***Caution: Blunt speech ahead. (But you knew that from the title, right?)***
During the past month the resident authors of the Contemporary Romance Café and our guests have talked about our favorite literary characters from Elizabeth Bennet to Bridget Jones. From Sherlock Holmes to Rhett Butler.
One particular type of character was much discussed–the flawed character. This is a favorite type of character for many readers. I am no exception. I have a deep and abiding love for flawed characters. The hero who is slightly broken. A heroine who is working to get past wounds inflicted during a not-to-rosy childhood. However, I have noticed a trend in our discussions here and throughout the reading community. Our toleration for deeply-flawed characters whose behavior borders (if not delves in with both feet and a self-assured grin) Assholeville is skewed in the favor of male characters. With female characters…not so much.
When a heroine displays characteristics that venture into such territory she isn’t given cutesy names like Alphahole. She’s a bitch. A shrew. Or branded “too independent.” When we do accept a very flawed heroine it is usually because she is funny and adorable–like Bridget Jones and Stephanie Plum. Male characters don’t need to be funny to be accepted with all their warts. (But it helps if they have tight pecs and an ass you could bounce a quarter off of.)
Let’s step out of Romancelandia for a moment.
Women CEOs, executives, politicians, and other professionals are branded with some of the same names when they succeed in male-dominated fields by adopting behavior similar to that of successful men in their culture. Women all over the world demand equality and are rightly outraged by this. We champion these women and fight for their cause.
So why do we resent similar behavior in romance heroines?
It’s a question that has long vexed me. Not throwing stones here. (People who live in glass houses should never take on such a risky venture.) But I’m dying to gain some insight on this. In recent years I’ve come to really like a well-developed, flawed heroine. The more warts, the better. I love watching the character’s growth over the course of the story. Not to a perfect Stepford wife, but to a better, happier version of herself. This love compelled me to write a character who is severely broken with lots of thorns.
Jamie Charles is a secondary, but important, character in my upcoming debut novel, Making the First Move. When we meet her in this book she is brash and says what others are thinking, but afraid to say. Yet she is softer and has grown up a bit due to events that happened prior to the start of the book. But I couldn’t let it go or be satisfied with just knowing the general reasons for her change. I wanted to experience her story with all its grittiness. The good, the bad, and the ugly. So I wrote it.
It was a challenge writing a heroine who is tough, deeply-flawed, and has little regard for anyone outside her immediate circle of family and friends. My editor often pointed out moments when the character seemed arrogant, callous, unaffected. But those scenes gave me an opportunity to delve deeper into the character, to make her more sympathetic. And yes, sometimes the scene or dialogue just needed to be cut because it felt like too much of a risk. Would readers like her? Be able to connect with her?
I hope so. Because I absolutely love the character and her story. I guess we’ll have to wait until December when Love Me Not (tentative title) comes out to find out. In the meantime, an excerpt from the moment we get to meet Jamie in Making the First Move is in the box below.
[spoiler title=”Meet Jamie Charles in Making the First Move“]I look for Jamie’s beat-up Ford Explorer. It isn’t here. I flip open my cell phone and call her.
“You curbside yet?” she asks.
“I just walked through the doors,” I say, looking around.
“Okay, I see you.”
“I don’t see you.”
“I’m right here.” Jamie pulls up and grins at me.
Walking up to the black BMW 535i, I peer inside. “Should I expect a police chase on the ride home?” I ask my starving artist friend, who is clearly not the owner of this car.
“Shut up and get in already.” Jamie pops the trunk.
I lift the trunk, checking for the tied-up vehicle owner. All clear. I put my bag in the trunk and get in the car. “You look fantastic, James.” I examine a few strands of her coal-black hair, accented with light and dark shades of auburn. “I love the highlights.”
She smiles. “Thanks.”
Jamie’s perpetual smoky eye shadow is replaced by a subtler framing of her shimmering green eyes with delicate shades of fawn, mocha and copper. A barely there shade of pink is on her lips.
“Oh my God! Jamie, you look incredible! What happened to the woman who insisted goth is forever?”
Jamie shrugs. “People change. I just wanted to try something a little different. You really like it? You’re not just saying that to be nice?”
I survey my friend. She’s wearing a pair of jeans with no rips, holes or tears and a simple green blouse. “You look amazing. I mean it.”
