Friday, February 06, 2009

On heroines

Not on heroin. Just to clear that up.

Author loops throw up all kinds of interesting discussions about sales trends. While trying to jump on a bandwagon is rarely a good idea, creatively speaking, it's a different story when it comes to knowing what sells. In a shrinking economy, most of us can't afford to write books we don't expect to sell well; therefore it makes sense to keep an eye on which types of books are selling well, or badly.

At Changeling, we write very hot erotic romance, heavy on the kink, nearly always paranormal. Books are flagged for genres (futuristic, urban fantasy, BDSM) as well as themes (shapeshifters, interracial, gay/lesbian). But we've noticed it's the themes, as much as the genres, that can make or break a title.

For instance, it's been noted that male/male pairings are hugely popular. When you consider that our readership is overwhelmingly female, it seems a little confusing. One of the first things you learn about writing romance is that your reader experiences the story through the heroine--but what if there isn't one? The most oft-cited explanation is that you're getting two hot men for the price of one. And perhaps it's also about peeping inside a relationship we'll never, as women, get to experience.

The reverse is also true: that girl-on-girl stories are overwhelmingly unpopular. No one's ever managed to explain to my satisfaction why that is. I have my own theories, but they're not very popular either.

Another trend that surprised a lot of authors is the interracial trend. But it's a very specific racial blend that's popular: a black heroine and a white hero (or sometimes heroes!). Write a story in which a white woman gets a black man--and depict this pairing on the cover--and you might as well have smeared it in dog doo. Theories abound as to why this is, most of them put forward by people who have much more knowledge of racial politics than I do (I live in the Home Counties, for God's sake. We couldn't be whiter if we tried).

But here's an interesting one. The Alpha male has long been a staple of romantic fiction, but what about the Alpha female? At Changeling, where things can go to extremes, stories of male Doms and female subs are extremely popular, whereas a female Domme is a massive turn-off. But even outside this sphere, we've noticed that very strong heroines just don't seem to sell well.

Of course, there are lots of theories. One is that an Alpha female is unsympathetic: that the reader can't empathise with her, has nothing in common with her. Another is that women who are tired of having to do all the work and bear all the responsibility just want to escape to a world where a man will take care of her. That's a powerful fantasy, and I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a woman who doesn't secretly occasionally fantasise about a big strong man sweeping her off her feet. BDSM books aren't my forte, but I do understand that a lot of the D/s relationship is about trust and care, and surrendering responsibility. There's a wonderful freedom that can come with surrender.

But here's the thing. While I can write Alpha males, and enjoy it, I can only do it quite sparingly. Dark in Almost Human is probably the most Alpha hero I've ever written, but I couldn't have done it without giving him a heroine who gave as good as she got. Most of my heroines, on being presented with an Alpha, would probably kick him in the crotch. Maybe this is a product of being raised on feminism and girl power, but I just can't abide a heroine who needs a man to take care of her. Or, in fact, a hero who thinks his heroine needs to be taken care of. A man who can respect her strength, her power, her resilience, but still want to protect her as an equal--now that's sexy to me.

Maybe there's a misconception at work here. Maybe the wrong sorts of strong women are being written about. After all, wasn't it the have-it-all heroine who killed chick lit? I don't want to read about a woman who can speak fourteen languages, is a master of a dozen kinds of martial arts, holds high ranks in the military and peerage and has an IQ of 160. Or do I? She must have some flaws. She must have some aspects that make her vulnerable. And it's those aspects that make her imperfect, make her loveable. Maybe these are the gaps the hero can fill, so that as a unit they're even stronger. Nobody wants to live their whole life burdened by responsibility, but surely the reverse is also true: could you ever respect a heroine who surrendered all responsibility to a man?

I blame Tess of the d'Urbervilles (for oh, so many things). A woman who basically lay down on the entrance to the universe and wrote Please wipe your feet on her forehead--not the heroine for me. Why was Buffy so popular, such a good role model? She felt the weight of the world on her shoulders, for sure, but she never relinquished it, never gave in and let a man do the work for her. And the men who loved her--and who she loved in return--understood that, and treated her as an equal. They shared the burden. They respected her power. Did it make them less manly? No, I think it made them more.

