romance · romance novels · writing

A man’s world? The lot of the heroine in contemporary romance

At the Romantic Novelists’ Association Conference last week I attended a seminar entitled Universal Elements of Romance Fiction, hosted by Catherine LaRoche.

helena fairfax, catherine laroche
Woman taking debit card. Is this romance?

Catherine LaRoche is a professor of gender and cultural studies at a college in the US, and has just finished a year at Leeds University in the UK. (My old uni, and home of many fond memories – mainly of reading romance novels and playing cards :) ) You can read the gist of Catherine’s talk here on the fabulous Romaniacs’ blog, where she welcomes comments on her theories.

As it happens I’d been mulling over Catherine’s talk ever since the conference, and in particular thinking about the second universal romance element she cites:

It is a man’s world. Women generally have less power [in romance novels], fewer choices, and suffer from vulnerability and double standards. They often get stuck looking after men or being overlooked by men.

I’ve been wondering if this is really true these days about contemporary romance novels. Do the heroes really still have all the power?

(I’m not talking about historical novels, because in ye olden days men did have all the power, so the relationship between hero and heroine ought to reflect this. Although even here, to be honest, 21st century authors – especially in the US – give the heroines in Regency romances far more autonomy than they ever really had. Their heroines are often assertive women with liberal values –  a bit like a college graduate in a corset.)

I’ve tried to think back on the last few contemporary romance novels I’ve read, to see whether Catherine LaRoche’s theory that the heroines live in a man’s world holds up in them.

helena fairfax, barbara hannayFirst up, I’ve just finished Zoe’s Muster, by the brilliant Barbara Hannay. Zoe runs her own business, in a totally female world: she makes cupcakes and does tea parties for hen do’s. She’s not happy in her business, though, and only started it because her dad – a powerful politician – kept on at her to make a go of herself. Also, her mum gave up a promising career as a musician to support her husband in politics. So far, the man has it. But! only a few pages into the book we find out Mr Porter isn’t her real dad, anyway, so he’s lost his power now. Zoe travels to the outback to find her real dad and takes up a job as cook on a cattle muster. This is a real man’s world, but Zoe takes an equal part in it, doing an essential job with efficiency and aplomb. She falls in love with one of the ranchers (of course!), and I couldn’t say the hero has any more power or better choices than she does. He’s carrying a hang-up about a previous girlfriend who was only after his land, which makes him vulnerable. And at the end of the story, the politician father-figure fails to get re-elected, and is devastated, and his power drops entirely away. In this story the heroine’s parents lived in a man’s world, but the heroine broke out and did what she wanted to do.

helena fairfax, jill mansellThe contemporary romance I read before that was The Unpredictable Consequences of Love, by Jill Mansell. The heroine, Sophie, runs her own photography business, and is financially independent. Like the hero of Zoe’s Muster, though, she’s carrying a major hang-up about an old flame, so this does make her vulnerable. The hero, Josh, runs a hotel jointly with his grandmother, which I thought was a nice power-sharing touch. His concern for his grandmother is his vulnerability. I didn’t come away from the novel thinking there was a power imbalance, but that’s just my opinion. Maybe others might read more into Sophie’s hang-up about relationships, but really I didn’t find the hang-up particularly believable. I saw it as just a plot device on Jill Mansell’s part to keep the hero and heroine apart for the course of the novel.

Now to quickly put my two contemporary romances under the spotlight. The Silk Romance – yes, fair do’s, the hero here does have all the power, and the heroine is struggling for cash and caring for her family. To be fair, this is the first romance I ever wrote. I totally love the hero, but I did feel at the time of writing – rightly or wrongly – that this was the way to write a romance novel. Now I feel personally that present day contemporary romances have moved on from this power imbalance.

So in my second published contemporary romance – The Antique Love – I tried to make sure the power balance was equal. The heroine runs her own business. She doesn’t earn as much as the hero, but that’s not an issue because she has a good income and is passionate about what she does, and that’s important to her. Both the hero and heroine have vulnerabilities. The heroine struggles with self-esteem, because her mother was a beautiful film star, and her grandmother brought her up to feel she’d let the side down. The hero has issues because of his terrible step mother. Both are equally flawed, due to the powerful women in their childhood, but their mutual love “cures” the other’s flaws.

I’ve never been one for reading the Bought by the Billionaire Sheik type of book, so maybe that’s why I find contemporary romances show a more equal power balance these days.  I prefer romances where the heroine is equal to the hero, and they both have something to offer each other. But Fifty Shades of Grey was the best-seller ever, so what do I know?

