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Tough Chicks: Heroines in Today’s Market

Published in RWR Magazine, June 2006

Used to be back in the day heroines were secretaries, nannies and nurses. Used to be the hero of a romance novel had to older, maybe wiser. Definitely more experienced. It even used to be that the heroines were young, fresh and innocent in so many ways of the world.

Today’s heroine knows a lot more about the world than they did ten or twenty years ago. They’re in professions that used to be reserved for the heroes. In some cases, they may even bail the hero out when he gets himself into a jam. In 1986, Leigh Michaels published Touch Not My Heart. It was a sweet romance, a gentle read. In it Secretary Gayle Bradley must pretend to be the fiancé of her boss, Jared Logan. Gayle, still mourning the loss of her boyfriend years before, is not comfortable with the situation, but when playboy/computer whiz Logan threatens her job if she refuses, she can’t back down.

Says Leigh Michaels today: “I do think that situations have changed in romance in the twenty years since Touch Not My Heart came out. Heroes are more careful. Jared Logan’s revolving bedroom door would be much less likely these days. I think ... if I were writing the book today she’d [Gayle] more likely be the head of a division, or the corporate accountant, rather than being called a secretary ...” Beginning in the cinema with Ellen Ripley taking on the Aliens and Sarah Conner fighting her way through not one, but two Terminators, people began to view the heroines of today’s stories as strong, capable women. In the 2002 horror flick, Ghost Ship, the movies commentaries didn’t even refer to their female lead as a heroine but rather as the hero of the story.

In book fiction, we’ve had the introduction of such characters as Stephanie Plum from Janet Evanovich, Eve Dallas from J. D. Robb and any assortment of characters from Suzanne Brockmann. The trend in female leads has altered. No longer are they being saved. Now it’s their job to do the saving.

“There is a definite trend in today’s heroines to be spies, detectives, vampire slayers,” says former Bombshell editor Julie Barrett. “Even heiresses know how to kick butt.”

Generally, tough chicks have been found in mainstream romance, as well as in single titles where guidelines aren’t as strict. That’s not to say that tough chicks only appear in these lines, though. Ever see a woman run a ranch in the 1880's old west? She might not be dealing with modern day terrorists but there’s a chance she’s taking on Indians, the surly, arrogant foreman who hates her; and maybe even a blazing wildfire which threatens her crops, her cattle or her life. It takes guts to do what she did, proving that tough chicks cross time and genres.

In July 2004 Silhouette launched the first line to rely solely on tough chicks and action packed stories. The Bombshell Line was introduced to an expected readership of eighteen to thirty-five year olds with heroines ranging in age from twenty-two to their mid-forties. What wasn’t expected was how popular this line was going to be with the over forty crowd or how empowering the forty plus readers were going to find the stories.

Says Associated Senior Editor Natashya Wilson: “the focus in every book is on the compelling suspense and the heroine's savvy and competence -- the story must be compelling, and the heroine's age shouldn't be an issue. Our promise is to bring readers a heroine they can believe in and a fast-paced adventure that will keep them guessing right to the end, one that includes a tension-filled romantic subplot.

Bombshell author Kate Donovan thinks the new trend with tough chicks is very liberating: “ ... not just in terms of sexism, but in terms of plots. There are so many more stories we can tell now – stories that couldn’t find a market before.“

So what makes a tough chick heroine different from the heroines of traditional romances?

There is no set formula. No 1 + 1 = A Tough Chick.

Tough chicks can be as varied as the ordinary woman next door who is thrown into a situation that broadsided her, to the sharpshooter on top of the building across the street, armed and ready to take out the terrorist. What makes her stand out as a tough chick is how she reacts to the situation of the story that is evolving around her. She is not just going to allow the plot to let things happen to her, but rather she is going to participate. Actively. She is helping the story move forward with the decisions she makes and the actions she takes.

She’s not to going to be sitting there in the pages waiting for the next line of direction from the author. She’s going to be trying to figure out a solution to the problem. In fact, she might be difficult for the writer to work with. The writer might tell her to walk into a room and come face to the face with the bad guy. The tough chick, though, is going to tell the author she doesn’t want to, she thinks the scene should go this way and then she’s going to do it her way.

Today’s tough heroines are police officers, fire fighters and bounty hunters. They work for the CIA, the FBI and the DEA.

