Oct 20 2017 12:00pm

In Defense of the Flawed Heroine

Ain't She Sweet by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

You Keep the Sweet, I’ll Take the Salty

Romancelandia seems to do fine with the bad boy in need of redemption, the rakes and rogues who are only waiting for the love of a good woman to mend their ways (Kids—don’t try this at home. In real life it seldom ends well.) But what about the bad girls, the ones who lie, cheat, steal, and stomp on the hero’s heart on their way out the door, laughing like a higher-pitched version of Snidely Whiplash? Where’s the love for them?

Give me the flawed girl, the one who’s been kicked around but comes up fighting, who uses her strengths to overcome the unlikeable characteristics that all too often are tied to her being female—her overt sexuality or manipulative ways, her gossiping or acting “unladylike”.

Some of the standout unlikeable heroines include Sugar Beth Carey in Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Ain’t She Sweet? (Amazon | B&N | Kobo) As the book notes say, Sugar Beth has “broken hearts, ruined friendships, and destroyed reputations.” She is a major league Southern belle gone bad, bless her heart. Her flaws weren’t pretend, they were very real and Sugar Beth had to work hard to redeem herself while not losing the essence of who she was, what made her strong.

That’s one of the characteristics of the flawed heroine in romance—she’s not a limp dishrag of a female, she makes choices and takes action. Often it’s the wrong action from society’s POV, but she’s decisive, she’s aggressive, she’s unwilling to settle. Far from being a delightful princess surrounded by adoring songbirds, she’s the one cursing the little buggers for waking her up after an all-night binge. 

The Shattered Rose by Jo Beverley

That’s what much of this “unlikeable” crap comes from. The unlikeable heroine is in-your-face, sexual, assertive and strong. In The Shattered Rose, the late, talented Jo Beverley (Amazon | B&N | Kobo) penned a medieval romance with a heroine who, while her husband is off being all heroic during the Crusades, takes a lover, has a baby with him, and establishes him in the castle. As the book opens the hero (her husband) is musing over how his lady likes to do it al fresco and on top. Clearly, this woman has needs, and Sir I’m-off-the-Crusades has a lot to answer for. There are some readers who would stop as soon as they read the wife is an adulteress, but they’d be missing out on a thoughtful and poignant romance.

Another medieval set romance that generated controversy for its unlikeable heroine was Laura Kinsale’s For My Lady’s Heart (Amazon | B&N | Kobo). Princess Melanthe treats the legendary Green Knight like the lowliest peasant, mocking him as a “monk-man” and being icy-cold…until she’s not. The last 100 pages are an intense look into the steps a woman emotionally battered by a psychopath would take to protect those she loves. Unlikeable, yes, but when you look at the ratings you see how many fans cherish this story and have it on their keeper shelf.

A Candle in the Dark by Megan Chance

Finally, another oldie but goodie, the RITA award-winning A Candle in the Dark by Megan Chance (Amazon | B&N | Kobo). You can still find it in ebook (though reviewers warned of numerous spelling errors) or you can track it down in a used bookstore. It’s the kind of novel that garners lots of five and one-star ratings—people either love it or hate it. When you have a prostitute heroine and an addicted hero it’s easy to see why the novel is polarizing. Ana, aka “The Duchess”, only needs men for what they can give her—money, and in the case of Dr. Cain D’Allesandro, the protective cover of a husband for an escape to California. Their journey will be fraught with peril, and each will discover hidden vulnerabilities that will lead to an ending I can best term “Happy For Now”. It’s not light or fluffy, and Ana’s still pretty icy by the end of the book, but it is engrossing.

Surely there are more heroines out there who don’t fart rainbows and charm unicorns? Who are some other favorites for readers who like their protagonists more salty than sweet? 

H&H Editor Picks:

Black Panther’s T’Challa and Nakia Are Destined to Fall in Love and Kick Ass!

11 Books H&H Reviewers Couldn’t Put Down in September 2017

October 2017 Romance Novels New Releases Shopping List


Darlene Marshall writes award-winning historical romance, mostly about pirates, privateers, smugglers, bad girls, and the occasional possum. You can read more about her and her books at

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Heather Waters
1. HeatherWaters
Sugar Beth is easily one of my top 5 romance heroines because her character arc is truly remarkable and gives you so much to dig into. She fascinates me every time I read the book, and I enjoy the way my sympathy for her goes up and down throughout.
Darlene Marshall
2. DarleneMarshall
@HeatherWaters--Exactly! If she wasn't interesting we wouldn't pay attention to her. Watching her reinvent her life is painful, but fascinating.
Robin Lovett
3. RobinLovett
I LOVE flawed heroines. It's so frustrating that so many readers dislike them so there are so few. I'm really having trouble thinking of any!
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