought, ‘When am I gonna make it back to Haiti?’”.) Then the “Bad Idea” logo would flash on the screen.

Some heroines are like walking advertisements for Bad Idea jeans. Let’s take Jennifer Blake’s latest novel, Dawn Encounter. This novel is full of danger and intrigue, not to mention duels, and the widowed heroine spends much of the book in danger from an evil relative of her late husband. So later, why does she visit him alone to make demands on him? Bravery is one thing, but confronting mad relatives alone is … well, it’s a Bad Idea.

So why do writers do it? Why do they trust their novels to heroines who shouldn’t be trusted to take care of an artificial plant? Many people think that “too stupid to live” heroines make plotting easier. It’s easy to get your heroine into trouble if she can’t think her way out of a paper bag. Another theory is that writers of popular fiction create stupid or naïve characters to make their readers feel smarter than the characters. This may be why the heroine of Daphne Du Maurier’s classic Gothic Rebecca was naïve, meek and remained unnamed for the entire novel. This was so that readers could identify with her and feel that they were stronger than her.

This concept is not exclusive to romance novels. Pulp fiction writers sometimes allowed their heroes do remarkably stupid things. At the end of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first Pellucidar novel, At the Earth’s Core. Explorer David Innes returns to the surface of the earth, thinking his beloved Dian was with him. But instead, the lovely heroine has been replaced by a disguised Mahar, a sentient but ugly reptilian creature. Say what you will about Heather from The Flame and the Flower, but as dumb as she was, I can’t imagine her mistaking a large reptile for Brandon! Some fans theorized that David Innes fell for that obvious (duh!) ploy at the end of the first book because Edgar Rice Burroughs was trying to make his fans feel smart. Or was Burroughs simply searching for an easy way to set up a sequel? After all, fans wouldn’t be so eager for the next Pellucidar novel if David Innes got away and lived happily ever after with the lovely Dian. Poor Dian had to get into trouble again, ensuring demand for a sequel! It’s easy to think that Burroughs was simply using stupidity to plot a story. If I hadn’t read ERB’s Back to the Stone Age, I might think that’s all the stupidity signified. But part way through that book, the hero and his companions wander into a chapter called “Into Slavery.” They have not been enslaved when the chapter starts, so you can imagine what will happen before the chapter ends, especially when the savage who befriends them comes across as the caveman version of Jon Lovitz: “We’ll soon be there,” he announced after a long sleep. “You’re going to see a tribe of fine people, and you’re going to be surprised by the reception you’ll get. Basti is a fine country; you’ll never leave it.”

 Surely a man who put dialogue like that in a chapter called “Into Slavery” realized that his readers knew darn well that his characters were being idiots. ERB probably envisioned his fans shouting “Don’t trust him!” Just as horror movie directors know that if their movie is successful, someone in the audience will shout, “Don’t go in the attic!”

It’s a credit to Burroughs’s strength as a writer that he could get away with that sort of thing. But as they used to say on That’s Incredible, “Don’t try that at home.” Today’s audiences have seen it all, and they’re much less understanding of characters who trust lying cavemen and walk into ambushes. Rather than feeling smarter, they wonder if the writers think they’re idiots.(They may also wonder if the writers are idiots themselves.) Instead of heightening the suspense, for most readers, “stupid character tricks” moments are the equivalent of the heroine stepping on a squeaky toy in the middle of a tense scene.

Playing with Fire

There are those heroines who confront dangerous people or throw themselves headlong into dangerous situations. They spit into the wind, tug on Superman’s cape, and pull the mask off the Lone Ranger. These heroines don’t laugh at danger, probably because they don’t have the sense to realize that it exists. Sarah, the heroine of Phoebe Conn’s Midnight Blue, becomes the captive of the privateer hero, Chris. Even though she’s being treated surprisingly well, she fights him at every turn, and when that doesn’t work, she tries flirting with the other crew members to find an ally. She’s lucky this is a recent romance. Had her book been written in the 1980s, Chris might have had her flogged for that alone.

Scarlett, the heroine of Cassie Edwards’ 2005 romance, Savage Vision, is notable for her lack of vision. She sees a handsome Indian chief, Hawke, and is drawn to him at first sight. Her father had warned her about how dangerous Indians could be, but she didn’t think he seemed dangerous at all. Then again, Scarlett has a tendency to do things like riding alone across the Texas wilderness when she’s upset, or heading into the forest, heedless of her father’s warnings, to see that handsome Hawke again. If this were real life, Scarlett would have wound up at the bottom of a ravine, or bitten by a rabid animal.

