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Story Garden | What do women want?

March 7, 2012

WordPress blog top for author picture and book cover Story GardenFreud famously asked the question: “What do women want?” and apparently, men are still scratching their heads as they try to figure out an answer. A writer friend of mine once said, “If men really want to know what women want, they should read some romance novels.”

Five women’s fiction and romance writers—Justine Davis, Eve Gaddy, Teresa Hill, Vicki Hinze and Judith Arnold—shared our thoughts about what makes our heroines heroic and why women want to read about them.

What distinguishes the heroines of romance novels and women’s fiction from the heroines in other fiction genres?

Vicki HinzeVicki: In romance novels, the heroines face conflicts on multiple levels—physical, emotional and spiritual–and they tend to have the same types of complex conflicts average women do. Heroines share similar concerns, vulnerabilities, fears and doubts, and they address their challenges in ways women can see themselves addressing them. For them, the conflicts are rarely about just them, rarely impact just them, and rarely come at no personal cost.

Judith: Women’s fiction and romance heroines aren’t some idealized version of Woman, or some male fantasy. They don’t have to be gorgeous, brilliant and sexually voracious. Nor are they passive, waiting for a hero to rescue them and solve their problems. They’re real women facing real problems. Most important, their thoughts and acts matter to the people around them.

Eve: Sometimes the women in other genres seem much too passive to me. And sometimes they are stereotyped in ways I don’t enjoy reading about. I like that romance heroines are more often strong women who, as Judith says, aren’t waiting around to be rescued. This doesn’t mean they don’t have real problems, or that they are perfect. But they rarely sit by passively.

Teresa HillTeresa: I think there’s a basic niceness to most romance heroines. They may have problems and be stressed and challenged in all sorts of ways, but the bottom line is they’re women we’d like to know and have as friends. But at the same time, they may be better versions of ourselves or the women we’d like to be. A bit stronger, tougher, more courageous, and they try hard to do the right thing. They’re like glue. They hold the people around them together.

Justine: What I like about romance heroines is that they already have a life. It isn’t perfect, maybe they’ve made mistakes, whether they are struggling or successful, they are living their life. Doing what they have to do. But what’s most important to me is that, even if they are down-trodden or hurting at the start, they will triumph in the end, which is what gives the romance genre staying power. Put more simply, in romance, the woman wins.

What do the heroines of our books want? How do they get what they want? Do they go after their goals differently from the way heroes go after their goals?

Vicki: What the heroines want varies story to story, but most want to be respected and loved and to be able to trust the one(s) they love. They want to be with a loved one not because they are incapable of standing alone but because they choose to be with that loved one. How they get what they want varies with personality, history and situation. With Beth, the heroine in NOT THIS TIME, she’s brilliant, she’s financially well off, but her heart is wickedly battered from a faithless fiancé that publicly humiliated her and made her feel unworthy of being loved. Women do NOT want that. But Beth, a true heroine, does not allow her past experiences to define her life or her future. She suffers torn loyalties as well as the betrayal, but she doesn’t diminish those things. She acknowledges them and that she could be hurt again. It takes courage to want something badly enough to go for it coming at it from such a battered place–with your eyes wide open.

Judith ArnoldJudith: I definitely think they want respect. In GOODBYE TO ALL THAT, Ruth has felt invisible for most of her life while she’s taken care of her husband and children. Finally, at the age of sixty-four, she walks out. Her action affects everyone in her family but especially the women–two daughters, a daughter-in-law and her twelve-year-old granddaughter, all of whom are shocked and ultimately amazed that she has the courage to want something badly enough to go for it. She inspires the other women to find that courage in themselves–to figure out what they want and then go after it.

Eve: I think Piper, the heroine of MIDNIGHT REMEDY, is a lot like Vicki’s heroine in that she’s had her trust badly abused. She isn’t looking for a man, she’s looking to raise her son in a happy, healthy atmosphere and isn’t really interested in having a man complicate her life. I think deep down she does want the conventional family, but she’s not at all sure that’s a possibility for her.

Teresa: Our heroines want all sorts of things. Things as varied as real women want. My heroines usually have a deep need to feel safe, to have someone they can count on when things get tough. Or someone who understands and accepts them exactly as who they are. How do they go after their heroes? Usually by finding those men terribly sexy, but warning themselves not to depend on those men or get hurt by them.

Justine DavisJustine: I have never read many romances, outside of historicals/Regencies where it is sometimes a given, where the only thing the woman wanted was to find a man. Maybe it’s just that I avoid them, because I’m sure they’re out there. For most of my heroines, that’s the last thing on their minds. They have their own goals, and if they haven’t figured out how to achieve them yet, they’re working on it. And none of them expect anyone—especially the hero—to do it for them. Since I’m at the moment doing mainly romantic suspense, it’s often a case of having a common goal—survival—and male and female being able to combine different talents and skills to do just that, survive. Neither one might triumph alone, but together they’re unstoppable.

