Sunday, September 22, 2013

Tough Sci-Fi Romance Heroines Who Stay Tough Until The End

While reading an interview with debut author Lesley Young (SKY'S END), I discovered an observation of hers that made me go, "Hmmm."
What do you think sets Cassiel and Sky's End apart from other science fiction characters and stories?

Cassiel is very flawed. In other words, she’s real. And because it is written in the first person present tense, you experience all her decisions and crazy actions as if they were your own, which can be quite the ride. In my opinion, most SFR main characters start out as hardasses and then grow soft, tamed by some hot alien. And don’t get me wrong, I read those and enjoy them!
Well. This part is especially interesting: "In my opinion, most SFR main characters start out as hardasses and then grow soft, tamed by some hot alien." 

Okay then. The analytical bots in my brain have commenced firing. Let's unpack that observation, especially since (in my experience) Lesley Young isn't the only one to have expressed it.

First, are most SFR heroines--which is presumably what Ms. Young meant by "characters," given the context--"hardasses"? Is that a statistical fact or a general perception of this genre? No sarcasm here, I'm just wondering why Ms. Young came to that conclusion. I'd thought urban fantasy had the main rep for hardass heroines, but I could be wrong.

I'll concede Ms. Young one thing: there are stories, some of which I've read, where the so-called "tough" heroine is all talk and no show. Some heroines are described as badass, but never do anything on the page to show what they can do. Or their actions are so subtle it's at odds with the intense words used to describe their tough, kick-butt natures. In those instances, a character's subsequent softness and taming could translate to a flawed/nonexistent character arc. 

A tough heroine who lacks show reminds me of Chekhov's gun. Don't put a gun in the scene if none of the characters are going to fire it.

Let's examine soft/tamed in the context of romance genre conventions. I've observed that many romance readers like being able to relate to the heroine and/or self-insert. They also want to root for her by story's end. All of which makes me think "soft" and being "tamed" is actually code for a relatable, sympathetic character who is fully engaged with the hero even if the heroine begins the story as tough.

"Soft" could also mean that a hardass--I'll use the word tough as a substitute from now on--and emotionally guarded heroine has learned to trust the hero. By falling in love, she learns the value of being emotionally vulnerable. She becomes willing to bare her heart to the hero and knows he'll keep her emotionally safe. So soft/tamed could also be code for a character arc.

"Soft" or "tamed" could refer to heroines who have shed their tough persona because in the end it was just that--a persona. To me, these include heroines who are "reluctant heroes," perhaps forced by circumstances into a life of crime, and also some anti-heroines who desire to leave their old life behind when a new one with the hero gives them an out.

There are probably other reasons tough heroines go "soft" or become "tamed." Great sex, for one thing. :)

Another thought: tough romance heroes are tamed all the time--why the double standard for heroines? Is it somehow problematic when an SFR heroine is tough on the battlefield but goes domestic when the fighting is over? But it's okay for a tough hero to build a white picket fence and have babies with his new wife after the alien horde is defeated? Does anyone perceive of heroes as going "soft" in a pejorative way?

Tough heroines are fun characters, but sometimes they can't win, either. Either they're too tough or not tough enough.

Some readers find them too relentlessly tough even when the story calls for it. For example, a heroine is generally tough during space battles, while on dangerous expeditions, or on a harsh alien planet. She has to be--otherwise she might get herself killed. Her plausibility as a character is at stake. So it does trouble me when the reaction to a tough heroine is one of "she's too cold" or too tough, too vicious. Look where she's at, for heaven's sake!

Of course, "too tough" may be a reader's way of saying the character lacks depth or enough emotional vulnerability to make the romance plausible. I can see that happening in the same way we think some heroes are too emotionally distant or remote.

Anyway, no single tough heroine will please all readers equally. In the end, it's all subjective.

After reading the interview, I started wondering if Ms. Young just hasn't discovered the right "tough heroine" story for her particular taste. IMHO, sci-fi romance has plenty of heroines who start out tough and stay tough by the story's end. Here are a few titles to consider:

Captain Ari Rose from Marcella Burnard's ENEMY WITHIN
Mercury from Nathalie Gray's AGENT PROVACATEUR
Katya Ortaega from Kim Knox's LOST GODS
Dresdemona Devos from PERDITION and Jax from GRIMSPACE, both by Ann Aguirre
Delilah Oliver Clementyne from GIRL GONE NOVA by Pauline Baird Jones
Alpha from ALPHA by Catherine Asaro
Raina Bowen from DRIVEN by Eve Silver
Zeta Verity from MOONSTEED by Manda Benson
Yasmeen from HEART OF STEEL by Meljean Brook
Sola from BLUE GALAXY and the sequel, BLUE NEBULA, both by Diane Dooley
Athena Hera Sinistra from DARKSHIP THIEVES by Sarah A. Hoyt
Plix from UNNACCEPTABLE RISK by Jeanette Grey
Admiral Brit Bandar from MOONSTRUCK by Susan Grant 
Queenie from QUEENIE'S BRIGADE Heather Massey (in the interest of transparency, that's me!) 

In her interview, Ms. Young didn't provide examples of consistently tough SFR heroines other than the one in her own book.

In light of that, Ms. Young, I'd like to issue you a friendly challenge. :) Read a few of the books from the above list, or track down some on your own. When you find a story and tough-until-the-end heroine you enjoy, contact me about doing a guest post to discuss what you liked about it! sfrgalaxy "at" gmail dot com

Joyfully yours,