21 August 2010

The Ordinary Heroine

While cleaning the front door path today I was struck by something - I know I prefer ordinary heroines to...extra-ordinary (for want of a better word) heroines, but...what does everyone else prefer? (And no, I'm not quite sure what I mean by extra-ordinary...) See, I'm currently reading Sea Glass (Maria V Snyder). The heroine - Opal Cowan (aged 20 years) - has gone from having what she thought was little to no magical gift to a rather unusual gift (that everyone wants to exploit) and then to a very unusual gift (that everyone is afraid of). And then there is the not one but two (although that could be three) male characters who have expressed an interest.
And to be honest, I found Opal far more interesting when she didn't have all these unusual gifts. When she flew under the radar so to speak. And that got me to thinking about one of my favourite children's books - MM Kaye's The Ordinary Princess:
Along with Wit, Charm, Health, and Courage, Princess Amy of Phantasmorania receives a special fairy christening gift: Ordinariness. Unlike her six beautiful sisters, she has brown hair and freckles, and would rather have adventures than play the harp, embroider tapestries . . . or become a Queen. When her royal parents try to marry her off, Amy runs away and, because she's so ordinary, easily becomes the fourteenth assistant kitchen maid at a neighboring palace. And there . . . much to everyone's surprise . . . she meets a prince just as ordinary (and special) as she is!
I've always loved this book. The heroine is...ordinary, and yet in spite of that...ordinariness she... See, I used the phrase in spite of... What is so wrong with being ordinary? Do we want to read about extra-ordinary heroines because we want to put ourselves in their shoes? Be other than what we are? Is this perhaps why we (and I'm using we very loosely) voraciously follow celebrities...because we see their life as glamorous? As...not ordinary? Is it our way of cloaking ourselves in a little bit of extra-ordinariness? And is reading about extra-ordinary heroines just another part of that?

The weird thing is, I can't put myself in the shoes of someone extra-ordinary, although it is slightly easier the further removed from reality (in other words - fantasy :) the setting is. And maybe that's a self-image thing or maybe not. I don't know. But...I find I relate that much better to a heroine who isn't...souped up (yes, like a car). A heroine like Amy.

So, which do you prefer? The ordinary heroine or the extra-ordinary? Or somewhere in between? And if you read just m/m romance feel free to apply this question to the hero(es) *grin*

Edited to add: Apologies for being offline for most of this week. I have a heap of chores to get through tonight but I hope to be back online tomorrow visiting!


  1. While I basically agree with a lot of what you've said, I think part of the problem is that it considered harder for the ordinary characters to have interesting adventures to hold a book together. The more "stuff" you add to the heroine, the more there is to trigger off the adventure.

    I'm not saying it can't be done - I too just LOVE "The Ordinary Princess" - but it doesn't seem to be done well all that often.

    I remember reading a book as a kid (it was a pony story for the record) and it was all about this girl and her horse and what they did one summer. Nothing out of the ordinary happened and, to be completely hones, it was probably the most boring book I have ever read.

    And yes, for many people and especially when we're children perhaps, there is a wish in our heart of hearts that we were special. Probably we wouldn't actually want it to be true in real life (I rather like my boring, happy life to be honest) but there's a little bit of us that likes the idea that we really might be special like our parents tell us we are - then we grow up and the real world shows us that really we're not.

    I'll email you with a further comment and you can decide if you want to share it or not.

  2. Kerry - I completely agree. And I'm sitting here feeling like an idiot because I completely forgot that part of the discussion. Ah, I read lots of pony stories when I was younger. IIRC I still have most of the books :)

    I don't know if we outgrow the desire to be special...different...something more. I think we're just more realistic. The thing is, whenever I read a romance novel and the heroine isn't drop dead gorgeous but the hero thinks she is...beyond compare - that's the moment when I realize that...to him, she is special. I love that bit.

    And I look forward to the email...

