I had an interesting and very thought-provoking book club this week—after the tragic sniper shooting in Texas of best-selling writer Chris Kyle, the conversation turned to the heroines in our books. The realization as a nation that we’ve spent over 10 years at war is unsettling. Most of us know at least one family who has been directly affected by one of the wars, and it became apparent that even our reading has changed. Perhaps subtly, but if you look back 10 years you can see patterns. First, our heroines’ occupations are no longer the secretary or assistant, but they are the doctor, the pilot, the police officer or in the case of most urban fantasy or paranormal romances, the woman is the primary protagonist and kicks ass. Our heroes aren’t just covert organization mystery men, but Special Forces members who risk life and limb. And the women they desire are stronger too. Not just the primary school teacher but perhaps the principal or dean. Nurses are great but they usually have a specialization over and above floor nurse, as they did in Betty Neels’ romances.
Even our Regency historical is changing. No longer is the heroine a step away from the favorite governess or flighty gentlewoman out to find a nobleman or Duke husband. But the historical heroines are taking on, gasp, occupations! Consider the heroine in The Autumn Bride by Anne Gracie. Although she was a governess to a bunch of unruly children and works for a boorish aristocrat, she was able to go out and rescue her sister and friends from the fiends all by herself. No hero to the rescue. And the hero was filled with his own insecurities, and though he managed to secure a future, he wasn’t afraid to dirty his hands in “commerce.” In fact, Abigail isn’t afraid to strike out on her own to rescue her sister and doesn’t even think of involving a man to help. And when Max tries to interfere with her handling of his aunt, she’s horrified to discover he is the one who abandoned a family. Abigail continues to work to preserve not only safety for herself but her newly formed family. This is different from other favorite historicals and actually closely reminds me of one of my all-time favorite novels, The Adventurers by Jane Aiken Hodge. Sadly, that book is out of print but I still have an old ex-library copy.
When we look at contemporary romances, we see heroes with heroic jobs, including all the Special Forces we read about in the news. Whether it’s a sweet romance like Full Disclosure by Dee Henderson to a romantic suspense, all the military organizations are covered—from Delta force to Navy SEALs. In Dianna Love’s Last Chance to Run, the heroine, Angel Farentino, isn’t really an angel. With a drug running father for whom she took the blame and spent time in prison to extricating herself from a really bad man, Angel doesn’t depend on any man to “save” her. In fact, despite the hero being an undercover DEA agent, Angel is capable of successfully outwitting the killers on her trail and to clear her name. Even our favorite serial killer books can include a female serial killer instead of a man. Think about Chelsea Cain’s series with Gretchen Lowell and Archie Sheridan. The first book, Heartsick, has Gretchen in prison but she manages to twist and entangle poor Archie for five more books. The latest, Kill You Twice, doesn’t end the saga but instead continues to breathe life into this unusual pairing.
And the biggest change in our reading is the overpowering popularity of urban fantasy novels. The protagonist is almost always a woman and she’s not a wimp by any stretch of the imagination. She not only takes names but she’s not afraid to get down and dirty. Also, in a twist, her ethics and decision are not just black or white, good or evil but are vivid shades of color—perhaps a reason “shades” and “gray” are so popular in some of the titles we see on books this year. But in the fantasy novel, the heroine evolves from book to book and isn’t afraid to take on the shades of right versus wrong (but usually with a social sense of what is the overall good). Rachel in Kim Harrison’s series (Ever After) is a prime example. But it’s not hard to find other examples in books by Patricia Briggs or Kelley Armstrong. Armstrong’s series of fantasy novels are “Women of the Otherworld”; although there are men in the novels, it is the women who capture the reader’s attention from the very first book in the series, Bitten. In Patricia Brigg’s latest Mercy Thompson series (Frost Burned), the heroine may seem to have settled down, but is called back again to defend the pack.
So, as our lives and the world around us have evolved over the past 10 years of war, so have our reading options. Even the safe romances are inhabited with women involved in all forms of war activities. You can see by the popularity on sales lists it is something we not only seem to accept, but have come to expect. If you stop and think about your favorite recent romances compared to ones you read five years ago, what’s different? Would you want a heroine who harks back to a simpler and gentler time or do you like the new empowered heroine?
Sara Reyes is the founder and partner at FreshFiction.com a popular fiction web site for today's reader with new titles, contests, over 50,000 genre fiction author profiles with backlists, and permanently archived reviews, plus all the industry buzz. Fresh Fiction has a biweekly segment (Buy the Book) on WFAA Channel 8 Good Morning Texas to talk about new books not to miss. Believing face-to-face interaction is as important as virtual communities, Fresh Fiction sponsors an annual readers conference, monthly literary events, and book clubs. Join us in February for our inaugural YA Reader luncheon with Rachel Caine and other best-selling YA authors. Follow Sara at @FreshFiction on Twitter or Facebook.com/FreshFiction.