Angry heroines, part 1/2

There’s been a really interesting conversation going around about “unlikeable” heroines. I think it started over at Dear Author, and just yesterday a great post by Tracy Grant went up at History Hoydens. There was a quote in that that got me thinking:

“But more seriously, I think it [why anti-heroines are so intriguing] is in large part that they often are characters who break rules and defy conventions. That’s part of the appeal of anti-heroes as well, but I think there’s something particularly interesting about women who defy conventions in an historical setting in which there are so many restrictions on a woman’s role.”

This conversation feels especially relevant to me because Serena, the heroine of my next book, Lily Among Thorns, could potentially be considered an “unlikeable heroine.” I like her a lot, of course, but she’s prickly and defensive and not always fair, because she’s had a hard life and been treated badly by a lot of people and she’s angry. It seems like fairly often, that’s what “unlikeable” boils down to–angry.

I’m a pretty angry person. I’m also a happy person, and I think a compassionate one, but the compassion is partly something I’ve worked on and developed because it’s important to me, not necessarily something that came naturally to me as a kid. My natural response to a lot of things is anger, and I’ve always felt guilty and ashamed of that, because girls aren’t supposed to be angry. Or at least, girls aren’t supposed to express anger. But there’s a William Blake poem my mom used to quote to me growing up:

“I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath; my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not; my wrath did grow.”

I’ve had this experience so many times–I’ll be angry at a friend of mine for something stupid, something little, but I won’t want to tell them for fear of being a bitch or hurting their feelings, I’ll think, “I shouldn’t care about this, I’ll just wait and it’ll pass.” Sometimes that works, but sometimes it doesn’t. When I was younger, I lost a couple of friendships that way, because I didn’t say anything and didn’t say anything until the anger turned into resentment and after a while, that was all I could feel about that person.

In recent years I’ve gotten better about bringing something up (as tactfully and kindly as I can figure out how to do!) if it continues to bother me after a few days, but it’s still hard for me. I’m still afraid to do it, and I still feel so guilty for wanting to, for being unable to simply close the door on my anger and make it go away.

But if you don’t express anger, it doesn’t magically go away. It grows until it consumes you. If you aren’t allowed to express it, well. So many unlikeable heroines, anti-heroines, and villainesses come down to that–they’re angry, and their anger has come, in some way, to define them.

That is Becky Sharp’s real crime, isn’t it? That she had a tough childhood, that no one ever protected her or took care of her, and her response to that is to put herself first, to become hard–in contrast to Amelia, who’s compared to a “flower that smells the sweeter for being crushed.”

Villainesses like Milady or Becky Sharp, it seems like, accept that they can’t openly express their anger, so they express it in disturbing, hidden ways, through manipulation, passive aggression, sugar-coated insults, lies, and in some cases, violence and murder. It’s not healthy or admirable, but I’ll admit to an instinctive sympathy. I like reading about it.

But what I love even more is the unlikeable heroine, because often she does express her anger. Like Tracy Grant says, she breaks the rules, defies convention, and accepts the consequences. She insists on being true to who she is, and not pretending to feel differently.

And what I love even more than that is the hero who responds to that, who genuinely respects and likes the heroine’s anger. Sure, it’s a transparent fantasy of love and acceptance, but isn’t that what romance novels are for sometimes?

Are you comfortable expressing anger? How do you feel about angry female characters? And do you have any flaws (or things that could be considered flaws, anyway) that you like to see mirrored in romance heroines?

(I’m working on Part 2 of this post right now, in the form of a list of my favorite angry heroines. I can’t wait to hear about yours!)

Edit: Part 2 is here.

8 thoughts on “Angry heroines, part 1/2”

  1. Wow, I just blogged about this, sort of, last week. You’re right – must be something in the air.
    For me, I think for me it’s the difference between righteous anger and petty anger. If a heroine has a temper or is just bitchy for the sake of being bitchy or because little things annoy her, it grates on my nerves. If she is angry at the establishment or I’ve seen that the anger is rooted in a deeper hurt, I can get behind it.
    I do love when a hero can appreciate a heroine’s anger. I don’t like it when they are dismissive of it, or amused, but if it arouses them or deepens their respect (or even scares them a little) I’m cool with that!
    Looking foward to 2 of 2. 🙂

    1. Yes, I don’t like it when heroines are jerks just for the sake of being jerks–especially when it’s just put in to increase the conflict between her and the hero. But I guess I don’t mind a little pettiness, either, so long as (as you say) it’s rooted in a deeper hurt or fear. I think what I really need is to see that the heroine CAN enjoy herself and have fun. That’s the difference between good anger and bad anger for me, I think, character-wise. I don’t want the heroine to be a nasty, negative person. But if she’s got a sense of humor, I’ll enjoy any amount of kvetching.
      And yes, I hate when heros are patronizingly amused by a heroine’s anger! The whole “you’re beautiful when you’re angry”+hearty laugh thing from old-skool romances used to drive me crazy.

  2. I kind of love pettiness. It shows me the writer isn’t handling her heroine with kid gloves. In general I love a heroine (same goes for the hero) who’s occasionally allowed to look ridiculous. Poor judgment, utter lack of self-doubt (Emma Woodhouse is my gold standard), gracelessness in social situations – those things endear a character to me.
    And definitely there’s something in the air, or water, because the heroine of my WIP is an angry one too : )

    1. Ooh, is this Lydia the mathematician-gambler? Because I was ALREADY sold and now I’m even more excited!
      And yes, I agree, I think it’s important that a hero/heroine get to be ridiculous or wrong sometimes. Otherwise I have a hard time identifying with them; I just feel like they would probably judge me. Okay, maybe that says more about my self-esteem than anything else, but it also often feels self-indulgent on the part of the author to me–this weird fantasy of personal perfection that I just can’t share. I still remember being tutored in math by this boy I had a huge crush on, in college, and one day he tripped over his chair and my heart just swelled with adoration.

  3. This perfectly encapsulates what I loved about Nev: he’s one of the few romance heroes whom I can picture tripping over a chair. In fact I think he is the ONLY romance hero I can picture doing that. I wish more writers trusted me, the reader, to care for a hero who’s not always at the top of his game.
    Yes, Lydia is one angry math savant 🙂 Though she’s wadded the anger up small and stuffed it in the place where she used to keep her heart.

    1. Aww! There MUST be others (romance heroes who’d trip over a chair)…but I can’t think of any either! At least, not in historicals that were written in the last twenty years or so. What’s up with that? I do think there’s demand–a lot of the reviews of PENNY specifically talked about how happy they were to see a historical beta hero, and I’ve even seen a couple people complaining because he wasn’t nebbishy/goofy ENOUGH–they wanted someone more like Freddy from Cotillion!
      This book with Lydia is sounding better and better. Does it have a name yet?

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