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Writing the Romance Novel: The Warrior and the Damsel in Distress

Monday, April 21, 2008

The strong, domineering hero of the romance novel has long been the subject of criticism. What critics don’t realize is that it is the hero’s task in the book to present a suitable challenge to the heroine. His strength is a measure of her power. For she must conquer him.
Robyn Donald, “The Hero in Romance Literature”

Most romance writers I’ve talked to, or whose critical writings or interviews I’ve read, say that their ideas for their novels begin with the characters. I’ve found this to be true for myself—and for me, it’s usually the hero who comes first. After all, the true romance novel is, as we learned last time, a story about the developing relationship between two characters. Meaning that it is the characters who are the central focus of the story, the characters who drive the plot, the characters whom, at the end of the book, the reader really cares about. Therefore, when setting out to write a romance novel, a considerable amount of care and attention needs to be paid to developing your characters.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “Begin with an individual and you will find that you have created a type; begin with a type and you will find that you have created—nothing.” Back in the glory days of the books that gave us the term bodice-rippers (the 1970s and ’80s, just in case you don’t remember reading them yourself!), most of us who were avid romance readers had our favorite authors, because we could count on them to give us the kinds of heroes and heroines we were looking for. Jude Deveraux, Julie Garwood, and Catherine Coulter were my three favorites. In fact, I didn’t read very many other authors at all, because I had all I wanted in their prolific writings. They gave their readers warrior-heroes who took what they wanted no matter the consequences, who resented the heroines for distracting them from their tasks, who felt love was showing weakness and would bring them dishonor; and heroines who were strong, sometimes well beyond what was realistic for the medieval or other historical time periods in which the stories were set, who put up with the men’s brutality and eventually came to not only love them, but soften/tame them as well—while never giving up their own identity.

I’ve recently re-read two old Julie Garwood novels, Honor’s Splendor and The Wedding, and I came to the realization that even though the heroes are technically different—one is an English Baron, the other a Scottish Laird—they’re basically the same. And the heroines are too. And I’m now remembering that even though I considered Julie Garwood my favorite of the three authors I mentioned, I never really did like her heroines. Like the heroes, they’re all very similar, and relatively silly. Jude Deveraux, while still giving the warrior-heroes at least didn’t make her heroines silly. But for the most part, all of them wrote characters that were stereotypical for their era: the warrior and the damsel in distress.

Sure, there are a lot of readers out there who still want those two archetypal romance characters. Or they want the Scoundrel and the Socialite, or the Rich Man and Poor Girl. And if we study all romance novels deeply enough, we’ll find that for the most part, all of our characters fall into some kind of “type” in one way or another. But we have to fight against the stereotypes to make our characters fresh and appealing.

If a romance novel features a heroine with red hair and green eyes, what kind of personality do you expect her to have? If there’s an African American man as a secondary character in a book and a crime is committed, who’s the perpetrator most likely going to be? Are all Italian men hot-headed, lusty, and linked with underground crime? Are all medieval men warlords, barons, or lairds? Do all historical heroines have to be feisty, spunky, educated beyond what is historically believable, hate their corsets, and want to run around all over the place unchaperoned?

In inspirational romance, we have our own set of stereotypes to deal with: the pioneer widow who must marry a stranger to survive; the nineteenth century teacher who’s gone west to teach and bring God’s word to the heathens; missionaries and preachers; secretaries; characters with jobs so vague as to be nonexistent; ranch owners who take in wayward boys; the good Christian girl who must “save” the backslidden or non-Christian hero; and so on.

Quite a lot has changed in the romance genre since the heyday of Deveraux, Garwood, and Coulter. We’ve seen the splintering of romance into subgenres: chick lit, paranormal, romantic suspense, inspirational, sweet, historical (which has its own genres, the two most popular being Regency and medieval), etc. We’ve also seen the decline in popularity of the warrior heroes and damsel-in-distress heroines. Oh, sure, they’re still out there, but modern readers are looking for something more. They’re looking for a twist on the type. They’re looking for unique individuals, so that each story they read seems different from the last.

