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Focus on Heroines:
We’ve done a number of columns on romance novel heroes, but we often give short shrift to heroines. We talk about feisty heroines, virginal heroines, even tstl (too stupid to live) heroines. But we don’t talk about them in the same sort of detailed and archetypal mode with which we discuss heroes. That is going to change, for our focus in this issue of LN&V is to be heroines through and through.
The Women We Want to Be:
The Eight Female Archetypes
The Perfect Woman. How much time do we spend striving to be that elusive creature?
You know the woman, or at least imagine you do. She is brilliant in the boardroom, passionate in the bedroom, and puts Martha Stewart to shame when entertaining.
She’s the star of all our favorite romances, because she’s the woman we all want to be.
Hmm. Wait a sec. I don’t want to be like that. And that wasn’t the lady who accepted the proposal of the dashing hero in the Regency I just put down. In fact, I am not sure I have ever read a romance in which the heroine was so darned wonderful that all she had to do to find happiness everlasting was straighten out that silly hero of hers.
No. In all the romances I have seen, the heroine has a bit of emotional baggage to overcome. And she has a few real life obstacles in her path. She has to work to get the brass ring in life, and I like to watch her do it. That’s the story!
So, if our romances don’t star Patti Perfect, who does traipse across the pages?
Well, as it turns out, lots of woman do. My critique partners and I spend quite a bit of time researching just that issue. We considered the leading ladies in hundreds of novels and movies, and discovered that regardless of the genre – action/adventure, mystery, drama or romance – heroines generally fall into eight clear archetypes.
My partners and I labeled each archetype and wrote a book about these heroines, as well as the eight hero archetypes we also found in the course of our research. (The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes and Heroines – title tentative – will be available from Lone Eagle Publishing Company in April 2000.)
The eight heroines are: The Boss
This is a “take charge” female, who accepts nothing but respect. Reaching her goal post is the most important thing in life to her; a few ruffled feathers along the way dont bother her. She might be a working girl climbing the corporate ladder, or perhaps she’s always been daddy’s petted princess, but either way, failure never found its way into her vocabulary. This woman never gives up until she’s on top of the heap.
Think of Candace Bergen as Murphy Brown. Murphy never feared to reach for the stars, even if she had to step on a few toes looking for a foothold. And Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth always knew her place in the world included no master. Katharine Hepburn played many Bosses, most notably, Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter. These characters, like all Bosses, are confident, competitive, and arrogant. Workaholism is their chief vice. The work environment, with its clear-cut goals and easily defined successes, are her element.
But the Boss doesn’t have everything her way. Her need to be number one can obscure some of life’s others pleasures. She’s frequently so busy in her rush to be number one that she fails to experience the sheer joy of living. Christina Dodd’s Someday My Prince has a Boss heroine. A princess who is heiress to the crown is unlikely to be anything else! Over the years, Johanna Lindsey has had quite a few heroines who were Bosses.
The behavior of a heroine Boss must be consistent with her go-getter attitude. For example, imagine your heroine is in a rather rough bar in the company of the hero who, at this point in the game, she doesn’t much like. Suddenly, a fight breaks out, with fists thrown, bottles smashed, and furniture crashed. What does a Boss do?
Well, one thing’s for sure; she won’t curl up into a ball and whimper. Not her. She’s much more likely to demand a halt to the fight. She will be quite scornful of this unproductive means of problem solving, and rather indignant if her own orders have not been obeyed (although, many a man, will obey her – she does have that air). Since she views herself as pretty indestructible, she probably won’t be too fearful, and will have a certain faith that the police will sort this matter out properly. If that hero she is with happens to be a police officer, she will almost certainly order him to put a stop to the fight at once. Woe unto him, if he fails to comply to her satisfaction.
Our next heroine is the Survivor. This is a lady who is long accustomed to sizing up everyone in a room the minute she enters. Mysterious and manipulative, she hides a streak of distrust a mile wide and ten miles deep. Cynicism guides her every action, and her tough sense of survival gives her the means to do whatever is necessary to come out ahead.
