Why Do “Book Boyfriends” Upstage Heroines?

It seems to me that I hear more about Rhysand than Feyre, Peter Kavinsky than Lara Jean, Will and Jem than Tessa, Gilbert Blythe than Anne Shirley, Peeta than Katniss … you get the picture. Whether we’re talking about books, movies, or TV shows, it feels like the love interests get more hype than the heroines.

Of course, I’m not saying that this is always the case — plenty of people stan Hermione Granger, Jude Duarte, Inej Ghafa; the heroines I listed above have ardent supporters, too. And maybe it’s just the online spaces I hang out in. Maybe it’s the “influencers” and friends whose posts tend to cross my feed. Maybe it’s exaggerated in my mind because it’s hard to stop noticing something once you pick up on it.

But I don’t think I’m totally imagining this fandom phenomenon, so here are a few of my theories as to why this is.

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It wouldn’t be a discussion post from me without disclaimers, so here they are:

  • I’m generally referring to heterosexual pairings in YA/NA novels, because this effect seems strongest in those cases. It may also apply to LGBTQIAP+ pairings too, but I haven’t seen or looked into these as much.
    • However, I’m not generalizing readers as allo/cis/het or even female — I think many (if not all) of these ideas are still applicable if you’re not.
  • I’m not judging or condemning you if you find that you have more to say about these book boyfriends than their female (co-)leads! This is something I do myself, after all.
  • I know I have blind spots and biases, and like 95% of this post is pure speculation, so as always, please take my opinion with a grain of salt, and I’m more than willing to listen to yours.

Heroines as Reader Stand-Ins/Invisible Narrators

Probably one of the first social skills we learn is to put ourselves in others’ shoes, and I remember hearing that readers tend to be particularly good at empathy. That is, we often find it easy to project onto the protagonist — maybe to the point where we essentially forget that they aren’t us? 

Or, alternatively, we might just forget about the protagonist as a character because they’re our entry point into the world — maybe to the point where we almost forget that they exist? Some narrators have more vivid personalities, while others kind of blend into their story. Some heroines are just more memorable than others.

I definitely don’t think this applies to every case; I can see myself in Meggie Folchart but not in Celia Bowen, and I could never overlook Babe Vogel. But at least for me, this might account for some instances where I get attached to the love interest far more than the heroine. 

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Book Boyfriends as Readers’ Love Interest

Unsurprisingly, if a heroine is going to fall in love with a guy, they’ve got to have traits that (some) readers will also find attractive. Whether or not the reader identifies with the protagonist, it’s pretty natural to dream about your own happily ever after. (Especially since you don’t have to deal with the realities that make relationships hard work. Not to say that they’re not worth it, but they certainly aren’t zero-effort.)

The only caveat I want to add is the possible factor of internalized misogyny — based on my experiences and what I’ve heard from others, a lot of girls/women are taught that other girls and women are competition, that guy friends are better than girl friends, that it’s cool to be “not like other girls.” So maybe we’re predisposed to dismiss and/or dislike heroines while we swoon over heroes?

To be clear, I’m not saying you’re an irredeemable misogynist if you’ve ever thought the male lead was more interesting than the female lead. But I do think it’s worth some introspection.

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Overemphasis on Romantic Storylines

I enjoy a well-written romance as much as anyone, but let’s be real: not every novel actually needs its romantic storyline. And in a lot of cases, the romance is overemphasized too. (Of course, I’m not referring to stories where the romance is the primary plot, whether a romance is “too much” is up to individual reader preference, et cetera.)

Since the narrative is telling us the romance is so important, it might follow that it leads us to care more about the relationship drama than the external conflict even if the latter is the purported focus. Which might in turn lead us to care most about the love interest, above everything and everyone else in the book.

Or maybe I’m just overthinking.

  • Do you agree or disagree with my premise?
  • Who are some of your top book boyfriends? (I’m not judging you for having them, I have plenty of my own!)
  • What are some of your favorite reads where the love interest doesn’t steal focus from the protagonist? Or reads where there is no love interest?

25 thoughts on “Why Do “Book Boyfriends” Upstage Heroines?

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head with this post, especial your second point. I also find it more common with teen audiences than with adult audiences (though there are certainly adults with “book boyfriends”). I think it’s probably a safe way for teens to explore those feelings without having to deal with the reality, especially when for many readers it’s not their reality.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. honestly I read like 90% YA so I actually hadn’t thought about how it compares to Adult books, but I think you’re onto something as well! my “relationships” with fictional love interests have definitely changed as I’ve gotten older and experienced different IRL relationships 🤔

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  2. I totally agree with you. Bookboyfriends usually get more hype than bookgirlfriends and I always wondered about the reason too. I can only speak for myself here but I think it has a lot to do with old stereotypes that are still strong in our society. By now male mcs can be gentle and vulnerable but also tough and sassy and I think when it comes to female mcs authors still have a tendency to either make them super tough (I’m a badass and you better don’t cross me) or they make them vulernable and play the damsel in distress card. No matter how hard I think about it, there aren’t a lot of heroines out there that would combine sassy with vulnerable or tough with gentle. And this kind of makes them less relatable than the male heroes who can be so many different things. It feels like there’s always just one of many facets that’s represented. Does that make any sense?
    For instance I loved “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” because she was a really tough and sassy heroine and could kick every vampire’s ass but she also was vulnerable and cared about her friends deeply. Same goes for Aelin of ToG or Nina from Six of Crows. The world needs more of those heroines, but they are so rarely written. XD And urgh… sorry for writing such a long comment! lol >_<

    Liked by 1 person

    1. you definitely don’t have to apologize for writing a long comment, and I totally agree with you! I’ve seen some commentary about how people tend to write off female characters as “unlikable” for traits/actions that are totally common in male characters, and from what I’ve seen they do tend to follow the two major archetypes you mention – we could definitely use more variety in heroine personalities.