One thing that has become possible in the last ten or fifteen years has been the beta-male hero. He’s Clark Kent without the Superman alter-ego. He’s Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. He’s the Hollywood mega-star’s personal assistant (George in Stand-In Groom). He’s most likely not buff nor capable of physically sweeping the heroine off her feet, doesn’t hold a “romantic” job (systems support analyst, anyone?), and definitely doesn’t go around intimidating people because of his physical prowess. Yes, typically, these beta-male heroes are found mostly in contemporaries. (We still like our historical heroes to be alpha-males.)

With the rise of the beta-male has come the rise of the alpha-female—the “bitch,” in other words. She’s the powerful woman who’s completely given up on men. She’s the attorney, the vice president of the company, the CEO, the governor, the senator. She has taken over as the character who must be conquered, whose stony dispassion must be chiseled away by our more in-touch-with-his-emotions beta-male.

But once again, in these scenarios, we tend toward types. Our job as authors is to make sure we’re not falling into the trap of beginning with a “type” of character. Is your character telling you she’s a teacher? Great. Make her a shop teacher at an inner-city high school instead of a kindergarten teacher at a private school where all the children are precocious little angels. He’s a medieval Highland laird? Super. Make him a pacifist. Do something to give some kind of twist to your character’s “type” to keep him or her from becoming a stereotype.

In inspirational romance, we’re so scared of giving our characters any kind of flaws, sins, or pasts that they come across as perfect, sanctimonious prigs. Let them have pasts that they’re still paying the consequences for. Let them say things that not everyone around them agrees with. Let them argue. Let them fall down and fail. Let them get angry at God. Let someone else take them down off of their holier-than-thou high-horse.

Because there’s no way to cover everything about romance heroes and heroines in one blog entry, we’ll continue talking about them tomorrow. But for now, let’s get some discussion going.

For Discussion:
In your WIP, what “type” is your hero? (Alpha? Beta? Highland laird? Nerd?) Your heroine? (Damsel in distress? CEO? Silly girl who gets into one catastrophe after another?) What have you done to keep them from becoming stereotypes? Do you have a favorite author who tends to use stereotypical characters in her/his novels? What are your favorite “types” to read in romances?

  1. Monday, April 21, 2008 9:17 am

    Steriotypes, eh?

    If I refer to my first novel then I’d have to say that my hero was a beta type, if I’ve got the definition of that correct. He’s a missionary who has taught at a boarding school in Ethiopia for years. But at the time of my novel, he just returns to Southern Ontario to establish a foundation on his newly inherited farm before returning to Ethiopia to take over the upcoming head-master postion promised to him. So he does have ambition, but he also has a good heart and a past that still haunts him–the reason he ran to Ethiopia in the first place.

    The heroine is a business woman, a self-employed accountant, widow with three daughters and about to take over a small accounting firm if she can prove that she can handle the job. By mixing her desire to succeed in her job with her devotion to her family, I’ve tried to blend the professional steriotype as well as the “Mom” steriotype. Whether I’ve accomplished that or not, that’s up to the readers to decide.

    As far as recognizing steriotypes in what I’ve been reading lately. No, I can’t say that anything has really popped out that has bothered me or turned me off a novel due to steriotyping. But I’ve been known to find something good in pretty much anything I read lately. The publishing houses are picking and choosing to my liking, I guess!


  2. Monday, April 21, 2008 1:04 pm

    I guess I am writing a damsel in distress but her growth is not to be one rather than to simply be rescued. My heroes tend to be a cross between Alpha and Beta. I love heroes who are successful, wealthy, good-looking, etc. but who don’t requiring clubbing in order to get through to their softer side.

    You make an interesting point when you say, “In inspirational romance, we’re so scared of giving our characters any kind of flaws, sins, or pasts that they come across as perfect, sanctimonious prigs. ” This is one problem that I, and many aspiring writers I know, have with inspirational fiction. However, I wonder whether this is in part because of the stringent guidelines put forth by publishers and the CBA, and less because of what authors truly want to write.


  3. Monday, April 21, 2008 4:01 pm

    This is a fantastic post, and you sure have pegged romance throughout the ages 🙂 Let’s see, in Table for One I definitely use the Beta hero–nerdy schoolteacher becomes my stockbroker heroine’s true love. I think I write mostly Betas, now that you mention it. Although Coleman in HDI tends more toward Alpha.


