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5 Things Historical Heroines Need to STOP Doing

by Kellyn Roth |
April 22, 2020

Hi there, everyone! This post is sort of a follow up to one I did a while back, “Excuse Me, You Got Some Feminism in My Regency Romance.

These are just some general observations about the heroines of all historical fiction – though, again, pre-1900 is when most of this takes place.

BUT … this is not the same “attack on feminism,” per se, you got from that other article. 😉 I’m not entirely exempt from including details that could be considered “feminist”: I write novels that are character-heavy and therefore deal with real women’s issues of the period.

Pride and Prejudice *gif Elizabeth Bennet mr darcy keira knightly ...

The reason being is, I don’t think it’s fair for women to be abused based on their gender, and I firmly believe the Victorian era made morality into a Big Mean Monster instead of a safe fence between humanity and what is harmful.

HOWEVER … hit me if I ever let my historical heroines do these five things and get away with them unpunished.

Let’s get into it!

1: Not reflecting the beliefs and traditions of their era in any way, shape, or form.

Y’all … we just can’t keep doing this.

How many times have you read a book where the heroine doesn’t seem to understand that she’s living in a historical era?

How many times has she turned down marriage offers because “she wasn’t in love”?

How many times has she spurned anyone espousing beliefs from their own era?

I want accuracy, y’all. I want women who feel like they BELONG in the era we’ve been told they live in. Am I right or am I right?

Periodedit GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Even Keira Knightley says so. I mean, albeit out of context. (I don’t even remember what was going on in that scene, honestly.)

My point is … we can’t have heroines always rebelling. And furthermore, always getting away with rebelling.

If women were getting oppressed, and if you want to prove that point with your novel, then SHOW the oppression. A rebellion is nothing without an oppression.

But if that’s not the point of your novel (because it is a heavy, complicated topic to cover), perhaps you need to lean back and only show said “oppression” as a natural part of their lives.

2: Being ceaselessly rude and prickly to EVERYONE, even their “knight in shining armor,” and getting away with it.

Sometimes I’m left wondering … why do we love these people?


Emma Makes Things GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

I do not understand why these historical heroines get away with being rude!

Most recently, I started a book where the heroine was relentlessly picking on everyone within five miles of her.

Her stepmother is vapid. Her stepsister is childish. Her suitor is old and ugly (even though he was honestly kinda sweet, and it’s not his fault he is a Regency Gentleman with no regards to Modern Romance Standards).

And she lets them know it with her words and actions! And then treats them like idiots for being annoyed and/or angry with her.

She was just. so. rude. all. the. time. to. everyone.

Pride Prejudice GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

Basically, she doesn’t have the talent of conversing easily with ANYONE, and it’s because she’s a complete brat. And that drives me crazy.

If you’re going to espouse Disney princess-esque values, at least have the decency to be as pleasant as a Disney princess!

3: Saying they’re not interested in material things (money, titles, etc.) but then bellyaching about material things (age, appearance).

In most historical romances, the heroine’s primary issue is she wants to marry for love. And that’s fine – in modern day society, we are able to do that, even if it’s not a very good reason to form a lifelong bond.

That’d be fine as long as she doesn’t fall in love with a complete jerk. However, these heroines always espouse the view that they don’t want to just marry for money or a title or whatever the case is … and then insult every potential suitor they’re not in love with.

emma woodhouse | Tumblr

Now this may seem nitpicky, but … if you don’t care about material possessions, dear historical heroine, why do you care SO MUCH about how your potential husband looks?

Why do you go on for pages picking at nice gentlemen who are actually giving you the complement of trying to start a courtship with you?

This was actually parodized (somewhat) in Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility when Marianne picks on poor Brandon because he’s old and unattractive – but then (spoilers) ends up with him anyways.

I want more stories like that – because otherwise we’re saying, much like Mr. Darcy to Elizabeth Bennet, that you have to be “handsome” to get a husband wife.

my gifs Pride and Prejudice Mr. Darcy Keira Knightley Elizabeth ...

(Don’t worry, Keira. You’re actually handsome enough to tempt anyone. Though I would say … pretty … because you’re a girl. #MrDarcyisaWeirdo #ButActuallyThatsRegencySpeak #ForBeautiful #So #There)

4: Being constantly discontent and never, ever settling for “this provincial life.”

