by Moriah Jovan
“The only real requirement of a romance novel is a happily ever after (HEA).” Everybody who reads romance knows this.
Here’s the dirty little secret: That’s not really true.
There are tropes, traits, tableaux, and themes that a vocal majority of readers (if the Amazon and other romance message boards are anything to go by) really don’t care for, most of which involve the heroine and what she should and should not be and do.
So instead of listing what is acceptable in romance (excluding Christian inspirational romance), I shall list a few things that are generally not considered acceptable:
Tropes (things from which no HEA can be derived):
1) Infidelity, sexual or emotional.
2) A love triangle in which both males are sympathetic.
3) Lying about the paternity of one’s child.
1) A heroine who is comfortable with her sexuality and/or has a checkered sexual history of which she is not ashamed.
2) A sexually inexperienced hero.
3) A heroine who makes more money than the hero.
4) Heroines over the age of ~35, and definitely never over 40.
1) The heroine sleeping with anyone not the hero, on page or off, ever, not even before she meets the hero. (It’s pretty okay for the hero to, though.)
2) Hero or heroine sleeping with someone else after they’ve met and sparks have flown.
3) Hero and/or heroine with a huge support network of family and friends. (This is more a writer’s issue than a reader’s. If one has a huge support system, many conflicts would be solved too soon and, given the word-count restrictions [some of them severe], one can’t introduce a whole lot of people into a story.)
I can see you nodding your head and ticking them off as you read; I would expect that. Not because we’re a bunch of Mormons here and we have standards that preclude all that business, but because romance is inherently conservative, especially with regard to what a heroine is and is not allowed to do. Not the hero, but the heroine.
She should be likable and relatable, but not too milquetoast or Mary Sue. She should be as sexually pure as she can be with regard to the time period, her station in life, and her age (which is why older heroines are harder to sell) (it’s also why some writers will go to ridiculous lengths to preserve a contemporary heroine’s purity). She should be unaware of her beauty (and eschew makeup), and insecure about her looks; if she happens to be aware that she is attractive, she should be self-effacing of it and never use her looks to get anything she wants. She should be as stoic as Epictetus and as dry-eyed as the Mona Lisa.
In short, she should be smart (but not smarter than the hero); strong (but not stronger than the hero); generally a better person (morally, ethically, sexually) than anyone else in her milieu and the world (even the hero).
Naturally, there are the exceptions that prove the rules, but of course, publishing houses won’t buy what they think their readers won’t like. And since the readers keep buying what they publish…
I liked these types of heroines when I was younger. They were everything I wanted to be: never petty, always honorable, never upstaging the hero, always justthisclose to Mary Sue but never (okay, sometimes) going over—and I wanted to be that. Worse! I thought it was possible to be that.
But then I grew up. In real life, the women I find most attractive as human beings are the ones with failings and war wounds and stories to tell. I realized that a woman’s true worth is in the mistakes she made (sometimes serious ones) and how she came through (how she’s still coming through), and that what I find attractive about her isn’t her perfection but her flaws.
I still occasionally enjoy the heroines who are young and fresh, the ones with promise, the ones with blank slates they have a chance to never mar, but the writer really has to sell it to me. Now I’m looking for older women with life experience.
All that said, I’m one of a handful of readers I know who read for the heroine as much as the hero. When it all comes down to it, genre romance is usually about the hero.
Next time, I’ll attempt to break down subgenre classifications and their distinctive properties.
Moriah Jovan is the pen name for Elizabeth Beeton, who created B10 Mediaworx to publish herself. Since then, she’s put out two books of her own, The Proviso and Stay, and assisted in the publication of Peculiar Pages titles The Fob Bible and Out of the Mount. Her third book, Magdalene, is now available at all the usual places, and three more Peculiar Pages titles are coming in June, August, and October. At the moment, she’s busy wading through Burke’s Peerage, figuring out the proper address of an Earl, and devouring books on the American Revolution.