The Flawed Heroine

Thanks to the crew of readers who forwarded me this link: the Guardian posted an article by Toni Jordan, who related her Top Ten Flawed Romantic Heroines.

For Jordan, “flawed” isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and some of her examples make me want to read the book, like The Perfect Rake by Anne Gracie. Bitchery favorite Ayla from the Jean M. Auel series makes an appearance, as do Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing and Miss Haversham from Great Expectations.

There’s so many different ways to define “flawed,” from “Oh, honey,” to “I want to kill you because you’re an idiot,” to the heroine who makes genuine mistakes and learns from them, even through awkward scenes that are viscerally embarrassing for her and for the reader.

Among my favorites of the heroines who are far from perfect but aren’t a complete mess, either? Merlin from Midsummer Moon, who is stubborn and a genius, but often a complete ditz, is among my favorites, but with Merlin, I admire the fact that she’s light years smarter than me, but also clueless in other regards. I’m also a sucker for the “terribly stubborn” heroine who has to learn to bend, particularly when she’s set against an equally stubborn hero who also has to bend. But too much stubbornness for its own sake can easily become grating. It’s all part, I think, of the high standards to which readers hold their heroines. She can’t be too perfect, but she can’t be too stupid, either. “Flawed but still awesome” is a very, very difficult balance to strike.

What flawed heroines do you adore? And what types of flaws do you enjoy or loathe?


Random Musings

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  1. Kristie(J) says:

    To me she is – or at least was flawed in Naked in Death.  She seemed only half a person when the series began – but I loved her to death anyway.  She was a great cop, but the rest of her life was so barren with the exception of Feeney and *oh crap – it’s early and my mind has gone – what’s her name* – her best friend.
    That’s why I’m so enamored of these books because over time, we see Eve become so much more of a complete person.

    And of course there is Roarke.  See!  I remember his name.

    I’m a big fan of the flawed heroine.

  2. Iasmin says:

    Darnit! KristieJ beat me to it. Nora’s girl FTW!

  3. joanne says:

    What flawed heroines do you adore? And what types of flaws do you enjoy or loathe?

    I never, ever buy books about kick-ass, scarred, potty-mouthed women……… so when I read Pack Challenge by Shelly Laurenston her “Sara” wasn’t what I was expecting nor what I wanted in a romance book when I started the story.

    She (Sara) took me by storm and stayed in my heart. Mean? Oh yeah. Scar down her face? Yeah. Mangled leg and limp? Yup. Nasty, foul mouth oh her. Yes. Did I love her… after my initial shock at what the author thought comprised a heroine? OMG, I loved this Sara character! 

    This is not to say that the book didn’t need the almost usual editing or that it was my all-time favorite but that it presented a character that made me cheer for her, made me want to buy more of the author’s books and made me glad I read romance novels.

  4. Jen D says:

    All of my favorite books have flawed heroines. There are too many to list their names.

    I love flaws that envolve an overabundance of something good. A heroine who is too giving or too loyal is a good example. They have to learn (hopefully) how to temper thier excess and become healthy and happy people.

    I hate flaws that are stupidity, snotty attitudes and constantly underestimating their worth. Drives me nuts to hear a heroine say things like “Oh my, I would tell him that the baby isn’t mine- but his brother’s best friend’s chihuahua told him so he’d never believe me!” Ugh.

  5. KTG says:

    I loathe Anita Blake, several books ago I adored her. Poor LKH really jumped the shark…

  6. Ok, I’ll own up to having a soft spot for Ayla from the Jean Auel books.  Yes she’s a total mary sue, yes, she invented everything from how to make fire to bows and arrows and birth control, but dammit, she’s a fighter and she went through a lot to get to her HEA.  I don’t hold it against her that Auel seems to want to make her the bestest, wonderfulest, hostess with the mostest.  Not her fault. 😉

  7. Jo says:

    Peabody!  Eve Dallas’ friend (and partner) is Peabody.  I want Peabody to be my friend, too – in many books I like her better than Dallas.

  8. MoJo says:

    Shanna Trahern.  Selfish bitch.

  9. tudorpot says:

    The Perfect Rake is one of my top faves- just re-read it a few days ago. Gideon and Prudence are a hot pair- sparks fly and what humor, wit and pathos. The end is just so magnificent. Determined Prudence makes her desires clear no matter what Gideon’s intentions are honorouble or dishonourable.  A must read.

  10. Elizabeth Wadsworth says:

    While they don’t really qualify as romances, I adore Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, and Karrin Murphy, Harry’s cop sidekick, is a perfect example of the flawed heroine.  In the first few books, she comes across as angry, self-righteous, and unbending; she also flirts with depression and substance abuse issues, but she learns from her mistakes instead of angsting over them, and throughout the series she’s remained a loyal, brave, and trustworthy companion (not to mention potential love interest.)