Another foolish move is for a defenseless young woman to argue with a notorious outlaw, thereby demonstrating that she is “feisty.” The heroine of Lisa Jackson’s Dark Emerald is captured by the outlaw hero and spends much of the book clashing with him. That is, when she isn’t trying to escape – and failing badly. This sort of heroine reminds me of a cartoon I saw once, where a woman leaned out of an apartment window and shouted to her husband on the street below something along the lines of, “On second thought, deposit the $10,000 into savings, and put the $5,000 into the checking account.” She ignored the shady men who were watching her husband from a dark alley.

But some writers manage to create something fresh even with of this type of character. Marion, the heroine of Nicole Cody’s recent Love and Mayhem, still hasn’t forgiven the hero, Iain, for leaving her in a convent rather than marrying her. Never mind that Marion was only six years old at the time. She is a spitfire who would make bodice ripper heroines proud, coming at him with fists, sharp words, and blunt objects. She nearly drowns because of her stubbornness. But dang it, she’s fun, and on top of that, her eccentric relatives provide a brilliant plot twist that makes the feistiness worth it. What makes Marion different from Scarlett? It’s the idea that for all her stubbornness, Marion can take care of herself. She might call the hero a “bastard” in a fit of anger, but she wouldn’t walk into a dark alley while jingling her purse.

Stupid Society Tricks

Heroines don’t have to risk getting murdered to have Bad Ideas. Some risk their reputations, rather than their lives. Lottie, the heroine of Teresa Medeiros’ One Night of Scandal, decides to spy on her mysterious neighbor even though she is about to make her debut. Hayden, the hero, pulls her inside, thinking she’s a prostitute sent by his friend. He means to send her back home, but he can’t resist kissing her, of course, and before you know it, they’re seen. Lottie is ruined, and rather than getting to dance at her debut ball, she winds up engaged to Hayden. When an entire plot hinges on a heroine doing something that, well, utterly stupid, I find myself wincing and twitching. What real Regency miss would scurry off just before her debut to peer into the window of a man rumored to have murdered his wife? Heck, even most modern 21 year olds would avoid doing that!

Even cautious heroines sometimes ignore social rules when the plot (or at least the sex) calls for it. Ellen, the heroine of Cheryl Holt’s March release, Too Tempting to Touch, is forced to work as a paid companion because of a scandal in her family’s past. Ellen catches Lord Stanton, her employer’s fiancé, trysting with a married woman. She follows him and confronts him about his affairs. When they’re alone, he kisses her, and of course, this being a Cheryl Holt novel, before you know it, they want each other. The cautious paid companion is suddenly transformed into a wanton. Heroines don’t have to be Regency misses to take huge chances. Matalia, the heroine of Sasha Lord’s In a Wild Wood, comes across the hero when he is tied to a tree. While the typical heroine would free the poor guy, Juliana is so curious about sex that she decides to use Brogan to find out what she needs to know. Unfortunately, she bites off more than she can chew, and he soon gains the upper hand. Before long, Brogan has taken her hand in marriage. Another horny Medieval miss, Juliana, heroine of Emma Holly’s Hunting Midnight, runs away to avoid an unwanted marriage. She impulsively teams up with a minstrel, who turns out to be a sexy upyr , a shapeshifting vampire. (Oops.) Impulsive is the name of the game here. Let me say that hot sex in an alley is not something I associate with Medieval heroines. In this case, the hot sex almost made this one worth the eye rolling.

Just Think!

Sometimes a book would much better if the heroine would just… think. I really looked forward to Gayle Callen’s No Ordinary Groom because it sounded like a tribute to The Scarlet Pimpernel, which I had enjoyed. Unfortunately, like the heroine created by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, Callen’s heroine, Jane, totally underestimates her fiancé, thinking him dull. She sees his foppish clothes and dismisses him. Jane notices his fine physique, and can’t quite explain why a fop should look like that. She suspects he’s hiding something but she can’t get beyond her boredom. To be fair to Jane, William, now living as Lord Chadwick, is forced to play a part, that of a rather insipid British gentleman, but I was frustrated by Jane’s lack of insight. Much as I’d enjoyed The Scarlett Pimpernel, I found myself too annoyed with Jane to finish No Ordinary Groom.

Going back a few years, Karen Robards’ Desire in the Sun featured a hero was one-eighth African. Because of this, evil relatives contrived to have Joss declared a slave and sold on the auction block. Afterwards he’s shipwrecked on an island with the heroine, Lilah, and they can’t keep their hands off each other. The scenes are hot yet tender, and I liked this book much more than her earlier ones. That is, I liked it Until the Bad Idea moment. Rescue comes, and Lilah picks that exact moment to realize that if people see them together, not only will her reputation be ruined, but Joss will be horribly punished for daring to seduce her. Of course, there’s no chance to explain this to him, so without warning, she tells their rescuers that he’s her aunt’s slave and demands that they have him put in chains. Naturally, Joss thinks she’s betrayed him (duh), and the novel goes downhill from there.