But was Buffy an anomaly? Has the tide turned against strong heroines? Do we really want to read about women who just aren't as strong as their men? I don't; and if I'm in a minority, then that very fact makes me quite sad.


  1. Nice post.

    I certainly don't want to read about doormats. Or even not-doormats-but-not-equal-either. I like strong women who give as good as they get and yes - it does have to be a very special hero who can accept that.

    One of the reasons the bloody-book-I'm-writing went wrong in its first incarnation was that the heroine, though intelligent and self-reliant, had bad things happen to her that she couldn't control. It made the overall feeling passive. Now I've restarted it several chapters down the line, the bad things are in the recent past but she's active and immediately working on the solutions for herself. Much better.

  2. Hmm, that's a good point. I have a back-burner story where lots of bad things happen to my heroine, and they're necessary for her character development, but it makes for some depressing reading! I think Penny's trick of writing the first few chapters, then discarding them and starting it later is a good one. Most of this needs to be backstory, not bogging down the beginning and making the heroine passive and wimpy.

    But then I have the opposite problem with Kett's book, where she's a very strong character, and I'm not sure her hero can live up to her!

  3. Maybe part of the reason books with Alpha heroines don't sell well is that it's difficult to make them seem appealing in a *blurb*, even if once you read the book you find they're complex and have weaknesses and needs and are real characters not generic ass-kickin superheroes.

    Cos a disempowered heroine--a heroine in peril, for instance, or one who's only just leaving an abusive relationship--comes with an immediate hook for the blurb: a casual reader will want to know what happens to her next.

    Whereas, in the limited space of a blurb, a strong heroine can come across as too strong to be sympathetic, or too strong to be real, and the casual browser might just think "meh".
    Okay, that's a hypothesis. It may have no bearing on reality. ;-)

    I always think one of the brilliant things about Buffy was that she was always a mix of super-strong and really fragile. Even in the pilot episode, where she's shown as strong/brave/intelligent/cool/fashionable, the viewer can also immediately tell she has issues with her mother, she cares about how people see her, she's upset about how her calling interferes with her normal life. She's strong *and* weak. Which makes her so much more appealing to me than many super-powered ice-cold urban fantasy heroines.

    Yes, now I've worked out how to put your blog on my RSS feed, you may get more long ramblings in your comments section. ;-)

  4. Immi, I'm just impressed you can work an RSS feed. I still don't actually know what they do.

    And you may have a point about the blurb. It's hard to put across a heroine's strength and flaws in a short space, without making her sound totally unappealing. But then, I've always hated blurb-writing.

  5. I saw a poll somewhere recently that said the number one thing readers want in urban fantasy is a kick-ass heroine. So maybe it's a genre issue? Reader expectations? In romance (of any kind) I think the reader expects a partnership between the hero and heroine, and that requires a level of equality between them. I don't consider it at all romantic to have a man controlling you "for your own good" no matter how sexy he is.

    (Kind of off topic, but I recently finished a paranormal romance where the "hero" was constantly mind-controlling the heroine into obeying him because he thought she needed protecting. And instead of getting mad and punching him in the throat, she just put up with it. ARGH! NOTHING turns me off a book faster than that trope!)

    In UF, on the other hand, it's more about the heroine's journey and often the romance angle is secondary, so she may come across as more Alpha simply because it's a genre staple.

  6. Ew, Naomi, that hero sounds like an asshat. Not remotely heroic! Sheesh, you wonder what century these people think they live in...

    Sometimes, I wonder if what readers say they want, and what they actually want, are the same thing. It certainly sounds better to say you want a kick-ass heroine than one who needs to be taken care of. But in the privacy of your own ebook library, nobody needs to know...

  7. I think you're right - nobody's going to want to say they love reading about women who can't stand up for themselves. It's just not PC. Personally I do like kick-ass heroines, as long as they don't emasculate the hero on the way - which often seems to be the case. There's a lot to be said for equality in romance.