As loyal readers of romance know, formulas exist for a reason—because they are highly effective. One of the most bang-for-your-buck formulas in romance is the tortured hero, the man spiritually broken by fate, circumstance or the foolishness of his own actions, who is remade and brought into the light by the perseverance of the heroine.
All of that is good, but despite the popularity of that formula, there is always something particularly wonderful about books that successfully reverse that trope.
I’m talking about the tortured heroine.
Tortured heroine romances are such a treat because, quite frankly, tortured characters are more interesting, and often claim the lion’s share of the narrative and character development. Sure, both protagonists are supposed to come with His and Hers baggage (a secret baby here, a psychotic ex-mistress there), but the one with the darkest past needs to travel further to make up their half of the HEA.
In typical romances with angsty heroes, this often means the heroine—while hopefully still loveable and well-developed—plays a more supportive role. This makes novels with tortured heroines all the sweeter because it typically requires a supportive, nurturing and frequently beta hero to bring her into the light. So which romance novels have the best tortured heroines?
Well, it wouldn’t be a proper list if one didn’t mention the novels of Jo Goodman. No one can put her heroines through the wringer like Goodman. In A Season to be Sinful, for instance, the heroine Lily Rose endured years of sexual slavery at the hands of a depraved monster, and escaped to become a pickpocket and teach urchins. She is innately distrustful of the hero’s acts of kindness, and spends much of the book trying to provoke him to reveal the insidious intentions she’s sure he must have (he doesn’t).
For contemporaries, Christie Ridgway’s How to Knit a Wild Bikini belies its cutesy title and rom-com-lite cover to give us the story of Nikki Carmichael. Thanks to a horrific tragedy in her past, she’s so terrified of emotional vulnerability that she’s maintained no friendships at all—when she tears her ACL, she can’t get surgery because she has literally no one to look after her while she recovers. She decorates her house with strictly practical furniture and uses no paint colors brighter than beige. Her only pet is a wind-up fish toy—that’s right, she’s so emotionally walled-off she can’t even commit to owning a real fish. Half the joy of this exceptional novel is watching her open up to the hero, Jay.
Lady Phaedra Northhampton, from Liz Carlyle’s Tempted All Night, is another marvelous tortured heroine who, thanks to being heartlessly taken advantage of as a teenager, believes she must live a solitary and loveless life. She wears ill-fitting, plain gowns and refuses to socialize, terrified that her sexual desires (that she believes are aberrant) are instantly recognizable in polite company. Nevertheless, when she believes the owners of a shady brothel are exploiting a woman from her village, she’ll go to any lengths to rescue her—even if means teaming up with cheerfully clever rake Tristan Talbot.
And finally, I couldn’t possibly end this list with anything other than my personal favourite tortured heroine: Melanthe from Laura Kinsale’s For My Lady’s Heart. Raised in the political minefield of medieval Italy where her vast wealth makes her a tempting prize or dangerous target for dozens of warring factions, she has no room for error and even less for emotion or sentimentality. Showing affection for anyone could very well spell their doom. Swathed in machinations and intrigue, she is nevertheless fascinated by the honest, forthright devotion of Ruck, a chivalrous knight who remained celibate for thirteen years (!) in memory of her.
Yes, tortured heroine romances offer up some of the strongest, most multifaceted and complex female characters around, but one should also offer a tip of the hat to the unconventionally nurturing, compassionate heroes who give our heroines their much-deserved happiness. Lily has Sherry, the retired spy willing to take in three urchins for her. Nikki has Jay, a former ladykiller who reveals his softer side as he discovers how much he loves taking care of her. Tristan Talbot discovers he’s not the worthless layabout he thinks he is as he assists Phaedra in her investigations. Ruck, meanwhile, learns that thirteen years isn’t long to wait for a woman as intelligent, enterprising, and determined as Princess Melanthe.
Which tortured heroines are your personal favorites, and why?
Elizabeth Vail hails from Alberta, Canada. A book reviewer and aspiring YA writer, she currently runs the review blog Gossamer Obsessions under the screenname AnimeJune.