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The Masochistic Heroine

By On Feb 6 2010, 1:00 pm

I started thinking about masochist heroines not because of any fiction I’d read recently but because of some nonfiction—a book by a woman who’d been one of the multiple wives of a Mormon fundamentalist. She’d spent most of her life in grinding poverty bearing thirteen children and dodging her husband’s murderous relatives. I’m afraid my first reaction to the book was “Why on earth didn’t she leave?” Some of the author’s reasons are understandable—she was the descendant of several generations of polygamists, which made her think that kind of life was normal, and she didn’t really have a way to get herself and her children out of the family compound. But some of them are just incomprehensible. Namely, she swears she loved him.
Now, I write romances—love is my stock in trade. But I have a hard time understanding how you can love a man who marries six other women, is seldom around (because he’s off earning money to support these women and his thirty-plus children), and has little time for affection when he is. Unless, of course, you’re a masochist.
Masochist heroines were a lot more popular in the eighties than they are now (and I should say at this point that I’m not talking about heroines in BDSM—I’m talking psychological masochism here). For example, take Linda Howard’s Sarah’s Child. This is a lot of people’s favorite book, but it’s always struck me as faintly creepy. The heroine, one of those ubiquitous eighties executive assistants, marries her tycoon boss (another eighties favorite). Said boss lost his previous wife and child in an auto accident and is adamant about not having any more children. The heroine gets pregnant—by him, of course. He basically kicks her out of his life. She goes off to bear the child by herself, uncomplaining (well, after all, he did say he didn’t want children). He comes around. HEA. And yuck.
Then you’ve got Elizabeth Lowell’s eighties heroes, who are so alpha they’re almost psycho. They’re tough, loaded, and convinced that most women are worthless sluts, based on past experience. The heroines inexplicably fall for them, and the heroes stomp on their hearts. Then the heroines take the men back when the heroes figure out they were maybe wrong about this particular woman (although not about women in general). It’s hard to imagine a real HEA with this type of jerk.
I should admit up front that neither Howard nor Lowell writes heroes and heroines like that now. In fact, if Sarah were a current Howard kick-ass heroine she’d probably tuck the baby into her backpack and head for the hills, after telling the dumbass hero to take a hike of his own. And then she’d find some nice backwoods type who’d be perfectly willing to let her be herself, etc.
But I keep coming back to that polygamous wife. It’s all too easy in romance writing to let love overtake good sense. After all, the insensitive alpha hero who refuses to consider the heroine as anything other than this week’s assignment and then learns, almost too late, to appreciate her is a standard romance trope. The key here is figuring out the heroine’s reaction. When the hero behaves like a jerk, does she call him on it, or does she just endure? I haven’t done too many jerky heroes, although Pete in Wedding Bell Blues has his jerky moments. I have a hard time with heroes who don’t behave like heroes, but maybe that’s just me. Writers like my fellow Naughty Niners do a good job with them. The trick is, I think, to give the heroine an honest reaction, to let her be both hurt and pissed off. What you don’t want to do is just give her a trembling lower lip. But in the long run I have to admit—that’s probably better than giving her six “sister-wives” and thirteen children.


6 Responses to “The Masochistic Heroine”

  1. Great post Meg! You really got me thinking. I remember reading those kinds of heroines (probably even before the eighties, eep) and thinking those same things: he’s a jerk! Don’t take him back! Now I do love me a tortured, alpha hero, and sometimes guys can be kinda dumb, ( I say that with much fondness) but I don’t like a jerk. But if he’s being a jerk I like a woman who can be strong enough to tell that!

  2. PG Forte says:

    You had me at psycho. lol!

    I’ll admit to loving my tortured flawed heroes. I think what I aim for—both when reading and writing—are characters you can believe in. Any hero might be excused for acting like a jerk once in awhile. I mean, if he’s too perfect, what’s he going to learn over the course of the story? I think the key thing, like Kelly said, is for the heroine to be strong enough to call him on it when he acts less than heroic. Thanks for such a thought provoking post. Loved every word.

  3. Erin Nicholas says:

    Oh, Meg, I’ve read those psycho alpha heroes too. And the women who put up with them! I’ve decided life is too short and my TBR pile is too big to finish these books G. Now, don’t get me wrong… I LOVE alpha guys. But the best ones are the ones who can be alpha and sweet and their actions and reactions make sense.

    And any woman who would put up with six other women in their man’s life… well, let’s just say I’m not the right demographic for that author’s work :)

  4. Meg Benjamin says:

    So I guess we’re all in agreement—polygamy just ain’t our thing! <G>

  5. There’s only one book I’ve ever read which portrayed polygamy in a realistic but positive way. That’s Orson Scott Card’s novel “Saints”, told from the point of view of a fictitious “plural wife” of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith.

    Card shows both the positives and negatives of plural marriage – the positive is that the wives become good friends and they all live happily together. The negative is jealousy, friction and violence, and I can’t say I blame them for it.

  6. Meg Benjamin says:

    Hmmm… Wonder if it’s at all significant that the only positive view comes from a male author. <G>

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