Recently, I had an epiphany. I’m not normal.
Okay you can stop laughing now.
Yes, I’ve known I’m not one hundred percent normal for a while. This is not even third page news, let alone a front page headline epiphany. But I thought I was a fairly standard personality type within my specific group of loveable oddballs – namely romance authors. I share many of the same fun quirks possessed by authors. For instance I sometimes talk to myself (by sometimes I mean pretty much all the time. I’m talking to myself right now). I hear entire conversations in my head about stuff that’s not even related to my real life. I have trouble sleeping because my brain shares many of the attributes of a mentally ill person. Or I sleep too much because I’m having an existential crisis brought on by deep-seated insecurity and the unbearably crushing weight of existence, and I just can’t bear to be awake through it. You know, normal author stuff. I know a non-writer type (oh let’s just for the sake of things call you lovely people ‘normals’ for the rest of the post) will sometimes give me the nervous side eye when I blithely compare myself to a mentally ill person, but other authors? Nah. They get it.
There’s also another circle of people in my life—a slightly wider circle—who get me and who I get, or at least I always thought I did. They are called romance readers. I started off as a romance reader myself and still am one, so I figured I understood what was going on in the heads of these people too (the ‘normals’ with a side of HEA addiction). I thought when I picked up a romance novel I was looking for pretty much the same thing as most other romance readers. I good story about interesting people living lives entirely different to my own. It’s an escape, a way to learn something new, or sometimes to take comfort in the familiar anticipation of that HEA.
But recently I was confronted by the idea of the Placeholder Heroine. There’s a description of what this means in an old article on All About Romance, but in a nutshell it’s the concept that a romance novel heroine exists only to perform the service of conduit. She is the vessel by which the reader can imagine herself existing within the novel, and therefore vicariously falling in love with the hero. That the fewer complexities and faults she has, the more relatable she is, the more a reader will enjoy ‘pretending to be her’. So, well-developed heroines are not actually helpful in this process of character possession, and as such spending time crafting a believable female protagonist is pointless. It is the hero of the novel who is important.
I’d heard of the Placeholder Heroine concept before, but I thought very few people would actually be using romance novel heroines as placeholders. I thought most readers would rather a well-developed, believable heroine with realistic flaws whose life is in a state of flux and as such more interesting than the reader’s own life at that time. But something opened my eyes to the fact that this may not be true. While I think a lot of readers are like me and would rather read about a flawed and realistic heroine, many, many readers prefer their heroines to be bland, for want of a better word. They want heroine whose life they can imagine inhabiting so they can have their vicarious experience, not heroines who challenge them to think or force them to question their beliefs about what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’.
This is why romance novel heroines have to live up to very high moral standards, because if readers seek to pretend to be her, they don’t want her–and by extension them–to be a bitch. Or flawed. Or employed in some hideous (read: realistic) job in a grey cubicle like most of us working schelps actually are. Or God forbid, a slut. She can never, ever be a ‘slut’. She must be virtuous. Kind. Generous. Like Cinderella (I blame Disney for all this). So when the reader imagines herself being that heroine who falls in love with the hero she can also imagine herself being a better person, and eventually being rewarded for that while those of lower moral standards will be punished (like Cinderella’s ‘evil’ step family, who possessed the faults of vanity and selfishness, which are punishable by ETERNAL DAMNATION. Or whatever happened to them. I don’t know. I hate that story with the burning intensity of a thousand imploding stars. FUCK YOU DISNEY).
This is what I conclude. I don’t really know. I’m grappling with this concept somewhat. Because I don’t require a romance heroine to be a good person in order for me to read about her. I merely require her to be believable. But real people are messy and imperfect, and while romance novels with messy, imperfect heroines are being published (by moi, and many others), the novels that sell in their thousands feature female protagonists that are ‘nice’. Virtuous. Modest. Kind to children and animals (you just TRY and sell a heroine who doesn’t like kids. I DARE YOU). She must be if not a virgin in actuality, at least a little virginal in attitude (although if she’s an actual virgin BONUS POINTS). This can be as simple as her being a little shy about sex or showing off her body, or being the big hearted girl who can’t separate sex from love (thereby proving that she’s not the ‘slutty’ type who enjoys sex just for the fun of it. You know, like men do).
They’re all around us, these heroines. Just look at them. Anastasia Steele. Bella Swan. There are countless others of the ilk, but I don’t know their names because I don’t read those types of books and wouldn’t remember the names of such mealy-mouthed heroines if they weren’t shoved down my throat. But they are out there. Everywhere, selling like the last hotcakes before the great hotcake famine that is to come.
JUST LOOK AT THEM ALL.
Virtuous, ‘nice’ heroines sell better than heroines who are neither of these things, or whose virtues aren’t so readily on display, or who are rich with the complexity of both good and bad qualities at war with each other (as most of us are). This is a reality I’ve always known but I’ve only just linked this to the placeholder thing. Duh. And I’m having to face the fact that more people seem to want these heroines than I ever imagined. Most readers of romance, it seems (I know there are many exceptions, but I’m basing this belief on sales numbers which we all know don’t lie). I don’t know why I didn’t know this, and I’m not one to judge anyone’s reading choices, but I feel sad that this is the case. Because the more we hold up these nice, virtuous, perfect heroines as the pinnacle of our reading desire, the more we will receive only that type of book and that type of girl. The fewer realistic representations of actual women we will see in a genre that—I thought—was all about women, and was run by women for women. The more we will reinforce in real life this idea that a woman cannot be both decent and, say, sexually confident. The more we buy into the whole Madonna/whore concept that still pervades our culture.
So I guess the point of this post has gotten a bit lost in my rant. Forgive me, I had one of the difficulty sleeping nights and 5am isn’t the best editor. All this came about because I want to write a book with a heroine who is a stripper, who also has a five year old kid, and I keep hearing NOOOOOOOOO. You can’t do that. Readers don’t want to imagine themselves being a stripper. They will JUDGE her.
But where is our empathy, I ask? Where is our curiosity? How many people out there are actually imagining themselves being the romance novel heroine? Does the heroine of a book have to be just like you for you to relate to her? To have sympathy for her? Can’t we have empathy for people who have made mistakes and need a way out? Can we not find something to respect about a stripper with a heart, not of gold, but good intentions? Must we be so damned judgy?
I won’t even start on the fact that I have a book about a prostitute in the works. That doesn’t relate to this topic so much because he’s a MAN. Oh yeah. How do you like them apples?
A post for another day.