Mar 5 2013 1:00pm

The Bad Girls’ Club: Romantic Anti-Heroines

Katee Sackhoff as Kara Thrace/StarbuckConfession: 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.

Sins and Needles by Karina HalleIn 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.

A Gentleman by Cecilia GrantChanging 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.

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Heather Waters
1. HeatherWaters
I really, really love this post. My favorite heroines aren't always the bad girls, but damn, they are always a breath of fresh air, because you're right, they're pretty few and far between.

Read and enjoyed Sins & Needles, and I'm looking forward to picking up the Cecilia Grant you mentioned. I'd also recommend Stacia Kane's Downside series because Chess is a fascinating heroine.
Megan Frampton
2. MFrampton
I love all the books you mention that I've read, which means I have to read the others straightaway. I like damaged/anti-heroines nearly as much as I like damaged/anti-heroes.
3. LibrarianJessi
Sadly you're right - most of my favorite heroines are not from the romance genre (i.e. Lisabeth Salander/Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). A couple of romance heroines who really work for me, although sadly they ride the line between sugar and spice and end up closer to the sugar side:
Blue in SEP's Natural Born Charmer
Grace in Close Enough to Touch by Victoria Dahl
Annique in The Spymaster's Lady by Joanna Bourne
Alexia in Soulless by Gail Carriger
Heather Waters
4. HeatherWaters
Oh, @LibrarianJessi just reminded me that I'm also a big fan of Sugar Beth in SEP's Ain't She Sweet?
5. Torifl
I love anti heroines. Sometimes you need that extra bite in your characters.

Sabine from Kiss Of The Demon King by Kreley Cole
Scarlett O'Hara from Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell
are two favs of mine.
Tara Gelsomino
6. Taragel
@redline_ Thanks! I'll check out Chess/S.Kane, though I'm not that partial to paranormal/urban fantasy reads unfortunately. Which is a shame because that subgenre is rife with the kind of heroines I like but the magic/woo-woo stuff can turn me off sometimes. (Plus the propensity in that subgenre for love triangles.) But I need to give the Kate Daniels series a shot for sure.

A lot of people seem to mention Sugar Beth as an anti-heroine but I don't really think she is. Her mean girl days are way in her past by the time Ain't She Sweet catches up with her, aren't they? I haven't read it in ages though, so maybe I'm forgetful.

@meganf Yes! They're so hard to find compared to the men!

@librarianJessi Ooh thank you for the Recs. I haven't read any of those I don't think (although SEP's heroines are usually a little "too pure to be pink" if you know what I mean--and damn, how could I not have put Rizzo over Sandy above? For shame.)

Most of my favorite antiheroines are from the mystery genre like Lena Adams from the Grant County series by Karin Slaughter or Bridgett Logan from Greg Rucka's Shooting at Midnight. (Although those are both secondary characters and not leads.) I wish romance heroines came in some different flavors sometimes.

@Torifl It's tough to get more anti of a heroine than Scarlett! Love her. Rewatched the movie recently and had no idea what she saw in either Ashley OR Rhett! Lol. I was totally Team Scarlett!
7. huntece
Dagmar the Beast of Reinholdt is probably my favourite anti-heroine. She's a manipulative politician type with no mercy for her enemies. Annwyl the Bloody comes a close second. If you havent read her books already id recommend G.A. Aiken and Shelly Laurenston (same author). I think the majority of her heroines are anti rather than nice polite ladies of society.
Dagmar's book is my favoourite and its in What a Dragon Should Know by G.A. Aiken
8. Ariana
Love the Samantha Fox reference! I agree with you on anti-heroines. Though I have to wonder if there's anyone who prefers Amanda Jones over Watts? That's just crazy talk.
Lana Baker
9. lanalucy
I hemmed and hawed a bit about Sins and Needles, because you said it ends on a cliffhanger, and I tend NOT to like books that are like that, but more if it's a manipulative end than a good end. Haven't had a chance to read it yet, but I'm looking forward to it. I have no examples to share, unfortunately - I'll read just about anything, and haven't read any good anti-heroines lately.
Carmen Pinzon
10. bungluna
@huntese - you beat me to the Aiken/Laurenston recommendation. I love all the heroines by this author. They are baudy, unapologetic and ruthless.
Jasmine Ray
11. JassyBaby
Besides Anita Blake (Does she count??), I haven't read many anti-heroines, but Sins and Needles sounds mahvelous! Will be adding to my growing TBR list!
12. taragel
@huntece & @bungluna Thanks for the suggestion!

@Ariana True! That one's kind of a gimme, isn't it? (Although Lea Thompson is awesome.)