  4. Monday, April 21, 2008 4:05 pm

    I will always be a sucker for the wounded-but-hiding-it-at-all-costs alpha male hero. I don’t know why…

    I’ve got a new romance percolating upstairs, 1760’s in a country that I made up a few years ago. Hero is the crown prince, who’s in hiding to save his life, and heroine is the daughter of the man who is hiding him. His father is based loosely on Peter the Great in the fact that he’s a very unusual ruler and wants his country to progress. He always made sure his son was around and learning all the things he needed to know to be an effective, kind ruler to his people. He’s got a lot of hands-on knowledge of how things work and isn’t afraid to get dirty.

    My heroines are never the strong-willed bitchy type, so she’s more laid back, acutely aware of the differences in their upbringings and social classes and has a low opinion of the crown prince for allowing himself to be placed in this position. She also expects him to be the type of rich person who is waited on hand and foot, so she starts falling for him when he proves to her he’s not that kind of person. She also LOVES the typical womanly pursuits of the time and is a very accomplished seamstress and embroiderer. She loves creating things with needle and thread.

    As far as types go, I do love the “Rich Man, Poor Girl” plots. The play of the different thought patterns and expectations of the H&H fascinates me.


    • Miss Thaephania permalink
      Monday, July 9, 2012 11:38 pm

      Oh Rachel, what a good idea! I am the same too for the-wounded-but-hiding-it-all alpha hero, this sounds really good!!!


  5. Monday, April 21, 2008 4:57 pm

    Wow…lots to chew on, Kaye.

    The hero of my new WIP has an Alpha position in life but definitely carries Beta characteristics. I like to mix it up that way.

    Heroine is resilient and stubborn, but gentle in demeanor. She is…oh, no…a teacher, and not a shop teacher. 😉 But he’s drawn to her ethereal quality laid over her strength, or the strength laid over the ethereal in her…we’ll see which charcteristic takes over. Maybe each in their own time and place.

    My biggest challenge is the flaws in the heroine. I think romances always carry some quality of “fairy tale”, and I mean that as an avid lover of all things romantic and with utmost respect for the genre. When I pick up women’s fic or literary, I expect lots of foibles and pitfalls. A romance? I want the dream…I know it’s not all complete realism. So it’s that balance of not writing the “Mary Sue” protag, but yet not giving her so many dents and dings that the “fairy tale” quality is gone.

    I just keep chipping away at the flaws. It has helped me to let other characters be annoyed, frustrated, angry or disappointed with my protag. I’ve found–and I hope I’m right–that even a small flaw, if it irritates other characters, takes the “Mary Sue” out of the protag.

    Hard stuff, this writing. I’m getting dinged up some myself…but I just keep plugging away… 😉


  6. Monday, April 21, 2008 9:09 pm

    I think I tend toward the Alpha male, but I’ve written both. And the damsel in distress…well, that works too.

    I too loved Julie Garwood. But now when I read her, I want to rewrite! Headhopping, cliches, historical faux pas. In a way, it saddens me because I loved the books so much at one point.


  7. Wednesday, April 23, 2008 12:42 am

    Well, I’m married to a beta-male 😉 and despite being strong-willed and “feisty” myself, we’ve never really been in competition (and it’s not because I rule the roost– b/c I don’t).

    My heroes tend to be Betas. Even in Alpha bodies (Ha!) and my favorite heroine at the moment (she’s actually secondary just now, but clambering to be more) is rather “Spock-ish.”

    Very intellectual and therefore above such emotional things as needing a man you don’t *actually* need (basically a caricature of my adolescent self).

    I’m probably not cut out for genre-romance, but it’s entertaining me for the present.


  8. Thursday, February 4, 2010 10:53 pm

    Hi Kaye, I loved this post, and shared a link to it on my blog, In Truer Ink.


  9. Miss Thaephania permalink
    Monday, July 9, 2012 11:28 pm

    Is it possible to have an alpha hero and heroine?
    I am a beginner writer and I have an idea of a hero chauvnist and a heroine
    feminist , just for fun 🙂
    Is it possible?


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