Even if “this provincial life” is that of a hugely privileged upper class lady. *coughs*

MRW I'm being repressed - GIF on Imgur

I just … I don’t get it, y’all. These historical heroines are constantly TURNING DOWN THE DREAM LIFE.

Look. With the right man, you can form an awesome marriage with or without those stomach butterflies (which, studies show, only last for a year or so before they fade – unless replaced with something deeper than infatuation).

And then … who said that you’re not going to love just being married? And just having kids? Those are both great things! Not for everyone, sure – but you’ve been raised from infancy to believe that those were the End Goals, and somehow you’ve managed to shuck that off?

If a woman is going to be hesitant about marriage, she needs a better reason than “the author told me I was.” Maybe her parents had a horrible marriage. Maybe she has something else going for her that she doesn’t want interrupted.

But … maybe it would be a stronger story if a historical heroine accepted the era she was born into and the “provincial life” coming her way, and then realized that money and titles and good looks are nothing compared to a Godly man who will be her best friend and partner in everything.

Maybe she gives up the handsome young rake who wants to sweep her away from normality and let her do all kinds of scandalous things like pursue her Astrology Hobby. Maybe she marries the 40-year-old Earl of Biscuitown. Maybe she’s very happy with a grounded adult who is willing to build something strong with her.

Sense And Sensibility GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Maybe she can do better good in the world because she’s a countess instead of having run off with her stable boy lover. Maybe everything is not about her.

I know that’s not romantic. It doesn’t have to be that extreme. But if all our heroines want something abnormal, then it’s not abnormal anymore. It’s cliche. It’s a trope. And not a very entertaining one at that!

Honestly, historical heroines are pretty awesome when they’re just being historical heroines. That’s why we read these books! Because of the era. Because of the people. Because it’s different.

period drama sense and sensibility elinor dashwood ely: gifs Sense ...

(This is the most English thing ever.)

5: Trying to be Elizabeth Bennet … and failing to understand what made that character great.

Elizabeth Bennet is fantastic. She’s a well-developed character who has many faults, but is still very likable. A lot of people relate to her! I’m not gonna lie about that.

pride and prejudice elizabeth bennet gif | WiffleGif

However, not every heroine can be her. In fact, I don’t think I’ve met a single heroine who has gotten close to being her. Which is where this branches off into two issues:

  1. Not every heroine can be Elizabeth.
  2. Authors don’t seem to understand why Elizabeth was such a great heroine.

To address the first one, we’ll have BULLET POINTS:

  • We need more diversity among heroines.
    • We need Elinor and Marianne Dashwoods. We need Emma Woodhouses. We even need a Fanny Price or two.
    • And … we need original characters not inspired by Austen!
    • We need characters who aren’t snarky. Who are shy.
    • Who aren’t looking for romance. And who are. And who aren’t thinking about it either way.
    • Basically, we need lots of different kinds of heroines. Imitating Elizabeth Bennet is not an option!

And for the second one, we’ll also have bullet points:

Reasons Why Elizabeth Bennet Was a Great Heroine

  • She’s not a stock character.
    • She’s a unique human being with real thoughts and opinions – and real faults.
  • She does understand the era she lives in, but she also is human enough to be timeless.
    • Believe it or not, modern-day feminism being inserted into your historical romances will not make them timeless – they’ll probably end up pretty dated in short order!
  • She has a unique personality without being flawless.
    • Though Elizabeth is pretty admirable, she also has a lot of flaws that make her more human. This combination is what creates a great heroine!

elizabeth bennet gif | Explore Tumblr Posts and Blogs | Tumgir

In summary, creating a good heroine involves more than slapping a cliche on top of a trope and hoping it turns out all right. You can’t just use a stock character that has no basis in reality!

So let’s all go out there and write/read only the best of the best.




What are your thoughts? Do you agree with me or do you think that I ought to give historical heroines more of a chance? Also, do you adore Elizabeth Bennet? ‘Cause I honestly do …

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19 Responses

  1. Those are all great points and, honestly, can be very nicely applied to almost ANY genre. I wonder why authors don’t seem to take this seriously… even if it’s quite obvious, in my opinion! (Do they not read books of their own genre or…?) Oh well. These posts keep reminding me that I SHOULD probably read some Jane Austen soon and then watch the movies, but… you know… haven’t yet… xD

    1. I suppose it is! I mostly read historical so I mostly see it in historical. 😛 But it makes sense that it’d be in any genre.

