Posted On February 16, 2015 by Print This Post

Breaking Heroines to Break Heroes with Sarah M. Anderson

Sarah M. Anderson joins us again to delve into the issue of creating realistic conflict without breaking our hero in two.

Recently I was reading a romance for a contest (no, I’m not going to tell you which one, nor am I SarahMAndersonhiresgoing to identify the books—so just chill out). Anyway, late in the book, the heroine was involved in a horrible accident and had to have emergency surgery, etc.

Okay, fine. All books have to have plot and action, otherwise they get dull. Carry on.

But what happened next bothered me. The heroine had to have her head shaved and a shunt put into her brain—again, this was major surgery. The hero’s reaction was, I think, fairly standard according to Romance Plots: He had failed the heroine by not protecting her and, therefore, was not good enough for her. In fact, the hero concluded he was actively bad for the heroine. He had to keep his distance. There was a lot of manly angst about this (aka whining and moping).

Meanwhile, our heroine? The one who is now bald? Who had a traumatic brain injury? Surely, you’re saying, she was really struggling with this whole accident. Maybe she’s afraid to do the activity that led to the accident. Surely, you’re still saying, she’s really worried about the loss of her hair or the damage to her mind, right?

First off, stop calling me Shirley (I joke!) Second off, you’d be wrong.

The heroine is just fine. Oh, she’s confused as to why the hero has suddenly turned ice cold to her, but she continues the activity that lead the injury within weeks. She is fine. The only—and I do mean ONLY—reaction to this major trauma was one line where she wonders if the loss of her hair is what has turned the hero off. But it’ll grow back, heroine thinks. That’s it. No concerns about her mental state, no self-doubts about her sexuality—nothin’. Everything is A-OK.

I realized it was a very similar thing that I had read in several books (yet again for contests) from last year. In those books, there would be a secondary character—usually the hero’s sister but once an old girlfriend—who had been violently raped/trafficked. These traumatic events were not glossed over—one character even had a barcode tattoo so the bad guys could track her ‘sales.’

But in all those instances, the violated characters? They were fine. They had moved on with their lives. They had families now, children. They didn’t want to think about it anymore. It was the hero who still struggled with having failed his sister/ex. He’d let those poor secondary characters down and that meant—in his mind—that he was not good enough for the heroines because he could not keep them safe.

In all those books, those characters were violated and/or traumatized solely to provide internal conflict for the heroes.

In all those books, the female characters—whether they were secondary characters or the heroines—were not allowed to react to their traumas.

But why is this a problem, you’re saying—bad things happen. Surely you’re not saying we shouldn’t reflect the reality of rape and accidents in the real world, right, Sarah? Especially if I write romantic suspense, right?

Of course I’m not saying that (and again with the Shirley thing!). I do believe we, as authors, have to reflect the world around us. Rape is a constant problem in our society. Accidents happen. People get sick. It would be dishonest to pretend otherwise.

But—serious talk time, people—it’s also dishonest to inflict trauma on our heroines/female characters solely so the heroes have conflict.

In all of these examples, either the heroines had unrealistic reactions to their traumas or they’d ‘gotten over it.’ It didn’t matter if they’d suffered rape, violence, or traumatic accidents—in all cases, they were fine while the heroes struggled.

This is not how the real world works and to reflect this super-okay version in our books does a couple of things. One, it prioritizes the hero’s journey above the heroine’s. He’s allowed to struggle with bad things, but the heroine must be okay with it. She is not allowed to struggle, to feel self-doubt, to be traumatized.

We already have enough of this reality as it is. Rape victims vastly underreport their assaults and many that do are told to just get over it. Why would a romance—a book targeted to women readers, many of whom, statistically speaking, have been assaulted during their lifetimes—tell those readers the best way to handle a traumatic event is to just . . .get over it?

Worse than that, these books tell us that, while the heroine’s internal struggles should be easy to overcome or not even worth mentioning, it’s the hero who we should worry about. After all, he failed in his role of protector, right? And, as authors, we need this conflict, right?

I’m only going to say this once. If your hero’s only conflict is that he failed to protect your heroine, his conflict SUCKS.