@lanalucy It's a bearable cliffhanger though. It does resolve things to some degree! Just not your traditional HEA....yet. ;)

@JassyBaby Sure. I'm not a huge paranormal fan for a few different reasons and I don't usually dig the love triangles (or more-angles) that paranormal/Urban Fantasy series tend to favor, but that subgenre definitely offers more of the anti-heroine types I like.
Robbie Thornton
13. Button
Chess Putnam! Hands down my favorite antiheroine! Stacia Kane's Chess Putnam (aka Downside Ghost) series is fabulous. Chess took warped heroine to a whole new and fascinating level for me. There's also an amazingly sexy antihero named Terrible, so it's the complete package. I would highly recommend them to anyone who hasn't read them, but if you are interested in heroines who cross moral and legal lines, Chess Putnam is definitely your girl.

I reckon I like both kinds of heroines, so long as they fit my other criteria. I don't mind them being "bad girls", but bad or good, so long as their character rings true to the story, I'm good. In some books, snarky language really annoys me, but in, say, Gena Showwalter's Lords of the Underworld series, it just fits with the general tone of the books.

Unfortunately, when a "tough" heroine is done wrong, foul or snarky language can come across as if the heroine is trying too hard to prove how tough she is, which in turn, to me, makes her look immature and insecure rather than tough. I like it better when they are real people with some awesome strengths and no inclination to prove themselves to others. And I like it when they have real flaws in character, in honour or in judgement that they have to reconcile. That just seems more real to me.
14. Isabel C.
I love antiheroines as long as they're competent and not just a bundle of issues (loved early-BSG Starbuck, couldn't stand her later in the show, can't deal with Kate in Lost, etc): growing up, I liked Scarlett O'Hara and Jessica Wakefield (actually, I had a major girlcrush on Lila Fowler, because SERIOUSLY NOW) more than their goody-two-shoes foils, and liked Kitiara a hell of a lot when I was a young D&D-book-reading geek.

And now that I think about it, the majority of the heroines I write tend toward the ruthless and prickly side, one way or another. It's a lot of fun writing moral contrasts and flaws.

I've just finished reading Marie Brennan's In Ashes Lie; while fantasy rather than romance, it features a fairy queen main character who's very much an anti-heroine in some ways, and who is all the more likeable for it.
Heather Massey
15. HeatherMassey
I loooooooove anti-heroines, so thanks for this post! I sure hope romance can embrace more of them over the course of my lifetime.

Sci-fi romance has a few to offer:

Meljean Brook’s Heart of Steel (airship pirate with a ruthless reputation)

Nathalie Gray’s Gridlock (think Girl With The Dragon Tattoo in a futuristic cyberpunk setting)

Manda Benson’s Moonsteed (heroine is kind of a futuristic farrier-turned-detective and a first class b***h but she’s determined to seek justice on behalf of a murder victim)

The heroine from Sarah Hoyt’s Darkship Thieves has an anti-heroine flavor

Sirantha Jax from Ann Aguirre’s Grimspace is quite the prickly heroine—kind of a reluctant hero arc.

The heroine of Diane Dooley’s Blue Galaxy is incredibly devious—can’t reveal more without spoilers

I also wrote two books featuring anti-heroines:

Queenie’s Brigade (heroine is the leader of a group of incarcerated prisoners—think Dirty Dozen in space)

Once Upon a Time in Space (space pirate on a revenge mission)
16. taragel
@Button Good to know about Chess! I'll have to give it a shot. I like some good-girl heroines also--Anne of Green Gables is a fave, for example, but even she has a streak of that "mischievous sparkplug" persona that almost always steal my heart. :) Agreed about the faux-toughness or "fiesty" heroines that often populate romances. When the narrative talks about (or has the other characters continuously comment on) how "tough" she is, when her actions belie her as anything but.

@isabel One of my biggest pet peeves about antiheroines is that so often when people write a bad-ass lady they feel they have to justify her persona by tying it to abuse in her past. Kinda hate that and don't understand why ladies can't just be tough and badass because they want to be. Apparently that's only reserved for MEN in fiction though. Sigh. I guess that's also why I'm less interested in the supernatural books. I like organically tough heroines over ones that are tough because of superpowers/magically bestowed "Chosen One" designations, etc.

@Heathermassey Wow so many recs! Fantastic! I really do hope the straight-up romances can get with the program too!
17. Lizzy
To everyone who loves Scarlett O'hara be sure to read the sequel 'Scarlett' by Alexandra Ripley. Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels is good plus the edge series 'fates edge' in particular has good anti heroines. Joe Abercrombie's 'best served cold' not really romance but very interesting heroine.
18. Rachel Cross
I loved Ruthie Knox "About Last Night" -- former Goth chick with dark past meets buttoned-up banker. Also really like Linnea Sinclair's sci-fi romance--all her heroines kick ass and remind me of Starbuck (photo above)
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