  11. corrine says:

    Definitely too many fab flawed heroines to name, but I love a heroine who speaks her mind, is stubborn, a little too independent, maybe a little vulnerable but not willing to show it, the heroine who’s a little high in the instep but becomes humbled in the end.

    Characteristics I hate: selfishness, pettiness, carelessness, and (I’ll say it and take the brunt, but I have baggage upon baggage that will require too much time and detail to explain) promiscuousness.

  12. Robinjn says:

    Eve Dallas is one of my favorites too. But I have two others. Rachel from the Kim Harrison series is so well written as a flawed character. She sort of discovers her flaws (recklessness, adrenaline junkie) over time and her flaws have some real and sometimes devastating consequences.

    The character I started out not liking at all then falling in love with is Julie in Lori G. Armstrong’s mystery series starting with Blood Ties. I think it’s actually the first heroine I’ve read who smokes like a chimney and drinks hard. She also picks up and takes home unsuitable guys and is not at all charitable about her boss’ girlfriend. I’m a big anti-smoker and had an alcoholic father so to say she put me off at first would be an understatement. Fortunately she won me back. But I still wish she’d quit smoking.

    Hah. submit word medical12. As in, Julie, quit smoking or you’ll have at least 12 different medical conditions.

  13. Melanthe from For My Lady’s Heart by Laura Kinsale.  A true alpha female, brilliant and ruthless.

    Louise from Beast by Judith Ivory.  Unbearably beautiful, unbearably smart, unbearably self-centered.  And @#$%ing eighteen.  Yet I love her unbearably.

    And I’m going to nominate Gigi from my debut, Private Arrangements, for the Most Flawed Heroine of 2008.  If there is a more flawed one, I haven’t read her yet.  🙂

  14. Dang, Sherry beat me to it with Melanthe!  Some of SEP’s heroines would make the cut.  Francesca from Fancy Pants in particular starts out selfish and flawed, but grows tremendously.  That’s part of what I like about her.

  15. snarkhunter says:

    I’m too busy raising my eyebrows at the idea of Miss Havisham as a heroine to come up with a favorite of my own.

    (I mean, REALLY? With the wedding gown and the OVERWHELMING CRAZY? That’s taking “flaws” a bit far, don’t you think?)

  16. snarkhunter says:

    Jordan already got the two best I could ever think of: Harriet Vane and Maud Bailey. Both of whom I adore beyond all reason.

  17. Bonnie says:

    Peabody!  Eve Dallas’ friend (and partner) is Peabody.  I want Peabody to be my friend, too – in many books I like her better than Dallas.

    Don’t forget Mavis!

  18. Silver James says:

    *joins Eve Dallas Fan Club!* Eve starts out so broken inside, as is Roarke… *fans self while drooling* Watching them grow and evolve as individuals and as a couple has been an amazing ride! THANK YOU, Nora! I’d love to hang out with Eve and talk shop.

    And as Robinjn mentioned, Julie from

    Blood Ties

    . I bought all three of Lori’s books on a leap of faith and they are now parked right next to my In Death books. I’ll reread them this fall before the new one,

    Snow Blind

    , comes out October 1. I even got my husband to read them. I’d like to go drink coffee with Julie, too. Or have a beer out in the backyard.

    These are tough women who have weathered the emotional and physical trauma in their lives and still made a place in the world without whining; who have learned to love and trust despite their pasts; who keep putting one foot in front of the other despite all the odds. What’s not to like?

  19. StephB says:

    Well, Elizabeth Bennet is the classic flawed heroine and still one of my very favorites – she’s so smart and funny and fun, and her flaws clash against Darcy’s in such delicious ways!

    A perfect heroine would be really boring (not to mention unbelievable). I like the same flaws in romance heroines that I would forgive in my own friends – strong, smart women who are human and do have vulnerabilities and red flags in certain areas, but who are also brave enough to admit when they’ve been wrong (at least by the end of the book!).

    What makes me crazy in books are heroines who get into trouble through sheer stupidity (like the heroines who are in HUGE, LETHAL DANGER and KNOW IT and have no physical self-defense training or other practical means of protecting themselves – and yet insist on sneaking away from their bodyguards/the hero all the time just because they feel they shouldn’t have to bother with such trivialities…and of course whenever the hero calls them on it they just say he’s being male & unreasonable. I’ve read that character far too many times, and it always makes me grit my teeth. Those women aren’t showing their strength, they’re just showing their immaturity.

  20. WandaSue says:

    Re:  Merlin (“Midsummer Moon”)

    I’ve read that book twice, and thought she might have Asperger’s Syndrome.  I couldn’t relate to her at all; too “savant-ish.”  However, I did fall in love with the stuttering “Mr. Duke.”  Yumm-o.