Remember Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct? Madonna in Evita, or Bette Davis in just about anything. These heroines skate on such thin ice, they may well seem to be more villainess than a heroine? But someday, her prince comes, and he’s the one who can see beneath that harsh exterior she has so carefully built for herself. Margaret Mitchell crafted the icon of a Survivor in Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.
A Survivor‘s charms are the tools she’ll reach for first, but she has a hefty helping of street smarts, too. She’ll hide that intelligence behind an alluring smile, but she keeps her wits about her at all times.
Put the Survivor in that same bar the Boss wandered into, and she won’t waste time telling the fighters to cut it out. In fact, if she’s been looking for a way to lose that hero, she’ll grasp the chance all the confusion creates to slip right out the door. No doubt some hapless fellow has already been conned into giving her a ride. And if any of the boozy ruffians offers her a threat, don’t worry. This lady knows how to handle herself.
The Spunky Kid
She is a favorite of many writers, and for good reason. You can’t help but root for her. She’s the girl with moxie. She’s not looking to be at the top of the heap; she just wants to be in her own little niche. She’s the team layer, the one who is always ready to lend a hand. She made the cheerleading squad, but was never captain. Supportive and reliable, she hasn’t an enemy in the world, but has plenty of friends.
Ever the bridesmaid, wisecracking humor helps her through the many pitfalls in her love life. She’s much more likely to be shootin’ hoops with the guys than to dressing up in heels and skimpy shirts. Think of Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards, and you’ve got the quintessential Spunky Kid. Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle, Melanie Griffith in Working Girl, and Janine Garofalo in The Truth About Cats & Dogs all played spunky Kids. The crowd loves these All-American Girls. Christie Ridgway’s tomboy heroine in The Bridesmaid’s Bet is a Spunky Kid.
If she’s in that nasty bar when all hell breaks loose, she’ll probably try to reason with the sparring patrons to get them stop. She’ll even forget her differences with the hero, if she thinks together they can they stop the dispute. If that doesn’t work, she’ll retire to sidelines, wincing with every blow the combatants trade. But she won’t run away, and she’ll be more worried about the fighters than any danger to herself.
The Free Spirit
Next up, the Free Spirit. Playful and fun loving, this heroine travels through life with a hop, skip and a jump, always stopping to smell the flowers and admire the pretty colors. She acts on a whim and follows her heart, not her head. An “original,” she sets trends, not follows them, and is looking for new experiences. She might be a bit on the ditzy side, or perhaps she the well-intentioned busybody who leaves a trail of victims of her good deeds.
Stumped for a Free Spirit? How about Lucille Ball. Goldie Hawn in most of her movies, Jenna Elfman from Dharma & Greg, or Calista Flockhart in Ally McBeal. These women share sincerity and imagination, with a strong sprinkling of an impulsive need to meddle in their friends’ lives. Remember Jennifer Crusie’s The Cinderella Deal? Perfect example of a Free Spirit heroine.
A Free Spirit in the midst of a bar fight? Chances are, some inadvertent act or statement of hers set off the whole dispute, but she be oblivious to that fact. Instead, she’ll choose a side to root for, and stand in the middle of the room, throwing mock punches in moral support of the one she favors. She’ll resist the hero’s efforts to pull her safety, thriving on the excitement offered by such a wild event. When it’s all over, she’ll be high as a kite on the adrenaline rush. Danger? Pshaw.
This is the original damsel in distress. She was the star of many a Grimm’s fairy tales. Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel, all required rescue, and so does she. Her child-like innocence evokes a protective urge in the beastliest of heroes.
But don’t be fooled, because the Waif has tremendous strength of will. She won’t fight back; she’ll endure. Audrey Hepburn often played this heroine – think of Sabrina. Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits was a classic waif. And an updated version is found in Peta Wilson’s La Femme Nikita. A classic Waif is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. She overcame mistreatment, and her innocence and purity won her Mr. Rochester. Another good example – Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s heroine in The Flame & the Flower.
These women are pure at heart, at times a little too trusting, and also insecure. They seem to be untouched by the world, patient and adaptable to any situation. They carry on, looking for the day when they are free of their travails, but taking little action to bring that day closer.
