Approachable Heroines and Rewarding Heroes
Whilst it may not be everyone's glass of Pinot Grigio, category romance (cat-rom) is big and a great way to make that step to becoming a novelist. Joanna Trollope started her writing career with Mills and Boon, who over 100 years after they started still sell millions of books a year. The late, great Penny Jordan wrote several novels a year for M&B in between penning blockbuster novels. My Weekly and Peoples' Friend each have very successful pocket novel lines, which could be seen as M&B’s more chaste cousins. The Internet is awash with romantic ebook ranges, and Salt Publishing, previously a publisher of poetry and literary shorts, have just launched a new cat-rom imprint called Embrace (now defunct, as this article is several years old).
Dissenters often dismiss cat-rom as formulaic and, with its alpha males who take what they want when they want it, demeaning to women. It has to be said that when questioned, the dissenters will admit to having picked up a Mills and Boon book twenty years ago and read a few pages. Some dissenters have never read them at all. They just instinctively ‘know’ that cat-roms are a bad thing.
But things have moved on in twenty years. Yes the males are still alpha. They also ridiculously rich and successful, whereas the females are sometimes a little lower down the social scale. What’s important to remember is that what's being sold here is a fantasy, in much the same way as Star Wars and Avatar are fantasies. To suggest that cat-roms give women an unrealistic outlook on romance is to suggest that women are too stupid to realise the fantasy element. The women I know who read romances are highly intelligent but looking for escapism.
What’s more, the heroes and heroines have changed a lot in the last twenty years. If you think you know about cat-roms, then be prepared to have your misconceptions challenged.
In the past, romantic heroines were generally quite passive. Things happened to them. They were often kidnapped, assaulted, double-crossed and generally downtrodden. Their problems were solved for them, usually by the man, leaving them with just the job of being extremely grateful in bed. Modern heroines are given no such breaks. When problems come their way, their mettle is tested, and they do all they can to rise to the challenge. I write pocket novels for My Weekly, and I pride myself on the fact that my intelligent and sassy heroines go all out to solve their own problems. They may start off from a point of weakness, but somewhere along the way they stop retreating and meet their problems head on. It is also possible that the hero comes along and helps them at the last minute, but that does not alter the fact that the heroine is ready to solve her own problems. She's intelligent, witty, but she has flaws. One of her flaws might be the failure to ask for help when she needs it. In that case, the story ends with an acceptance that we all need a helping hand sometime. It doesn't make a woman a little 'girlie' or a failure as a female when she asks for help, despite what some feminists might have you believe.
So where does the hero come into this, if he's not going to be the one to fly in on a vine and save her from the vicious wolf? Or scheming property developer? Or nasty ex-boyfriend? When I create a hero I think of him in terms of being the heroine's reward for solving her problem. She has gone through the dark days, perhaps with him at her side for the last part of her journey, and now there is this handsome, rich, successful man to tell her how clever and wonderful she is just before giving her the time of her life in bed. And no, he doesn't necessarily have to be rich.
A man can be a postman, bus driver, paramedic, cop, cowboy, doctor, prince. It has to be admitted that in category romances there aren't many postmen or bus drivers. Incidentally, when I suggested to my husband recently that my heroines tended to end up with a successful (often rich) man, I was accused of being a snob. And this despite the fact that I did marry a bus driver so he should know better!
It's not about being a snob. A category romance is a fantasy, and I'm sorry to be blunt here, few women fantasise about ending up with the postman (certainly not in the shorts they wear around here in summer). For that to work in cat-roms our postman would have to be an undercover cop, rich man or prince. No, I don't know why a prince would be moonlighting as a postman either, but there’s an idea...
What's really important is that the hero is successful at what he does. During a conversation with a friend on Twitter about the ultimate alpha male, Holby City's Anton Meyer (George Irving), my fellow tweeter made the point that watching someone who is very good at what they do is a powerful aphrodisiac. She’s right. We all admire someone who’s good at their job. That’s why medical dramas like Holby City throw in lots of sexy technical language when their male doctors are saving a patient’s life.
Does the same go for a heroine? Does she have to be successful? I think a heroine has to be intelligent and appealing, but I did make the mistake once of creating a heroine who was a virtual superwoman, by giving her a really cool job which involved stealing back expensive items for an insurance company. I think, though I may be wrong, that women like to think the heroine is just like them. She may be a bit prettier and slimmer, and have a slightly more successful career, but I think she also needs to be someone the reader feels she could sit down and have a glass of wine and a laugh with. The heroine needs to be a slightly more glamorous version of the reader. My girl was practically a female James Bond and nigh on invincible. In short, I hated her.
That doesn't mean the heroine can't have an interesting career. In the Mills and Boon medical romances, the heroine is often a doctor. But there needs to be something else about her that makes her seem approachable. She might have been born poor and worked as a waitress to pay her way through med school. Or overcome some other difficulty. Usually the sort of difficulties the reader copes with every day, like the loss of a loved one, making ends meet, juggling childcare and a job, dealing with an abusive parent or partner. Anything so that at some point the reader might think 'yes, that's what happened to me' or 'that's what happened to my friend'. That way they’re pulled into the fantasy, because they can relate to the heroine.
Then when you bring in the hero, your reader will believe the heroine deserves a man who treats her well. But always remember whilst writing your cat-rom that he’s the reward for her overcoming her problems rather than the answer to them.