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.


Sunday, 13 December 2015

Back Story and Angst - How Much is Too Much?

© | Dreamstime Stock Photos
I have touched on this subject before, in relation to conflict within a romance. But I thought it was a topic worth visiting in depth.

It is a tendency of newer writers – myself included way back when – to give their hero and heroine rather convoluted and angst-ridden back stories. It is, after all, how we gain sympathy for them and get the reader on their side. Even now I will often make my heroines orphans just because it's a quick way to establish her need to love and be loved.

In Dickens times, such angst was the staple of the novels he wrote in serial form. Poor little Oliver Twist was born in a workhouse, treated abominably by the people who were supposed to care for him, and then walked all the way to London alone, before being taken up by Fagin and his gang and terrorised by Mr Monk and Bill Sykes. He had a lot of angst to go through before he found his happy ending. Despite that, Dickens managed to include humour and to keep Oliver resolutely cheerful and hopeful, albeit in a ‘pathetic urchin’ way.

Too many modern authors, particularly of romance, take their characters’ angst to the nth degree. In workshops I often tell the story of a novel that I read where, in the first three paragraphs, the heroine (speaking in the first person) tells how she was born to a crack whore, had a drug-dealing father who died in a hail of bullets, was sexually abused in various foster homes, had some crap love affairs, before, by the fourth paragraph, suddenly turning up in a bright modern building meeting the handsome billionaire who was, supposedly, going to make all this right for her.

As I started to laugh (sorry) it reminded me of an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where Buffy’s watcher, Giles (played by the eternally gorgeous Anthony Stewart Head) had been away for a while. Buffy fills him in on all the horrible things that have happened since he went away. Giles’s response was the same as mine to the above novel. He burst out laughing and soon Buffy was laughing with him. Because it was ludicrous that anyone could survive that much misery.

When I started to write I was guilty of exactly the same thing. I gave my heroines the most pathetic back stories imaginable. The problem with doing that is that by the end of the novel, all that has to be solved. And in this day and age, the hero cannot be the one to do that. The heroine has to do it herself. My own preference is to make the hero the reward for the heroine solving her problems, not the answer to them.

The main problem with giving the heroine too much angst to begin with is that it can create a rather maudlin story, as she tries to come to terms with it all. When we write light romance, or even slightly darker romance such as Rebecca, we are not writing Angela’s Ashes. Our readers know our heroines may have suffered, but they don’t want to be dragged down into a mire where they feel like slashing their own wrists. A romance is a fantasy, and it’s hard to create a fantasy out of constant death and despair.

Of course, people in real life do survive the most dreadful tragedies. But the most upbeat woman I have ever met was an elderly lady whose daughter and son-in-law had been murdered by a mentally unstable neighbour. Even when she told me, she didn’t cry, but she was concerned that the man who killed them was about to be up for parole (he didn’t get out). Despite that, she’d laugh and joke and get on with life, chatting to everyone on our street as she walked the mile and a half into town every single day. Everyone knew her, and everyone smiled when she passed by. I remember her telling me how much she loved Kojak, followed by her saying, ‘Who loves ya, baby’, which had me in fits of giggles (you probably had to be there).

Did she cry a lot of tears when her daughter and son-in-law died? I'm sure she must have. And I'm sure there would be times when she cried in the privacy of her own home. But the face she showed to the world was one of courage and resolute good humour.

I think of her when I’m writing my heroines, so that no matter what they’ve been through, I don’t make them too maudlin or self-pitying. A heroine who bursts into tears every other page is going to try the patience of the readers very quickly.

It's similarly clumsy to show someone going through a tragic event and somehow being completely untouched by it. Even then, readers don't want pages and pages of angst. Anger is a good emotion to use in that situation. Anger and a resolve to put things right.

The best way of using angst that I’ve found is to pick one difficult moment in a heroine’s life and work with that. It can be losing a parent, or a lover, or some other tragedy.  Concentrate on her breaking through that angst. At the same time, she must be seen to be getting on with, and even enjoying life, despite this darkness in her past.