I’d love to know what you think. Do you read a lot of romances? Is it “a man’s world” in the books you’ve read recently, and do you like the billionaire type hero? Can you recommend any romances where the power was an equal split?

If you have any thoughts or comments at all, I’d love to hear from you!


36 thoughts on “A man’s world? The lot of the heroine in contemporary romance

  1. This is tough. I’ve written a strong heroine and the romance is simmering in book one. Writing my lead male was the hardest of all my characters. She makes it hard for me and him lol and I’m also wary about making him too alpha. As long as I see them as equals and I see the connection I’m happy. I prefer a slow boil though :p


    1. Hi Lorelle, I have exactly the same problem as you in not making my heroes too alpha. Sometimes a strong character starts to sound like a bit of an ass :) Your romance sounds intriguing. Thanks for your comment!


  2. Aloha Helena

    Ooh. Interesting blog. I tend to make my men and women fairly equal. They all they vulnerabilities. They all equally love. Izzy makes just as any decisions as Henry or Charlie. Even though they’re both Southerner gentlemen. :-). I like strong women so I tend to write them that way.

    I also like strong men so I wrote in their vulnerabilities because someone who can show you all of themselves and be emotionally open shows tremendous strength to me.

    My men all cry. Men who don’t cry frighten me. I find them creepy.

    Men who can show their softness and gentleness are instantly more masculine to me. I realise I’m not the voice for all women. But this is what I like. I like my metro men. The alphas don’t do me.

    There’s been a few discussions in various groups I’m in lately about why women like reading male/make romance. And one comment struck me as true. Women are attracted more to the ‘feminized male.’ I would agree with that given the stats in these things.

    I think attitudes are changing up and down the board in men/women power. I was taking to my dad one day about roles. And he mentioned that Ryan, his stepson is a very ‘modern dad’ changing nappies and child care etc.

    Then he said, “It’s quite different to when you kids were young. We weren’t encouraged to do anything like that. We were more or less told it was women’s business and we didn’t get much of a look in.’

    I thought that was very telling of how times are changing across the board. Perhaps what was once the ‘power’ for one sex is moving over slightly and vice versa. But in terms of what I read – I like my women and men to be equals. I don’t like twittering women and I don’t like muscular men.

    Great subject. How interesting. Thanks Helena. :-)

    Aloha Meg. :-)


    1. Hi Meg, I love your comment. I was going to mention the rise and rise of M/M romances in my post, but I think it would make a whole blog post of its own. (And you should write it, Meg!)
      Attitudes are changing, like you say. I thought your dad’s comment was very sad. Interesting that he thought the women held the power in the home. Now, like you say, things are becoming more equal. Total equality isn’t there yet in real life, but I enjoy romance novels which show that it is. The more authors who write this way, the more readers will come to expect equality in real life, because they’ve read it in books. I hope I’m making sense. Not had enough tea yet this morning :)
      Thanks for a thought-provoking comment!


      1. Aloha Helena. :-). Thanks for your comments. Actually last week I put up in a blog in a similar vein. R18 rated though. :-). Just thought I should warn you. Lol.

        And then about an hour ago, I thought about writing more in this subject after reason your excellent blog. :-). Thanks!! I was going to look at why my characters do what they do. And the increase if the ‘feminized male’ appeal with the male/male romances.

        So thanks. Taking that on board. :-).

        Yes. Thanks in my dad’s comment. I had no idea it was like that until he said that. I’m 51 and born in New Zealand in the early 60s. So even in this newer age of thinking – the old attitudes still were strong. And my family would have been considered slightly bohemian back in the day probably.

        I just thought dad hadn’t wanted to be involved much with raising us kids. It gave me pause. My dad’s probably considered progressive etc. He’s carried man bag for years and wears jewelry etc. I only throw in this last comment on the jewelry because I was a wee bit surprised recently when I put to question to my Lush and Blush Club I run on fb. We’re all sensuous romance writers. I thought this group would be united. But they weren’t. Two writers of metro men obviously liked jewelry. And two if the alpha men writers didn’t. With one in the middle who writes aloha men AND likes jewelry in men. Lol.

        It interested me. It was one of those questions where I didn’t quests what everyone would say. Lol.

        Anyway. Waffling on. But you get my drift. Lol.

