I recently saw a post in a romantic fantasy group where a reader was seeking books with a “sweet, sensitive beta hero who doesn’t take over and lets the heroine have agency.” Part of me wanted to immediately clap back and point out that in order for a hero to be “sweet and sensitive” and/or capable of respecting the personhood of his chosen love interest, he does NOT have to be beta. Plenty of take charge alpha guys have the emotional intelligence to not treat their romantic partners as children.
However, I get the frustration because there is a certain romantic fantasy trope where a big strong alpha dude bullies the woman for her own good/safety. He puts his role of protector as his utmost calling and doesn’t respect that she can make choices for herself. Sometimes this is a growth arc, like he learns to eventually trust that she can make the right choices. Other times the story sides with him and she realizes she should’ve listened to him all along, and maybe he was right about “don’t go walking in the fire swamp or you will get eaten by ROUSes” or whatever it is he violates her agency to prevent her from doing, and this is used to excuse his methods … and sometimes the female character in these situations is an idiot who would probably be much better off if she were bubble wrapped and kept away from all pointy objects (and a lot of the reason writers keep writing this trope is because there’s an audience for it, and as long as people are buying those books, people will write those books) … but I digress.
My point to this ramble is that it is VERY possible to balance the power within a relationship and create a male character who is competent, strong, and take charge without violating the female’s right to also be competent, strong, and take charge. You can even get some great conflict and chemistry out of it.
I’ll also include some examples from books, both my own and by others, so you can check them out (this will include affiliate codes.).
Things that can create a power imbalance:
The heroine NEEDS to be rescued:
A lot of the reason the guy takes charge in these stories is because the female character is, often because of the devices of her society and upbringing, kind of useless. In certain scenarios, it makes logical sense. The princess, heiress, noble lady who has lived her life surrounded by luxury and servants to do her every bidding and no need to act past her tea times and royal balls probably wouldn’t be much good if suddenly thrown into an adventure. And honestly, if you want to write a “kidnapped princess is rescued by a rough but competent soldier of fortune and falls in love with him in spite of their differences in status …” there’s an audience for that. It feeds into certain romantic fantasies that a lot of women have (both about living in the lap of luxury and being rescued) which I can definitely see the appeal of. You CAN work around this by giving her some special skills/knowledge that can help along the way so even if she’s out of her league, she can hold her own a bit and the guy can see her value. Or make her particularly kind and compassionate in a way that his rough life hasn’t given him the luxury of being … there’s ways to make this work where it’s not completely annoying (and your audience might not even care because that’s not what they’re reading it for, but if you’re writing for that audience then … why do you care what I say in this post anyway?).
But if you’re not writing for the “in it simply for romantic fantasy of being rescued” crowd, then find a way to give the heroine some skills or traits that make her not just an object the hero is in charge of keeping safe for the length of the story.
EXAMPLES YOU CAN ACTUALLY READ:
Ghostlight by Rabia Gale. The heroine is a young debutante suddenly made ghost who doesn’t have a lot of particular skills but she has a way with people and a determination to get back into her body that gives her a lot of agency within her tale even if she is somewhat dependent on her rescuer due to situations.
Spindle by W. R. Gingell. The heroine is a rescued “sleeping beauty” thrown into a world that she knows little about with fuzzy memories and a lot working against her. This one is helped by the fact that her “hero” is kind of a slapdash lunatic who tends to leave her to her own devices while he gets distracted by shinies so she is kind of forced to muddle through in spite of her disadvantages.
An Ordinary Knight (this one is mine). The heroine is the most sheltered princess you could imagine, but she makes up for it in gumption, pushing the story along even as she does rely on her more experienced (in that he’s seen the world outside of the tower where she’s been kept for her own safety for 16 years) hero to help her find her way in the big scary world.
The HERO needs to be rescued:
Sometimes instead of giving us an incompetent or ill-prepared heroine, the author gives us the same thing with a guy. A lot of times, I think it’s an over correction from the damsel in distress trope where we end up with a dude in distress instead.
That said, wanting the girl to sometimes rescue the guy is NOT a bad thing. It’s a reversal of the fantasy mentioned above, and again, not going to analyze whether it’s “healthy” or not.
One thing I WILL say is there’s a lot more pressure put on a guy than a girl to be self-saving, and it’s harder to write a sympathetic guy character who gets in a position where the girl has to save him … but it’s completely doable without making the guy essentially useless and passive.