In a bar fight, the Waif is most likely to turn to the hero to get her out of this situation. If that fails, she’ll be found pressed against a wall, well out of the fray. But let an unwary fighter venture too close to her little island of safety, and he’s likely to have a bottle smashed over his head. When cornered, the Waif will take desperate measures, but only when she has no other option.
She’s prim and proper, but underneath that tight bun lurks a passionate woman. She’s learned or was told that her physical charms shouldn’t – or couldn’t – help her get ahead, so she leads with her brain, not her body. Dressed to repress, she might be the know-it-all whose hand is always up in class, or maybe she is the shy mouse hiding in the library. She tends to think she has all the answers and can be a bit stubborn about considering other opinions.
Shelly Long in Cheers played a classic Librarian, and the archetype was named for Shirley Jones’ Marian the Librarian in The Music Man. Ellen Barkin played a truly sizzling Librarian in The Big Easy. These women are serious and efficient. When your heroine is a Librarian, the hero’s job is to wake up the fiery core lurking beneath that their cool exterior. Bonnie Tucker’s heroine in Wedding at 11 was a librarian – she had to overcome her feelings that she was inadequate as a woman.
A Librarian in a bar? Well, it is hard to imagine how she ventured into the place, and if such a scene broke out, she would be horrified. Surely a well-reasoned debate would be a better way to settle differences? But, ever practical, she takes a moment to look the place over, to find the clearest path to safety. She won’t scorn the hero’s help, but she won’t be relying on it, either. She is used to taking care of herself. She might have to swat a few of the unruly men with her umbrella to clear a path, but she’ll find a way.
A thoroughly modern heroine is the Crusader. No shrinking violet, no distressed damsel, here. This lady is on a mission, and she marches right over anyone in her way. Tenacious and headstrong, she brushes off any opposition to her goal. Don’t try to calm her down, and don’t try to force her to take time off from her mission. If you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem, and that makes you fair game.
Who are Crusaders? Well current examples are Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy, the Vampire Slayer or Lucy Lawless in Xena, Warrior Princess. They don’t need any help – just ask them. Wonder Woman, BatGirl, Supergirl – any female comic strip heroine is likely to be a crusader. But they are found in the more realistic scenarios, as well. Helen Hunt played a Crusader in Twister. Princess Adrianne, determined to avenge her mother in Norah Robert’s Sweet Revenge, is a Crusader. If a heroine has to save a ranch, chances are she’s a Crusader.
Put a Crusader in the middle of a bar fight, and she’ll mop up the floor with those bozos. She has no time to waste with pointless drunken brawlers; she moves them right out of her path. Even if she isn’t actually mowing them down the ruffians, she will certainly find a way to the door without any assistance. And should the hero try to defend her, she’ll let him know she doesn’t need any protection.
Finally, the Nurturer. Not always Suzy Homemaker, this lady takes care of everyone. She is a wonderful listener, and a joy to have around, this heroine takes care of everyone. She’s serene, capable and optimistic. She might be the laid-back mother that always has fresh cookies in the oven. Or duty and love might bind her as she cares for her family and friends with steely determination.
Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins offers a perfect example of a Nurturer. Michelle Pfeiffer in Ladyhawk, and Gabrielle in Xena, Warrior Princess are also good illustrations. One of my favorite books, The Grand Sophy, by Georgette Heyer, has a Nurturer heroine. Sophy cheerfully and efficiently arranged everyone’s life so that all the characters, not just she and her hero, had a happily ever after.
Her role in life is to take care of her family and friends. She’s the calm, cool, and collected, and everyone can always depend on her. She knows all the answers to life’s problems.
A Nurturer in a bar fight will definitely try to scold those naughty boys into behaving themselves. And they just might start behaving themselves, because this lady will remind them of that nice kindergarten teacher they had. She’ll wipe bloody noses and tend to black eyes, remonstrating with the miscreants. She will thank the nice hero for his concern for her safety, but she is needed in this place, and she won’t leave until her work is done.
Well, there you have it. The eight female archetypes. Where does your favorite heroines fit? What kind of heroine do you like to read? What kind of heroine do you like to write? Tami and her writing partners as well as we here at AAR would love to hear from you. Feel free to post to the message board when you’ve read the entire column to share your questions and comments with us. You may write to Tami and her partners with questions and comments at these addresses:
Link to Tami Cowden articles/reviews following this article on hero archetypes.