  3. This is what I emailed to Orannia. She gave me permission to add it to this discussion.

    I wonder if this is another situation where your upbringing (which, unfairly on you, wasn't standard "normal" or "ordinary") is a factor in your reactions. I have gained the impression from things you've said that being "ordinary" might well have been a much safer option for you. The ideal for you was not to be noticed because then you might not be yelled at and abused but left alone. So the quieter, less brash, less in your face (and all those abilites are a sign of that) heroine is someone you can relate to better. Ordinary was something to aspire to.

    Me, I had ordinary in spades. So there was this "dream" that there would be something special about me, that I might be just that bit MORE special than anyone else. I didn't actually want to have great adventures or be in the public eye (that would be AWFUL in reality) but it was lovely to be able to DREAM that I was special.

    So in our fiction, yes, I think a lot of us like there to be some specialness about the heroine. I don't want it to be over-the-top crazy, but I do like it when there is something.

  4. Oh and that moment Orannia mentions about when the hero notices that the ordinary heroine is special in his eyes - that one is magical because, if we get lucky and meet the right man, that one might actually happen. It's the fantasy and possibility both at the same time, which perhaps makes it the perfect fantasy.

  5. I like ordinary people who rise above what they themselves consider possible, to face extraordinary circumstances. To me, those are the people who embody the ideal of heroism.

    That is in part why I adore the heroines of Morning Glory and Silver Lining. They don't only believe themselves to be ordinary (both 'not much to look at' and 'nothing special or good'), they are also seen by most of the people around them as ordinary.

    This gives them room to grow.

    Change, no matter how small, brings with it challenges--isn't that why so many coming of age stories hold us spellbound?

  6. I like both, Orannia. Although as we know, the flawless female can be found in contemporaries, I usually read them looking for that reality-based female protagonist where I can find "ordinary" easier.

    However I think human flaws can also be found in fantasy characters. I usually seek that reality in their humanity and flaws and not in their magic or power. Some writers are better than others... but, that combination of fantasy and humanity of characters when done well, can be quite exciting.

  7. I do know that I have a lot of trouble relating to/caring about excessively perfect characters...

  8. To me it doesn't really matter, but I do like it when a heroine can self-actualize. If she's a doormat I'm usually not interested.

  9. Kerry - thank you for sharing :) And WRT the 'moment'? I agree. It is the perfect fantasy because the possibility is there.

    I like ordinary people who rise above what they themselves consider possible, to face extraordinary circumstances.

    *nods* I'm so with you azteclady. I haven't read the two books you've mentioned, but I'm going to go and read your reviews and...perhaps add them to the TBR list. And 'room to grow' is so important.

    Chris - me too. They just...don't feel human. I mean, everyone has faults, yes? They make up who we are.

    heidenkind - self-actualize? I'm not sure if I know what you mean - sorry. Could you explain please? As for doormats...well, I'm kind of one. It's the whole...don't speak up, keep under the radar and I'll be left alone. See, I learnt early on it's better not to draw attention to myself. But I'm working on it :)

  10. I haven't heard of or read The Ordinary Princess before, but be assured I'll be looking for it at the library now.

    I think azteclady articulated exactly what I was feeling reading your post, but was having trouble putting to words.

    I like ordinary people who rise above what they themselves consider possible, to face extraordinary circumstances. To me, those are the people who embody the ideal of heroism.

    Perfectly said and I wholly subscribe to this same sentiment.

    And this:
    Change, no matter how small, brings with it challenges--isn't that why so many coming of age stories hold us spellbound?

    YES! I think this is the driving force behind my continued enjoyment of reading YA.

    Great post and great comments, everyone. :)

  11. Great comments Christine, and I completely agree :) FYI - The Ordinary Princess is a children's book, but...it's a lovely story. I need to find my copy and re-read it.

  12. I love the ordinary heroine - they always are so much more interesting. Not that the extra ordinary ones are dull but they're expected to be more than the others and therefore not as complex, imho.