“Now It Always Seemed Such a Waste, She Always Had a Pretty Face”

Or, Why are there so many wallflowers in romance?

The sheer number of wallflower type heroines has struck me since I began writing romance—since I became a producer as well as a consumer.  Strictly as a reader, I never really noticed that the percentage of women who were social outcasts or painfully shy or marginalized was as high as three in four, especially in historicals.  Probably my oblivion persisted because it is a character type I identify with, and because of that identification, I was never left thinking, “Where are the heroines like me?”  But when I started writing and examining potential stories for similarities to one another and to other books I’ve read, I had to start looking at character types, and I noticed quickly what seemed a disproportionately high number of awkward and isolated females.

What I want to know, though, is if there are romance readers who do find themselves missing their representations in fiction, or if this is a popular archetype because it resonates with everyone?

First of all, let me clarify that I do not read much contemporary romance, paranormal or otherwise, so this might be a phenomenon that applies only to historical romance.  It might only apply to a fairly narrow period of historical romance, even—but I unabashedly admit that 95% of the romance I read is set in Napoleonic/Regency/early Victorian England.  And in that (popular) subset of historical time and place, there are a lot of wallflowers. 

Let me also clarify that I am using the term “wallflower” here to mean heroines who feel awkward socially, find themselves overlooked, are shy and introverted, or are socially “less-than” for one reason or another (a loose definition; perhaps too loose, but to me the archetypes fall as the lady who is popular, confident, and beautiful…and everyone else).

The first question to ask is whether this trend is even true, or if my own selection bias created it.  Do I gravitate to these types of characters and plots and therefore think this type dominates the genre because it dominates the stories I read?  Am I forgetting about the books I put back on the shelf at the store because I didn’t like the set-up, including a different type of heroine?

Let’s assume I’m right and that it is a common archetype, if not quite as dominant overall as it is in my collection.  The more interesting question, to me, is if the popularity of this character type is due to some kind of self-selection among romance readers and writers or if it reflects a deeper truth about the female experience of the world. 

Self-selection within the genre:  based in the producers or the consumers (or both)?  Basically, do writers create wallflower heroines because they are what readers seem to want or because they are the character type most understood by those writers, because women who become writers including (or even especially) of romance tend to be shy, thoughtful, and introverted themselves? 

I’m honestly not sure which is the case.  I don’t mean to accuse writers of sitting at their computers trying to figure out what type of character their ideal reader would relate to; rather, writers of a genre almost invariably start out as readers, and to some extent their original work must be shaped by the examples they have absorbed from the works they read.  Romance writers have read other people’s novels and other people’s heroines.  Perhaps those heroines they identified with most were the girls who felt shy or overlooked—naturally their imaginations would move in that direction with their own work. 

But, as a writer, I can also see a young woman’s status as a wallflower being a necessary plot device.  A confident young beauty is likely going to get married off in her first season without a great deal of drama, so there are a limited number of stories that can be told with her as the heroine. (Offhand I can think of maybe six novels I’ve read that have this type of heroine, compared to probably 50 with wallflowers of one stripe or another.)  In that case, is the wallflower type really being used because it’s who readers and writers relate to, or because there is almost never a story with her popular counterpart?

What about the truth that, in real life, the number of popular, beautiful, self-assured people is actually fairly low (however many might be able to claim one of the three)?  Perhaps writers are simply reflecting the fact that there is a larger population of wallflowers or outcasts/rejects of one sort or another than those who are both at the “center” of everything and feel like they belong there…I’ve certainly read plenty of stories where the seemingly popular heroine feels desperately lonely and isolated because she has no real friends despite having many suitors and a lot of acquaintances. 

That sort of secret wallflower character, in conjunction with the popularity of true wallflowers in fiction, makes me wonder if most women—or people, for that matter, but this post is about females—feel isolated, lonely, or misunderstood?  We can’t ever experience someone else’s matrix of the world, after all, so we never know what insecurities or self-doubts plague those many, many people we have met but do not really know.  Even our friends, those who tell us their deepest fears, may not tell us everything or we may not believe them when they do. 

Perhaps what this character type signifies, in the end, is that we should all have a little more sympathy for one another because all of us are wallflowers at one time or another. 

I don’t know.  I can’t draw any firm conclusions on this one, because all I have, in the end, is my own experience.  So what has yours been?



Filed under Reflections on Romance

2 responses to ““Now It Always Seemed Such a Waste, She Always Had a Pretty Face”

  1. Great post! I would say (again, just drawing from my own experience) that there’s probably some truth to the “we write what we know” theory. A lot of writers are introverted and socially awkward to some degree, so writing it is only logical. The closest I got to using specific personal experience, however, was not with a heroine but a hero – Spencer from One Dance with a Duke suffered panic attacks in crowded ballrooms. I’m not so extreme, but have definite Spencer tendencies.

    I would guess part of it is also the Cinderella factor – many archetypal stories feature a downtrodden/misunderstood/underappreciated girl who triumphs in the end. Within the Regency setting, “Society” and its constricts is the ever-present antagonist, and social ostracism is the worst punishment it can exact. So Regency-wise, I think maybe “wallflower” is just another way of saying “underdog”?

  2. I just got this hilarious montage picture of a conspiracy of writers all hunched over keyboards in dark rooms, windows boarded up, each thinking “if i write out my neurosis enough times then people will start to think I’M the norm and THEY are weird.” NOT that I think that’s true (or that writers are that disfunctional!), but it was too funny not to mention.

    I remember that scene! My social anxiety is (thankfully) limited to the Mr. Darcy style of standing about looking awkward and saying nothing.

    Interesting points about the Cinderella archetype and who she was derived to inspire (I mean, if you have it all why do you need her story to cling to for hope?), and Society as the main antagonist in many Regency stories. I’ve never quite thought of it in those terms, but absolutely, it’s rarely a single person so much as the collective that creates a threat or consequences. Which sort of makes every Regency a Man VS Society story in the old high school English 4 types of literature terms. Ha! And here I thought they were Man VS Self….

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