August 18, 1999:Beverly Medos (who wrote Beverly’s Book Basket for AAR from of mid-1998 through late 1999), has written a provocative rebuttal to Tami’s article. We hope you’ll read it.
More on Heroines:
As someone once known as “The General” in the workplace, I have particular fondness, surprisingly enough, for The Free Spirit. I think of Jane Austen’s Emma or Joy in Bewitching as heroines who “might be a bit on the ditzy side” or as the “well-intentioned busybody who leaves a trail of victims of her good deeds.” I think many of my favorite Julie Garwood heroines are likely Free Spirits.
I’d like to go through some of Tami’s archetypes and give them my own spin. We’ll continue with The Librarian, which is an archetype I think many romance readers can fantasize about. One of my favorite episodes of Gilligan’s Island was All About Eva in which Tina Louise portrayed both Ginger Grant and Eva Grubb. Eva thought she was plain in looks and personality, but it didn’t take much to reveal the bombshell beneath the glasses and hairbun.
Think back to those romances where the hero is itching to release the heroine’s glorious tresses from the confines of hairpins. Think about those romances you’ve loved where a seemingly plain heroine fascinates the hero. I’m reminded of Mary from Christina Dodd’s A Well Pleasured Lady, Justine from Stella Cameron’sBride, Prudence in Deborah Simmons’The Devil Earl, or any number of heroines as written by Amanda Quick.
Combine the Librarian with the Boss, and you’ve got a terrific hybrid working. When I began climbing the corporate ladder, I worked mostly for women managers. My favorite boss was a tremendous mentor for me, but when she began her own climb up the ladder, women had to look like men in order to be taken seriously. Whenever she had a big meeting or an interview, out came the dress-for-success look, circa 1980, with “the suit” and “the blouse that tied at the top” – even though it was 1988.
Some wonderful romances feature the hybrid of a goal-oriented professional woman who overcompensates on her appearance and manner in order to fit into a man’s world. She’s not as bossy as Murphy Brown, but she is as driven. Send a man her way and she’s completely thrown. Whether he’s a free spirit or a male chauvinist pig, she hasn’t a clue – love was never part of her agenda.
Then there is the Waif, a heroine that lives on in our hearts long after we’ve outgrown fairy tales. This is the type of heroine we love once in awhile, even though we sometime think we oughtn’t to, because aren’t we supposed to, if at least not rescuing heroes, at least rescuing ourselves? I haven’t loved many books starring the Waif, but I did love Arielle in Catherine Coulter’sNight Fire. I’m sure there are others as well.
Heroines who are Survivors can definitely take care of themselves in any situation, but pair them with men who are equally strong, and suddenly they doesn’t know how to react. Maggie in Nora Roberts’Born in Fire is a Survivor. Add some of the Waif, however, and you’ve got a different animal altogether. You’ve still got a heroine who can take care of herself, but she appears far more vulnerable to the outside world. Men don’t want to fight this type of woman; they want to protect her, even though she manages on her own. She doesn’t trust anyone, but isn’t a cynic – somehow she’s too naive for that. She might come off a suffering in silence, but she can take care of herself. Think of Tory in Too Hot to Handle by Elizabeth Lowell.
The Nurturer is the heroine I’ve only recently come to know in romance, after reading Reckless by Ruth Wind. Ramona is a psychologist who falls in love with Jake, who suffers from post-traumatic-stress-syndrome. Her career is to nurture, and yet she fears if she loves Jake, she’ll get lost in his psychic wounds. Mairi from Kathryn Lynn Davis’ Too Deep trilogy is an uber-mother – caring, healing, and strong. This trilogy is not a romance trilogy; frankly I’ve come to know more of the nurturer in general fiction than in romance fiction.
I could go through the remainder of Tami’s archetypes and give my own thoughts, and I could continue to hybridize them, but I’d rather let you all do that when it’s time to post to the message board. For now, let’s talk about heroines in a different way.