        I hope too, that as we keep writing romances – the men and women will become more equal. Perhaps as the generations move on – it will change.

        And yes the bloody spell checker and predictive on my phone and computer. Lol. I hear you. I wrote my first book in NZ. Now in an American computer and having to change it all. I don’t know what’s what either. :-). I’ve been back and forth to the states so long – I don’t know which phrases and words belong with which country sometimes. Lol

        Anyway. Lovely discussion and comments Helena. It’s a big subject.

        Aloha Meg. :-)


  3. Hi Meg, I read your blog and you made some interesting points, as ever. I hope you do go on to write more! It’s a fascinating discussion, and especially if you think about the rise in M/M romances. It’s a big subject, and I honestly think you could get a whole book out of the change in the heroine’s role over the past fifty or sixty years. Look forward to reading your blog. Lovely discussion, as you say!


  4. There are plenty of women out there who want Mr. Wonderful to come into their life and remove all their worries. I’m more than ready for that to happen! But in today’s world… I don’t see it. Of course 50 Shades knocked women back about 60 years! Most women today are too smart to have a man run over them!

    In my newest novel, I have the line, ‘No man was going to run over her under any circumstances.’ And that heroine is not aggressive – she’s rather passive. But she’s not going to allow any man dictate her life.

    One hundred years ago, 90% of the women did as their father or husband told them. Times have changed and so have our heroines except in rare cases. (Thanks EL James for undoing what women have fought for for so long! There went the bra burning of the 60’s!)


    1. Hi E, I read your novel The Rancher’s Woman, and I loved the hero in that. The power dynamic between the two was great.
      And I’m with you 100% about 50 Shades. The phenomenal success of that book is incredible. It would make a blog post – or an entire book – on its own to explain why women in their millions loved it, when like you say women have fought so long and hard to be able to lead their own lives. It’s like going back a hundred years!
      I enjoyed your comment. Thanks for coming by!


  5. Thought-provoking post, Helena. I write intelligent, strong, and independent heroines who’d be just as fine being alone as they are with their hero. I try to capture the duality that really exists rather than play the typecast…she’s strong/he’s vulnerable, he’s strong/she’s vulnerable. She’s decisive/he’s hesitant, he’s decisive/she’s hesitant, and so on. I don’t get the whole alpha male thing. Strong people, male or female, don’t have to walk around shouting how strong they are. Strength that’s subtle seems stronger.

    Using comparative literature, I’d rather write the Hermione than the Bella.


    1. Hi Rose, I love the way you describe the way the power shifts between the two. That’s exactly how I try to write – so that both hero and heroine have their moments of weakness, but ultimately they are equal.
      And Hermione is one of my favourite fictional characters.
      Thanks for your great comment!


  6. I missed that at the conference so thanks for sharing your thoughts on this subject, Helena. Very thought-provoking. I’m not a huge fan of very Alpha males, nor do I particularly like overly strident heroines! I think I prefer a more equal partnership with vulnerability and strength on both sides – but I haven’t really thought about it in great detail!


    1. Hi Ros, there was so much going on at the conference, and I wish we could get round everything. It was an interesting talk, and I’m still pondering on it. Thanks very much for dropping in!


  7. I think she’s wrong.

    When I was younger, I didn’t like reading romances because of fainting heroines. Can’t stand them, Heroines in romances there days are strong and self-reliant. I like reading romances now-a-days and write them too.



    1. Hi Janice, So glad to hear you’re another romance author who writes self-reliant heroines. I grew up on the fainting heroine and thought it was the norm. Things have changed a lot. Thanks for your comment!


  8. My, Helena, you’ve opened a bag of beans here with this topic. LOL Just love it. I don’t write straight romances. I write romantic suspense and cut my reading teeth on Daphne du Maurier (sorry, I always misspell that!) Victoria Holt, Mary Stuart, and Phyllis Whitney. We’re talking 60’s for the last 3 authors. I don’t believe women’s lib had hit yet, but the authors women characters were strong. Maybe it was the addition of suspense to the stories.
    Now later, I was a huge fan of Harlequins with the simpering heroines who the strong heroes rescued. I was a stay at home mom and that seemed fine. :)
    Ah, but we change and the world with it.Thankfully. Now, I really dislike simpering heroines. (I know historicals are under strictures because I believe they should be true to the times, so I don’t read many of those anymore, though back in the day I did. Thought your comment about heroines in some recent historicals very interesting, Helena.)
    We all as people have strengths and we have vulnerabilities. As authors, we need to show that. (I hate having flaws, being something of a perfectionist and struggle to give my characters flaws! Interesting conflict for me.) Certainly is a thought provoking post!
    I’ll FB and Tweet this, Helena.


