Confession: When it comes to heroines, I have a definite type. I don’t particularly care what the hero is like (although alpha-holes need not apply), but I like my fictional women a little bit on the wild and unpredictable side. Prone to cursing, ready and able to throw a punch or deliver a cunning verbal smackdown, complicated and difficult. Independent and determined to take care of herself. Confident, ballsy, selfish. Ruthless in pursuing a goal. Not above illegal activity if the ends justify the means. Possesing a questionable moral code. Flawed…beyond the standard romance faults of, say, being clumsy or having unsightly freckles.
Yup, most of my favorite heroines are actually anti-heroines. Give me Faith over Buffy anyday. Watts over Amanda Jones, no question! Starbuck over….well, frak, Starbuck over anyone at all. I love a morally compromised, swaggering scrapper of a heroine. And I really like to see what these kinds of women do when they’re placed in the most vulnerable, most emotional scenarios—namely, when they’re in love.
But while you can’t swing a cat in the romance genre without hitting some kind of bad boy hero—be it a rake, rogue or domineering billionaire with a kinky side—it’s near impossible to find romances that feature anti-heroines. The romance genre seems to have an unwritten rule that heroines be nice, average, everyday kind of gals—relatable, recognizable, and most of all, likable. And maybe with good reason. I’ve seen a fair amount of bad reactions from readers to the sorts of heroines I favor, often stating the character was too bitchy, too difficult to the hero, too stubborn… too much.
But in the immortal words of the '80s songstress Samantha Fox: “Naughty Girls Need Love Too.” So for those of us who do prefer a bit more spice than sugar in our fictional ladies, luckily there are some badass babes out there.
In Karina Halle’s Sins and Needles, Ellie Watt is a con woman, a grifter, someone who’s run with a bad crowd for a very long time. When she narrowly avoids an untimely end in her latest scheme, she slinks back to the hometown she hasn’t visited in years, intending to basically freeload off a relative until she can figure out a way to go straight finally. But…then she runs into Camden McQueen, her best (and only) high school friend whom she ended up betraying out of fear and insecurity and peer pressure. Camden’s all grown up now though and they hit it off anew, sparks flying as they get to know each other again. Only problem? Ellie thinks she can’t change her ways…and even after they have some soul-shattering sexytimes, she plans to rob his very successful tattoo shop and high tail it out of town. (Slight spoiler: Camden catches her in the act…and that’s when things start to get REALLY interesting.)
It’s not every day you find a romance where the heroine wants to screw the hero both literally AND figuratively. And Camden is no angel either. They both have a lot of sins, and pain, and deep-seated childhood scars, and they say some cruel things to each other you’d never imagine you’d read in a romance. Ellie and Camden both struggle with fear and insecurity and trust…and yet somehow they truly work. This really IS a romance novel. There are grand gestures of love and some truly sweet declarations and very hot sex. Sins and Needles eschews convention in pretty much every way—it doesn’t even have a happy ending (yet) because it’s the first of a continuing series and it closes on a wallop of a cliffhanger. But it’s fresh and compelling and Ellie and Camden are unique and real. This is contemporary romance scripted by Quentin Tarantino.
Changing lanes completely, Cecilia Grant’s historical, A Gentleman Undone, also has a delightful unconventional anti-heroine at its heart. Lydia Slaughter (even her name is telling!) is the kept mistress of a man (not the hero) and a mathematical genius who uses her talents for card-counting, fleecing opponents in hopes of earning a bankroll that will pay for her freedom. When the hero, Will Blackshear, discovers her secret (he has need of money to pay off a guilty conscience, basically), she eventually agrees to bring him into her scheme and they start running the irreputable gaming hells around town.
Grant is an incredible talent, a fantastic writer with fresh ideas and a considerably feminist take on romance. Lydia is a breath of fresh air: she’s smart, self-sufficient, and though she has some shame about her stature in society, she’s not ashamed of herself and her own conduct. She likes sex and is good at it and makes no bones about it. And Will not only takes her differences in stride, but adores her for them. There’s a beautiful scene where he’s trying to distract Lydia (at her request) while she card counts by rather scandalously asking about her underwear. He’s not able to rattle her, of course, and when she reveals her talent, he’s far more turned on by Lydia’s brain than by anything she told him about her unmentionables. Now that’s love.
So, who’s your favorite romance anti-heroine? Did you root for Julia Roberts to steal Dermot Mulroney out from under Cameron Diaz’s nose? Prefer Juliette to Rayna on Nashville? Wish that Uma Thurman could’ve found a way to make it work with Bill that didn’t involve samurai swords? How about books? Have you found any anti-heroines in actual novels? Share the bad girl love!
Tara Gelsomino is a reader, writer, pop culture junkie, and internet addict. You can tweet her at @taragel.