Jennifer Crusie

bitches, rebels and other heroines

On my list of female protagonists are more than a few difficult women. If you go looking, you’ll find (for example) that readers either love or hate Melanthe of Kinsale’s For My Lady’s Heart. The comments I have heard is that she is too hard and even abrasive, although I think some of the dislike of Melanthe has to do with the fact that this novel is not an easy read; Kinsale does a good job of approximating Middle English for a modern audience, and it takes a little work to get into it. I loved Melanthe, particularly because she seems — if you look at the surface only — to be manipulative and disdainful but is in fact struggling hard to survive in a world inimical to independent women. She has suffered some terrible losses which have made her hard, but the beauty of this novel is in the way she adapts to Ruck, and he to her.

Something that is true of all these women (as it is true of the men) is that they all stand on the social periphery. Christine noted this in a comment to an earlier post about the men:

I think there’s always something about those guys that don’t quite fit in whatever the ‘norm’ is. Perhaps that’s part of their self-possession, but those characters always seem slightly on the fringe.

For me personally, traditional female characters may be interesting and well done, but they don’t make it onto my short list. Which is why I could make a second list of female characters whose stories I liked, but are too traditional for my tastes. This list would include Minerva from Jenny Crusie’s Bet Me (an actuary working for her father’s company) and Maud Bailey of A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance (a fairly run of the mill academic). Christabel LaMotte, also from Possession, is one of the women who probably should be on my list. Please don’t misunderstand: I truly love and admire both these novels (for different reasons); I’m distinguishing here between individual characters and the work as a whole.

A look at my list shows all these women to be rebellious in one way or another.

Behaving Badly
Elizabeth Bennetttalks back to gentlemen and old ladies, flaunts expectations, refuses marriage proposals
Marie Du GardIn turn of the century France a single woman of good family evades the match her father has made for her, and pursues a career in the new industry of film making
Maddy TimmsThe most traditional of my seven, Maddy, an observant Quaker, flaunts authority to help a man who is being mistreated by the medical authorities.
MelantheA rich woman runs away from the men who control her life and does everything in her power to establish a safe haven for herself.
Aeryn SunAh, Aeryn. Pulled against her will out of her native environment, it takes a while for her to recognize the rebel in herself and the streak of independence that comes from a mother she never knew.
Hannah Trevora midwife, Hannah struggles to make a life for herself after she loses her children and a treacherous husband; she gets pregnant because she wants to be a mother again, but rejects the idea of another husband. She is in constant conflict with the men in this late 18th century Maine village, and with her own needs.
Elizabeth Middletonwants an education, the opportunity to learn without restrictions, to teach girls as boys are taught, and to pursue her life without being made to feel aberrant.


At a party a little while ago, somebody came up to me to say how much she and her husband liked the Wilderness novels. Nathaniel, she assured me, was the perfect hero. Which is meant as a great compliment, but actually got me thinking, because I don’t think I ever consciously set out to make him a hero, and certainly I don’t think of him as perfect. So I started reading in various places, looking for definitions of heroes and essays that addressed the characterization of main characters. This subject is an old one. Aristotle wrote about it and so has just about everybody else.

The first thing I do when I’m trying to take apart a problem like this is look at the data. I came up with a list of fictional male characters I like tremendously, enough to re-read the novels in which they live. This list is not in any particular order, and of course this is my list; no doubt your list will look different. I’ve put Nathaniel at the end, for comparison.

Fitzwilliam DarcyPride and PrejudiceJane Austen
Phin TuckerWelcome to TemptationJennifer Crusie
Philippe de Saint-ChristopheThe Bride of the WildernessCharles McCarry
Niccolo van der PoeleNiccolo RisingDorothy Dunnett
John CrichtonFarscapedid you really think I could leave him out?
Daniel JosselynHearts and BonesMargaret Lawrence
Nathaniel BonnerInto the WildernessS.D.

Many psychologists make their careers evaluating and categorizing personality types. I could take that approach here in trying to figure out what appeals to me in a hero, and how I ended up with Nathaniel. There are many possible models to use: Myers- Briggs (or the Keirsey temperament sorter, which is pretty much the same thing); the Enneagram approach is also quite popular. But I’m not going to take the quantitative route, not just now. Nor am I going to try to work with the clasic eight-way split you often see discussed in the literature: the Chief, the Bad Boy, the Best Friend, the Charmer, the Lost Soul, the Professor, the Swashbuckler, the Warrior (but there’s a good break down of each by Tami Cowden, here.)Having set up my list, I’m going to go away and think about commonalities and differences, and I’ll be back tomorrow with more on this.

words of wisdom from Jenny

In response to an email I got today (you know who you are) I quote Jennifer Crusie’s answer to this question which is asked too often.

Are you ever going to give up romance writing and start writing real books?

No. I like writing fake books. It gives such joy to those who need to feel intellectually superior.

No. I prefer to write to entertain. You know, like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens.

No. I think it’s important not to trash the taste of those who read and supported you while you were learning your craft by announcing that, now that you’ve established your name, you’re giving up romance to move onto bigger and better things. …

And let me take this opportunity to remind you that Bet Me (Jenny’s new novel, which I reviewed here) will be hitting the bookstores tomorrow. Also, I point all parties yet again to this essay of hers, In Praise of Scribbling Women.