Literally decades of reading historical romances have led me to develop strong opinions of what defines a truly satisfying story, so the other day I set about making a list of characteristics that turn a potential five-star read into a one- or two-star. Admittedly, there are some skillful authors who manage to successfully incorporate one or more of these scenarios in their books; however, I have run across quite a few more who in my opinion haven’t quite managed it.
These are what I call “deal breakers”—characteristics that make a book a wall-banger instead of a pleasurable diversion. Not surprisingly, many involve character, particularly, the character of the hero and heroine. They have to be likable. They have to be three-dimensional, i.e., well-drawn-out characters with flaws, not fairy princesses. And they have to be able to fall in love, convincingly, the head-over-heels kind of love.
Overview of Susana’s Historical Romance Deal Breakers
- Reluctant Heroes
- Anachronistic Behavior and Historical Inaccuracies
- Cliffhanger Endings
- Unattractive or Drop-Dead Gorgeous Heroines
- Heroes With Mistresses or Who Sleep With Servants
- Drop-Dead Gorgeous Heroes
- Promiscuous Heroines
- Contrived Endings
- Waifs and Silly Heroines
- Long Separations
- Excessively Cruel Heroes and Heroines
- Breaking the Rules: Why Some Authors Get Away With It
Historical Romance Deal Breaker #10: Waifs and Silly Heroines
Okay, I’ll admit to a partiality for feisty heroines who aren’t willing to stand aside and let themselves be walked on. However, a spoiled, selfish, immature heroine who heedlessly seeks out disaster without any concern for the consequences just makes me want to scream.
There’s something about a helpless waif that tugs at my heartstrings. However, a heroine who remains dependent on others—parents, lover, friends, etc.—seems rather gutless to me. I realize that, historically, women were expected to always be dependent, “protected,” by men, but a woman who consistently allows herself to be guided by the will of the others—in spite of her own wishes—can only end up with a satisfactory HEA through luck, i.e., her “protector” turning out to be considerate of her happiness. While waif-like heroines can be acceptable, I always wonder what would have happened if her luck had not been so good and she’d ended up with a bully.
And that’s why I prefer my waif heroines to evolve into spunky kid heroines. From being kind, passive, and insecure in the beginning, she begins to show some spirit, become defiant, and realize that she has the internal strength to make her own way in the world. And even if she ends up with an alpha hero, I know she won’t be a complete pushover, that he will have to respect her opinions in the years ahead.
So yeah, I love a good spunky heroine. But when does “spunk” become foolhardiness? Let’s talk about Lydia Bennet, the ultimate in silly heroines, from one of my favorite classics, Pride and Prejudice.
Lydia is the quintessential hormonal teenager. She drools over the handsome soldiers with her sister, thriving on their attention. To her, it’s a popularity contest, the more attention—whether good or bad—the better. She doesn’t care that she’s making herself look ridiculous or that “her way of getting a husband” may not turn out so well in the long run. If she had not been so fortunate as to have Mr. Darcy—along with her father and uncle—to bribe Wyckham to marry her, what would have become of her (not to mention the stain on her sisters)? Would she have become a courtesan or a prostitute? Starved to death? (There wasn’t any sort of “safety net” for spoiled, willful heroines in the 19th century.)
Her youth is a mitigating circumstance, along with her parents’ indulgence. But she did have older sisters who tried to rein her in, and she not only ignored them, but ridiculed them for not attracting as many beaux as she did. Even fifteen-year-olds have choices in life, and she made all the wrong ones.
Yet it is still possible that she could evolve into a satisfactory heroine. After she matured and repented of her youthful mistakes and put her life back on track. Considering that there was virtually no chance in those days of divorcing her husband, however, it would be a difficult path to take unless he conveniently died, which would also be problematic, since she and any children would undoubtedly be left penniless. So. . . how do you historically redeem a heroine like Lydia Bennet Wyckham without resorting to contrivances such as a sudden inheritance or a chance encounter with the perfect hero? Could she emigrate to America as an indentured servant and redeem herself through hard work? It’s hard for me to see the Lydia I know doing that, but I suppose it is a possibility.
While I have read stories where such deeply-flawed characters have been satisfactorily redeemed, they are few and far between. Most of the time, I end up in a state of disbelief, wanting to throw my Kindle against the wall because the author relied on some form of contrivance to get there, instead of convincing me of the character’s genuine transformation.
What kind of heroines do you prefer?
*Disclaimer: This series of “deal breakers” is meant to refer to books labeled historical romances, and not to erotica, which is a completely separate sub-genre and has an entirely different purpose.
So true. I have little patience for a silly or waif (doormat?) heroine. But the right author can change my mind about most anything. Dealbreaker? Yes, it could be. But an overly “spunky” or tough woman can be a turn off at times too. Especially in a historical romance where you expect woman to be gentler and the “weaker” sex. I love a strong woman but strong doesn’t mean heavy weight champion to me. Lydia was my least favorite of the sisters btw.
My thoughts exactly. A happy medium is best. Don’t forget that Kitty followed everywhere Lydia went, and she was a year older! Mary was clueless, but in an Aspergy sort of way. I’ve never understand how Lizzie was not the oldest, because her temperament seemed more responsible than Jane’s.
@Pamela: So true on the overly tough woman. In ALL romances, historical or contemporary. Men and women should be equal, but we’re not the SAME.We aren’t built the same physically and our brains are wired slightly differently. Frankly, it’s simplistic to think that power is only physical, is only achieved through aggressive behavior. It might stand out as the most popular way, but it is far from the only way. I wouldn’t mind reading a story with a heroine who learns that truth over the course of a story. Lydia is my least favorite sister because she’s bloody stupid. 🙂 General stupidity is the most reprehensible trait any hero or heroine can have.
@Susana: I’m the oldest, but everyone thinks my sister R, who is two years younger, is the oldest because she has always been more responsible than me. I think it’s fairly common for a second child to appear more mature. S/he watchs the older one make all the mistakes and learns through observation. The first is out testing the waters and limits and makes more mistakes, though often achieves more too. Risk-takers, the lot of them.
In my family, I was the older one who followed the rules and did everything right and it was my sister–a year younger–who was the sneaky one.
As for Lydia, in retrospect, I don’t think she was any more stupid than many of my eighth grade students afflicted with hormones, indulgent parents, and a huge need to be popular. For the period, perhaps, she was sillier than most, and certainly had more to lose than modern teens do, but I think most of it came from her immaturity.
And even I, as the model child, can remember being very emotional, naive, and confused at that age.
I’m the oldest girl and I’m probably more responsible but I’m also shy. My younger sister is very outgoing but doesn’t really pay attention to the consequences of her actions.
I’d like to believe that Lydia matured with age and settled nicely into her marriage. I was very shy and awkward in my teens but I believe I matured nicely through the years. Just don’t ask anyone who knows me. lol
Pamela, it sounds like your family dynamics were more like mine. I was (am) shy, and my sister was rather precocious when she was younger. Now she’s nearly as stuffy as the rest of the family. She married at 18, divorced at 20, partied a lot for several years, lived with her current husband for three years before they married, and now, like I said, she’s found religion and all that.
I’m not so optimistic about Lydia, though. Her husband was a grown man and it seems unlikely that he could have turned out to be a faithful husband and father. Unfortunately, in those days, once you made your bed, you had to lie in it pretty much the rest of your life. 😦