First off, I believe the question of motive determines our perception of good, and especially of evil. If a character is doing good deeds to get noticed, for example making charitable donations just to get their name into the press, then we don't have the respect for that character that he/she wanted. Conversely, if a character commits murder, but it's in order to save the life of an innocent person, or a loved one, then we allow for the evil deed to be committed, but don't consider the character evil.
Then there is the question of gender. A male character can get away with a whole lot more of what is considered questionable behavior, and still be a hero. But a female character, holding a mirror up to our society, will be given much less slack. How so?
How many romances involve heroes who commit murder, steal, lie, and/or are promiscuous, or even commit rape or forced seduction? This is the very definition of an alpha male. Yet time and time again, the love of a "good woman" is the catalyst for that character to see the evil of his ways, and to change. I used to say the shorthand for a large genre of romances was: He's evil, she's good. Her purity and love changes him. He marries her and they will live happily, and monogamously, ever after. Sound familiar? We are conditioned to believe if women are pure and virtuous, our self-denial will be rewarded with our attracting the attention of the most desirable male, who has lots of experience pleasuring women, but who will now turn his charms only on me. Um, right? Good luck with that. It rarely works in real life; but then, romance stories are fantasies, with only well-endowed, ripped and buff alpha males, and thin, virtuous yet secretly-sensual females. Unfortunately for me, considering how many books have that trope, that's not my fantasy.
The flip side for men is that if they're too good, meaning the kind of beta males who take good care of their mothers and love their sisters, and who respect a woman's right to say "No," then they're not considered fantasy-worthy. Except to women like me who find it incredibly sexy when a man has respect for his woman. And is good with babies. Yum!
Now let's look at heroines. Heroines are often portrayed as endangered, so they're not the ones who commit the questionable acts necessary to protect life, liberty and the American way. They are usually virtuous if not virginal, and they often fret about their lack of sexual experience. This is a very popular trope, but not something I enjoy, so I don't write to it. I can't identify with any woman who doesn't actively pursue an enjoyable sex life.
The heroines I write are in charge of their own sexuality, thank-you, and they take what they want, and give what they're willing to share. They own their own feelings, and don't need a man to show them how good sex can feel. They also don't need to be rescued because they're too smart to get themselves into trouble they can't escape from. Yet if they do get captured or threatened, they're capable of kicking bad-guy ass themselves. And if they commit a murder or steal or do anything that seems to make them evil, then it's for a very good reason...like they work for a secret agency that tells them what they're doing is the right thing to do.
The result is that I've had reviewers criticize my books because the heroine is "unlikable". In Analysis of Love, the heroine is a hot Latina who has always been able to attract any man she sets her mind to. When her unsavory boss orders her to seduce an analyst who he feels ruined his son's life, she reluctantly agrees. Her task is much less onerous when she meets the man, and is instantly attracted to him. Unfortunately, he's been blind since childhood, and she's used to using her good looks to attract men. Now she has to figure out how to do things a new way. I worked on the seduction scene for a long time, only to have one reviewer call it a rape scene: of the hero, by the heroine. Would a hero have been repugnant to her for the same action? Judging by her glowing reviews of books with similar scenes with alpha males, I don't think so.
In Only One Man Will Do, the heroine, Alexandria, is the leader of a biker gang when she's not running her father's marketing company. She takes what she wants without asking, and sees nothing wrong with being sexually involved with all of the men in her gang. Her romance called for a lot of sex, since it's important to her. The hero has to convince her that he can be all the man she needs. She's one of my favorite heroines, and not just because she's a redhead!
In Her Last Resort, Stella has been an agent working for the CIA for 30 years. In the very first chapter, she has to defend herself against a young man trying to kill her. It's kill or be killed, and she's won this game many times before. But she's unprepared for this scene very late in the book with her adult daughter:
"How about if I don't want to answer, I won't. You can ask me anything. You're my daughter and I love you."
After another small silence, Kelly blurted out, "How can the mother I love also be a murderer? How can you be so sweet and loving, yet be the kind of person who kills for a living?"
Stella's eyebrows rose.
"Wow. That's out of the blue. Has this been bothering you since you saw the damage I did to that kid at the party?"
Kelly shook her head, "No. Not really. He tried to kill you, so he deserved whatever you did to him. And he was still breathing when you got done. It's just that...well...Jared gave me a script he wants me to read. He gave one to Raul also. It's not the kind of movies I usually do. It's more along Raul's usual lines, since it's a mystery-action-thriller kind of thing. But the female lead is a mercenary. She kills for a living. I told Jared I'd think about it, but honestly? I've never even held a gun. Guns scare me. And I'd have no idea how to act like I was the kind of woman who could kill without a conscience."
"What kind of woman is that, do you suppose? Someone like your mother?"
"That's what I mean," Kelly said earnestly. "I can't juxtapose what I know about you, with what I'm sure you must have done. How can you have delivered two children, yet have taken lives so easily?"
"What makes you think it's ever easy?"
"Then how can you do it?"
Stella thought for a long moment.
That's the kind of heroine I write. For some, my heroines cross the line into too evil/brassy/unlikable, or substitute any other pejorative used for females who don't know their place. But those are the woman I identify with, and since they're so rare in Romancelandia, someone has to give them a voice.
Sorry for the length of the post, but this is a topic I've thought long and hard about, for obvious reasons. What do you think? Leave comments below, and tell me which of my recent heroines, biker queen Alexandria or super spy Stella, is the one whose story you'd like to read. I'll pick a winner next week, who can choose either an eBook or an autographed paperback. Come on, give something different a try! You might enjoy it.
To read what other authors thought about this topic, check them out:
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Judith Copek http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com/
Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/
Connie Vines http://connievines.blogspot.com/
Rachael Kosinski http://rachaelkosinski.weebly.com/
Helena Fairfax http://helenafairfax.com/
Rhobin Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com/