Same Gender Romantic Heroines
Originally written by request for Heart to Heart, Romance Writers of New Zealand, April 2017, ISSN:1178-3929, Heroines Special Edition.
I was once asked how I write same-gender romances. It was the Sunday of conference, I was tired and more than a little hungover so I quite glibly answered ‘pick a gender and write it twice’. I apologize to that person. Consider this a better answer.
First, when writing any heroine, you run into the same problems as being a woman: You can’t win. If you write her strong, she’s cold and unapproachable. Empathetic equals weak. Too intelligent? Not relatable. Average intelligence? Reinforcing stereotypes. Tragic back story? Why does a woman have to have something bad happen to her to be interesting? But no tragic backstory is uninteresting. Competent and liked by everyone? Unbelievable Mary Sue. Not as competent? Poorly representing women. Sexual, slut; not sexual, frigid. Wants kids? Stereotype. No kids? What’s wrong with her? Swoons over the hero? Why can’t she be a strong independent woman who doesn’t need no man? …return to start.
Make her lesbian and you get another level. Butch? Stereotype. Fem? Just there for titillation. Manage a mid-ground and you’re taking the easy route and not really representing the community. A bisexual woman is a selfish confused slut. If she ends up with a man it’s reinforcing the heteronormative patriarchy (see Kissing Jessica Stein). If she ends up with a woman then she was a lesbian all along. And as anyone who has spent time in a same gender relationship can tell you: eventually someone is going to ask ‘which one is the man?’ It’s like looking at a pair of chopsticks and asking which one is the fork. (And so much of this criticism comes from other women, but that’s a whole other rant.)
So why even bother if you’re going to get so much grief? First, because you have a story to tell. Stories that sit in your head and never make it onto the page rot and twist around. They keep you up at night and drive you mad. That’s why we’re writers to begin with. The second reason is because someone out there needs your book. With the world as it is, there is someone out there who is desperate to see themselves reflected on the page and to know that someone out there believes that someone like themselves is capable of a happy ever after can be that ray of light that gets them through the darkest of times. Your book can truly mean something to someone. I got that letter from a reader. I cried for half an hour.
Now the question is, how? To quote Margaret Stohl who writes Mighty Captain Marvel for Marvel comics: ‘Start by writing a human’. That is truly the best advice. Strip the titles, genders, and assumptions and start with an interesting person. You don’t need to look between their legs and decide female or male. Gender is more complicated and less binary than that. Sexuality is more complicated and less binary than that. Once you have a couple of interesting people, go with an interesting story. The characters and the story might change in ways you didn’t expect. If you are writing a more traditional romance that just isn’t working, maybe step back and look at your characters, talk to them. Are they the gender, sexuality, race or nationality you thought they were when you started? Possibly not. Just because your last fifty books featured a straight white female and a straight white male doesn’t mean your work in progress needs to.
Only then, when you have an engaging human, can you build her story. We can get so wrapped up in writing a heroine we forget she is a hero. She might be strapping on a skin-tight costume and taking on Thanos, a destroyer of worlds. She might be taking care of two kids, holding down a full-time career, and keeping her household in order. Personally, I’d rather take on Thanos than face the pile of dishes in my sink, but she needs to be the hero of her own story, free of all the baggage the word ‘heroine’ might come with.
In the end you just need to tell a good story, fill it with interesting people, and don’t try to force it into the shape of what came before. The readers who need to find you will find you, and will love you for the stories you tell.
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