Tuesday, February 2, 2010

If It's HIS Story, Why Can't I Remember Him?

Edie just tweeted me something about why romances are about the hero and not about the heroine.  Really?  I need to think about that.  Not saying that isn't accurate, just that I need to think about it.

What I've been thinking about is how most heroes are insufficiently memorable for me to -- well, remember them.  Supposedly there are Alpha Heroes, Randy Heroes, Lords of Slut (i.e., a veritable House of Lords of Ill Repute, in effect), and so forth -- and I swear to you that if  I didn't read that book last week, none of those men has stuck with me.

Okay, I'll acknowledge that I'm a lot more likely to remember the hero of a book I've read several times and really love.  Christy from To Love and To Cherish, for example; I remember him well enough (a nice Beta, wouldn't you say?).  But that's not always true.  I remember a lot about Rachel (and her son Edward) in Susan Elizabeth Phillips' Dream a Little Dream but I had to Google to remember the hero's name (Gabe) and also, if I'm being honest, the title.  (Her titles are all pretty interchangeable.  I should make a Mad Libs: SEP Rom version.)

So when someone commented that whenever we (readers in Romlandia) focus on the sexual virtue of the heroines but not on the sexual virtue of the heroes, I tried to think of "rake" heroes who take their tomcatting too far.  No one came to mind.  I'm sure I've read those books, but neither the hero's story arc ("from tomcat to lapdog!") not his physical excellence, skill at lovemaking, alpha qualities or even his name has stuck with me.

Frankly, I'm pretty sure heroines make more of an impression on me.  Gaffney's Sweet Everlasting: I don't remember either character's name, but her story (simple, connected-to-nature girl marries doctor and then struggles to earn his respect) has stayed with me more than his.  Joan Wolf's His Lordship's Mistress: the Earl of Linton is awesome, but much more cardboard than Jessica, who's the real star.  I'm pretty sure all of SEP's heroines are more interesting than their respective heroes.  Definitely Nora Roberts' heroines stand out when the trilogy is about them (as it is in the Flower Series, the Key Series, and the current Wedding Planners series), but even where the trilogy is about the heroes (Chesapeake Bay) or about a mix of men and women (the Sign of Seven series), the heroines are still pretty memorable.

In some books, to be honest, both characters make an impression.  Elizabeth Mansfield's Her Man of Affairs has a great hero and a great heroine; neither is cardboard and both have nice story arcs.  Kristin James (aka Candace Camp) wrote The Rainbow Season, and while I'd give Luke a bit of a nod over the heroine (whose name I don't recall), they both come across nicely.  Jane Feather's Edwardian series has rather more interesting heroines (matchmakers and proto-feminists), but I recall at least one of the heroes, a stuffy conservative politician whose career could be ruined by association with a suffragette.  Glenda Sanders' Island Nights -- a multi-read book for me! -- has a strong hero and heroine, but it's her actions that have stayed with me.  Same thing with Mira Stable's High Garth.

[I should make it clear at this point that I'm deliberately not doing any research for this post, other than the Googling I've copped to above.  So, sure, I don't remember any of the characters' names unless I read the book yesterday or reviewed it last week.  All I'm doing is mentally trolling my bookshelves -- which are all downstairs in my office -- for my favorite books.]

There is one class of heroes, though, that I do remember:  The Wounded Hero.  Lord Ian McKenzie is a recent example, as is the hero of Elizabeth Hoyt's To Beguile a Beast.  The titular hero of the "Beast of Belleterre," Mary Jo Putney's novella, is another.  It's not their physical infirmity that makes them "wounded," it's the scars on their souls that make them so affecting to me.  Sometimes he's been wounded by fate, as when Will is imprisoned unjustly in Morning Glory, or Luke in The Rainbow Season is labeled a loser even before he can try to prove himself.  Laura Kinsale has created some of the most memorable wounded heroes.  Even series author Betty Neels -- who wrote the same hero over 130 times! -- has one who's blind, and that's one I remember:  Benedict in Cassandra by Chance.*

I love wounded heroes because I identify with them, and yet they're separate from my experience.  Wounded heroines clearly don't make the same impression on me, as I can't think of any.  (In this context, I'm classifying the heroines of Dream a Little Dream and Sweet Everlasting not as wounded heroines, but in a subset of "Plucky Heroines," namely Heroines Who Will Survive, or "Gloria Gaynor" Heroines.  Oh, crap.  Now I have that song running through my head.  Serves me right; I shouldn't have gone there.)