      Eh, they’re not for everyone, but I sure do thinks they’re fantastic! Especially for romances. 😛 But I know some people really hate Jane Austen, sooo?

  2. I totally agree with Number One. Totally. 100%. Entirely. It really annoys me when the characters in historical novels reflect the beliefs, attitudes or values or OUR time rather than the one they are supposed to be living in.

    There is a British Historian and novelist who coined a term for that type of thing ‘modern people in fancy dress’.

    I read some Medieval Fiction, and I must confess I roll my eyes when the teenage heroine starts whingeing and grumbling about the King or whoever not ‘caring about her feelings’ in regards to marriage arrangements or ‘controlling her life’.

    Yeah, hate to break it to you girl, but the King had WAY more important things to do than worry about the the hurtsy feelings of one of his teenage subjects. Try er— ruling the country.

    1. YES! Exactly. It’s so frustrating. I honestly just don’t get it … why bother writing historical fiction? Try fantasy if you want to change everything.

      Medieval fiction can be the worst! I haven’t read any in a while, but I read one where the heroine was saying something exactly like that … and I just don’t get how anyone could be so selfish AND so ignorant of their own era. If fiction doesn’t even try to reflect reality, what’s the point of it all?

  3. Wonderful follow-up to the feminism article. The most memorable characters to me are the ones who are uniquely them without latching on to any era’s propaganda. I’m currently reading Ring of Secrets by Roseanna M. White, and the thing I love about Winter (the leading lady) is that she accepts her era and claims her spot in it. She may be a *gasp* spy against the British, but that would have been a natural thing for a true Patriot during the Revolutionary War era. She feels about as timeless as Miss Elizabeth Bennett simply because she’s fully aware of the time in which she lives and strives to live her best life within it. I’m hopeful that the leading ladies in the remainder of the series will be as well adjusted as she.

  4. Yes! Please, quite dragging 21st century idiocy into the 18th and 19th century! I get it, you need to care for the person you marry (and make sure it’s God’s will for you first and formost) but people just didn’t really think about that as much, especially in England! And especially if you had some money behind your name. Please just be your era! And be a big girl and realize you might not be oppressed when everyone is bending over backwards for you XP

    1. Right!? Exactly. Historical heroines need to take a giant chill pill. Especially since they all seem to have like the best lives ever!? Unrealistically so sometimes. 😉

  5. FINALLY. I agree with basically this whole list! I tend to not a read a whole lot of historical fiction, but when I do, this all greatly bothers me! I’m so glad that you put it into a post for me 😂😂

    (also highly appreciate all the gifs … they kept me very entertained! lol)

  6. Why am I just now reading this????? This is quite possibly the best post about historical heroines I’ve ever read! You have captured the essence of how true historical heroines should act and how most do in fiction today. I know I’ve thought the exact same things several times over. Man, I wish every author could read this! Fantastic job!

    1. Thank you so much! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. (I admit it’s one of my favorite posts that I’ve written, too! It’s just so fun – and it still resonates with me, haha!)

  7. I love this! I’m reading through Jane Austen’s books, and while I’m not a fan of Emma (I just don’t like her personality, the book’s fine), I definitely have noticed how much better Jane is than like, every other modern regency book I’ve read so far.
    Btw, have you watched the BBC Pride and Prejudice? I’ve never seen the Kiera Knightley one, but have heard nothing but bad about it

    1. A lot of people don’t like Emma! It’s my favorite because I am also a difficult heroine who needs someone (though in my case, it’s God :P) to come in and say, “Badly done, Kell.” But that’s just me. Normal humans don’t like Emma because she is a Grade A Utter Pain.

      I have watched it! Twice, I think. Both times I was overcome with a sense of “I couldn’t care less.” I think I was just bred for a different era of BBC dramas. However, normal human beings also HATE the Keira Knightley version. I’m one of the few people I know who adores it. I think it’s a fantastic, fantastic version. However, if you loved the BBC version, you’ll hate it, basically. I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum, except I don’t hate the BBC version – I just felt like it wasn’t reminiscent of the book I loved, found it supremely boring, and couldn’t find any of the characters attractive, which is a cardinal sin for a highly visual person.

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