Reading,  Writing

Equal Opportunity Torture

Amanda’s Monday post on heroes got me thinking about the appeal of the tortured hero. A dark hero can be a bit scary, and it’s been proven that fear triggers a lot of the same responses as sexual arousal. Edgy can be sexy. But how edgy is too edgy? Sometimes tortured hero stories are said to tap into the unhealthy hope some women have that they can change their abusive husbands. But I think that’s when the fantasy is taken too far.

A good tortured hero wants to be well, and gradually he allows the heroine to get close enough to help him. I think this is the real reason readers love tortured heroes. It’s exciting to identify with the heroines whose love has such power.

But what I really wanted to blog about today is tortured heroines.

Here are a few of my favorites, in no particular order.

Margot from PETALS IN THE STORM, by Mary Jo Putney. Gang-raped by a group of men who just killed her father—how much more tortured can you get? Of course, the hero, Rafe, is tortured too (Mary Jo Putney never lets any of her characters off lightly!) but in the end it’s his love that heals Margot.

Frances from ILLUSION, by Jean Ross Ewing (now writing as Julia Ross). While in India, her father is killed and she is taken captive and trained to serve as a concubine. She is drawn into intrigue with spy hero Nigel (also quite tortured), and has to rediscover her identity and her place in England again.

Melanthe from FOR MY LADY’S HEART, by Laura Kinsale. She cloaks herself in evil, as a way of protecting herself and those she cares for. The beauty of this story is how Ruck (one of Amanda’s favorite heroes, I noticed) loves her even before he learns the truth about her.

Stories like these help us imagine ourselves being loved and healed as these heroines are loved and healed.

I know they worked for other readers as well, since all these books have gotten some great reviews, along with 4-5 star customer reviews in places like However, some readers hated these books and complained they were not as good as others (the more hero-centered ones) by the same authors. Some explicitly said things like the heroines should get over themselves. One even wondered why Margot was hesitant about sex with Rafe.

I can only guess at the reasons. Maybe these readers don’t have the life experiences to relate to a tortured heroine. (But there’s nothing that awful in my past, either.) Or maybe the notion of needing healing is frightening?

Any other favorite heroines, tortured or otherwise?


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Megan Frampton
17 years ago


Fantastic post! My favorite heroines include the woman from Anne Stuart’s A Rose At Midnight, who spends a good portion of the book plotting to kill the hero (most Stuart h/hs are tortured. That’s why I like them so much); many, many Balogh heroines who have had to do things they don’t wish to in order to survive; oh, gosh, I can’t think of any more. I know they’re out there, and that I love them. Just can’t recall anything. I just read Illusion, enjoyed it a great deal. I haven’t made it through For My Lady’s Heart yet, I think I will have to give it another try soon.

Laurie Bishop
17 years ago

For me…definitely Deborah of FARO’S DAUGHTER…with Sophy in THE GRAND SOPHY a close second.


Cara King
17 years ago

Two of the three tortured heroines that occurred to me aren’t mostly “tortured” per se — but beset by inner or outer demons.

One heroine I love is Falcon from Gail Eastwood’s THE LADY FROM SPAIN. When she was fourteen, she took part in the infamous retreat to Corunna, which would be bad enough. (The British were fleeing an oncoming army, and many died along the way.) But to make matters worse, villains murdered her parents in front of her eyes, and left her for dead. So yes, Falcon has many nightmares and demons to deal with just to survive… And of course, as a determined heroine, she doesn’t merely want to survive, but to also bring the criminals to justice. It’s a fantastic book, with a fantastic heroine.

A heroine with demons of quite another sort is Catherine, in Elena Greene’s THE INCORRIGIBLE LADY CATHERINE. Poor girl! She hasn’t undergone any obvious trauma, but she’s wilting from too little love in her life. What’s worse, she has become convinced that the sexual feelings that she has are shameful. She has to learn a lot in this book, both about herself and about the world, before she becomes entirely whole. I love this book!