I lack the academic credentials to say this, but I believe that wounded people -- people who survived particularly painful childhoods, for example -- find it easier to empathize with those in another and separate group of wounded folks.  It's too painful for me to contemplate, in fiction and in real life, women or children who endure or endured what I did.  But a guy who had a crappy childhood, or who has been rejected for superficial scars, or who struggles to overcome a bad break -- I'm all over it.

See -- and you're so smart you already figured this out -- I like the Gloria Gaynor Heroines because that's not how I see myself.  I wish I did.  But just as I cry over those Sarah McLaughlin TV ads for the ASPCA (wounded or lonely animals, *sniff*), I ache a delicious ache for the Wounded Hero.  And when he finds love, it's the best thing ever.

As for the rest of the Hero subtypes -- the Alphas, the Betas, the Randy Devils and the Reprobates -- they don't make much of an impression on me.

I'm sure I'm odd in this respect.  Everyone reading this may be thinking, "What about [insert lusty/bad boy hero name here]?  Sorry, I don't remember him without being prompted.  But then, if there's one thing I do know about myself, it's that my results may almost certainly vary from everyone else's.

*  Three admissions about Betty Neels:
  1. I couldn't remember the blind hero's name (Benedict) but do remember a different Neels hero's name: Hugo van Elving from Fate is Remarkable.  Hugo isn't wounded, but his HEA is very lovely and affecting.
  2. I had to go look up Benedict's name and Hugo's book title -- and found this AMAZING website:  The Uncrushable Jersey Dress, which is even more about Betty Neels that I could possibly have asked for; I know what I'll be reading for the rest of the day!!!
  3. I love Betty Neels.  Yes, she was old skool even when she was first getting published, and yes they aren't all good (even if you love Betty Neels), and yes they're positively regressive by today's standards, but I love her books.  I think it's because her actual prose is pretty good (if wildly repetitive from book to book, hence the cliche of the "uncrushable jersey dress") and she represents an England that my mother also loved, albeit by reading Barbara Pym and Charlotte M. Yonge books.  (I have no idea whose version of The Netherlands Neels was writing about, but it sure didn't have Red Light Districts and free pot there!)

17 comments:

  1. Thanks for visiting our humble little blog. Any friend of Betty's is a friend of ours.

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  2. Betty Debbie -- I LOVE your website. Wonderfully funny and thoughtful and informative. Even non-Betty fans should go, particularly to this post here: Nurse Harriet Goes to Holland, which was laugh out loud funny -- I read it aloud to my husband and had to stop several times, as I was laughing too hard. (The bit about the brothers being in foster care is what did me in.)

    I finally had to leave lest I spend all day there, but I'll be back! (And leave more comments -- sorry, but I can't stop myself. No self-control.)

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  3. Gee I don't know: I think I remember just the heroes but looking back, it's the heroes of emo-porn that stick in my head (like Gerald, Christian, Sebastian) ... nice normal Rake meet Virgin and I can barely remember heroine let alone generic virgin.

    Still, I'm not quite sure: to be continued!

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  4. Tell us more about Glenda Sanders' Island Nights! Now you've made me curious.

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  5. Disclaimer before posting: I have not slept that much in the past couple of days, so incoherent rambling ahead. (It is also 2am.. eek!)

    I just think more time is spent developing the male character and his motivations than the female, who seems to be often left as a placeholder for the reader to mold or replace with herself, even in series like the Nora Roberts ones you mention. The prologue and the epilogue about the heroine, but the bits in between the heroes story with her watching.

    You mention the wounded hero, I could probably twist him around to my argument as well, in most sub-genres the fact that we have more wounded heroes than heroines, therefor with much more page space detailing their struggles etc, while we often have normal heroine with wounded hero, if we have a wounded heroine we have a more wounded hero. IYKWIM?

    If I was coherent I could probably make an argument based on Betty's heroines alone... Cos she had the one heroine as well as the one hero, and they would actually be a reasonable example of what I meant. IIRC

    Edie

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  6. Janet -- I think we can all admit, if we're being honest, that a lot of books don't stick forever in the brain. There could be a lot of reasons for that, but one is that very few heroes AND heroines are compelling AND original AND emotionally affecting. I agree that Gerald from Balogh's A Precious Jewel is more interesting and has the real story arc, even though he is that rare beast: the Omega Hero.

