Susan here: Last week, Mary Jo answered a reader’s question about heroes, prompting a discussion of how we liked (and wrote) our heroes: brawny, brainy, tall, less so, lean, more so, handsome, rugged, all heart, all hidden and so on. So today, in the interests of fairness as well as romantic pairings, we’re looking at the hero’s essential counterpart in romance: the heroine.
When we write heroines for our novels, do we deliberately design them to suit the hero, or the hero to suit the heroine? Do we suit the character to the setting and the story? When we match-make on the page, do we go for a matched set, a complementary pair, or is it more fun to completely contrast the two most important characters in a romance? Creating a heroine is as challenging and intriguing as designing her future mate within the parameters of the story—it’s fascinating to explore the balances and contrasts between the He and the She. Is she tall, small, delicate, curvy, feisty, wallflower, independent, is she a natural beauty or a plain girl coming into her own? And how does that relate to her guy?
So we Wenches asked each other: what do you consider when you write a heroine for your hero? Do you tone sort of physical type over another, for example—bigger ladies, smaller ones, blond, redhead, dark, exotic or familiar? Keep reading to find out what we said.
Noun. A woman admired for her courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities; the chief female character in a book, play, or film, who is typically identified with good qualities, and with whom the reader is expected to sympathize; (in mythology and folklore) a woman of superhuman qualities and often semi-divine origin, in particular one whose deeds were the subject of ancient Greek myths. Origin: mid-17th century (in the sense 'demigoddess, venerated woman'): from French héroïne or Latin heroina, from Greek hērōinē, feminine of hērōs 'hero' [from the Oxford Dictionary]
Simply put, she’s the female hero in the story–and we put just as much thought and heart into making her up as when we’re writing about the story’s male hero.
I don’t prefer one physical type over another. I like to match my heroines to my heroes physically, but sometimes even there, I might decide a short heroine needs a tall hero for reasons that only make sense in my head. I probably err more towards the slender if I’m doing a young heroine in a historical romance, simply because historically, a young woman will be more slim than a mature one. Size is relative, after all, so if a hero is looking at a young woman and an older woman, he will probably perceive the younger one as slimmer. When I’m doing a big, rugged hero, the kind who is uncomfortable in dainty parlors, I’d rather match him up with a woman who can hold her own in his presence, as I did in All A Woman Wants.
Hair color—I think I choose that for so many different reasons that I can’t begin to list them all. It’s rather like dying my hair every so often to see how it looks. <G> Hair texture, now, that I can get into. Who here hasn’t fought with bad hair days? So if I want to torture a heroine, I give her curly hair.
My heroines come in all shapes and sizes and degrees of beauty. I don't so much plan them — at some stage they just declare themselves to be that way. I've had heroines who consider themselves too plump, too thin, too flat-chested, too plain — even the ones who the world considered quite beautiful, were sure, because of their upbringing, that they were flawed in some way. Luckily, their heroes always find them beautiful.
I write very varied heroines, short, tall, slender or voluptuous. I don't tend to try and match them up to the hero height-wise – they'll manage (or not, and that in itself is fun to write!) I've written women who consider themselves unattractive and those who believe they are beautiful. I think there is a very interesting connection to explore between the way heroines see themselves – and the way that others see them – and the way in which their characters have developed. I do admit to a partiality for red-haired heroines, not because this is a cliche of romance books but because red hair runs in my family and I was so disappointed that I didn't get that gene that I give red hair to a disproportionate number of heroines.
I do want my heroines to be different physical types. I think I do somewhat better with the male protagonists in this aspect. I made one character — Annique — small, with underemphasized female secondary characteristics. You see, I knew she'd have to shinny out a window between the bars near the end of the book. That's not plausible unless she is small and thin and muscular. From a necessary plot action, I work back to what she had to look like in the beginning of scene one. Another heroine, Jessamyn, is tall and blond. I wanted her father to be from the north of England because I wanted to play around with Yorkshire dialect. They have some tall blonds in that neck of the wood, so I figgered, "Heck, why not?"
And then there is Maggie, who is what you might call well endowed. I was matching her with William Doyle. I just know Doyle likes women with a little meat on their bones. And also, y'know, I don't really want all my heroines to be slender little pixies who can pass for boys. My Annique is strikingly beautiful and everybody in the book reacts to this. I need the beauty to fuel some of the motivation. Maggie, on the other hand, is not beautiful. In Forbidden Rose there's a passage:
She was not a beautiful woman. She regretted that for a few minutes about once a week. Right now, a plain face served her well. The guards would interest themselves in somebody pretty.