So if you’re writing a strong heroine, don’t be afraid to make her occasionally rescue the guy, but also it doesn’t do any good to over-correct and make the guy useless as some sort of penance for all those useless heroines over the years.
EXAMPLES YOU CAN ACTUALLY READ:
When Ravens Fall by Savannah Jezowski features a heroine who has to rescue a prince/god who has been turned into a bear. There’s some twisty twists, but it has a good balance because the guy is, well, a bear, and there’s some limits to things he can do for himself.
Lord of Dreams by C. S. Brightly has a heroine pulled into a world where a fading fairy king has been captured and she has to lead him out. The king spends a lot of the book kind of mad/ill, but you get the sense that the guy has been through hell and really just needs some help, gosh dang it.
To Court a Queen (by me) Devin is a pretty capable knight but is over his head in a lot of ways and relies on the knowledge and wit of his helper/eventual love interest to navigate the challenges of a sadistic fairy queen. He does get his own chance to rescue her in the end, but yeah, he would’ve died the first night if not for Sevaine.
In a balanced relationship, both characters generally speaking might be in danger at any given time and might need the other to help them out. A balanced hero/heroine relationship does not mean that they are never going to need assistance or rely on each other. Most relationships are, to some degree, based on people actually needing help and support, and (in real world terms) whether this support is emotional, logistical (can you pick up the kids today because I need to go to an appointment?), or physical (can you open this pickle jar for me, dear?), characters who need it are NOT weak.
A character’s final arc might involve them learning to accept help--or it might involve them having to stand alone with all support systems removed (there are a LOT of different ways to sideline overly helpful love interests who might otherwise get in the way of them doing this, but that’s a whole other post).
So, what does this look like?
Nyssa Glass and Ellis Dalhart (the Nyssa Glass series). While both Nyssa and Ellis are engineers and scientists, Nyssa is more a fixer and straight forward thinker while Ellis is an inventor and innovator. Nyssa does occasionally have to save Ellis, and when Nyssa is in a pinch, Ellis is usually the one who comes to her aid.
This might not be present at the beginning of a relationship. Especially if the guy is a natural protector. Kajik and Arynne in Daughter of Sun, Bride of Ice start out in a place where his literal assignment is to see her safely to her new home, and he takes it upon himself to absorb dangers along the way on her behalf. However, as Arynne’s skill with magic improves and she finds her own power, she is able to come to his aid, and in the final battle, he must trust that she can fight at his side.
It may be VERY unnatural for certain character types to allow someone they care about (whether it be a friend, sibling, child, or love interest) to take risks. You often have to put that love interest in a place where they have no choice but to accept it, and it will be agonizing for them.
I don’t think this desire to protect makes the character bad. We do see it more often in guys towards girls, but as any mother will tell you, it’s not exclusive to guys. Where it becomes a character flaw is when the protective individual violates the will of the one they intend to protect in order to protect them (unless that person they need to protect is an actual small child.). This is a “good intentions, bad methodology” and it can leave a bad taste in a reader’s mouth. Again, not all readers. There is a certain reader who does not care about the methods as long as the motive was protection. Again, not analyzing the healthiness of this attitude. Fiction can be escapist and sometimes it does not reflect a perfect view of our reality.
In real life, a guy who locks a girl in her room to prevent her from doing something he sees as dangerous, BAD. Unequivocally bad. In fiction? It can sometimes just be a plot device that furthers a story and fantasy that a reader can enjoy while not necessarily advocating real life kidnapping. That’s because fiction is “safe” and many people (not all, but many) can play with dangerous ideas without them actually hurting us.
Just because your characters CAN hold their own against each other doesn’t mean they need to be flaunting this at all times. It’s annoying. We might need help, but if someone gives it to us in a patronizing way, male or female, then we don’t like it.
Developing a relationship where the characters genuinely appreciate each other and will consult each other rather than making one-sided decisions is good from both half of the gender divide. It shows a couple willing to work to make it as a pairing rather than determined to always act as individuals. Not because they are co-dependent or controlling, but because they acknowledge that the choices they make affect the other.
A single person can quit their job and move across the country.
A person in a relationship who came home one day and announced they quit their job and are moving across the country without consulting with their other half is not respecting the relationship, and it is not unreasonable for the other half to be angry that such a decision was made without communication and consultation.
