Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Irredeemable?

Current Project: NMMNG
Status: preparing to jump back after grading is done

I just finished Sabrina Jefferies's latest, The Truth about Lord Stoneville, and I notice I've been on a bit of a historical bender lately. One thing that historicals are wonderful for is focusing in on the hero--heroes often have a much larger arc than heroines in historicals. In the last few years, I've noticed a trend in these arcs towards deeply flawed heroes who ultimately transform into redeemable, lovable, capable partners by the book's end. Unlike many historicals of yore, this new breed of historical hero becomes a believable and worthy husband by book's end by acknowledging and overcoming his shortcomings rather than merely bending heroine to his will or overcoming her good senses with sensual overload. However, what I find truly fascinating is how dark some of these heroes start out now, even in the "lighter" regency subgenre, and how authors aren't shying away from giving these heroes true character flaws and bad choices rather than just a domineering personality.

Instead, I see a trend towards heroes who begin the book truly in the wrong. These are heroes who have messed up their lives in big ways. These heroes have often intentionally hurt those around them, giving them an edge of cruelty. It's a very fine line that these authors tread with these new heroes, and I absolutely applaud those who are doing it so successfully--Sabrina Jefferies, Tessa Dare, Courtney Milan, and Sherry Thomas have all wowed me with their recent releases. The key appears to be the completeness of the hero's journey--does he truly sink down and wallow in his wrongness? Does he get the chance to make up for past mistakes and go one step further? Is he redeemed merely by his passion for the heroine or does he undergo a fundamental shift in world view? It is this shift, this tilting of the axis of hero's world that keeps me reading.

For me, the take away lesson from this trend is yet more reinforcing of the hard work we must force our characters to do. The deeply flawed hero only really works when he is the one who changes, not when others step in and rescue him. Further, the worst of the character flaws seem to work the best when they are coupled with a deep secret that has the power to change everything hero has ever believed true about himself--true world view shifting. This comes back to motivation--irredeemable actions become understandable (if not forgivable) when properly motivated by things beyond the control of hero or by a tortured past. Heroes who are cruel for the sake cruelty are so 1987, but heroes who have done terrible things as part of believable backstory are the backbone of the continued upswing of the historical genre. These heroes have to open a vein and bleed before they are worthy of heroine, and the talented authors who craft them force them to do just that.

What I find truly intriguing as part of this trend is how my acceptance, and indeed, love of dark heroes is growing. I used to prefer my heroes a little less complicated, but I now find that I crave complexity. Now, my question for you today is how dark do you like heroes? Do you have trouble forcing yourself to be cruel enough to the heroes of your own stories? How hard do you make them work to redeem themselves? Also, who is your all-time favorite dark hero(es)?

13 comments:

wavybrains said...

checking the box so that I remember to come back and comment :)

Elisabeth Naughton said...

Timely topic for me, Bethany. I'm writing a very dark hero right now. One who is everything you mentioned - cruel, extremely flawed, and, in his (and most) eyes, irredeemable. As I'm sure you can already tell, I love dark heroes. I love tortured heroes. I love torturing my dark heroes. :)

This line in your post stood out to me:

"Is he redeemed merely by his passion for the heroine or does he undergo a fundamental shift in world view?"

I'm only 1/3 way through the book. I know how it will end and what my heroine will do for him. But you're right when you say he has to undergo a fundamental shift in his world view. He will do that, your post is just reminding me to make sure it happens in a BIG way.

I'm a big fan of the big secret. Will have to ponder that a little in my wip.

wavybrains said...

Eli, I think it is so important to show the world view shift APART from an action/reaction to something the heroine does. I.e. compare heroine leaves or rejects hero, hero rushes after realizing the empty hole in his world---blah blah blah predictable HEA to hero forced to confront his old world on new terms w/o heroine to censure him and forced to make a tough (or even better impossible) moral decision on his own revealing the changed man who then is WORTHY of the heroine whether or not he heads after her on bended knees. In the first example, I could argue that hero isn't so much changed as struck by heroine's magic va-jay-jay. In the second example, the reader knows that even if heroine rejects hero he's a fundamentally different person who deserves a HEA even if it takes the heroine a little longer to see that. Heck, so much the better if it takes the heroine a while to catch up--his arc doesn't have to be lock step with hers.

Lisa Leoni said...

