13 June 2011

The Over-40 Heroine – do we care?

The heroine in most romance novels is in her mid-20s and often younger if it’s historical romance. Yet readers of romance cover a wide age range with over 40 percent in the 31-49 years age group.

It’s clear that the more mature heroine is under-represented in romance novels…but is it a problem?

The strong readership in more mature age groups suggests readers of this age are finding a lot to enjoy in the current offerings.

We know mature women are interested in romance, enjoying romances or seeking a romance if they’re not in one but as readers we seem happy not to read about those journeys.

As writers of romance are we writing heroines younger than we are and if so why?

Is the issue with the publishers? Some imprints have focused on the romantic journey of the older women and not enjoyed the market success that the demographics might have suggested. So we’re back with readers of romance.

I don’t especially look for books where the heroine is a particular age for my reading. It’s the story that’s important for me.

The heroines I’ve created are mainly somewhere in their 30s but I’ve never felt the need to specify an age. I don’t set out to write a heroine younger than me it just seems that 30s is sort of an ‘every age’, neither too old nor too young and so the story seems more accessible.


Anonymous said...

Very thought provoking Lesley. I agree that its under-represented and I guess like 'real life' models they don't sell like the perfect/young ones.

I read a lot of Young Adult too (even middle grade fiction) so I guess for me its the story that counts and what the character learns, more than their age.


Juanita Kees said...

Thank you for posting this blog. It caught my attention immediately, not only because I am an over-40 heroine but I'm also writing about one.

The funny thing is that, when I was under 40, I used to avoid books where the heroines had 'life experience' in favour of the younger heroines in the blush of first love.

I've found since that my reading choice has grown with me and I'm choosing more of a range where the story captures my attention rather than the age/experience of the characters.

I do think over-40 heroines are becoming more popular as Generation X begins to discover life beyond the Empty Nest.

This was great reading :)


Lesley Ann Smith said...

Thanks for your comment Kym.

I like your comparison to models. There's been a rejection of size zero models and heroine chic and in 2011 there's no tolerance for the TSTL heroine.

Perhaps we're at the beginning of an emerging trend.


Lesley Ann Smith said...

Thanks for commenting Juanita.

I remember recovering from university exams at the beach by reading Barbara Cartland novels in quick succession. Even then as a late teenager, the young inexperienced heroines didn't hold my attention and I'd quickly move on to a different type ofromance noval and heroines in their twenties.

I agree with you that a great story can capture a reader no matter how old the heroine.

If Gen X is becoming more interested in the mature heroine then I guess 40 isn't what it used to be which opens up a lot more interesting story lines.


Anna Jacobs said...

Interesting topic. I like to write and read about the whole range of ages, because it's unreal and (to me) boring to focus only on the young. But I don't write category romance, so please take these comments for mainstream romantic novels only.

I don't usually write about very young women, though nothing is set in concrete and I did one recently, to my own surprise. But she's not the main romantic interest, she's a secondary character. My central figures probably range from 25 to 65. Male and female. My readers range from 14 to 95, male and female.

As a reader of three books a week, I look for authors who also do a whole range of ages.

My previous agent (dead now) used to say to keep heroines under 40 if possible. I think that was his own age showing. It didn't seem to affect my sales to have older heroines.

My new agent (who isn't old herself) really likes some of my older characters, and readers comment positively on the grandfather/mother figures as well.

The world isn't only occupied by under 40s, after all. In fact the population is growing older on average, so maybe we novelists should bear that in mind.

Cathleen Ross said...

I wrote an 40 year old heroine for Love, Lust and Lies but I struggled with the cover the publisher gave me. They put grey streaks in her hair but in my mind I had a spunky woman who looked good for her age.

Lesley Ann Smith said...

Thanks Anna. It's good to hear the agent's perspective as well.

I usually write a 30's heroine but in the book I've just plotted the heroine is barely out of her teens. It surprised me but her story has to be told.


Lesley Ann Smith said...

I agree Catherine.

Blythe Danner looks wonderful in that photo and she's 68.

40 isn't what it used to be which makes it a lot more interesting for us writers and the readers.


oldbitey said...

Hi Lesley. I am very interested in the over 40 romance heroine. It's what I write and what I research.

My masters research focused on the under-representation of women over forty in romance fiction. I made a point to discuss how, after a certain age, women are shoved out of romance and into the world of "women's fiction," where a love story is not central to the plot.

There is a market for older heroines, but, as Anna Jacobs mentioned, this market is seldom catered for. The resistance to older women as romantic leads seems to come from within the industry, rather than from readers. The average age of a romance reader is 44 and getting older. The industry needs to wake up and take notice of this reading demographic in the same way Hollywood has started to with shows like Desperate Housewives, and movies like It's Complicated.

While there are a small number of romance novels with 40+ heroines, for the most part more mature women are still cast as secondary characters. My current PhD research combines the findings of my masters research and examines the ways women over 40 are represented in romance fiction, and most of the time it ain't pretty.

Romance fiction is open to innovation. If a tortured centuries-old vampire and SciFi aspects of Steampunk can add vitality to the love story, certainly a woman in her 40's or 50's can bring all sorts of baggage and experience on the same wild emotional ride. After all, if vampires show us anything, love is a biological imperative while age is just a number.


Lesley Ann Smith said...

Thanks Sandra for contributing to the discussion. I think I may have read your master's thesis. I'm doing some research as well but not on this subject.

It's interesting that you identify publishers as the obstacle.

As you say romance writing is continually evolving and maybe the next wave will have something more to offer the mature heroine.


J.Arlene Culiner said...

Hi, Lesley. Thanks for bringing up this subject. And yes, there are so many romance readers who want over 40s main characters, but it's the publishers who are blocking the manuscripts. In my soon to be released category romance, my hero and heroine are certainly over 40 but I didn't actually come out and state their ages. If I had, the manuscript would probably have been refused. Only two weeks ago another manuscript was refused because my main characters are in their early 60s. The publisher wrote, "our readers wouldn't be able to identify with this story because of the advanced age of the hero and heroine."
Advanced age?
Quite frankly, I want to write about people around my own (advanced) age group who are living interesting lives, have experience, wisdom and still are happy to fall in love and begin again. I have absolutely no interest in either reading or writing about hidden babies, surprise pregnancies or the other themes so popular with younger readers.