In a book that I have not published yet, there’s a point where the MC is tempted to leave her love interest “for his own good” because she could potentially be a danger to him. She decides not to because he deserves to be a part of that decision, even if it means him taking a risk.
Admittedly, it can be a lot harder to make this work with male personalities, especially due to cultural training to protect women in their life. I’m not even sure that’s something I necessarily want to lose in guys. I don’t want a man to take away my choices, but I don’t mind it when I’m feeling put upon if my husband steps up in my defense.
As someone who has written the protector type quote a bit (Jericho in Spellsmith & Carver, Karvir in Lands of Ash, and Ewan in The Dragon and the Scholar), I know that type and how if they are given an opportunity to throw themselves into a fire (literal or otherwise) to save their loved ones (be that loved one a romantic partner, a friend, or a family member), they will, and they’ll sometimes do so even if that’s not what the other character would want (see Jericho and Auric’s fight at the end of Spellsmith & Carver).
But this is not an exclusively guy thing. I’ve had female characters make a choice to sacrifice themselves to save a loved one too (Kit in the Green Princess, Niya in Spice Bringer, and Laidra in Coiled all made choices to endanger themselves or cost themselves something to save a loved one).
So yeah, a guy offering to sacrifice himself to save a girl does not necessarily make the girl any less heroic .. but neither does the reverse.
The choice about WHO makes the sacrifice should have little to do with gender and everything about whose story it is and what arc they need to complete. Usually the main character is the one who will have the most to lose and/or learn, and it’s going to be THEIR choice. If they are the girl, that’s great. If they are the guy, that’s also great. It’s not about gender. It’s about what their story is and what it is trying to say (and “I will lay down my life for someone I care about” is a brave and commendable attitude for both men and women).
Common Balance Cheats:
Okay, so we went over ways to make up for a LACK of balance, but what if what you want IS balance. You want a gal to be able to hold her own without the guy needing to come to her rescue or him having to stand aside passively even though he logically could handle the situation better than she could … because what trained soldier WOULD stand aside if the princess is faced with enemies? Don’t guys naturally have a leg up with their larger mass and upper body strength?
So if you want a girl to be equal to the guy, but don’t want to downgrade the guy, what do you do?
A LOT of it depends on what challenges you put for them to face. Sure, if the challenges are ALL the sort that would be best solved with a fist or sword fight, most of the time, the guy is going to have some sort of advantage, but there are other options.
Books are the greatest weapon, after all. If a female character is given an education and knowledge base that is useful in a certain situation (be it healing, engineering, cultural norms of a land she’s visiting, geography … take your pick), then you can use this to make her able to do things that the guy cannot … or if they are both educated in the subject that you want to use, make them have different but complementary approaches to it. Maybe one of them is a creative experimenter while the other is meticulous and by the book. Or maybe they just really work well together.
EXAMPLES YOU CAN ACTUALLY READ:
Halayda by Sarah Delena White features Sylvie who (before she gets a magical powerup) holds her own in a world of magical creatures with her knowledge of alchemy and her ability to make potions and things that go BOOM!
The Songweaver’s Vow by Laura VanArdendonk Baugh has an out of her element heroine who uses her knowledge of stories from her homeland to enthrall her sort-of-captors and craft a place for herself in their world.
Lady of Devices by Shelley Adina has an engineering heroine who uses her abilities to create a new life when financial disaster ruins her family.
The Nyssa Glass series (by me). Nyssa’s upbringing as a cat-burglar and pickpocket followed by her training as an electrician’s apprentice give her the abilities she needs to navigate several sticky situations.
Now if your characters are in situations where combat is going to be their major way out of them, giving a female character weapons can definitely even out the potential imbalance of dealing with enemies who are bigger and stronger than herself.
Guns are the obvious, and there are other options (Shadiversity has a video on which weapons are better for protagonists who lack upper body strength). There are, of course, other factors like training, but generally speaking, weapons are a great equalizer.
(personal note: I find combat kind of boring. I don’t write a lot of books where it’s the primary means of conflict resolution or plot movement, and I don’t necessarily pay attention to it while reading. I’m apt to skim over sections devoted to fights, so it’s really hard for me to THINK of them. Because of this, this category is going to be really low on examples, but it’s a pretty common method, so I’m sure there are some).