They’re presidents of companies, they own their own shops. They’re mothers.


Says Suzanne Brockmann: “While strong, capable, skilled, trained women are fun to watch as they kick butt, I think it’s even more fun to watch an everyday woman get pushed into a place where she is forced to fight back, physically, mentally and emotionally. I wrote one very strong heroine who didn’t want the hero’s help – because she feared it would put her kidnapped daughter’s life in danger. She is the most like me – a real control freak who goes into she-wolf mode when her child is threatened.”

Author Vickie Hinze adds: “Mother instincts are more real and easier for the reader to identify with than a sniper or a woman in Delta Force.”

Threatening someone the heroine loves - a child, a parent, even the hero – that is the number one reason for motivating a female character to the levels of tough chick mode. If she finds her circumstances are putting them in danger, she will change her circumstances. If they can be saved by her actions, she is there to serve. The truth is these heroine have their abilities because of their vulnerabilities and their fears. They are real people facing real problems – even if they are only on the page in a book.

In her novel, No Ordinary Man, Suzanne Brockmann pitted an everyday, average single mom against a stalking serial killer. “In the climax of the book,“ says Brockmann, “the ... killer enters the heroines house, where she lives with her young daughter ... in the end, the hero bursts into the heroine’s house to save the day only to find he’s too late. He’s not too late because she’s dead – he’s too late because she’s managed to outwit and kill the killer herself. And it’s not because she’s undergone eighteen months of training at Quantico or Langley or Ft. Bragg.”

But Julie Barrett says, “they can’t all be kick butt all the time, because then it would just become boring.” The importance of a story is not so much how much damage a heroine can do, but what her range of emotions is. She must be well developed. And a lot of this is dependent on what kind a hero is set opposite her.

It takes a self assured man to stand beside a tough chick heroine. He has to be self confident, but not cocky. He is secure in himself and the thought of a tough woman around him is not going to be a threat to his masculinity. He’s never walked on, but is willing to help. He might be rich. He might be poor. He could be a cop trying to protect the woman he loves or he might be her next door neighbor who hasn’t quite figured out he is in love yet. What matters is how he sees himself and ultimately how he can see her. Can he be there for her? Can he arrive after the climatic end to hold her, say ‘Good Job’ and not feel as if he failed?

Equally important to the heroine and hero is the villain. Villains are the ones who give our tough heroines their motivation. Without the villain, there would be no challenge for her to overcome. But it is as important to stay away from stereotypical bad guys as it to stay away from any other stereotype characters. No pot bellied sheriffs with a slow drawl. No sadistic former high school bullies, no men in gray overcoats standing on the street corner. The villains need to be thought out. Three dimensional. They must be as developed as the rest of the cast with the motivation to back up their sinister plot.

Only then will the tough heroine really shine.

There is a downside to this new trend toward tough chicks as portrayed on the big screen, small screen and in books, though. And that is that tough chick heroines may cause real live woman to feel they are invincible.

Say’s author Kelly Z. Riley, “We do need to worry that they [the heroines] are too unrealistic –- à la Vin Diesel or Steven Seagal.” A black belt in martial arts, Ms. Riley sees the need to be responsible in what can actually be done and not necessarily portray super women in the stories. Just because Lara Croft of Tomb Raider and Sydney Bristow of Alias can tornado kick to the head and take out the two-hundred and twenty pound knife-welding menace does not mean the stalked, single mother is going to be able to achieve the same goal. She’s going to have to use more mind than body, making her just as tough as her opponent. And that is what is going to make her realistic to the reader, someone they can relate to.

Is this new trend in tough chicks just a marketing tactic for the new millennium? Or has feminism just finally reached pulp fiction?


Portraying today’s heroines in a strong light is merely modernizing them, creating people the reader can root for as well as identify with. And if a heroine can pick up that phone after the climatic moment and call 911 to say “The bad guy just broke into my house and he needs medical attention,” then that’s something a reader can cheer for. It’s what they are enjoying.

In the near future, we may still have heroines who are secretaries, nannies and nurses. Now days, though, they are taking self-defense classes and they are making their own decisions. If they are coerced into a situation they don’t want to be in, then it’s because someone they love is in danger and they will be the ones to save them.

How long can we look forward to these heroines sticking around? For as long as these tough chicks damn well please.




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