Curse Of The Nitwit Heroine

Sexy couple woman with sheer panties

By Elizabeth Shore

This week at Lady Smut we’re gearing up for the fantastic HarperImpulse digital romance festival happening this weekend. It’ll be a great way to connect with readers and fellow authors and as we virtually come together to chat about romance. It’s ironic, therefore, that while I’m looking forward to connecting with all these savvy readers and writers, I happen to be reading a romance containing one of my least favorite things – a nitwit heroine.

We all do things kind of nitwit-ish. A couple of days ago I went to the grocery store when I was starving. Big mistake! It explains how my freezer ended up  full of vanilla chocolate chip. But the nitwit heroine does more than impulsively buy too much ice cream. She screws up her relationship with the hero, prolongs a problem that could be solved in a couple of sentences, or behaves in a way that makes women as a whole appear to have heads full of straw. She’s oft been referred to as the TSTL heroine – Too Stupid To Live. Gaaah!!

Compounding my frustration with the nitwit heroine is this: I see the behavior time and again in romances and not nearly as often in other fiction genres. Thrillers, crime, mystery, scifi, YA, detective … the heroines there may fall for the wrong guy, or make foolish decisions, or act impulsively, but what they don’t do is act like idiots. Not to the point where you, the reader, want to alternately cringe or throw the book against the wall.

One of my main problem with the nitwit heroine is that it’s tough to cheer for her. Not because I myself am above being a nitwit. No siree Bob. And hey, we’ve all had our moments. But the thing is, when we’re reading romances and inserting ourselves in place of the heroine, it’s her cool qualities we want to connect with. After all, it’s fun to be the really pretty girl who has a guy – or guys! – tripping over his own feet simply to adore us. Who has a glamorous job, lives in a hip neighborhood. Or maybe we want to be the heroine who singlehandedly runs the ranch and has the local rodeo champ want to ride more than a bucking bronco. These heroines will make mistakes, and poor choices, and have missteps along the way of falling in love, and that’s all OK. Mistakes we can deal with. We’ve all made them. But being an idiot? Pass.

In the book I’m reading, it’s the woman’s airheaded, cringe-worthy behavior that’s my biggest beef. She’s booked herself on a cruise to find her forever baby daddy. So any guy who raises an interested eyebrow her way is immediately pelted with questions about his level of commitment and how many kids he wants. Um, yeah. How about a cup of coffee first? See if maybe you actually have something in common to work with? And if you’re that set on only meeting men with baby potential, do you really think a cruise is the place to start?

Granted, she’s not the dumbest heroine I’ve ever come across and is certainly not TSTL. But why does she have to be even a little brainless? I don’t want to connect with her. And on a macro level, I’m frustrated that this kind of representation continues to be found in the romance genre. Give me a courageous, savvy, exciting, beautiful heroine who makes mistakes from time to time but who is admired and has a big heart and who always gets the cool dude in the end. Now that’s my kind of heroine.

We’re talking heroines and much more more at this weekend’s digital Romance Festival 2014, so be sure to sign up. And while you’re at it, follow us at Lady Smut, where we’re bringing you smart posts every day of the week.





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  • Harliqueen
    June 4, 2014 at 7:00 am

    I agree, I connect much more with heroines who are focused and when they make mistakes can fix them, they seem rather more real and someone I’d like to be 😀

  • Madeline Iva
    June 4, 2014 at 7:19 am

    What happens to me when I read about this kind of heroine is I start thinking “Is that what readers want? Dim heroines?” and then I start fretting that I should dumb down my work, and I get all angsty. Thank you for reminding me that as much as I like a bright, quick, heroine other readers do too!

    • Kel
      June 4, 2014 at 10:42 am

      Ugh. No, please don’t think this is what readers want. There might be people out there who take comfort in feeling more intelligent in comparison to the obviously beautiful/desirable heroine.

      Personally, I’d rather a competent one, and my book club feels the same way. In fact there have been some epic discussion spawned by nitwit heroines. The only time we can really stomach them is when we’re in the mood for mindless beach reads – but even then we’d rather an intelligent heroine.

    • Elizabeth Shore
      June 4, 2014 at 5:12 pm

      I really do think that we all connect with the heroines and insert ourselves in her place. So really, who wants to be an idiot?

  • Author Charmaine Gordon
    June 4, 2014 at 7:29 am

    Just as in real life, I disconnect and move on down the road to chat with someone who has a brain. Another fine post, Elizabeth.

  • C. Margery Kempe
    June 4, 2014 at 8:12 am

    A lot of my noir tales (as Graham Wynd) have characters who think they’re a lot smarter than they are, but seldom bubble-headed. Mostly they just don’t see that there are other options. I can’t bear stupid people, so I wouldn’t read a book with a nitwit protagonist — unless it was really funny and they were supposed to be funny.

    • Kel
      June 4, 2014 at 11:19 am

      I have slogged through them because they were book-club books, then lambasted them in the group discussions, but in my own reading choices, I completely agree. I might have to be polite to humans in real life, but I don’t have to be polite to a book. 🙂

      • Elizabeth Shore
        June 4, 2014 at 5:14 pm

        Ha ha, Kel. Totally agree. We don’t have to be polite to a book.

  • elfahearn
    June 4, 2014 at 10:57 am

    You know what I hate worse than reading about a nitwit heroine–writing one. And that’s why I depend on smart, savvy critique partners like you, Peachy.

    Great post, per usual.

  • Liz Everly
    June 4, 2014 at 10:59 am

    Great post as usual, Elizabeth. Bravo! And boo on the nitwits.

    • Elizabeth Shore
      June 4, 2014 at 5:14 pm

      Thank you, ladies. So happy you enjoyed the post. 🙂

  • Kel
    June 4, 2014 at 11:48 am

    I have a great and undying hatred of the nitwit heroine. There is nothing that makes me hate everything about the book than inexplicable stupidity on the part of the book’s focus. Why bother reading the book when the plot could be solved with 30 seconds of someone glaring at someone else and a couple of pointed questions… and possibly a shot or three of something strong to deal with the headache of the stupid people possibly reproducing in the future.

    Then again, stupidity is the one unforgivable flaw in my universe, so other people might be more forgiving.

    • Kel
      June 4, 2014 at 11:50 am

      *more than – Ugh. incoherence from just the thought of it. (Okay, really, just being distracted by other things while trying to write a reply, but still…)

  • Kathryn R. Blake
    June 4, 2014 at 4:43 pm

    I like heroines with flaws, so they have room to grow and learn. However, I agree with you on TSTL characters, though some of the most tragic characters in literature could be considered TSTL if matched against today’s standard of strong, independent woman. But I like what elfahearn said. You sound like an excellent reader to point out character flaws and what you’d prefer the heroine did instead. Beta read anyone?

    • Elizabeth Shore
      June 4, 2014 at 5:16 pm

      Absolutely agree, Kathryn. Perfection isn’t good, either. We all have flaws and we bond with others who do as well. But brainless morons, no thanks.

  • Nicola
    June 18, 2014 at 6:52 am

    I think the heroine’s you’re looking for were everywhere when bonkbusters were all the rage. None of Jackie Collins books had anything but strong, fearless, independent, gorgeous – in short perfect – heroines. Then along came Bridget Jones and flawed was in, because she was easier to relate to than Lucky Santangelo. Then writers started morphing flawed, but relatable, into idiot heroines and the success of shows like TOWIE where airheadedness is celebrated probably contributes. It will turn again I expect.


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