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by Anne Marble
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What Makes a Great Hero?
We'll look at the hero first because, let's face it, most women read romance novels because they want to read about the hero. Sure, the heroine is important, too, and a badly written or annoying heroine can screw up the entire book, no matter how good the hero. But while a good heroine is vital to the story, the hero is even more important. (For some reason, "even more vitaler" didn't sound right.)
So what does make a good hero? There is no one answer to this question. Contrary to the usual popular opinion, not all heroes in romance novels are alike. There are many different types of hero. Some heroes are leaders, others are poets, many are rakes or bad boys, and still others are the carefree boys next door.
Naturally, your hero should be heroic. Not all heroes are heroic in the same way, however. And just as some animals in Animal Farm were "more equal" than others, some heroes are more heroic than others. It all depends on what you, the author, can get away with.
When most people think of romance novel heroes, they think of larger-than-life swashbuckling heroes. Many heroes are warriors -- such as the SEAL heroes of Suzanne Brockmann's novels. Yet others are gentle but troubled artists -- such as Eddie Berlin in Theresa Weir's Cool Shade. Keep in mind that a lot of readers prefer a different type of hero, someone they can relate to. And then you have more footloose heroes, such as auto repair shop owner Nick Ziegler in Jennifer Crusie's Crazy for You. Also, the type of story you are writing dictates the type of hero, to a point. Weir's Eddie Berlin would be out of place on a pirate ship, but Brockmann's SEAL heroes would be just as out of place running the auto repair shop in Crazy for You. This doesn't mean that a "regular guy" heroine can't protect the heroine. In Vicki Lewis Thompson's popular Nerd in Shining Armor, the nerdy hero saves the heroine from a plane crash by landing the plane in the ocean just off a deserted island. This matched his background, however, because the only reason he knew how to land the plane was because he had played so many flight simulator games on his computer.
Still, the best romance novel heroes have one thing in common: they are devoted to the heroine. How they show that devotion depends on the type of hero you have written. A rough-around-the-edges pirate most likely won't show his devotion to his loved one by dedicating a book of poetry to her (although it would be a wonderful twist if he did). Instead, he would be far more likely to show he cares by saving her life. The "boy next door" hero probably won't be called upon to save his heroine's life. Instead, he will help her in more subtle ways. It can be something as simple as helping her paint her den, or something more complicated, such as helping her come to realize that she is deserving of love.
Even if your hero is a rake or a bad boy, he still must have good traits. He might not always show them, of course. Tortured heroes often hide their better traits behind bad behaviors. But if he comes across as a complete jerk, readers will wonder what the heroine sees in him. A heroine who is devoted to a cruel or rude hero comes across as looking weak.
Just like all fictional characters, your hero, no matter how lovable, should not be utterly perfect. He should have flaws. Otherwise, he won't be able to push your story forward as a good hero should. Luckily, you're writing a romance, with an HEA (happily ever after) ending, so while your hero must have flaws, they won't be tragic flaws.
What types of flaws can the hero have? The flaws can be run the gamut from "I would date him in an instant" to "Lock up your daughters when he's around." I have read romances with everything from selfish, conniving con artists to cruel, distrustful, domineering alpha heroes to rakes who slept around on the heroine. You might ask: "How can those jerks be heroes?!" That's up to the writer. Some writers can take a selfish con artist and redeem him. The trick is making the transformation believable. Keep in mind, however, that if you create an extremely flawed hero, you will have a bigger challenge making him come across sympathetic, even if he's kind to pets and small children.
If you can write a completely despicable hero and redeem him, more power to you. In fact, please tell me when your book is coming out so that I can buy a copy! However, most romance heroes aren't quite as hard to redeem as, say, Damien in Meagan McKinney's controversial Gentle from the Night, who believed he was evil and tried to corrupt the heroine. Most romance heroes know when to draw the line.
Most romance heroes aren't quite so flawed, and no wonder. First, no one wants to read about barely redeemable heroes all the time. Also, wretched heroes don't fit every story. If your story demands a happy-go-lucky hero, then by all means give your story the hero it needs. Don't make him perfect, of course. Just because he's not a wretch, that doesn't mean he is without flaws. Make the flaws fit the hero. He's happy-go-lucky? Then maybe he is held back by a fear of commitment. He's a scientist devoted to his work? Then maybe he forgets to keep important dates with the heroine. The hero's and heroine's doubts can complement each other. In Vicki Lewis Thompson's popular Nerd in Shining Armor, the nerdy hero was sure the heroine would dump them once they got off the deserted island, and the heroine was sure that the hero was too concerned with his computer work to start a real relationship.
The hero's background should dictate his flaws, as should the needs of the story. A great trick of characterization is to have the positive traits complement the flaws. Thus, a hero who is a heroic soldier might have a hard time dealing with his heroine outside of the battlefield. A hero who is artistic might be temperamental, or perhaps absent-minded, or he could be too gentle even at a time when stronger action is required. A hero who is a charismatic, driven businessman trying to buy the heroine's bed and breakfast might not know when to leave the business world behind and just be himself with her.
What about the hero's background? A hero from an abusive family will most likely be tortured by his past. This will dictate his personality. What makes him heroic is how he acts on his problems. If he domineering and cruel to the heroine, he becomes what romance readers disdainfully call "the alpha heel," and "healing" him will be a challenge.