    IMO the most “flawed heroine” is Scarlett O’Hara.  I would never chose to be her friend.  That said, she is a fascinating creation.

  21. Charis says:

    Scarlet O’Hara. Spoiled, vain, selfish – she’s everything I ever hated in the stereotypical popular schoolgirl.  She has no girlfriends and doesn’t feel the lack of female companionship.  She deliberately steals other girls’ beaux because she has to be the center of attention.  Come hell or high water or the Yankees she’s going to get what she wants.

    And in the end, that’s why I admire and respect her, even though I didn’t like her.  She takes on the burden of feeding and caring for her family and family friends.  She discovers that she has a brain and puts it to good use in business.  She schemes, she flirts, she exploits – she’s stubborn and utterly ruthless.  And she puts all these flaws to work to ensure her family not only survives but prospers as well.

    Those flaws cost her in the end, when she loses everyone she discovers too late she loves.  And then there’s that whole slavery/racism issue.  But, dang, what a ride!

  22. Charis says:

    WandaSue, I see you beat me to it!

  23. Tina says:

    Scarlett O”Hara.  She was a selfish, spoiled brat who had THE man and didn’t learn from her mistakes until the very end.  I wanted to shake her until her marbles were rattled straight.  Many character flaws and she will always hold a special place in my heart.

  24. KimberlyD says:

    My favorite flawed heroine is the one who is entirely too self-reliant, who sometimes comes across as a heinous bitch at first, and learns how to trust and admit to needing people at the end. I think some people write this character horribly, making her bitchy and angry for no good reason, or having her not learn her lesson in the end. But the well-written overconfident, too-strong heroine really gets me into the story.

    I’m going to chime in on the always-ongoing LKH debate. I loved Anita. Even when she started collecting her harem and stopped actually necromancing (and doesn’t she HAVE to necromance to get the power out of her, so that she doesn’t wake up whole graveyards? Where did that little limitation disappear to?), I liked her. She was strong and tough, she tried to be the best Anita she could be without compromising herself, but she had this inner vulnerability that made you want to follow her story, to see how she would overcome it. The problem is…she NEVER overcame it. She still doesn’t want to let anyone get close to her emotionally because obviously everyone is going to die or leave her or both, even though none of the men in her harem is particularly vulnerable, nor is anyone close to leaving her ass (I would, but since I’m not a straight male, I might be missing something). Anyway, long ramble short, Anita is the type of flawed heroine I used to love, before I realized she would never grow emotionally.

  25. Beth says:

    So many great examples. It’s really not a good romance is the heroine isn’t made real, and only flawed people are real.

    We’ve had lots of examples of the tough flawed heroine, and I agree Eve Dallas is the paradigm there.  Demon Lilith, the sexy lying aggressive bitch with a heart from Meljean Brook’s Demon Angel, is in the same mold as Eve, although paranormally enhanced.

    Megan Hart’s Broken and Dirty feature very realistic flawed heroines (especially Elle from Dirty). Snappish, bitchy, selfish at times, but easy to empathize with.

    But in terms of classics of romance, I would go for a very different kind of flawed heroine as most memorable to me.  Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm features Maddy Timms, the most frustratingly flawed heroine I can think of. Here she has this hunk of a man, rich, brilliant, who wants her every which way to Sunday, and she cannot (and cannot, and cannot…) reconcile her lust and love for him with her Quaker principles. For the longest time, she is stuck, she wavers, she runs and comes back.  I know a lot of folks gave up on Maddy, and agree that I have never been more frustrated with a fictional character, but Kinsale’s writing made me understand her predicament, keep reading, and keep hoping against hope that it would somehow work out.

  26. karmelrio says:

    I love Suzanne Enoch’s reformed(?) reforming? cat burglar Samantha Jellicoe.  Sam struggles so hard to stay straight on the straight and narrow – and doesn’t always succeed.  And four books into the series, she still can’t quite bring herself to believe that Rick Addison can, and does, love her. 

    And isn’t Samantha Jellicoe just a great character name?

  27. Sandra D says:

    Kat Crawfield from Halfway to the Grave. Born half vampire? check. Mother who hates vampires and hates what her daughter is? check. Hot vampire love interest? check. Swigging vodka straight from the bottle yet can’t get drunk? check. Love these books and can’t wait for more.

  28. hajen says:

    I really enjoyed Harriet Vane and Gaudy Night, so I’m happily on board with the article there. I loved how prickly and real and feminist she was. No soppy in that book but plenty of quiet tension and passion. Very well-written.

    But Ayla? No way. I did like Ayla – in the first two books – but she is hardly a flawed heroine, I mean, that’s why I had to grit my teeth in order to slog through the rest of the series. She’s TOO perfect, obnoxiously so, making her totally unrealistic and therefore, eventually, unenjoyable. Whoever said “mary sue”? YES. That.