The same goes for the tortured hero, who is a staple of romance novels (Mr Rochester is my particular favourite). Even then, one must be careful not to give him a problem he cannot solve within the context of the novel. For example, alcohol and drug addictions are very difficult to carry off in romance novels. A hero cannot simply be saved by the heroine’s love, any more than she can be saved by his. Addiction is a far more complex problem. That’s not to say he can’t be a recovering alcoholic or drug addict. But don’t have him going back on the Jack Daniels/heroin without working out the consequences of that action. He won’t just be able to suddenly stop again just because he finds out the heroine loves him after all, yet I’ve seen that happen time and again in romance novels. Sadly alcoholism and drug addiction can’t be cured by love. If that were the case, societies like Alcoholics Anonymous would not be necessary. It also doesn’t bode well for their romance if he’s going to hit the bottle/needle every time they have a row and he doubts her feelings.

I started by asking how much back story is too much. It really does depend on the novel and how it’s handled within the context of the novel. But if you have your heroine constantly crying over every loss she’s ever suffered from the year she was born, or the hero and heroine spending the last part of the novel solving all these problems one by one, instead of just getting on with their happy ending, then it’s possible you’ve over-egged the pudding a bit.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

The Language of Love

© | Dreamstime Stock Photos
The language of love in romance novels is important in order to set the scene. It has also changed much over the years. Gone are the flowery purple passages of Barbara Cartland novels, where heroines swooned and ‘touched the stars’, or whatever other euphemism Barbara used to describe an orgasm. Love scenes now use more realistic language, sometimes explicit, sometimes not, depending on the market and intended readership.

But I’m struck by how some authors get it completely wrong. A  Facebook friend recently pointed out the blurb of a novel which describes the heroine’s ‘sexy snort’. Even in the film Miss Congeniality, Sandra Bullock’s snort is shown to be an unattractive aspect of her behaviour. Though with Sandra Bullock being so beautiful, I think most men would probably forgive that! But such a snort cannot be described as sexy. At least not with a straight face…

I have also read novels where the designated hero ‘leers’ at the heroine, or whilst they’re involved in love making, language is used that is not realistic in the context of the novel, but also downright vulgar. I’m not taking a prudish standpoint here, by the way. There’s nothing wrong with frank, erotic language in a book aimed at an audience who would appreciate it.

But I recently read a novel aimed at the mainstream romance market which was full of delicious, elegant prose about the heroine’s town and her inner feelings. All this was instantly ruined when the meetings between her and the hero used much less elegant language. The author had him leering at the heroine’s boobs and thinking he’d like to have sex with her in the sort of crude terms resigned for the lecherous playboy who we all know is not right for our heroine. When parts of the hero and heroine’s bodies started to itch (as opposed to a line where the characters think of an ‘itch they can’t scratch’ whilst leading up to an orgasm) I immediately wanted to send them both to the STD clinic.

I understand how hard it is to come up with new ways of describing how a hero and heroine react to each other, and without resorting to the sort of purple prose of yesteryear. I struggle with it all the time. I’ve seen authors who somehow manage to use the same terms in every novel and they’re very good at it.

Years ago a friend and I read some novels in order to research a particular market (I shan’t say which). In one novel, the heroine was called Nora. I know several ladies call Nora and it’s a perfectly nice name. Except that during lovemaking scenes the author kept referring to the hero fondling ‘Nora’s nub’, which had both me and my friend in stitches. I really don’t think that was the intended response to such sexy scenes…

Not long ago, another friend was sent a list of possible words she could use in her novel to depict the hero and heroine’s lovemaking as she’d been a bit coy about that part, leaving everything at the bedroom door (which is also perfectly acceptable). That list also gave us much cause for mirth. Out of context the words ‘manhood’ and ‘love shaft’ bring out the ‘Carry On’ in all of us.

Another novel, reviewed on a romance site, had an alien hero who had barbs on his penis. Can you imagine the love making? I can, and it only makes me want to cross my legs.

It is important that any language used is in keeping with the rest of the novel. It is also important that no matter how frank the language becomes during love scenes, it is still appealing to the reader. It’s equally important it doesn’t have the reader bursting out laughing (or saying ‘ouch’ in the case of barbed penises).

What’s the funniest or most inappropriate language you’ve ever read in a romance novel? No author names or titles, please. It’s not my wish to publicly shame anyone, because we’re all capable of getting it wrong. Me included…