    I have more to say -- see my comment (below) in response to Edie!

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  7. Victoria -- I wrote a guest blog post at Monkey Bear Reviews about four Glenda Sanders books, all of which strike me even now as daring and intelligent. For sheer emotional power, Island Nights is a five-hanky book every single time.

    Here's the link: Four Smart Authors, Part II: Glenda Sanders

    Oh, and I cried just re-reading my post on Island Nights -- still TMI, I know, but it really is that powerful. For me.

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  8. Edie --

    Okay, gloves off. Here's what I think: I find heroines more interesting when the author finds them more interesting. And as authors are exhorted to write what they know, and as most authors are women and thus know about being a woman, the parts of the book that are about the heroine's actions and emotions are the most realistic parts of virtually any romance.

    Most of the readers are women, and straight women at that. What we're interested in are men. So books with yummy heroes appeal to most readers. And maybe to the author too, so she writes MORE about the hero, but MORE REALISTICALLY about the heroine.

    My feeling about Nora Roberts is that even her more implausible heroines (e.g., Dru, the trust fund baby turned small town florist in Chesapeake Blue) is written with a kernel of truth at her heart.

    But Roberts' heroes are all cut-outs from magazines: Fine Boatbuilding rather than GQ, perhaps, but they're all a bit too perfect even in their woundedness. I've written about that elsewhere, that no one as wounded as the three brothers in the Chesapeake Bay series could have recovered that easily from that much. Flimsy cut-outs at that.

    Roberts' heroines just seem more real to me. So even if the hero gets twice as many words, those words are describing a less honest, less plausible, less realistic character. (Which may be why she needs more words to convey what he's like.) Her heroines have much more mundane concerns, like how to make enough money, or whatever. Concerns we readers can relate to.

    I guess for some readers, it would be more interesting to read about a heroine that seemed as exotic or "other" as the hero does. But that's tough to do in the parameters of a romance. Even "writing what I know," I could write about a heroine with a super-crappy childhood, but I'd be heading straight into Women's Fiction before I even got to the hero. Otherwise, the notion that a hero with a loving spirit can "heal" her wounds would be SUPER insulting.

    So the heroine can't have too horrible a wound. If it's that bad and she's responsible for healing herself, then the book's too much about the healing process and not enough about the romance. If it's more about the romance, then the author has a tough row to hoe proving that it's not the romance that's healed her wounds, but rather the heroine's own initiative and conduct within the romance. It can be done, but it's not easy.

    Betty Neels had more than one heroine but only one hero. Heroines were financially comfortable or poor, orphaned or with families that relied on them, good-looking or plain. No, it's not precisely a WIDE range (!!) but as every last Neels hero is tall, in his 30s, accomplished, wealthy, and single, the range of heroines seems very generous indeed.

    I don't defend Betty Neels romances -- it's a specific taste and not everyone shares it -- but I do love them.

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  9. "Otherwise, the notion that a hero with a loving spirit can "heal" her wounds would be SUPER insulting."

    But the loving heroine healing the hero is not insulting??

    As to the reality of romance heroines... am going to have to go away and think about that one. (First reaction is to laugh maniacally and shout we are DOOMED if that is the case.)

    Lots of people love Betty Neels, she has been a steady seller for me since get go. Just that her heroine is definitely a example...

    Sorry not much time to leap in properly... but I think this quote from Jody Wallace sums it up: "As a reader I want to see 2 interesting ppl navigate their relationship, not "hot guy OMG SO HOT DIBBBZ!"

    Edie

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  10. "But the loving heroine healing the hero is not insulting?"

    No, I don't think it is. A manipulative heroine who coerces or tricks the hero into being something other than wounded -- that would be insulting.

    But does that mean I have a double standard for men and women?

    Yes it does. I know I'm unpopular in this, but here it is: Women are nurturers by nature (genetics, sociobiology, evolution -- don't care what you chalk it up to). Not every woman is a nurturer (some of us are cold-hearted bitches, if you ask me) and not every RL woman or rom heroine wants to "fix" a guy.