(IMPORTANT NOTE: The great big exception to this? The only time a hero should feel bad about failing to protect the heroine is IF IT IS HIS JOB. Think Kevin Costner and Whitney Huston in The Bodyguard. Why is this the exception? Because the conflict is not just internal for the hero—it is also external. See the difference?)

So you’ve traumatized your heroine, shown zero struggle in overcoming that trauma, and spent the remaining pages assuring your angsty hero that he did not fail, that everything’s fine, that she forgives him. He’s all the man she needs, if he would just stop whining and moping. (Bonus writing tip: Whining and moping are not terribly heroic. Find better conflicts!)

I read romance because it’s one of the few places where the heroine’s journey is just as important as the hero’s journey. Authors, don’t take that away from me or from readers.

Do not discount my journey by discounting the heroine’s journey. My struggles are just as valid as any man’s. I want that reflected in the stories I read. I do want to know that yes, it will be okay in the end (that’s why we read romance, after all) but I also want to know that being okay was honestly earned, not just tossed off.

So if you’re going to break your heroine, be honest about it. Give your heroines the space to have real, honest reactions to being broken. (SELF-PROMO TIME!) In my latest Harlequin Desire, His Lost and Found Family, the heroine Skye wakes up from a months-long coma after a car accident. Do you know what her first thought is? It isn’t about how the hero Jake feels.

It’s about how her head was shaved and she doesn’t feel as pretty. It’s about how she’s worried she can’t seem to remember important things (such as asking Jake for a divorce before the accident) (now THAT’S conflict!). It’s about her business, which has been abandoned for months. It’s about when she’ll be able to walk and hold her baby again. Yes, she does wonder about why Jake seems so distant—but that’s a larger part of the whole traumatic accident (she seriously does not remember the divorce thing).

His Lost and Found Family isn’t about how Jake failed to protect Skye—it’s about Skye’s journey to recovery. It’s her story. I broke her, but I let her journey to recovery guide the story. Then, when she recovers (and remembers that whole divorce thing) the black moment feels real and honest and raw instead of all about Jake (luckily he’s not a whiny moper).

So yes, you can break your heroines. But be real and honest in putting them back together. Make their journey as important as the hero’s journey. Reflect the struggle readers may be going through and give them hope that they, too, will deserve a happily-ever-after.

Please. I beg of you.


The Question: This can be a tricky concept but I’m here to help! Ask away!

On Wednesday, Avery Flynn croons “Everything I promo, I do for you.”



Award-winning author Sarah M. Anderson may live east of the Mississippi River, but her heart lies out west on the Great Plains. She loves to put people from two different worlds into new situations and to see how their backgrounds and cultures take them someplace they never thought they’d go. Sarah won the 2012 RT Book Reviewer’s Choice for Desire of the Year for A Man of Privilege.


When not helping out at school or walking her rescue dogs, Sarah spends her days having conversations with imaginary cowboys and American Indians, all of which is surprisingly well-tolerated by her wonderful husband and son. You can learn more about Sarah at


Lost Found Family FINALA secret baby brings ex-lovers together in this tale of lost memories and second chances.

Getting hit with divorce papers isn’t the fresh beginning Jake Holt wanted with Skye Taylor. But when he returns to their Texas hometown, he finds Skye has a child…and no memory of the couple’s painful breakup.

After a long coma, Skye doesn’t remember being swept up in a tornado or nearly losing her baby girl. Seeing Jake again rekindles their all-consuming passion. Then she starts to remember… Is their love strong enough to overcome the past so they can become a real family?

BUY LINKS:  Amazon | Powell’s | Indiebound | B & N | HarlequinAll Romance iBooks | Kobo | Google

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15 Responses to “Breaking Heroines to Break Heroes with Sarah M. Anderson”

  1. This post articulated something which has bugged me about a lot of books that I’ve read lately. I wonder whether some of it comes from the fact that we’re so interested in finding the strong heroine that she’s almost not allowed to have weak moments anymore. For me, true strength comes from being weak–being hurt and struggling–and overcoming that weakness. It’s being afraid but doing it anyway. Reading this made me realize that my hero has some whiny/mopey moments but that I’m okay with them because under the circumstances I think they make sense. My heroine is ‘broken’ by her very nature (it’s a paranormal romance) but struggles with it as much as the hero does. There is a character my hero feels he let down, but she’s haunted by the past that he feels guilty for. That’s the balance I aimed for at least, and I hope I achieved it. Great post.