“Thanks!” Jamie hugs me tightly. I’m taken aback. Jamie has never been big on displays of affection. She tolerates them but rarely initiates them. Her birth parents showed her little affection. It’s one of the reasons she’s such a hard ass. She wears her tough-girl exterior like an exoskeleton. Moments like this are rare.
“I’m so glad you’re coming home. You know I’m a complete mess without you.”
I smile. “I miss you, too.”
An officer taps the window. “Keep it moving, ladies!”
“Alright! Alright!” Jamie huffs before throwing the car into gear and pulling off.
“This is really nice.” I survey the beige leather interior and light wood trim. “Who’s the owner, and how much of a head start do we have on him?”
Jamie once dated a guy who boosted cars to pay his college tuition. Maybe she got more than just mono from the guy.
“Give me a little credit, Mel. I haven’t knowingly been in a stolen car in years.”
I cringe. “So what’s the story on this one?” I settle back against the seat, my arms folded.
Jamie looks straight ahead, concentrating on the road. Not her usual sightseeing-while-driving style. She clears her throat. “First I’d better tell you what’s been going on with me.”
I contort in my seat so my body faces hers. “What do you mean? It’s not like we don’t talk regularly. You’ve been holding out on me?”
She frowns as she glances over her shoulder and merges into the right lane. “Maybe I was afraid I’d jinx it.”
“Jinx what? What’s going on?”
My heart beats a little faster. Jamie’s surprises are rarely good. The more low-key she is about them, the worse they are. She’s been known to say things like: “Oh, by the way I’m going to be evicted this week,” or “I stabbed a guy who tried to mug me the other day. He might die,” in the same nonchalant manner someone else might say, “It’s raining outside” or “The mail is here.”
“Nothing bad,” Jamie says immediately, sensing my fear.
“So it’s something good then. What is it? Spit it out!”
“First, I’ve been working part-time in a local gallery in addition to my bartending gig. The owner is this cool artist. Her name is Nazirah Jiménez. She’s amazing. She’s been teaching me about the business side of art and how to run a gallery. She encouraged me to take some classes to help me become a better artist and a real businesswoman.”
“You’re taking classes?” It took our entire family to will Jamie through high school and across that stage to get her diploma. We haven’t been able to talk her into so much as a cooking class since.
She smiles proudly. “Yep. I started off with a three-week Artist as an Entrepreneur course. I learned a lot about raising capital, pricing and how to protect my rights as an artist. It changed my attitude about my work. I’ve taken courses offered by local multimedia artists to learn new techniques and expand my skills. My last two classes were taught by local art legends. It’s been surreal.”
“Jamie, that’s wonderful. Why would you keep that from me? You know I’d be thrilled for you.”
“Maybe I wanted to see your reaction in person, to see you proud of me.”
It breaks my heart when she says this. I think of all the certificates and awards crowding the mantle when we were growing up. Only a couple of art certificates were for her. I swallow hard and force a smile. It couldn’t have been easy for her, always feeling like the odd kid out. Not because she was a different race, or from a different family. But because she’d always seemed so broken. It affected every aspect of her life. “I’ve always been proud of you.”
Jamie’s life has been filled with drama and pain. My family and I have been there through most of it. Jamie followed me home after school one day when we were eight years old. She’d just moved to the area and didn’t want to go home because her parents were always fighting. My mother made her call home to ask if she could stay for dinner. Her mother didn’t much care. Jamie’s spent most nights at our dinner table since then.
When she was ten, her parents split. She hasn’t heard from her father since. She threatened to run away from home at thirteen—though it was more of a promise than a threat. She was fully prepared to live on the streets, rather than with her junkie mother and her mother’s boyfriend-of-the-week. She made me promise not to tell. It’s a promise I’m glad I broke.
I went to my parents in tears and begged them to let Jamie come and live with us. My parents loved Jamie and worried about her constantly. They took her in and became her legal guardians.
High school was a difficult period for her. We weathered the years that she experimented with sex, drinking and drugs. My parents never gave up on her. Eventually she settled down a bit.
“Thanks.” She seems genuinely happy. “For the first time in a long time, I’m proud of myself, too.”[/spoiler]
So here are my questions to you: Why can a male character be a complete dick and be celebrated as an douche nozzle that we love to hate? Yet a female character whose behavior pales in comparison is seen as “unlikeable” and often makes us close the book? Which characters/books defy this unspoken rule? Do you think we’ll see a trend of deeply-flawed heroines being more acceptable in future romance novels?
Let’s discuss in the comments below.
Photo above courtesy of Philippe Leroyer. Some rights reserved.