The way in which romance readers interact and process the narratives they read is a fascinating subject for me. I've found that in many cases, readers are more forgiving of outlandish asshattery on the part of a hero, but much less forgiving of the heroine. In Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels (2009, Simon & Schuster), I wrote:

...consider the lukewarm twinkle of the average romance heroine. [Lisa] Kleypas calls her a "creature of moderation." A romance heroine is like the ideal porridge for Goldilocks, if Goldilocks is a romance reader and the porridge is the heroine's role as place holder. Not too hot, not too cold, not to tall, not too fat, not too smart, certainly not stupid, not driven by greed, not driven by any historical accuracy as pertains to gender politics, not at all sexually aware and a perfectly nice, vanilla creature of moderation and perfection....

Smart Bitches, Trashy Books on her Jew Year's Reading Resolutions.

In that chapter, the discussion focused on the theory that for many romance readers (not me, but some), the heroine can serve as a placeholder, a role for the reader to symbiotically inhabit while she reads the novel. Because of that role, the heroine was often bland and somewhat easy to empathize with: "[w]hen the heroine behaves in ways that the reader approves of, she is able to immerse herself as the heroine, and the world of the story is smooth. When the heroine behaves in a way the reader finds unacceptable, however, that particular heroine suddenly stops being strictly a placeholder and instead becomes a rival for the hero's affections."

I couldn't write about romance heroines for that book without discussing the placeholder role, as it's a repeatedly explored theory about the role of female characters in romances and how readers interact with them. I don't think I read using the heroine as a placeholder; I usually get very irritated when the hero has all the edges and wrinkles of a real character and the heroine's personality has all the animation of an antique porcelain doll.

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But I'm also noticing that in some recent books, the heroine is not so easy to understand or even like. I'm meeting more dislikable heroines, heroines who are not lukewarm or perfectly perfect, but who makes difficult choices and who I struggle to empathize with as a reader.

Molly O'Keefe explores the narrative of heroines who make difficult choices for themselves and their families, who don't make it easy for the reader to relate to them. These are not women with minimal personality, who conform easily to social expectations or gender roles. Her characters are as wrinkled and sharp in places as the heroes.

For example: in Can't Buy Me Love (Bantam, 2012), Tara Jean Sweet is a woman from a low-class background who is blonde and brash and unabashed about employing her body and charms to get what she wants. In the beginning of the novel, she's agreed to a sham engagement to a very wealthy, very elderly man, pretending to be a gold-digger so that the man's children, who refuse to speak to him, will try to intervene before the marriage. Think Anna Nicole Smith. Is Tara Jean involved for monetary compensation? She is indeed: The man has promised her control of the company where she works as a designer. Is that all she's about? Nope.

One thing O'Keefe does well in this book is give every situation that seems easily identifiable (Gold digger! Old dude! Lots of money! She's horrible!) a flip side. The old dude isn't really a frail innocent; Tara Jean isn't just a heartless mercenary. It's not easy to identify and assign roles to these characters, Tara Jean in particular. She commits to actions in ways that are false and sometimes unappealing, leading me as the reader to say, "Girl, I do not understand you and I'm not sure I'd like you if you were real." But I kept reading, even as I struggled to empathize with Tara Jean and the decisions she makes.

can't hurry love O'Keefe's sequel, Can't Hurry Love (Bantam, 2012), also features a heroine who was even more of a challenge. Victoria is the widow of a "disgraced financier" (think Madoff) who is left without money, a job, friends or a future for herself and her son. In the first book, she brings her son to her father's house when the engagement pictures Tara Jean has posed for enrage her and her brother Luc. Victoria tries to use her son as bait for a larger inheritance. She allows her father to see his grandson, knowing that her father would place high value on access to her child.

But Victoria knows her father is abusive. She suffered through that abuse herself as a child. Yet she allows her son time with his grandfather, knowing what a cruel and vindictive person he is, because his relationship with his grandson may be worth money for Victoria—money that would enable her to create a better life for herself and her son.

It was tough to see her as a heroine after the events of the first book, to be honest. When the second book was released, and she was the heroine, paired with the ranch foreman who wants the land Victoria and her brother control, I admit to struggling with my ability to relate, empathize with and root for her. I thought she'd done a truly shitty thing and I wasn't quite ready to forgive her.

But Can't Hurry Love is about two people who are messed up due to the cruel behavior of people who should have been taking care of them. Both characters, especially Victoria, decide that they're going to take charge and stop being victims of their own circumstances—an admirable choice. I had to overcome the hurdle of my repulsion at the choices Victoria had made in book one. I will be honest: it wasn't easy. I felt too much empathy for her son and not enough for her.

One of the underlying messages in characters like Victoria and Tara Jean is that making a bad decision, or doing something that wasn't entirely generous, noble or even kind, isn't necessarily an unforgivable offense. We all screw up. But we can all change and grow and learn from the bonehead things we do. Acknowledging and changing behaviors is a tough but sometimes heroic thing to do, and witnessing characters who go from a very low estimation in the reader's mind to a place of strength and admiration can be a very satisfying reading experience.

So I don't mind difficult heroines, even though I sometimes struggle to understand and empathize with them. I'm learning to like them a lot, wrinkles, sharp edges and all.

Sarah Wendell is the co-creator, editor and mastermind of the popular romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.