As an author of over twenty romance novels, I've written my fair share of heroes and heroines. If there's one general statement I can make about writing them it's that men usually well-loved and the women are criticized. Harshly.
Writing a likable hero isn't a challenge. I once wrote a hero who kidnapped the heroine in the first chapter. He threw her into the trunk and took her off to parts unknown. Readers loved him, but her? She was "okay." When I crafted my widower story about a bad boy who falls for his late wife's best friend, my biggest writing challenge was the love story. I never expected reviews criticizing Charlie for her habit of saying "Sorry." Some readers found it "annoying" while others related so much that they loved Charlie's authenticity. In more recent news, this heroine who showed up late almost everywhere broke a cardinal rule for some readers who found her "flighty."
What to do?!
I'm not writing this post to air my grievances or defend my characters' choices. Like real people in the real world, characters have flaws. Real flaws. The realer the better! We all know/have known someone who needlessly apologizes, don't you? And that girl you work with who shows up late every day at work... is she you? Your best friend? The point is, these people exist.
Now for some truth.
You can't win.
As the saying goes: You can't please all of the people all of the time. Hell, you can't please some of the people some of the time. What you can do is write characters that resonate with you. Characters that frustrate you and make you smile and characters you forgive for being incomplete and not whole. I mean, this is romance we're talking about here. If you put two perfect, flawless people together in a book, it's hopelessly BORING. And there wouldn't be much of a story. Romance thrives on conflict and for conflict to happen, we need imperfect people.
In romance, a genre written by (mostly) women and read by (mostly) women, we, the reader, cast ourselves into the role of the heroine. Her feelings and experiences and beliefs are ours. We want the best for her. We want the fantasy for her. We want her to pull her head out of her rear and say yes to the hero already because we know and trust this author and THAT HERO IS AWESOME!!! Right?! The rub is that the heroine doesn't know what us savvy readers know. She has to puzzle them out for herself and make her own way... Which means she's going to stumble and screw up and be afraid and look graceless. WHICH IS SO GREAT FOR THE STORY.
I can only assume that our frustration with the heroines reflects back onto ourselves. Just like we can spot her beauty and hidden talents that mirror our own, we also wince at the flaws and view them as attributes that require fixing... or at least hiding. Our own flaws that other people have pointed out in us or maybe flaws we point out to others.
Which reminds me of a line I wrote:
"Kindness is a dwindling resource."
~Becca, Man Candy
How true does that feel? We can't tolerate the flaws in others when we can't forgive ourselves for them first. Kindness to others starts with learning to be kind to ourselves.
Just like readers spot themselves in heroines, authors see ourselves in them, too... sometimes. A part of me is alive and well in each of my heroines. In the case of plucky Becca, she and I share our love for cooking and a dream of writing a menu for a restaurant. Unlike her, I arrive everywhere on time or a little early. But the challenge and fun came when I let her be who she was and I let Dax love her for who she was.
The hero loving the heroine for the very habit or flaw she can't forgive herself for is a theme throughout my backlist. In Hard to Handle Sadie felt like she was too much trouble to bother with because of an ex who reinforced that belief. Aiden admired her spunk and found her hardheadedness charming. In The Billionaire Next Door Rachel worried she couldn't sexually satisfy a man after an ex accused her of being "rigid" and Tag sets out (with much excitement) to prove her wrong. In my upcoming rom-com Rumor Has It Catarina worries that she's perceived as "a snob" by his friends, but Barrett is quick to refute that, and loves that she's his polar opposite.
As long as your hero and heroine love each other for who they are underneath everything the outside world criticizes, then who cares what others say about them? Just like there's someone for everyone in this world--a perfect match for your set of flaws and certain flaws you're pretty great at overlooking--there is a romance hero and a romance heroine who are meant to be.
- DO write the character the way you want. In the immortal words of Eleanor Roosevelt, "You'll be criticized anyway. You're damned if you do and damned if you don't."
- DON'T ignore all criticism. I know this may sound counter to what I said above, but it's not. As Stephen King says, "Write with the door closed and edit with the door open." If several someones point out a characters flaw and say that it makes them uncomfortable, take that into consideration when editing. It doesn't mean that you have to change a character's flaw (i.e., being late) but you may be able to add a sentence that softens an edge or helps a reader understand more from the heroine's perspective.
- DO take risks. As writers we thrive in a setting where we've fallen in love with our characters. If you're not in love with the version of a heroine or hero you currently are writing, switch them up until you are. It's your world.
- DO have fun. The heroines who are the best received are ones who readers want to take out for coffee or drinks. Some readers will prefer the tough girls who take no shit, but others will prefer the softer, kinder ones who deserve a really big win. I've written both types of heroines and I've received positive responses for both. If Merina has ever been criticized, I've forgotten it. Same with Gloria. Those two stand out in my mind as being heroines "everyone" loves.
- DON'T take reviews to heart once the book is out of your hands and into the world. This can't be said enough. Once you and your editor have done your jobs and created a story you're both proud of, let it go. What the reader brings to the table and experiences is just that--her own experience. Just like we can't make everyone like us, we can't make everyone like our characters either.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to craft a new heroine with lots of fantastic flaws. ;)
Questions? Comments? Leave them below.