    Posted by Michelle Irwin | February 16, 2015, 7:22 am
    • Hi Michelle!

      I think as long as your people are equally broken, there’s no problems. Balance is great! I do enjoy a really broken hero (This explains my extreme love of Maisey Yates’ broken heroes)–it’s just when he’s all whiny and she’s totally chill that it bothers me so much. It sounds like both of your characters have plenty of good external and internal conflict–keep up the good work!


      Posted by Sarah M. Anderson | February 16, 2015, 9:42 am
  2. Brilliant post! You’ve revealed the flaws and the fixes for one of my romance trope pet peeves. I’m sending this to a lot of my editing clients, so thanks very much for making my job easier.

    Posted by Faith @ Demon for Details | February 16, 2015, 7:55 am
    • Hi Faith!

      Aww, you say the sweetest things! Like I said, it’s actually taken me a couple of years to figure out why THIS type of situation bugs me so much–it’s such a subtle thing that happens under the surface of the story. I hope this helps your clients!


      Posted by Sarah M. Anderson | February 16, 2015, 9:43 am
  3. Thanks for exploring some issues that many people don’t want to talk about. Rape is always a difficult topic, and I know many people who won’t read a book that includes even a hint of rape or sexual assault. Since, as you mentioned, a huge number of women have been through some form of assault, I think it’s a topic that should not be ignored. But I agree with you – the characters should be allowed to feel the full range of emotions – and denial – that often go side-by-side with rape and sexual assault. It’s a tricky subject at the best of times, as is giving a main character a devastating illness. I don’t enjoy stories that make the hero and heroine suffer right up to the end, so I generally prefer other types of conflict. I think you raise some very valid points here!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | February 16, 2015, 10:21 pm
    • Hi Becke! I know I’ve been blindsided by sexual trauma in books before and it’s hard for me to read. But when my personal difficulties in reading a difficult subject matter are compounded by this kind of subtle dismissing, it makes it even worse. I’ve thrown books that have upset me before. Scares the dogs when I do that!

      It’s a very fine line to walk between dismissing the trauma of assault (“get over it”) and showing a character who is so incapacitated by the trauma she can’t function. I’ve seen it done really well (Courtney Milan’s The Governess Affair walks the line perfectly) but when it’s poorly done, it’s not enjoyable at all.

      Posted by Sarah M. Anderson | February 17, 2015, 9:32 am
  4. Evening Sarah..

    Wow, that’s an excellent post and an excellent point. There’s so many books I start to read, then set aside because they aren’t plausible, or the characters don’t feel real. You’ve just pointed out a big reason why!

    Thanks for the great post – definitely one to bookmark!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | February 16, 2015, 10:46 pm
  5. Well said, that woman. Great post!

    Posted by Carlie | February 17, 2015, 3:42 am
  6. Sarah…I loved this lecture!!! It really opened up my mind in respect to my heroine & heroes journey. Thanks so much for writing it! I bought the book you mentioned I want to study it and see if my current WIP is lacking in any way.

    Thanks again,

    Posted by Catherine Conn | February 17, 2015, 9:33 am
    • Hi Cat! I think it’s a pretty easy trap to fall into and it’s a very subtle one–it took me a couple of years and several books before I was able to figure out why the set-up bothered me so danged much.

      I hope you enjoy His Lost and Found Family! And let me know if you have any questions! Best of luck!

      Posted by Sarah M. Anderson | February 17, 2015, 9:56 am
  7. This comment reached me by email – I don’t think anyone posted it yet:

    Loved this lecture!!! Sarah M. Anderson’s lecture really resonated with what I need to do to fix my book.

    Janice Hampton
    writing as
    Cat Conn
    “It’s never too late to be who you might have been.” George Eliot

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | February 17, 2015, 12:52 pm


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