Some psychologists claim that for men, success is expressed through autonomy and independence, while for women, success is expressed through connection with others. Do you see this tendency in your heroines?

Vicki: In a sense, yes, though my heroines prize independence and autonomy. As I said above, they’re capable of standing alone but choose to connect with others. Sometimes it works, sometimes they’re hurt, but they’re always wiser for the effort and rarely sorry for the attempt.

Judith: I think all my books are in some way about the connections women make with others. Relationships are the center of their lives.

Eve GaddyEve: I’m not sure I think that’s true. I think relationships are important to women. Certainly the relationship with her young son is at the center of Piper’s life, but I think she wants to succeed in her business in order to take care of her son. I don’t see expressing success through autonomy and independence as solely a man’s desire. I think women want that too.

Teresa: I know in my own husband, I realized at one point that although we never made that marriage deal of “You go to work and support the family, and I’ll stay home and take care of everyone,” that he felt a deep and abiding need to provide financially for the family. Like that was a man’s job. I’m not saying he’s old-fashioned, just that somewhere along the line, that’s the message he got about being a man. And although I never expected to want the life of a stay-at-home mom, as soon as I had our first child, that’s exactly what I wanted and soon got. So I guess the life we’ve lived together certainly follows the psychologists’ theories. But one of the things I love about him most is that he’s always accepted me as an equal, and we are a team, equal partners in this relationship. I think all heroines want that—to be equal partners, respected, cherished, loved.

Justine: I come at this from a rather unique viewpoint, having had my first career in law enforcement, where I was able to observe how many different males dealt with many different situations. Alpha males? Sure, some. Maybe even many. With all the characteristics of taking charge, not needing anyone—or at least telling themselves they don’t. Are all cops alpha males? No. My husband was the most supportive, nurturing person I’ve ever known. On the female side, my step-daughter is amazingly good at making and maintaining connections. And she works at it, much harder than I do. My point is that people—and hopefully my characters—are individuals, with many traits both good and bad. Heroes and heroines alike. While one trait might be more common to females than males or vice versa, to me that doesn’t mean it’s exclusive to that gender.

Do the heroines you’ve written about share certain characteristics? Do they share any characteristics with you? What have you learned about yourself from writing about them? What do you hope our readers will learn from them?

Vicki: The women I write about are ones I’d like to be. People I respect, admire who respect everything and do what they feel is good and right no matter what it costs them—not for material gain because it is the good and right thing to do. They fear, they worry, they sometimes fail, but they fail trying and not standing still waiting for someone else to “fix” whatever is wrong. I love that about them. I’ve learned who I want to be and that getting there isn’t painless or quick. 🙂 I hope readers who are struggling will see that with each struggle comes some opportunity for a constructive solution and if they have the courage to try, progress will come. Maybe not all at once, but that’s okay. Every step is one step closer, and every step brings new insight that makes the next step less frightening if not easier.

Judith: I’d like to think I’m gorgeous and brilliant, like the fantasy heroines of some male-oriented books <g>, but I think my heroines are a lot like me–smart but not always right, baffled by life but not defeated by it, willing to speak their minds. My heroines are usually stubborn, and my husband would say I share that trait with them.

Eve: Are my heroines like me? Maybe in certain traits. They generally speak their mind–sometimes when they shouldn’t:)

Teresa: I’m sure we put a lot of ourselves on the page. I take comfort in the fact that we put so much on the page in story after story that it’s hard for people to ever know what’s us and what we made up. <G> And often, we’re not even aware of the issues of our own we’re playing out in our books. I know I’d written 7 or 8 books before someone pointed out to me a common theme of my books I’d never even realized, and I’ve done the same to other writers. So, yes, I’ve learned a lot about myself. I’ve worked out a lot of my own issues. I hope readers, through my books, have done the same. If I could give women any lessons from my work, it would be that you are so much stronger than you realize. You can and will handle a variety of tough issues in life, and that it’s much easier and more pleasant if you do that while surrounded by people who love you.

Justine: To hearken back to an earlier topic, my heroines always win. 😉 In my current release, OPERATION MIDNIGHT, that is not a simple thing. Hayley Cole needs all her wits and nerve to get through the mess her beloved—and too smart—dog manages to land her in. But in several ways she’s like many of my heroines. What they win may be nothing like what they were originally striving for, or nothing close to what they thought they wanted, but in the end they win, and they realize it’s the biggest, most precious prize of all. Are they like me? I know what it’s like to not trust, to be afraid, to doubt. And I know how hard it is to proceed despite that. So in those ways, yes, they’re like me. I don’t tell stories to educate, but to entertain. I just hope readers can relate, and understand the heroine, and why she does what she does, and is what she is. If they see a bit of themselves in her, so much the better. On the other hand, what I’ve learned is that I really, truly like men in general. 😉 Even the differences that put us at loggerheads sometimes are just part of what makes it work. To me a good man (even if he’s hidden under a tough exterior, or maybe especially if he is) is admirable, worthy of respect, and if he’s willing to give it, then deserving of all the love my heroine can muster. Which is a lot!


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