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  3. I don’t know what it’s about male characters but I find them much more interesting. Some of my favorite book boyfriends are Adrian Ivashkov (bloodlines), Will Herondale (The Infernal Devices), Roth (The Dark Elements), Loki (Trylle Trilogy) and Daemon Black (Lux). My favorite read with almost zero romance is Magnus Chase by Rick Riordan. I do enjoy romance in it but like all books written by Riordan I could’ve survived without any love interest and that’s rare for me. I usually need a lot of romance in my books. Another I really like is the first book of Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. personal preference definitely makes a huge difference, though honestly at this point I’m not sure if I feel like something is missing from a book without romance because YA convention makes me think so, or if I actually think the story needed romance 🤔 I think I read Prosper Redding a few years ago, but I remember liking it!

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  4. I think I’m just at that old age where I no longer project myself as the female heroine/protagonist, though, they are still my main entry into the world though, so I totally think you’re on the right track with that and everything in this post to be honest.

    I think if I’m not reading YA I tend to pick things that don’t have romance, I’m not saying all YA books revolve around a romance, but a lot tend to, and I enjoy them, but usually, the romantic aspects are my least favorite parts except for like Girls of Paper and Fire where the characters are so well developed that the romance doesn’t overshadow them, or like Harley in the Sky where though there’s romance, the story is about Harley, not the couple. Idk…it’s like nearly 3 am, I think I’m just babbling now lol

    Liked by 1 person

    1. oooh interesting interesting 🤔 (hopefully that doesnt sound sarcastic bc its not, haha)

      I definitely agree that YA is oversaturated with romance and it often takes too much of the focus, I’ve been building a minimal-romance-YA shelf on GR but it’s pretty slow going so far 😕

      Liked by 1 person

  5. … I never noticed this before but I am going to pre-emptively hate you for making me notice this now lmao. I feel like this happens so much in YA and is likely a result of self-insertion and “living” the experiences with the LI.

    I honestly can’t think of any book boyfriends that I have? But Enne Salta from The Shadow Game series, Aurora from Roar, Annie from Fireborne all are top of mind heroines that I adore.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. it’s one of those things, once you start noticing you can’t stop, and I decided everyone else needs to suffer with me 😈

      I have not read any of the books you mention BUT they are all on my TBR, I look forward to getting to know these awesome heroines!

      Like

  6. I think that your first point is really insightful, and I think that is the case for me a lot of the time… but I also think that the books where I remember the love interest more than the main character are books where the main character just… wasn’t that interesting? If we take Sarah J. Maas for example, I think people generally agree that Rhysand and Rowan are basically different versions of a VERY similar character (and I love them both). BUT Aelin is still one of my all-time favourite protagonists and I won’t stop talking about her, whereas Feyre is just kind of forgettable! Throne of Glass a lot of the characters stick with me, whereas with ACOTAR it’s only Rhysand and the rest of the night court, not Feyre herself. I think this is probably a mixture of finding the love interest more interesting than the protagonist, but more so a combination of a protagonist that is already fairly forgettable and uninteresting + your first point about seeing the world from the protagonist’s perspective. Do you get what I mean (because I’m totally confusing myself hehe)?

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  7. Love these thoughts! I think you’re right about a lot of things, including the fact that we make the love interest “perfect/attractive” and then overlook the female character that is meant to be much more flawed and relatable. It can be frustrating in media as well as books; after To All the Boys I Loved Before came out, Noah Centineo started getting job offers right and left, while it seemed like Lana Condor was getting largely ignored.

    Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This is so accurate it hurts. I will say for me there are times when all of the “main characters” stand out to me, other times I’m more likely to shriek about the love interest and other times I shriek about the main character. It seems to depend on how I ended up getting into the book…for example when I was in my early teens I projected myself onto the MC a lot more than I do now. I became the MC in my early teens the exception being TID where I shriek about Will, Jem and Tessa a lot because I connected with them differently and I kind of added myself into the story but through Tessa’s POV? I’m not sure if that makes any sense but I do want to write a post on it at some point because I’ve noticed how I engage with a story and its characters has slowly changed as I’ve gotten older xD

    Love this discussion post so much ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  9. “Whether we’re talking about books, movies, or TV shows, it feels like the love interests get more hype than the heroines.” Now that you mention it… yes, I agree, this is definitely a true thing that happens in the book communities (although I don’t notice it as much because well… I’ve been staying away from social media more often). But you’re definitely not imagining it!

    I don’t think you’re overthinking on the overemphasis on romantic storylines because I’ve definitely noticed novels that would be perfectly, 100% fine without the romance and including it feels… forced? Like they’re trying too hard to include a romance so it appeals to readers? I’m thinking partially that might be society too – sexualization in the media is everywhere, so it ends up carrying into books as well. Plus, society just expects females to have a partner and not be single… so that might be playing a part as well; it’s just been super ingrained in us that it might not even be intentional. (I could be wrong, though.)

    Liked by 1 person

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