The not-being-beautiful is part of how I write my female characters. Unless the plot needs someone of physical beauty, my women don't have it. I dunnoh if this annoys the readers or not …
I seem to end up writing heroines with similar body types, mostly because my plots tend to demand that they be physically active—they need to ride, or run, or climb walls and shimmy down drain pipes. So they are usually willowy and possess an innate natural grace. Height, though, can vary. Sometimes it’s fun to give a petite, angelic-looking young lady some unexpected strength, both physically and intellectually. The face is very important to me. It’s not about beauty, it’s about making a heroine come alive by creating a unique vitality in describing her features.
Mary Jo Putney:
My heroines tend to come in all sizes–tall, medium or petite. Athletic or girly girls. All colors of hair from dark to different shades of blond, with brown in the middle and a spicing of redheads. No matter what the color, it's usually great, thick, shiny, hair. (My hair is strictly average, but we're entitled to our fantasies!)
My heroine's appearance and how she feels about it are elements of characterization. Most would be considered reasonable attractive and at least, "cleans up well." The hero, naturally, thinks she's totally gorgeous. She knows better. <G> An example: In No Longer a Gentleman, Cassie is average height and build, but as a spy, she is a trained fighter and much stronger than she looks. She's naturally a redhead, but for years she dyes her hair a drab brown to make her easy to overlook and hard to remember. Reverting to her natural red hair is part of her reclaiming her past. When she does, she becomes striking, if not really beautiful.
Rarely do I make a heroine drop dead beautiful, and when I do, her beauty generally causes her great problems because she's objectified, exploited, or victimized. Her hero will appreciate her physical beauty, but he'll love her for her strength, warmth, and compassion. But there's more to a heroine than her appearance. Mine are generally reasonably well born, but seldom from the top ranks of society. They've usually had more than their share of struggles in life. I've written about schoolteachers and midwives, battlefield nurses and musicians, and more. As a result, they tend to be warm, mature, and adaptable. Usually they're more in touch with their emotions than their heroes. They are women, hear them roar!
Like most of the Wenches I do all sorts of heroines. I think we have more leeway with heroines than with heroes as far as reader appreciation goes. We can have short, tall, fat, thing, beautiful or ugly. I did one very plain heroine in Deirdre and Don Juan and it was important to me that she wasn't an ugly duckling. A bit of polish and a nice gown wasn't going to make her anything but plain. After all, despite what the ads try to tell us, everyone can find love, and the most likely hindrance is a sour interior not a plain exterior.
I've also done beauties, and as Mary Jo says there the beauty is some kind of hindrance. I gather this is often true in reality — that natural beauties suffer from envy from women, so it's hard to make good friends, and many men not trying to get to know them because they're sure such a beauty must have her pick of all guys.
My heroine in A Shocking Delight is very pretty and looks even younger than she is so people don't take her seriously, especially in trade, which is where her ambitions lie. The hero makes the mistake of thinking her a "pretty wigeon," which is where his troubles start! I was thrilled to get a cover that shows her as young and pretty as she is.
I'll admit to having a mental hang up about very thin heroines. It doubtless comes from having a buxom build from a young age. If I do write a thin heroine she'll be wishing she could get some meat on her bones and some curves, and people will probably worry that she's in ill health, or chronically frail and unlikely to bear children safely, but that was the common attitude in the past, and based on reality. It's not true, of course, then or now. Thin can be beautiful too!
A heroine is woven of so many elements—story, character, the integration and symbiosis that develops between hero and heroine–and each one is different. Sometimes I'll have such a clear vision of her, whether she's tall, small, fair or dark, fiery or shy, I can see her as clearly as I see the hero from the start, and when she's that vivid, I'll work with her differently than in other books, where the heroine evolves from the story as we all, hero, heroine, plot and author, go merrily along. I might change her physically to reflect something I’ve realized about her, or I might give her a personality characteristic that moves the story along better than before–she may have to be bolder, feistier; she may have to be more insecure than she had originally started out, in order for the transformations of character, story and romance to happen. Sometimes writing the heroine is a little chance to indulge here and there—I’ve written heroines who are tall (I’m not), or have long, shiny shampoo-commercial hair (mine is wavy and unpredictable)—or she may have more fire and courage than I think I could ever have, and it surprises both of us.
We're as fond of our heroines as we are of our heroes — what do you love about heroines? And if you can think of some of your favorite heroines and why you cared about them – please share your thoughts!