Great topic! I love reading dark heroes, especially in paranormals (I tend to prefer lighter contemporary). But I can't write a really dark character to save my life :\ Maybe someday! Conflict is something I'm trying to work on.

Genene Valleau said...

Thought-provoking post, Bethany.

I've not read any books lately with dark heroes. Probably because my first reaction to the thought of "heroes" who have been cruel is that they would pretty much have to have a personality transplant to actually become a hero.

So obviously I'm in the camp that the guy is going to have to do some heavy-duty atoning and make true changes within themselves before they are worthy of a happily-ever-after. Very cool that you're finding authors who seem to be doing this.

This definitely gives me fodder for my own dramatic stories and a good reminder not to shy away from making both the hero and heroine do the work to truly make soul-deep changes.

Thanks!

Piper Lee said...

Ooh, yummy-- Dark heroes!

Elisabeth's ETERNAL GUARDIANS books are fabulous examples of dark heroes who you have to love because you know deep down inside of them is a soul worthy of redemption. I've always loved the heroes in all her books, but this new series ROCKS! Also, Kresley Cole's heroes tend to be on the darker side and I love them, too.

I recently picked up a couple of Tessa Dare's novels at a used book store so now I'm going to go put those closer to the "read now" end of my TBR shelf. A few Sabrina Jefferies are also on said shelf that I'll have to scootch closer too.

I wonder if the darker heroes in the paranormals are starting to rub off onto writers and that's why they're making them so much deeper and darker in historical fiction? Hmm... Whatever the reason, I say, bring it on! I just loves me some dark, deeply flawed heroes.

Great post!

Paty Jager said...

Company and errands kept me away from the computer most of the day. But I did spend an hour with another writer brainstorming my latest baby!

And now Bethany's post has me wondering if I need to make my hero dark??? Not likely!

To answer your questions- I tend to write light because I don't care for the dark heroes. Not a big surprise to most I'm sure considering my Bominable snowman fear. LOL

Bethany asked:Now, my question for you today is how dark do you like heroes? Do you have trouble forcing yourself to be cruel enough to the heroes of your own stories? How hard do you make them work to redeem themselves? Also, who is your all-time favorite dark hero(es)?

I don't mind a hero with some bad stuff in his backstory it's what makes him who he is, but I don't want it to be so off-putting the heroine can't find a thing she likes about him the first time they meet.

I do have problems making my hero cruel, I don't like them cruel. I like them funny and lovable.

The most tortured heroes I've read about are by Kathy Otten. In her westerns the hero always has a horrendous background and doesn't feel he deserves a regular, decent life.

wavybrains said...

Lisa,

Conflict is my big stumbling point too. I've been spending lots of time analyzing the books I read to help me prepare to ramp it up. "RAISE THE STAKES" is my new motto along with "MOTIVATE BIG CHANGES."

wavybrains said...

Genene, it is the heavy duty soul searching and atoning that makes these stories so worth it!

wavybrains said...

Piper,

You MUST move Tessa Dare to the FRONT of the pile. You will LOVE her. Start with Goddess of the Hunt. I'll bring Courtney Milan for you to the April meeting if I remember so that you can be a fan girl by her talk in June. I love Jefferies's School for Heiresses series, but I'm liking this new series she's begun a lot too--there's a deeper complexity to this entire family, and I'm excited to see where she takes it. And in the paranormal world, Kresley Cole is a mistress of torture---LOVE her heroes.

wavybrains said...

Paty,

I am going to add Kathy Otten to my TBR list. I think you raise a really good point when you say, "I don't want it to be so off-putting the heroine can't find a thing she likes about him the first time they meet."

The key to what makes these dark hero books that I'm liking so much work is precisely that--the small shred of redeemablity that we see in the very opening scenes. Jefferies' book that I referenced above is a great example--it opens with a flashback prologue of hero as a vulnerable teen, then while we know Hero from unsavory actions in earlier books of Jefferies' we see a lighter hero interacting with his family and a shred of decency when he rescues the heroine. All of which counterbalance his dark nature.

Katelyn said...

Dark heroes. *sigh* Heathcliff, Mr. Rochester, Mr. Darcy, Erik (aka Phantom of the Opera). I haven't read as much romance as all of you, but I've read me some deeeeelicious dark heroes. They're my favorite. I aspire to write some of my own some day that we can all drool over. Sound fun? Okay! LOL

Katie said...

That's weird. My other gmail account was logged in for my comment... Kind of annoying. LOL