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Writing the Romance Novel: The Caveman and the TSTL Heroine

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Yesterday, we began our discussion of stereotypical characters in romance novels. I’ll be the first to admit that with some writers, I don’t mind them. As I’ve already mentioned, I cut my teeth reading Garwood, Deveraux, and Coulter in the 1980s—and there are certain novels of theirs that I still enjoy reading, because they’re good storytellers. But we’ll get into that later.

There are two more types of characters I want to talk about before we move on to the next topic. (What will it be? I’m not sure. I’ll find out tonight when I sit down to write tomorrow’s blog entry.)

The Caveman
Have you ever read a romance novel in which the hero was so brutish and stubborn that you wondered if he’d skipped back a couple of steps on the evolutionary ladder? (Even if you don’t believe in evolution?) This is the hero who’s so thickheaded and set in his ways that his only internal conflict is whether or not he’ll give up his caveman ways and finally admit that he loves the heroine. He doesn’t care about anything other than food and entertainment (whether that entertainment is fast cars or going to war on the clans who are his enemies). While the heroine might become part of that entertainment (keep it clean, family programming here!), she’s definitely outranked by the pre-existing forms of entertainment (cars/clubbing his enemies over the head with his big sword). She’s merely a distraction. A gnat. A mosquito. Something he’ll protect because, in his caveman mentality, she now belongs to him (whether they’re married or not).

No, if your reading has been limited to stuff published in the past ten or fifteen years, you probably haven’t seen a caveman hero—or at least, not a true caveman. Just like the TV show based on the Geico commercials, the caveman of the new millenium has changed. He has feelings just like everyone else (sort of). But just like those Geico cavemen, he’s better left to 30-second clips (secondary role) than being given his own show (hero).

But I’ve read enough newbie authors’ writing to know that in the dark recesses of the vast troposphere of unpublished (unsubmitted, unedited, unrevised, un-everything) work most of us have done, we’ve written a caveman, whether we set out to do it or not. On one side, the caveman character appeals to those romance writers who are the kind of women who find themselves drawn to the “bad boy” character. The rebel without a cause. The one with the devil-may-care attitude who leaves a trail of broken hearts behind him. Somehow, these women believe they can “fix” these bad-boy cavemen. So they write romance novels in which some firey, spunky, red-headed, green-eyed vixen tames the caveman. Makes him turn from his bad-boy cro-magnum ways and become the ideal Homo sapien.

On the other side, how many episodes of Maury, Jerry Springer, and Ricki Lake does it take for people to realize that our caveman will always be a caveman?

Please, please, please . . . don’t let your hero be a caveman. Give him some spark, some inkling, that makes his turnaround at the end of the book believable as a lasting change.

The TSTL Heroine
If you’ve never seen this acronym before, I know you’re dying to know what it means. This is my biggest pet-peeve when it comes to characters: the TOO STUPID TO LIVE heroine. The TSTL heroine is the one who cannot defend herself. Who has to rely on the big, strong, oh-so-manly, I-may-faint-if-he-smiles-at-me hero to save her from every little problem that comes her way. The one who, when kidnapped, cannot even begin to think of own escape plan–or, worse yet, the one who ignores everyone’s warnings and puts herself in harm’s way leading to the kidnapping. The kind who is headstrong and goes against every social norm of her era or environment (whether historic or contemporary) and yet is lauded and applauded by those around her who, in real life, would scorn her. (This is usually done by an author as a means to generate conflicts for the character.) This is the heroine who has nothing in her head except that her life won’t be perfect and she’ll never have fulfillment until she falls in love with the right man.

We see a lot of TSTL heroines in romantic suspense. She’s the one who runs into the basement in her underwear when she’s home alone and hears a noise down there. She’s the one who opens the door when she knows there’s something dangerous on the other side of it (have you ever seen The Birds?). She’s the one who runs upstairs to get away when she knows there’s no way to get out of the house upstairs. She’s the one who follows the bad guy into the dark woods to find out what he’s up to when she’s unarmed and has no tracking/stealth ability or training (and usually ends up getting captured by the bad guy, who is almost always a caveman).

I also see a lot of TSTL heroines in historical romances. In fact, I began reading a book that came out a couple of years ago in which the entire premise of the story was built upon the heroine going somewhere where she knew she shouldn’t have been, where she didn’t need to be, and where a woman in her situation of life would never have gone. Then, once she was in the untenable situation, she—a headstrong woman of rank and wealth—couldn’t figure out how to prove her identity or buy her way out of it.

TSTL heroines have a tendency to shriek, scream, weep, wail, flail, faint, and get lost A LOT.

There’s a big difference between TSTL heroines and those who are just ditzy. Ditzy heroines are usually smart but lacking in common sense. TSTL heroines lack both. (And ditzy just for the sake of humor is borderline TSTL.)

The worst part of TSTL heroines is that it’s not always the character’s fault that she comes across that way—it’s the totally unbelievable situations the author puts her in. (See the example I gave above about the published book I read!) Usually a TSTL heroine’s plight is made even worse by the author putting her in one inane situation after another just for the sake of having the hero come in and rescue her.

Please, respect your heroine more than that. Even in romantic comedy, don’t make your heroine ditzy or silly without giving her a strong intellect and the capaticty for getting herself out of conflicts. Don’t have her make the same mistake over and over and over without learning from it. And don’t have her rely so heavily on the hero to rescue her that she just lies on the train tracks and lets the train roll right over her.

She doesn’t have to be an Alpha female and go in with guns blazing to save the hero (unless you really want her to). She can be soft and demure and meek without being stupid or silly.

For Discussion:
Have you ever read a romance which featured a caveman or a TSTL heroine? (published or unpublished) What are some qualities you could give to a caveman or TSTL heroine to break them out of that mold? Is there ever an instance where a caveman or TSTL heroine is the best choice of character?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Tuesday, April 22, 2008 2:12 pm

    I think the cavemen and TSTL characters are rare these days because I don’t run into them much. In fact, I can’t think of any I’ve read in the last three years.

    A few that I wanted to shake? Oh yes. But they ususally have some redeeming characteristic and they ususally get it together by the end.

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  2. Tuesday, April 22, 2008 3:28 pm

    LOL, heroine going into dark basement in her underwear. I seem to recall hearing that somewhere. Hmm….

    I haven’t read too many cavemen or TSTLs lately. Heathcliff is my favorite caveman.

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  3. Tuesday, April 22, 2008 5:19 pm

    I think the neanderthal character works good for an ex-boyfriend, if you give the heroine some reason for falling for him when she was young and naive. The TSTL girl never works for me.

    The characteristic I like in a tough male is his ability to do something nice, tender, caring for someone smaller/more vulnerable/in need of protection than he is. It’s like when you see a grown man cradling a newborn…I turn into mush. 🙂

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  4. Wednesday, April 23, 2008 12:31 am

    I *love* the TSTL designation! I laughed out loud! (or was I supposed to abbreviate that?)

    I’ve recently fallen in love with the first season of Bones (haven’t watched farther than that) and the female lead in that seems a weird cross of TSTL and Alpha female, but it works for me in the context of the series.

    She’s actually the first female character (I can think of) that is presented as both self-reliant and forceful while still being respectful to and receptive of the lead guys strengths.

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