In the last issue of this column, we began to explore young heroines; let’s call that type of heroine the Ingenue. AAR Reviewer Rebecca Ekmark wrote that her biggest concern with young heroines is that they are too often paired with older heroes. This is apparently a problem for many readers, so the question remains, why do we have this model?
In the earliest of Harlequin romances, young women were often paired with older men. Perhaps it was a nurse/doctor scenario, or a secretary/businessman scenario, but it was standard. One obvious rationale for this is that it was more likely for the woman to be a virgin if she were young. Then of course, there is that age and power premise at work. When the romance genre was new, there seemed to be less subtlety at work; everything was bigger than life. To create conflict, things were often more black and white – she was young and innocent, he was older and sophisticated. She was a virgin, he was vastly experienced. He was rich and powerful while she was spunky and living on a shoestring.
When historical romances caught on, these symbols often became more exaggerated (let’s leave aside the reality that, in history, most women married in their teens). In addition to her virginity and his vast experience, he often raped the poor girl! Of course, that was a generation ago, and writers have become more adept at creating stories without going to such extremes. In most of the romance I read today, there is not this tremendous difference in ages as there was in the past, especially not in most contemporary romance, although, as reader Karen says, the heroines in Diana Palmer’s books “seem to have stepped out of a time warp.”
Readers have expressed a variety of opinions about the Ingenue; I’d like to share some with you now, realizing that the attitudes expressed are not necessarily going to be a good fit with historical accuracy:
There’s Annie, who wrote, “I guess the age of the heroines in historicals was one of the reasons I have kind of quite reading them. I was sitting at the beach one day watching my daughters in the water and reading. I came to the sickening realization my girls were the same age as the heroine in the book! That meant that men the age of their father were looking at them with romantic feelings. I could not finish that book!”
From Stella, who wants us to try something different, “I think that the heroes need to be rethought. The older man-younger woman thing is really icky. So it seems that people think the solution would be to make the heroines older because they will have the age experience/maturity to make them more interesting characters. I also think that it has something to do with the readers also getting older and wanting a little more representation. There is certainly nothing wrong with that. But I also think that the hero needs to be rethought why does he always have to be in his 30’s? Why don’t they write a young man-young woman romance?”
From Carolina, “I like the idea of two people meeting when they are young and having a whole lifetime to spend with each other. I also like the idea of them having children young so that by the time the children get married, the h/h are still young and have time for themselves again. I don’t like when the hero is 20 years older than the heroine. What’s the point in meeting when they are young, when the heroine is going to end up a widow at a young age? I can believe anything up until a 10 year age difference, after that I think it gets into the icky zone, especially when the heroine is 17-19 (but this works for me only in historicals where young heroines are the norm). In contemporaries, I like to see older heroines because it’s more realistic. But, again, the h/h should be pretty close in age. It’s not that often that I like a hero that is more than 10 years older than the heroine (in historicals). I just have a habit of thinking of their ages in modern terms, and I have a hard time reconciling a thirty year old man dating a high school student.”
From Elena, regarding These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer, in which the heroine is 19 and the hero is 40: “These Old Shades is such a wonderful, moving book, and so very different from most romances today, that I have a feeling someone’s liking it does not really shed much light on his or her general preferences regarding the age of heroines. In general, I do not like young heroines for two reasons:
They are usually tiresome stock characters for whom I have little patience; and
In novels that feature sex and/or seduction, lustful thoughts, ‘uncontrollable lust,’ etc. (as so many of them do today), I feel uncomfortable when it involves an older man and a younger woman.
That being said, if an author can create a young heroine who is half as interesting and memorable as Leonie in These Old Shades, I’m know I’d forget all about my general dislike for young heroines.”
From Nancy Beth, “It seems to me that the discussion of older heroines who are virgins neglects the other life experiences out there other than sex. Contributors often equate virginity with an all-round naivete that is not accurate. A contemporary thirty-year-old woman has been in the working world for as many as 14 years. She has ongoing relationships with family and friends. She has her role as a woman in society to figure out. She is a political, intellectual, moral being who has to create hers answers to issues of great importance all the time. She has a physical body that can pull the rug out from under her. She probably has romantic entanglements as well. Really, sexual relationships are only one of many parts of the complex process of becoming oneself. Let’s give women credit where it is due. With or without sex, we are human beings who are always learning and growing.”