    1. Hi Marsha, what an interesting comment! Interesting that you don’t read historicals any more, because of the restrictions on the female characters. You must really love an independent heroine. And I loved your comment about being a perfectionist. An ironic flaw to have! That’s a great flaw for a character. I’m making a note of it, and if I ever think of a story/conflict to go with it and get it published, I’ll put your name in the credits! :)
      And I love the list of authors you listed, too. I haven’t read any Phyllis Whitney but I’ll check her out.
      Thanks for an entertaining comment!


      1. Wow, Helena! Great idea to have that be the flaw in the character. I should’ve thought of that. Can’t wait to read your book with your perfectionist character. The other thing about all those books is the location played an important role in the stories. Location is still important to me. :) Love your blog.


  9. I do not like wimpy women in stories. I just want to smack them and tell them to get a backbone. I champion strong women and yet, as you say, we all have vulnerabilities. In my WIP, my heroine will learn to stand up for herself and her family. I gathered 15 amazing women together in a non-fiction book for girls. These successful women are role models for girls and inspire them to dream big. I hope the book and the blog that accompanies it will empower girls to achieve their dreams. I especially love introducing them to trailblazers who made history with their determination to open careers to women. Maybe I feel so strongly about strong women because I have two daughters and a granddaughter. The world’s tough and girls have to be tougher nowadays. Okay, I’ll get down off my soapbox and turn it over to your other commenters. Thanks for letting me rant..Really enjoyed your blog post.


    1. Hi JQ, your non-fiction book for girls is inspiring. These are the sort of role models young girls should have. Romance is the best-selling genre in the world, and writers are in a position to influence their readers. We should give the hero and heroine equal strength, whilst acknowledging both men and women have weaknesses and vulnerabilities. I think you created a great h and h in Coda to Murder. You can stay on your soapbox for me :)
      Thanks for a brilliant comment!


  10. Hi Helena. Laura here. Thank you for the ref to the Romaniacs blog. I was at Catherine’s talk too (can’t believe we didn’t see one another) and I’ve found reading Catherine’s post really useful to consolidate what she said at Conference.
    Your post got me thinking. I’m inclined to agree with you – today’s romances, written for the modern reader generally has a more equal power balance.
    I love writing strong female leads. I think it stems from a great female role-model I had in my life :-)


    1. Hi Laura, thanks for your comment. I enjoyed reading the rest of Catherine’s talk on your blog. It’s definitely generated an interesting discussion. Most of the comments I’ve had seem to support the fact that romance authors strive to present their heroines in a positive way. Thanks very much for coming by! On Jul 26, 2014 4:18 PM, “Helena Fairfax” wrote:



  11. Thought provoking post, Helena. I don’t read a lot of contemporary romance since I prefer historical romance still. What I do think is that there’s a big range in romance from the extreme male domination of some of the BDSM erotic romances to more equality in other books. I will read the Romaniac’s blog because I’m curious as to what kinds of books Catherine read to do her research. I wonder if she read a truly representative sample or stuck to 50 Shades and some of the Harlequin/Mills & Boons romances. They love their alpha heroes!

    Anyway, a lot of food for thought here.


  12. I meant to add that, in real life, even in the West, women often do have less power and options in life. Certainly they are not paid as well as men, so maybe that’s just a reflection of society. If anything, some romance heroines are far better off than many women are in their real lives!


    1. Hi Lyndi, you’ve made two really great points. Harlequin/M&B do have a line that loves the alpha billionaire hero, and the BDSM genre rose in popularity after 50 Shades. I wonder, too, which type of novels Catherine based her research on, and how representative the billionaire alpha is of romance heroes as a whole. Also, I absolutely agree that many, many romance readers don’t lead the independent lives our heroines do, and that in reality women are still living in a man’s world. The romance novels I enjoy the most, and want to write, are those where the hero and heroine are equal. Whether that reflects real life…I don’t think so! Thanks so much for coming by, and for your thoughtful comments. On Jul 26, 2014 7:18 PM, “Helena Fairfax” wrote:



  13. I like heroines who are strong, independent, and don’t need a man, but become better people through their relationship with a good man. I’m not opposed to “Bought by the Billionaire” if there is more to the relationship than him solving her money woes, but it’s hard to pull off. Plots where the woman is renting a room/cottage/shed/apartment to a wandering/traveling/transient/fugitive man tend to feature stories with more equal power balance.

