Sunday, 20 December 2015

A Tortured Hero Versus a Hero Who Tortures

Orson Welles as Mr Rochester

The tortured hero is the staple of romantic novels. Mr Darcy, perhaps a mild version of the tortured hero, felt awkward in public situations, giving Lizzie Bennett the idea he was a bit of a dry stick (I still find him a bit of a prig, I’m afraid). Mr Rochester (my personal favourite) was tortured by an ill-conceived marriage to a woman who turned out to be insane.

But it seems to me that there is a worrying trend amongst romance writers to create heroes who are not just tortured, but who, as a result, torture others, particularly the heroine. I don’t necessarily mean physical torture, unless we’re talking Fifty Shades, but certainly emotional torture. Christian Grey is the epitome of this type of hero, with his emotional abuse of Ana Steele. I’m told, though I have no personal knowledge of this, that American readers in particular will forgive a hero anything as long as he turns out to be a nice guy at the end.

Because we all know that in real life all an abusive man needs is a woman who loves him enough to put up with being treated like crap until he decides he doesn’t want to abuse her anymore…

I find that the ‘hero who tortures’ trend is becoming more prevalent, particularly amongst new writers. But I also think that some are mistaking the tortured hero for the hero who tortures, and they are not the same thing.  

So what do I mean? I’m reluctant to name and shame authors, particularly those just starting out, so all examples are mentioned from this point in very general terms so as not to identify anyone.

In the first chapter of one novel I read several years ago, the ‘hero’, threatened the heroine with the police (on some trumped up charge) if she did not comply with his demands, and also called her a ‘whore’. We were assured by the author that the hero would be redeemed and that he was really a nice guy deep down. Nice guys really don’t call the heroine a whore in the first chapter. Years ago, it might have been acceptable for the hero to slut shame the heroine because he believed (always mistakenly) that she had slept with his brother/best friend/some other bloke. Such slut shaming, even if she has slept with another man, is not acceptable in a modern novel and any decent hero should be able to accept that he might not be the first man in a woman’s life. Obviously if he believes she has cheated on him (and he must have good reason, other than him just thinking all women are whores), he has a right to feel aggrieved, but even then how he reacts will say much about him as a hero. Hurt, yes, but abusive, never.

A tortured hero internalises his pain. It may make him reluctant to begin a relationship, and unsure if he can trust the heroine, or trust himself to love her, but he never crosses the line into misogyny. Yet I’ve seen this happen in more than one romance novel. One book, by a very well known (now deceased) author, had the hero immediately assume the heroine was a  high class hooker because he saw a man giving her money in broad daylight, at a wedding (the guy was the heroine’s friend and had borrowed money from her). Even when he found out she was a virgin, he decided that she was using her virginity as a bargaining chip. The poor girl couldn’t win! From that moment, I hated the hero, and believed he was completely wrong for the heroine, yet he was ‘redeemed’ by the end so the reader was supposed to think this was okay.

There are limits even to what a tortured hero can do to show his torture, and not just to the heroine. To himself too. Drug addiction and alcoholism seem very popular in a lot of straight to eBook romance lines. Neither addiction can be cured by love, yet too many authors think they can. The problems behind addiction are very complex, and whilst it would be great if love solved everything, realistically it doesn’t. Yes, romantic novels are fantasies, but the people who read them may well be living with the very problems you’re solving, and they’re probably thinking it’s a load of rubbish because the person they love is back on the booze/drugs again and no amount of moonlit walks on the beach has helped them to stop.

A hero’s behaviour towards others is also an indication of his status as the tortured hero. It goes without saying that no hero should ever hurt small children and puppies (and I know of some readers who wouldn’t put up with a hero who smoked!), but a friend was telling me that she read a novel where the hero was very rude to another woman in the story, and it put my her right off him. I don’t like heroes who use other women and throw them away like old tissues the moment the heroine comes along. For me a hero has to treat every woman with respect, even if he’s not romantically involved with her.

Your hero may be abrupt and arrogant as he hides the pain of his existence, but he will always behave well to others. I’m reminded of another romance where, during an interview, someone asks the hero to repeat what he has just said and he snaps ‘Are you deaf?’ Not only was it uncalled for, it was very rude and beneath a man who was being presented as the urbane and sophisticated CEO of a major company, but it was also an insult to anyone reading who might suffer hearing difficulties (me included!)

Much depends on the market and one’s own tastes, I suppose. We all like a different type of hero. Some tend to the more ultra-Alpha male of yesteryear, whilst others prefer a more beta hero. I like a mixture of both, but even the Alpha part has to have a gentle side.

Personally, I don’t think it’s enough that a hero is redeemed by the end of a novel. I know of one editor who hates it when, after raising concerns about the hero’s behaviour, writers tell them, ‘Oh wait till the end of the novel, and you’ll see that the hero is really lovely then’. The editor wants to feel that the hero is lovely from the very beginning, even if he does make mistakes, because that’s how the reader should feel.

As with all writing, it's all in the execution. Can you convince your reader that this man is worthy of the heroine's love? If your reader doesn’t think your hero is right for the heroine, they won’t be invested in the happy ending. No last minute redemption, after 200 pages of emotional abuse, is going to convince them otherwise.


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