I’ve saved the best for last, though. The dumbest heroine ever may be Heather from Kathleen Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower. Early in the book Heather stabs a creepy would-be rapist relative, only to run into the London streets and end up by the docks, where she is mistaken for a prostitute by several men looking for a hooker for their captain. Why does she let them take her onto that ship? She thinks they must be the police, who have already found the body, figured out she did it, and sentenced her be transported! Whoa there girl. I know justice was swift in those days, but this was ridiculous!

Heroines this stupid weren’t only found in bodice rippers. Victoria, the heroine of Penelope Neri’s 1999 romance Scandals, was as naive as Heather. She lets a stable boy paw her, without giving any thought to her reputation. She is lucky enough to get married off to the hero but subsequently spends most of the book thinking the hero is a murderer. This judgment is made on evidence so slender I thought she exhibited clinical signs of paranoia.

Heroines can do something incredibly stupid and redeem themselves, resulting in a very good book. One of my favorite Gothics was Rebecca, which I mentioned earlier. The nameless heroine starts out naïve and meek. There are times when I wanted to shake the her and shout, “Don’t trust Mrs. Danvers!” There’s a painful incident where she breaks a figurine in her husband’s country manor, and is so embarrassed that she hides it, turning a minor incident into a major embarrassment. Her biggest “Duh” incident comes on the night of an important costume ball. Evil housekeeper Mrs. Danvers persuades the heroine to wear a particular gown. She falls for this, not knowing she has been manipulated into wearing a replica of the gown the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca, wore at a similar ball years ago. The heroine had tried to please her husband, Max, but she only managed to infuriate him. What saved this novel was that this heroine grew up and become assertive as the story continued. She developed, in part because of the trauma. If only more heroines were able to follow her example and grow beyond their Bad Idea moments!

Why, Oh Why?

Why do I let these Bad Idea moments bug me so much? Why can’t I just let it go and move on to another book? It’s because when I come across a story where the heroine does something idiotic, as a reader, I feel insulted. Does the writer think all women are like this? Or is she a lazy writer, using the stupidity to move the plot along? Or does she think a TSTL (too stupid to live) heroine is “cute” and “charming”?

Nothing ruins drama for me faster than a character doing something really stupid for no real reason. Sure, the stupidity might create some crisis, but so would a random piano falling on her head. It rings false. When I read a book, I’m supposed to be enthralled, not wondering how the heroine could be that stupid. Suspense shouldn’t be prolonged because the heroine ignored her father’s warnings and went into the forest to meet the Indians or dashed out into the dangerous London streets.

Questions for the Message Board:

Which romances have featured heroines in what you would consider classic Bad Idea/TSTL moments? What did they do, and did your estimation of these books suffer because of it, or did the book rise above the stupidity? Do any of your keepers feature Bad Idea moments?

Are most Bad Ideas broadcast very broadly, without any subtlety at all (see Anne’s Jon Lovitz example), or are they generally more subtle? Is your reaction to them based on the subtlety, or lack thereof, of this foreshadowing? Are repeats a worse problem for you than a lack of subtlety, or do both weigh equally…in other words, does a heroine who runs into that dark forest every three chapters bother you more, less, or about the same as a heroine who – just once – follows a villain wearing “Danger” in large flashing neon lights?

Many a feisty heroine can’t seem to keep her mouth shut at the most inopportune times. Which heroines that you’ve read suffer this most egregiously, and did they manage to grow beyond it so that in the end you liked the book, or did they continue to put themselves…and possibly others…in danger because they could not control their hair-tossing, foot stomping, big mouth ways?

What about Anne’s Stupid Society Tricks? Talk about some of the romances you’ve read in which the heroine’s Bad Ideas lands her in trouble with Society so that she either ends up ruined or married as a result. Which books have you enjoyed that featured this sort of incident, and which did you want to toss into the nearest trash can? Is a Stupid Society Trick less of a problem for you than a dangerous Bad Idea because the former may not lead to bodily harm, or are they equally troublesome?

Anne focused on the Bad Ideas of heroines, but let’s make this an equally opportunity discussion and open things up to your comments on heroes who exhibit TSTL behavior and/or are guilty of Bad Ideas.

Anne Marble

Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board

(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

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