Another non-traumatized but tormented-in-other-ways heroine is Jessica from Alicia Rasley’s fabulous POETIC JUSTICE. Our first introduction to the heroine:

I have spent most of my life like this, Jessica Seton thought, sitting here on this settee, waiting for two men to determine the rest of my life.

She is a very intelligent, well-educated woman surrounded by men who will not acknowledge the fact. Though this scenario has been done many times in Regencies, Rasley does it so well it seems new and fresh and very moving.

Anyway, there’s three from me!


Amanda McCabe
17 years ago

Oh, I love tortured heroines! And there’s just not enough of them out there. I sometimes get tired of heroines in not-so-risky books who are “practically perfect in every way”–beautiful, smart, kind, sweet, loved by animals and small children, empathetic, selfless. And a molecular physicist on top of every thing else. 🙂 Tortured heroines–or even heroines who are not necessarily “tortured” but have had to overcome hardships in their lives and did difficult things to do that, are more complex and interesting, and it makes the heroes who fall in love with them and understand them even more honorable and strong in contrast. I think that is what I like so much about Ruck and Melanthe in MY LADY’S HEART.

Other heroines I love–hmmm, let’s see. Joan in Madeline Hunter’s BY DESIGN. Jessica in Loretta Chase’s LORD OF SCOUNDRELS (she’s not really tortured, but she IS strong. And I love the scene where she shoots the hero. LOL). I just started Megan’s SINGULAR LADY, and have to say Titania is shaping up nicely. A whole slew of Balogh heroines. Oh, I know I’m missing a lot, but those come to mind right now. 🙂

Amanda McCabe
17 years ago

BTW, not to sound obsessed or anything (even though I am), but there are also many great heroine types on LOST. 🙂

Cara King
17 years ago

Go ahead and be obsessed, Amanda! I am too! (And we’re making Elena wonder what she’s missing!) 🙂


Megan Frampton
17 years ago

And me…I’ve never seen Lost. I don’t watch much TV at all. Right now I’m clinging to Rome on HBO, even though it’s cheesy…and I watch House, with Hugh Laurie. That’s it, at least until Sopranos and Deadwood (!) return.

Elena Greene
17 years ago

Awww, Cara, thanks for those words about Lady Catherine! She got a lot of mixed reactions. One reviewer (who did like the book in general) complained that Catherine made dumb choices. Which was true! But that was my point–that children who grow up without love often do dumb things. The joy of that story was having her finally figure it out. Since some readers “got” it, I’m happy!

Re LOST–I miss so much television! Most evenings I’m too tired after getting the kids to bed to do more than giggle through WHO’S LINE IS IT ANYWAY. But if there are gorgeous guys to be seen… Well, one has to refill the creative well once in a while!

Elena 🙂

Amanda McCabe
17 years ago

For a long time, there were no shows I watched regularly (just stuff like the Food Network, even though I don’t cook!). Now there are two, LOST and HOUSE. They are both great, character-driven shows, and I’m totally addicted. And, as Elena says, you gotta refill the creative well somehow. If that happens to include buff, sweaty guys in the jungle, well, so be it. 🙂

Cara King
17 years ago

I love HOUSE too. Did I ever mention that Dr House is the inspiration for the hero in my yet-to-be-written historical? 🙂


Megan Frampton
17 years ago

Dr. House is totally foxy. What a great inspiration for a hero! Yet-to-be-written, Cara? Get to it, missy!

17 years ago

I can’t wait to read this HOUSE book, too. But I guess I will. 🙂

The heroine in Carla Kelly’s ONE GOOD TURN is pretty darned tortured. So’s the hero, for that matter. In fact, so are the hero and/or heroine in a heck of a lot of her books, now I come to think about it. Hmm. I like those books. What does that say about me?

As for LOST–most of the women are tortured in one way or another. Except for Shannon, who ought to be tortured. 🙂 (Just kidding!)

To take another non-Regency heroine that I like a lot, and who is definitely tortured: Eve Dallas in the J.D. Robb mysteries. Very, very dark, but very, very strong. If there is such a thing as an “Alpha Heroine,” that’s her.


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