In Defense of the Unlikeable Heroine
By Katee Robert
If you meander through the reviews of most romance novels, you’ll find certain terms showing up again and again in relation to the heroine. Unsympathetic. Bitchy. Slutty. Not good enough for the hero. Unlikeable.
The very traits that we so love in heroes—bold, uncompromising, dominant, sexually experienced—are the exact same ones that we pick apart in the heroines we read. We will forgive the hero many sins, but the heroine must stay inside of very specific parameters in order to gain our love. Or at least our tolerance.
This was always a challenge for me as an author, because I gravitate toward heroines who are too mean, too stubborn, too ambitious to be termed as anything other than unsympathetic. A few years ago, I attended a keynote speech given by Victoria Dahl (she also writes under the pseudonym Victoria Helen Stone) that covered this very topic. One particular thing she said really stuck with me.
“I am an unlikeable heroine.”
Me too, Victoria. Me too.
Our society is problematic at best when it comes to how it treats women. We all know that, and I think we can all agree on that. One would think that the romance industry—an industry that is primarily written by women, for women—would be exempt from perpetuating those outdated beliefs about what a woman should or shouldn’t be, how she should act, what she should look like, how many sexual partners she should have before meeting the hero.
One would be wrong.
Now, it’s not all bad news. The heroines in romance novels have shifted significantly in the last 5-10 years. The so-called unlikeable heroines are no longer the exception. They’re the rule. These days, in romance, you’ll find heroines of every personality, ranging from the sweet virgin who just wants to be rescued, to the ball-busting CEO who doesn’t have time for a man’s nonsense. They’re sweet, they’re mean, they’re hilarious and raunchy—and everything in between. Which is how it should be. Real life women embody every walk of life, career, and personality, and our fictional counterparts should reflect that.
If you’re looking to stack your TBR pile with amazingly complicated ladies who could be termed unsympathetic heroines, I have just the thing for you! Book recommendations!
First up, of course, is from Victoria Helen Stone. The titular character of her book Jane Doe is a straight up sociopath, but she never ceases to be compelling as this revenge plot unspools. It’s a delightful read, and if the current news cycle is depressing the heck out of you, I highly recommend you pick up this book and enjoy Jane’s particular brand of vengeance. It’s a very cathartic read these days!
If you want something a little out of this world, Ann Aguirre’s Dred Chronicles is amazing (start with Perdition). It’s a trilogy that takes place on a floating space prison where the prisoners are mostly left to handle themselves—for better or worse. The heroine, Dresdemona “Dred” Devos controls one of the six territories the prison is divided into, and she’s so badass I can’t even stand it. You don’t become queen of what is essentially a prison gang by being nice or sweet or gentle. She makes no apologies for what she’s done to survive, and I love her all the more for it.
Need some paranormal in your life? Check out Kresley Cole’s Kiss of a Demon King. The heroine, Sabine, is literally a villain. She’s a sorceress, she’s evil, and she sets out to seduce the captive hero (yep, he’s totally locked up in a dungeon) for her own gain. You can’t help loving her, though, because she is totally and completely unapologetic. Does she steal other immortals’ powers? She sure does. How else is a girl supposed to get ahead in life?
Last, but certainly not least, Nora from Tiffany Reisz’s Original Sinners series (start with The Siren). Nora is a dominatrix and a switch (BDSM term meaning she’s both submissive and dominant). She’s impulsive, a little mean, a little selfish, and she goes after what she wants with a single-mindedness that would be terrifying if it wasn’t so enjoyable to read. She is deeply flawed and deeply loveable, and she’s a woman I would have at my fictional dream dinner party any day of the week. I absolutely adore her, and the Original Sinners is a series that has secured its place in my Hall of Fame reads—in large part because of Nora.
I could go on and on about my love for the unsympathetic heroine, but these books should get you started if that sounds like it might be your jam. Happy reading!
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About the Author
New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author Katee Robert learned to tell her stories at her grandpa’s knee. Her 2015 title The Marriage Contract was a RITA finalist, and RT Book Reviews named it 'a compulsively readable book with just the right amount of suspense and tension." When not writing sexy contemporary and romantic suspense, she spends her time playing imaginary games with her children, driving her husband batty with what-if questions, and planning for the inevitable zombie apocalypse.
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