Bad Girls Make Good Heroines
I recently read two books that are not among my normal genre range. While I typically read just about any speculative fiction, contemporary romances and women’s fiction (particularly if they’re humorous) and some romantic suspense, these two caught my attention. They are remarkably similar in characters and themes, and it’s those characters and themes that interested me. Plus, the stories and writing are fantastic.
The first book, recommended by Super Librarian, is Money Shot by Christa Faust. It’s published under Dorchester’s Hard Case Crime imprint for noir fiction. Ms. Faust was the first female author to be picked up by Hard Case, so that says a lot. I love the protagonist, Angel Dare, a former porn star-turned-adult entertainment manager who makes no apologies about her chosen career. I won’t go into plot details here, but it’s a fast-paced tale of vengeance. It’s also a wee bit on the rough side, considering the world Angel walks in, but don’t let that stop you. There are some great humorous lines and fun characters.
The other book is Slammerkin (Harcourt, Inc.), by Emma Donoghue. I can’t recall where I came across the title and description, but I’m glad I did. This one is more of a historic literary fiction, set in 1760’s London and the surrounding countryside. Don’t get all glazy-eyed on me. It’s very colorful and filled with interesting people. The protagonist is a young girl named Mary who ends up out on the street, selling her body to survive. Ms. Donoghue doesn’t tell a cheery tale here, though there is some darker humor to it. You’ll be drawn into Mary’s life so completely that even in the end, when she does something so…so…well, not good, you’ll STILL feel for her.
On the surface, you may think the only thing these two stories have in common is that the protagonists work the sex trade. While Angel chose to go into the porn business, Mary was given little choice but to sell herself. But eventually Mary, with the help of an older girl named Doll, considers herself mostly lucky not to have anyone to answer to but herself. After a number of years in the porn industry, Angel (who was smart enough to stay away from drugs and such) had the capital to start her own business and be her own boss. Both women have, in Doll’s words, “their liberty.”
What really drew me to these novels were the women. The main characters are not your typical Mary Sue heroines who have perfectly lovely lives upset by a bad day at the office or a broken heart. They are, comparatively, bad girls doing bad things. Despite Angel’s enjoyment of her career, she admits it’s not the most safe environment to work in. And Mary is constantly a heartbeat away from being arrested, assaulted or worse. But they use their brains and their wit to become successful, or at least survive. Even the secondary female characters are strong and intelligent (if not always kind), making their way in the world the best way they know how, legally or otherwise. Some chose their paths, others had no option but to deal with the hand given to them. All strive for their liberty in one way or another.
Why are these characters so intriguing? How can two characters in less than honorable professions be heroines, people you are supposed to root for? During the course of both stories, these women do things that could get them into deep, deep trouble, things you and I would probably never consider doing. Unless, perhaps, our backs were against the wall. And for these women, their backs start off against the wall. Angel is horribly attacked in the first pages, and despite all her strength of character, is shown to be vulnerable not only physically, but emotionally. A hard-worn porn star emotional? You bet. Mary starts off vulnerable (she’s thirteen and in “dire straits” at the beginning) and must get hardened as the novel progresses, but there are still glimpses of the girl she was, the girl she could have been, throughout the story. It’s the way the authors let us into their lives, reveal their hopes, their dreams, that makes you want them to win in the end.
So, you may be wondering, of all the fabulous novels I’ve read, why have I decided to tell you about these two? One of my reasons for reading Money Shot and Slammerkin was for research. No, my current WIP isn’t about porn stars in L.A. or prostitutes in London. It is, however, about a woman in a less than honorable profession. In every book on writing, particularly romances, we’re told readers want a likeable heroine. Not necessarily a Mary Sue or Pollyanna goody-goody type, but she has to have redeeming qualities the reader can get behind. My heroine is a lying thief. She wants the good things in life, but is stuck in a menial day job between hits and hates it. She wants to be her own boss, to have her liberty.
After reading these two novels, I might be able to pull it off. Maybe not nearly as well as Ms. Faust and Ms. Donoghue, but if I pay close attention to their work, I’m confident I can make a good run at it.