A SINGLE EXAMPLE YOU CAN ACTUALLY READ:
Pygmy Dragon by Marc Secchia features Pip, a character who is literally the smallest (though again, she gets a magical power up at some point) but who develops the ability to fight using unique “ribbon blades.”
I think this one tends to be overlooked and underrated. There is some innate bias where “charm” is seen as a weaker power to more straightforward means of getting what you want … or maybe we think that strong minded people aren’t influenced by charm, so it only works against weaker rivals. However, thousands of years of politics and business kind of belies this fact.
A charming protagonist (of either gender) can cut through conflict like a knife through butter and leave more straightforward, harsh-toned protagonists gaping as they achieve with a few kind words what threats of violence did not.
Kindness is also very persuasive. A sincere, compassionate protagonist might make in-roads a more cynical one would not.
But so is just overall intelligence and ability to see all sides of a situation.
All of these can give your protagonist an advantage.
EXAMPLES YOU CAN ACTUALLY READ:
Masque by W. R. Gingell is about a character who is all charm and tenacity trying to solve a murder amongst high society.
Priceless by Janeen Ippolito features a character who has to negotiate using her cunning in a world where there are literal huge dragons and magic users who can crush her.
Daughter of Sun, Bride of Ice by me. Arynne is a character who “learns the rules so she can break them.” She’s a master of finding loopholes and presenting herself in a way that undermines those who wish to control her without ever actually pushing it to the point where she can actively be punished (most of the time).
Superheroes make this a given. If you WANT your female character to be physically strong enough to keep up with guys, then just write your book that way. Sure, in real life women generally are not strong enough to take down a guy in hand-to-hand combat--but in real life most men can’t grab onto a helicopter and stop it from taking off or put their shoulder to a speeding train to keep it from impacting against the kitten on the tracks ahead.
Fiction is about escapism and sometimes escapism isn’t realistic.
I do have a slight preference for their being an in world explanation for protagonists who display strength above the norm, be it a super soldier serum or that they are from a race of magical beings that just naturally is stronger than the average human, but honestly, if you’re writing fantasy or scifi and people want to give you a hard time about your female character being able to flip a guy over her shoulder or hold her own in a sword fight, but not about the fact that your world has literal unicorns or time travel or other leaps in realism, then they are just looking for something to complain about and you can ignore them.
Personal caveat: similar to the weapons thing, my lack of preference for combat as a plot point or large focus in stories means that other than watching Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel … I don’t really have a lot of examples of this. I know they are out there, but I’m kind of drawing a blank right now. I don’t think this is that uncommon, though.
Similarly to weapons, magic can really balance out a fight. Magic tends to fall into two categories: skill based and will based.
Skill based magic is learned and follows similar rules to the education and intelligence points. If your character is well-studied or has a unique approach to the subject matter, then gender doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t influence those things.
Will based magic is usually influenced by inner mental strength, focus, or even emotions. Again, gender does not necessarily influence any of that.
So magic can make a character able to hold their own. This is a pretty common trope, and you can probably give me examples of it, but here are some of my favorites. EXAMPLES YOU CAN ACTUALLY READ:
Beaumont and Beasley by Kyle Robert Shultz. In this series Cordelia is a trained enchantress who uses her education and natural ability to great effect.
If Wishes Were Curses by Janeen Ippolito has a character who gets a huge power up with crazy wish magic and uses it to kick butt.
The Green Princess by me. Kit has no training in combat, little physical strength, but she can make plants do whatever the heck she wants, and you do NOT want to face an angry tree, trust me.
In conclusion … this post is a lot longer than I originally intended it to be. If you got this far, congratulations.
But yeah, as a writer of multiple romances, balance is important to me. I don’t want women (or men) to be useless baggage in a relationship. Again, I do acknowledge the fantasy aspect that some women would really like to be swept away and carried along just because, yeah, it’s less stressful and experiencing that through fiction is a lot like having a spa day where you are pampered and maybe you’re giving absolutely nothing back, but you feel important and special. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in small doses, but I don’t think women should only ever have spa days instead of, I don’t know, days where they kick butt and save teh world.
So don’t feel guilty if you want to indulge in a romance where the girl is just rewarded for being the subject of the guy’s affection when she does nothing practical to deserve it any more than you would feel guilty if you went and got a massage and just drank mimosas and ate finger sandwiches for a whole day.
But yeah, the reverse has a lot of value, and I hope this gave you some options to read (and some ideas to write) a “holds her own” heroine in an equal romance.