female_placeholder I came across a link to an article from last year that still annoys me, so it got me thinking about a topic that comes up in romanceland from time to time – the placeholder heroine. This idea seems to come from two main sources. There is the discussion in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women primarily based around Laura Kinsale’s essay(“The Androgynous Reader: Point of View in the Romance”) which is really more a thoughtful discussion of viewpoint rather than an argument centering on the perceived uselessness of developing the heroine’s character and/or giving her a lot of individuality. Unfortunately, this latter argument is what many people discussing the placeholder heroine seem to mean when they get on the topic.

I’ve seen discussions on various blogs and forums(including our own message boards) from time to time where readers chime in on the topic, but in different terms. They’re usually not talking viewpoint, but rather which character we care to learn about. And that’s where I really start to disagree with some folks. I get that some people are more into heroes while others prefer a well-developed character for the heroine and still others are most interested in the dynamic between the couple. Where I start to get frustrated is where some take the leap to say that the heroine’s characterization is not as important as the hero’s because the heroine is just there as a conduit to bring the reader to the hero rather than to exist as an independent fictional character in the story.

And that brings me to last fall’s article on Mills and Boon . That’s the one that gets me every time. Not only is the author somewhat dismissive of romance, but she describes the heroine by saying, “Mills & Boon heroines are like madams in brothels. They essentially have to facilitate a sexual encounter between two other people – the reader, and the hero. They are the third person in the romance.” And she says that immediately after this little gem: “It is much harder to write the heroine than the hero, apparently, because she has to be bland enough not to offend millions of readers and interesting enough not to offend millions of readers.” Makes the heroine of a romance sound fascinating and appealing, no? I mean, for crying out loud, the poor woman has just been condemned to being a third wheel in her own love story!

As a reader, this approach to heroines makes me gnash my teeth. First of all, it seems to cry out for bland heroines, or what author Justine Larbalestier called Blank Page Heroines(thanks to Read React Review for the link). I personally read books to enjoy a story, not so that I can insert my own self into the heroine’s role and just fixate on/fantasize about the hero. I like to see a fully developed setting and plot because in my mind, all those characteristics that make up a good story need to be present in order to keep the hero and heroine’s relationship from simply feeling bland. True love does not exist in a vacuum and neither do the best romance stories.

I don’t read in order to fantasize about someone; I read because story captivates me and I want to get a window into another world. I love to see what creative, gifted people can do with words and how a good writer can move her audience, so I read to enjoy a good writer’s command of language. And I enjoy multifaceted characters, so I rejoice when I get a book with an interesting, memorable heroine, hero or even good secondary characters in it.

On a deeper level, the argument that a heroine functions only as placeholder irks me because it does little to support what I really believe, which is that good romance empowers women. If the female characters in our romances are interchangeable and we’re really only reading for the heroes, then the idea of women having their own adventures really doesn’t follow. If the women are just bland, unmemorable sidekicks bringing the reader into adventures that are all about the man, where’s the fun and empowerment in that?

In addition, the idea that readers should read their romance with the primary goal of falling for the hero makes me uncomfortable as a reader because it plays into the old stereotype about romances being porn for women to escape their dreary home lives. That’s an old idea that can’t die quickly enough and unfortunately, I see the placeholder heroine helping it to linger.

I know there are readers out there who read for the heroes and don’t see it this way (including some dear friends of mine), but I just can’t shake my discomfort with the idea that heroines act as placeholders or conduits primarily to bring the reader to the hero.

How about you? What do you read for?

-Lynn Spencer

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I enjoy spending as much time as I can between the covers of a book, traveling through time and around the world. When I'm not having adventures with fictional characters, I'm an attorney in Virginia and I love just hanging out with my husband, little man, and the cat who rules our house.