Generic Characteristics of Romance Fiction – the Heroine

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Image courtesy of Val Williamson, all rights reserved

A successful romance typically features a vulnerable young woman. Image courtesy of Val Williamson, all rights reserved

The most successful convention of romance fiction is that by some twist of fate, the heroine finds her social identity threatened or already destroyed. How will she reconstruct it?

Romance blockbusters usually feature this vulnerable young woman and tell the story from her point of view. The narrative sets her up as particularly isolated and defenceless, but this situation enables her to demonstrate the strength and independence of character that allow readers  to identify with her.

From Pride and Prejudice to Twilight, nearly two centuries later, this formula is still working. The opening situations that will drive the romance plot are:

  • the heroine is an orphan
  • the heroine’s social standing depends on her taking a husband even if she does not love him
  • the heroine has suddenly been deprived of all her friends

If something has destroyed her identity, she must now (re)build it and she (usually unwittingly) finds the way to do so through romance. Some of the classic romance heroines demonstrate this:

  • Charlotte Bronte’s eponymous Jane Eyre, (1847) made to live first with relatives who dislike her and then sent to live in an orphanage-like boarding school;
  • Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice (1813), is eldest of five sisters whose social identity in the future will depend upon their choice of husbands;
  • Elizabeth Gaskell’s Margaret Hale, North and South (1855), wrenched from her idyllic country parsonage to a bustling grimy industrial city.
The Twilight Saga, starring Kristen Stewart, Image by Gage Skidmore

The Twilight Saga, starring Kristen Stewart, Image by Gage Skidmore

Romance Characteristics: The Orphan Heroine Needs Love

The popular TV series The Vampire Diaries, first published as novels from 1991, begins with the heroine’s parents dying in an accident. In her article on the problematic subjects in the series, Mary Bridgeman comments on this: “Fulfilling one of the classic tropes of coming-of-age stories including romance, the heroine is an orphan.”

The unnamed heroine of Daphne du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca (1938), is an orphan who must work as a companion to a rich woman in order to earn a living and mix with the social class that she grew up in. Through her work she begins dating and then marries Max De Winter. This novel is often perceived as a 20th century version of Jane Eyre.

Originally published in hardback on both sides of the Atlantic simultaneously, it has never been out of print. Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances such as Regency Buck (1935) feature a very young heroine made ward of an older yet desirable aristocratic male, set during the same historical period as Jane Austen’s novels. Eventually she comes to love him and realises that he loves her. The wedding follows.

In The Flame and the Flower (1972) by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss, London orphan Heather Simmons must marry Brandon Birmingham and move with him to the United States, travelling to exciting and exotic locations, but love comes later. This explicit and sensational historical novel was published first in paperback, then a new strategy for mass-market romance novels.

Characteristics of Romance Fiction: The Heroine Actively Seeks a Husband

Irene marries Soames Forsyte, a man she does not love, for the security of a middle-class identity in John Galsworthy’s novel The Man of Property (1906). After the end of World War One this becomes the first volume of the long-running Forsyte Saga, a recurring dynastic series on radio, television and bestseller lists.

Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1936) by Margaret Mitchell, must marry an heir to property at least on a social par with her father, which sets up the dilemma of her life. In the course of this epic saga Scarlett O’Hara becomes by force of circumstance several different kinds of romance heroine.

Bridget Jones of Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996) by Helen Fielding, keeps a diary of her aspiration to find a male companion who will fit in with her comfortable middle-class upbringing. The perception of how the hero looks dresses and behaves bestows a particular social identity – this man is the quarry of all chicklit heroines. There are noticeable similarities between this novel and Pride and Prejudice.

The Romance Heroine Uprooted From Familiar Surroundings

The Way of an Eagle (1912) by Ethel M. Dell. Circumstances take the heroine, Muriel Roscoe, from the safe life in England to live with her father, the general of a besieged fort in India. She finds even that way of life, and her father, completely destroyed. By the end of the First World War, Dell was one of the wealthiest authors in Britain.

She became mentor to the young Barbara Cartland, whose long career produced over 700 romance novels which famously never stepped beyond the bedroom door. The Sheik (1919) by E.M. Hull was the first great erotic popular novel of post-World War One and its film version in 1921 became very influential. The heroine, Diana Mayo, experiences kidnapping and being kept prisoner in the desert by the man she eventually loves.

The exotic location later becomes a staple of Mills and Boon (Harlequin) romance fiction. Bella Swan, heroine of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight (2005) moved from living with her mother in Texas to living with her father in Washington, needing to make new friends and allies in school; Edward, the love of her life, becomes such an ally. This is the first worldwide bestselling romance (rather than horror) genre novel with a vampire as hero.

Romance Fiction Translates into Blockbuster Movies

It is no coincidence that several of the bestselling romance fictions considered above also became blockbuster movies. The Sheik, Gone With The Wind, Rebecca, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Pride and Prejudice are now joined by the Twilight franchise.

The individual and independent heroine remains at the core of the movies’ success, while the print versions of many of those stories remain popular. Sources: Clive Bloom. Best Sellers: Popular Fiction Since 1900. (2002). Palgrave Macmillan. Mary Bridgeman. Forged in Love and Death: Problematic Subjects in The Vampire Diaries. (2013). Journal of Popular Culture Vol. 46, Issue 1. Wiley. David Glover & Scott McCracken (eds).

The Cambridge Companion to Popular Fiction. (2012). Cambridge University Press. John Sutherland. Reading the Decades: Fifty Years of the Nation’s Bestselling Books. (2002). BBC Worldwide Ltd.


  1. Frances Spiegel says

    Valerie – what a great article – so full of interesting facts. I think you’ve inspired me to read Gone With the Wind.

  2. Megan HamiltonMegan Hamilton says

    I well remember Daphne DuMaurier, as well as other wonderful writers like Norah Lofts, Catherine Cookson and Mary Stuart. Thanks to these ladies, I rarely looked at television when I was a teenager. Great article!

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