    But there is something attractive about the plot where the heroine is understanding, supportive, and (most of all) is smart enough to see past the hero's scars to his character. Her mirroring of his character helps him heal his wounded spirit. Does she do this work for him? No, that would be paternalistic and arrogant. But her love helps him heal.

    Now -- same situation with the genders reversed. She's terribly wounded, he's loving, accepting, supportive and sees her inner beauty. Done right, it's not insulting. But here's the risk: it would be very easy for a book with that set up to seem as though the hero "fixes" the heroine and that she wants him to. We'd all love to have our problems magically solved (do you have "Calgon -- Take Me Away" TV ads in Oz? they're for a bubble bath product, but the implication was that the product would take away the screaming kids, the unhelpful hubby, the broken toilet), but it's not a good image of the heroine.

    Your Judy Wallace quote is exactly right -- two people: equal in moral fibre, equal in common sense and intellect, equal in skills, but not necessarily having the same skill set. I like the fantasy where the heroine's intelligent love helps the hero. I like the fantasy where the hero's intelligent love helps the heroine help herself. It's a double standard, sure, but I think it's not a bad one after millenia of sexism.

    Now -- I will be the first to say that Betty Neels never wrote a realistic heroine, at least for the time in which they supposedly lived. She was born in 1910 (literally older than my parents, which is a shocker to me) and was 58 when her first book sold. She wrote of an outmoded era in health care, relations between the sexes, you name it. Maybe her heroines would have been daring, independent career women when Betty was herself the right age -- in the late 30s! (She was a nurse then and hadn't married her husband yet.)

    So sure her heroine(s) exemplifies an absurd standard. In the range of unrealistic fiction, I'd put her books way behind a Roberts contemporary but ahead of a Julia Quinn Regency. Neels' books (for me) are fairy tales -- once upon a time there was a rich Dutch doctor and a plain English nurse...

    I like fairy tales. Even ones with NO SEX.

    (I do like arguing with you. Sorry this seems always to be when you're tired, pressed for time, etc.)

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  11. LOL it is just me and my guilt talking, as I seem to be always on the run lately and should be working instead of blog hopping, I should stop mentioning it. Either that or I should only visit when I have more than 2 minutes to bang out a response.

    See I find the nurturing heroine trope kind of insulting to an extent. But that could be just my pecularities shining through, I am not a nurturer so I may have unrealistic beliefs about the commonality of nurturing women. Plus the "fixing" is something I also have problems with. (morally/ethically and realistically)
    The nurture plot is really REALLY unattractive to me, sometimes I think I am reading the wrong genre LOL
    I don't know that ad, but I don't understand why the heroine always has to be a nurturing super family woman? Is that the only version of femininity that is attractive?

    I like fairytales too to an extent, and would probably have less problems with Neels if I could look at her like I do some of the early mills and boons, but she was reprinted so heavily in the 80s/90s unlike other dated books, and I see her heroines echoed in others and it gets my back up.
    Edie

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  12. Back again - I think I went off on a tangent before. *gasp* Ain't that a shock??

    Even if the nurturer is the ideal, why is her story less important-interesting than the hero?
    That is probably the path I should have meandered down to stay on topic.

    Edie

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  13. "Even if the nurturer is the ideal, why is her story less important-interesting than the hero?"

    I actually disagree with two assumptions in this statement.

    First, I don't think the nurturer is the ideal, any more than the sexually experienced heroine is *the* ideal. In fact, I don't think there is any single ideal heroine, although I can think of some character flaws that would almost certainly be deal breakers.

    I do think that as some women are nurturers, some women like to read about nurturer heroines. I'm not even saying that it's a one-to-one correlation; for all I know, a non-nurturing reader likes to read about nurturing heroines.

    And I still don't agree with her story being less important or less interesting than that of the hero. But I can see that our (yours and my) definitions of "important" and "interesting" may be wildly divergent.

    Take a Nora Roberts contemporary, for example. In the Chesapeake Bay series, the books were ostensibly about the heroes, each of whom had a similar story arc: Hideous abuse as a child, rescued by great couple, leading to healthy values but no sig oth. Dad dies after getting each of the heroes to promise to care for fourth brother. In each book, a hero meets the perfect woman for him.

    But their story arc are all the same, and damned if each one of those pesky heroes basically thinks, "Wow. I had a crappy childhood. I'm mad. Oh, pretty woman. Great sex. Don't want to fall in love, but hey, whatever."