  29. MB says:

    I have to mention Cannie Shapiro in Jennifer Weiner’s “Good in Bed” as an interesting flawed character.

    Jennie Cruisie’s heroines are always fascinatingly flawed.

    Also, although its not really a romance (maybe an anti-romance???), I absolutely love the way Elinor Lipman created the character Alice in “The Pursuit of Alice Thrift”.  Alice is an hilariously flawed character but so likeable!  Elinor Lipman is a stunningly good author!

  30. SB Sarah says:

    Thought of another heroine I really enjoyed who was plenty flawed, and oddly she’s another genius. Irene Conridge from Shelly Laurenston’s novella “Miss Congeniality” in the When He Was Bad two-story anthology is awesome. She’s socially inept due to complete lack of interest in personal dynamics as her energy is better directed elsewhere, finds people tiresome, and observes correctly that when she speaks her mind people find her refreshing, until she says something they don’t like. Then she’s a bitch.

    Loved her.

  31. MaryKate says:

    Oh! I have a few.

    How ‘bout Sirantha Jax from Ann Aguirre’s Grimspace? She’s damaged and tormented, and dances a fine line very often between doing the right thing and not. Love her!

    How about Anya from Gena Showalter’s The Darkest Night? She’s the Goddess of Anarchy. She’s a liar and thrives on things being in upheaval. She’s a good one.

  32. Gwendolyn Harleth in Daniel Deronda; ditto on Harriet Vane and the scene where she realizes she’s in love with Wimsey is beyond hot and they’re not even touching each other; ditto on Louise in Beast; early Stephanie Plum; Kinsey Milhone in Sue Grafton’s series; and respectfully offering Lady Caroline Elmhurst (broke, bad, big-mouthed) in A Most Lamentable Comedy, Little Black Dress, UK, 2009 (mine).

  33. How could I forget—the ultimate in nasty, brutish and short, Lucy Snowe in Villette by Charlotte Bronte. What a woman, what a book, makes Jane Eyre look like the back of a cereal carton.

    Trouble is with most flawed heroines in romance, I think, is that she won’t stay that way; she has to change and transcend and all that stuff, whereas I’d prefer to see her spitting bile all the way to the HEA and presumably beyond.

  34. lisabea says:

    I like flaws. Meljean Brook writes heroines that are deeply flawed and interesting and often broken..but they rise above the internal conflicts, which of course makes them heroic, and they kick ass. She’s the bees knees that one is. My top fav heroine ever is Savitri Murray.

  35. MoJo says:

    Re Scarlett O’Hara

    I just did a blog post about her last week. 

    I read her when I was 14 or 15 or thereabouts and despised her, but as an adult with some life behind me, I’m wondering if I would now “get” her if I went back and read it again.

  36. RStewie says:

    I’m on the Melanthe bandwagon. 

    Can I throw out Phedre from the Kushiel series?  The whole “I know I shouldn’t like this, but I DO I DO!” part of her issues was fascinating to me.

    I know there’s more, too, but I can’t think right now.

  37. Scarlett O’Hara.

    I’ve always thought Miss Scarlett got a bad deal; if she’d been born a hundred years later nothing she did would have led anyone to bat an eye. OTOH, if she’d been born a hundred years later she wouldn’t have had to do what she did.

    Was she an idiot, hung up on Ashley Wilkes? Of course. But she wasn’t the first woman in history to fall for a facade, and at least she came to realize what a fool she’d been even if it was too late.

    I do NOT, however, include the character as totally f***ed up in that godawful sequel. Margaret Mitchell’s heirs should be ashamed.

  38. dillene says:

    I’ve always had a soft spot for Lady Kaede in Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran”. 

    Wait- that wasn’t a romance?

  39. These aren’t romances, but Judy Blume’s heroine from WIFEY is insanely relatable and very flawed.

    I also just read THE BRIDE STRIPPED BARE (can’t remember author, sorry).  The heroine was fascinating and awful.  Still can’t decide if I liked the book; it was too disturbing.

  40. Rose says:

    Sula, I don’t think Ayla can be described as flawed in terms of her personality (or appearance). Her upbringing may have been difficult, but she herself is so ridiculously perfect that even Mary Sue doesn’t cover it. She’s gorgeous, smart, has an astounding memory, is beloved by everyone starting in book 2, befriends small and large animals, is great in bed (or whatever they used for beds), invents everything known to humankind except perhaps lolcats – it’s too much.

    I haven’t read Gracie, but if the description given by Ms. Jordan is accurate, I feel there are better examples of flawed heroines in romance novels. I’m more interested in a heroine with a difficult personality, and the article seems to focus mostly on her looks. I’m guessing there’s more to it than that, right?

    Sherry, Gigi is wonderful! By all means, let’s have more heroines who make serious mistakes and learn from them (SEP’s Sugar Beth Carey being a good example).

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