From Jennie, “I absolutely agree that ‘life experiences’ encompass more than just sexual experience. (But) some contemporary authors (the ones I’ve read, anyway) perpetually write late 20’s or early 30’s heroines who for whatever reason have little or no experience with relationships (and I don’t mean just sex) with men. I guess I’m uncomfortable with the sense that I get in those books that the heroine is in some sort of suspended animation, waiting for the hero to come and rescue her from a life of spinsterhood. I can speak with some authority, I think, on contemporary 30-year-old women, since I’ll be reaching that daunting plateau myself in about 3 weeks. My friends my age have had long relationships, short relationships, flings, marriages, a few divorces. Certainly, they may include some virgins, though I haven’t had any unicorn sightings. I guess I just expect contemporaries to be more realistic, meaning something I can relate to, rather than an idealistic archetype. I enjoy a ‘Sleeping Beauty’-type fantasy as much as the next person; I just get tired of reading it in every book.”
From Karen, “In historicals, I find it easier to accept young heroines. Historically speaking, an older heroine is either going to be a widow, or an unusual woman who ‘went against the tide’ of her times. I enjoy reading about these kinds of women, I love governesses, bluestockings and rebels. But eventually, these books seem to hit the same notes over and over. Sometimes I want something different. I would rather have an author write about a young heroine, than trying to pretend that a 28 year old unmarried debutante during the Regency or a 30 year old unmarried medieval woman is just a normal, everyday occurrence. However, I prefer it when the author either shows us why this particular 19 year old is mature for her age (maybe she’s had to care for younger siblings, or run a household, or travel) or actually depicts her as a slightly naive and giddy teenager, who matures as the book continues.”
Going Weak at the Knees:
Earlier this summer, on our Reviews Message Board, reader Anne let us know she was fuming mad. She wrote, “I’m extremely disappointed and disgusted with some of the portrayal of women in novels. It’s about time we stop whimpering and ‘blushing’ behind our fans or whatever we are hiding from and take a stand!! And what is it with women who cant say ‘no’? I dislike novels that depict women going ‘goo-ga-ga’ over the hero, and just simply going weak at their knees. Whatever happened to a good smart remark if the hero happens to be rude and obnoxious. Sure it’s no way to win them over, but sometimes men can a little bit thick, a good kick in the teeth should bring them around. And what is it with women, who tries theyre hardest to win back their unfaithful husband/hero who claims that they are in love with the heroine but sleeping with their ex-mistress. Whatever happened to important things such as self-respect, sensibility and a little practically in these romance novels. Ok, so it doesnt sound too exciting, but at least they dont faint at the sight of a shirtless male. Heaven forbids!!! I mean after reading Michelle Martin’s The Mad Miss Mathley, I can’t help but compare that heroine to some of the simpering females I’ve read and I just cringe, and cringe.”
This message engendered some terrific responses, but we’re out of time. I’ll save them for next time, and hope you all will have some terrific responses as well!
Time to Post to the Message Board:
The Women We Want to Be: The Eight Female Archetypes – I hope you enjoyed Tami’s article as much as I did! It really helped to focus on heroines in much the same manner as we lavish time on heroes! Feel free to comment on any or all of the archetypes presented.
Personal Examples and Hybrids of The Eight Female Archetypes: Can you list characters and books that fit some or all of the eight archetypes? Do you tend to hybridize them? Feel free to be creative with this.
The Ingenue: You might want to compare and contrast romances published in the 1970’s through mid-to-late 1980’s in terms of how heroines were written, and in terms of the age differences. Feel free to continue the discussion of age and age differences depending on whether or not the romance is contemporary or historical.
Going Weak at the Knees: Does what makes Anne “fuming mad” make you mad as well? If so, share your opinions. If not, what does make you “fuming mad” in romance novels, regarding heroines in specific, or the genre in general?
Until next time, TTFN, Laurie Likes Books
In conjunction with Tami Cowden
We Need a Hero: A Look at the Eight Hero Archetypes
Read Beverly Medos’ rebuttal to Tami’s look at Heroines
Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board