    How is that actually interesting or important? By contrast, Heroine #1 is a social worker who's got a rather more realistic childhood trauma to work through as well as some ethical issues, and she also gets the great sex. Next to Neanderthal hero, she's Eleanor Roosevelt.

    Heroine #2 is even better -- she's a single mom with money issues. Her hero is so severely damaged that it's virtually impossible that he's still alive let alone a functioning adult male capable of holding down two jobs, but Heroine #2 has very real issues and deals with them on her own, thank you very much.

    Heroine #3 is actually more forgettable, perhaps because she's a dea ex machina who answers all the questions of the fourth brother's heritage. And, yeah, I rather liked the yuppy Phillip with his nice suits. But his story arc is precisely the same as the others.

    Of course there are books where the hero predominates, but I don't think the proportion is as high as you think. As with the Roberts' books (and her other series are much the same, I think) -- she might write more about the heroes, but they simply aren't more interesting as a result.

    But that's just me.

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  14. I am probably using the word ideally wrong, it is just that I come across it soo often that it seems like “ideal” or at least the norm, and anything different the rarity or the oddity. And in terms of interesting, I figure they must be judged more so if

    I think we are definitely coming at romance reading differently, hello we are different people LOL, but it also helps that I have not explained myself at all well. It would probably help if I explained with examples, instead of just stamping feet and whining why can’t authors write more books with my wants in mind. ;)

    Since the brain seems to have abandoned me, I went searching to see if I could find someone who could sum up where I was coming from re the hero story, and this also seems to fit my recollection of the Chesapeake series, but I only read them when they came out and haven’t revisited:
    http://www.romancingtheblog.com/blog/2008/04/03/the-allure-of-the-heroine/
    “The heroine, instead of standing on her own feet, is increasingly created as a foil for the hero, to showcase his strengths and be “light” to his “darkness.” Instead of being his equal, she begins her journey in one of two forms: “feisty” and “independent” or “nurturing” and “bookish.” These characteristics evolve into two endings; the former, in which the heroine is taken down a peg or two, and the latter, in which the heroine is forced out of her shell by a) healing the hero from his tortured state or b) his rakish seduction of her. In a nutshell, the heroine’s journey is solely that of hitching a ride on the hero’s character arc.”

    That reads better than my ramblings… I hope it kosher to put it in.

    Though I think it probably comes down to having different expectations and interpretations, the joys of reading, so damn subjective to our own interpretations through our own hang-ups etc.
    And yes I have a ridiculous amount of hang-ups, and I am a judgmental cow.

    Edie

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  15. Whoops I got distracted and didn't fix the first para, "judged more important due to the number of pages dedicated to hero rather than heroine development/problem/character arc etc.

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  16. It occurs to me that with 5,000 romances published every year, and maybe a couple hundred thousand already out there, that you and I may be reading very different sorts of books. :-)

    I get that the books you read and/or your impression of them reinforces the idea that the hero is the star and the heroine merely handing him the tools he needs to construct his story arc. And books like that are out there. But we may never be able to agree on what the predominance of books are like because neither of us can read all those books!

    I have read some paranormals, but not many. I can imagine how they give heroines more scope for kick-ass hero(ine)ism. But I wonder if that merely makes the heroine into a second hero. We know women like m/m romances. Maybe in paranormals, the heroine gets to be "one of the guys" (particularly where the guys are werewolves or whatever) or she gets to be the kick-ass human dealing with the demons/fae/irate teenagers (oh, wait, no -- that last group is too toxic even for paranormals...) and thus is sufficiently "other" for female readers to enjoy her without feeling we're like her.

    And maybe that's the point -- when the heroine is like us (in contemporaries or historicals) we discount her accomplishment and focus on the hero's story. Or else, I mentally erase your bland "sidekick" sort of heroines as soon as I finish the book and that's why I don't remember them!

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  17. I find just as many of the holder heroines in paranormals as well, just can get passed it a little easier cos I am distracted by world building etc.

    I think we are definitely coming from completely different angles and different wants and differing views of femininity and interests. Which is not a bad thing.

    Maybe my main problems is the contemporary - historical heroines are a species alien to me that I just can't understand!
    ;)

    But oh wells, I am an odd duck.

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