    Sexual histories can be an annoying double standard – at worst, we get the virginal woman and the man who is in a different bed every other week. It’s a lazy way to establish that the man is physically desirable and virile, and that the relationship is special because “when he looked into her eyes, he knew he wanted to see his reflection there not just for the rest of the day, or even the rest of the week, but every day for the rest of his life.” Among the things I appreciated about a recent read, Cowboy with a Cause by Carla Cassidy, is that the heroine’s past included an active sex life, she had a previous relationship that ended without drama, and that she invited the hero into bed.

    My two cents on male/male romance – there’s a lot more equality, and that appeals. Differences in economic power, physical strength, and so on may exist, but they are tied to character, not assumed by gender. Courtship roles are not assumed, and even bed scenes need to be more carefully thought out. Hetero scenes tend to have an A B C quality to them, whereas male/male or menage have more possibilities. The end result is often a story that is more complex and character driven than a traditional male/female romance. However there is no reason why male/female romances can’t be more character driven and have more interesting sex scenes.


    1. Hi Bethany, thanks for you thoughtful comment. I agree with your point about the double standard in sexual histories. The double standard is still true in real life, and it is annoying, as you say! How many men ever got called a slut? Good to see authors like Carla Cassidy challenging this.
      And m/m romances must surely be a great area to explore the power balance. I’ve only read two m/m romances, and they were both excellent. In both, one character was in a position of more power at the start of the novel (as regards material wealth, job, opportunities, etc), but interestingly most of the novel was written from that powerful character’s pov.
      It’s made me interested to read more in this genre.
      Thanks very much for your ideas and your great comment.


  14. Hi Helena, I picked your post up through The Romaniacs blog, thanks for tagging it on there.
    It’s interesting what you say in your post. My first book, the hero really was very alpha and the heroine much less so and I was advised to make her stronger. Although I did, looking back, I feel she should have been even tougher but then I suppose that’s because my writing has evolved and developed since then, and still is. My second book, the heroine was definitely stronger and now with book 3, the heroine is stronger still. It’s been both a conscious and sub-conscious change which has probably reflected the confidence in myself as a writer and in years as a woman :0)
    I like the feeling of a better balance between hero and heroine that I now have in my writing.


    1. Hi Sue, how interesting that you should say that. My writing has progressed in the same way. I think one of the reasons I’ve changed is that since my first novel was published I’m much more conscious of the people who will actually be reading my stories. Before, I was writing to try and get published. Now, I’m writing for the audience that’s started to read my books. I’m much more concerned now to present the hero and heroine as equals because I think how we portray these relationships does affect readers. I like to try and write a heroine who can sort things out for herself, and doesn’t need someone to take charge of her life. The hero can help her, but she offers him equal support. Like you, I much prefer this better balance in my writing, and like you as well, I think it’s been a conscious and subconscious change on my part. Thanks so much for your comment. I really enjoyed reading how your writing has changed.


  15. Hi Helena , the modern romantic heroine has a much better love life than her long gone sisters . Decades back women were expected to be obedient wives and home makers. Today’s women make their own money , so the balance of power is way more equal than ever . The modern man has to keep up with her and that means the slow demise of the superior ”I am the Lord & Master” hero . This is definitely reflected in most romance novels published today. No more do we see young, virginal , insipid heroines (which used to pass for innocence)! Gone is the massive age difference between the hero and heroine ,nor does she give up her career to please the hero .There was an American romance publication called ”Loveswept” which caught on to the change way before good old Mills & Boons did. I always thought the 50 Shades books were old Mills & Boons enjoying a reincarnation -only this time with lots of explicit sex thrown in!


    1. Hi Nitasha, I so agree with you that today’s romance heroine has a much better time of it than those of the past. Judging from the comments on this post, a LOT of romance authors today want to create an equal partnership between the hero and heroine, and of course I also think that’s how it should be. But like I said in my post, 50 Shades was massively popular, and the story was based on the characters in Twilight, which again showed an unequal relationship. It would take someone more clued up than me to explain why these books are so phenomenally popular when, as you say, 50 Shades is just the old style M&B with more sex.
      It’s an interesting subject! Thanks very much for your comment!


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