On the other hand, a hero from a well balanced, loving family should not be overly tortured and flawed, unless something bad happened to him. This should be common sense, and yet, I have read romances where heroes with loving families came across as tortured jerks. For example, I read a historical romance where the hero's mother believed in educating women, and yet the hero was distrustful of women and expected women to be frivolous. This did not match his background at all, so it left a "disconnect" for me. As the story moved on, I kept expecting to find out why he felt this way, and I never did. This isn't to say that a hero from a good family can't be tortured. But there should be a reason. In her Bridgerton books, Julia Quinn writes about heroes who are extremely desirable bachelors in Regency England, with a terrific mother -- and yet they aren't perfect. Each one has something he has to deal with, whether it's the fear of dying early or a dissatisfaction with life. These don't overwhelm the story, and they fit the heroes and their background.
Not overwhelming the story is important. The flaws should not overwhelm what is heroic about your hero. Romance novel heroes they are good men, even with their flaws. They may not always do the right thing, but by the end of the book, they should make up for anything bad they did. In fact, many fans read romances with tortured (or even "alpha heel") heroes because they want to read the "grovel" -- the part where he apologizes to the heroine and redeems himself in her eyes. If he doesn't redeem himself sufficiently, the reader will be disappointed and avoid your next book. The greater the hero's sins, the more he will have to work to redeem himself.
Things to Avoid
Have you ever read a romance and wondered why the heroine fell in love with him of all people instead of running away like a sensible person would do? Well, don't write heroes like that. Heh, it's more complicated than that, isn't it? Many fans want to read about a hero who is so tortured that only the heroine can drag him back from the edge. However, they don't want to hang their willing suspension of disbelief from the nearest rafter because that's the only way they can believe in that relationship. If the hero's flaws get in the way of the story, something didn't work.
What makes a good hero turn bad? While a tormented hero can be fascinating to read about, any hero who lets his past take over his brain and dictate how he treats the heroine will make readers roll their eyes and say "Get over yourself." All flaws and no positive qualities make Jack a poor hero. Sure, your hero may have been abused by his parents, may have been betrayed by almost everyone he knows, may have been dumped at the altar... Enough already! Giving him reasons (or are they excuses?) for behaving that way are fine, but they shouldn't be overwhelming, or it will seem contrived. Give the poor thing some balance in his life. Give him some people who were good to him, or we won't be able to believe in him when he redeems himself by dragging himself out of that background. Also, give him some common sense, will ya? One major problem with badly written tormented heroes is that they refuse to see the good in the heroine, even when it's obvious, and continue to distrust and mistreat her.
But even kinder, gentler heroes can go bad. A kinder, gentler hero who lets his flaws and doubts take control of him might not come across as an "alpha heel," but he can still come across as a bit of a jerk. If your hero is overly "passive-aggressive," he won't be all that fun to read about. And while a hero who believes he isn't good enough to the heroine is acceptable, it crosses the line when that belief becomes either contrived or neurotic. Heroes should be able to accept that they are good enough for the heroine without the intervention of Dr. Phil!
What Makes a Great Heroine?
There is a special challenge in creating a heroine. While it's true that readers flock to romance novels to read about dashing (or kind and gentle) heroes, those stories cannot be told without the heroine. In almost all cases, even when both viewpoints are shown, most of the story is told from the POV of the heroine. For that reason, the heroine usually forms the backbone of the story -- much in the way that it is the love for the heroine that completes the hero. A heroine who is the backbone of a story should also have a backbone, thus enabling her to stand up to the hero, evil relatives, and the like. Sure, there are plenty of heroines without backbones in the past, and some in the present as well, but today's readers both deserve and demand better. Also, heroines with backbones are much more fun to write about.
Your heroine should be strong enough to handle your hero, even at his worst. Even if he does something that crushes her, she should be able to stand up to him. This is a far cry from many of the heroines of the past, who were called "feisty" but who folded up like welcome mats when the going got tough. Your heroine may be the answer to the hero's dreams, but sometimes, she must also be his worst nightmare.
The best heroines must be strong. Even heroines who seem to be quiet and mousy should have an inner strength, even if it's a sort of "quiet strength." "Patient Griselda" need not apply. Today's heroine would kick her Gualtieri's butt rather than putting up with his ridiculous tests of her honor.
While they are strong, heroines are often kind and gentle, devoted to their families, and so forth. In many cases, heroines have so many traits that they become self-serving saints. This becomes a big yawn. Please, please, don't make them so kind and gentle that they become too fluffy and soft. Make them strong enough to stand up for what they want. Avoid heroines who sacrifice their every need for useless family members -- there are enough of them out there. Selfless heroines are fine, but if the reader can't relate to her actions, then rethink her. But above all, the best heroine should both complement the hero and serve as a foil to him. She acts rather than being acted upon. She will go to the hero for help if she must, but only if she has tried all other alternatives.
Strong heroes deserve heroines who can keep up with them. Have you written an alpha hero? Then give him an alpha heroine -- and by that, I don't mean someone "feisty" who stomps on the ground when she doesn't get her away and turns TSTL (too stupid to live) at the slightest provocation. I mean someone who gives him the fight of his life. Have you written a kinder, gentler hero? Then give him a heroine who suits him rather than overwhelming him, but don't make them too much alike. Make them contrast each other as well as complementing each other.
What about sex? This will be a surprise to people who haven't read a romance since 1980, but today's heroine is not necessarily a virgin. In particular, heroines in contemporary novels are often non-virginal, and this is not treated as a big deal. (Nora Roberts heroines are usually non-virginal.) On the other hand, while it is acceptable for a hero to be the "Duke of Slut," it's pretty rare for the heroine to have a lot of experience in her past. This is still hard for a lot of readers to accept, probably because we tend to judge heroines differently than heroes.
The heroine, however, should not be perfect. If she is, most readers will want to throw up. Also, perfect people make boring characters. Your heroine should have traits that keep her from being that annoying invention, the overly perfect heroine. She can be driven by work, afraid to commit (yes, this happens to heroines, too), or even afraid of sex because she was abused in the past.
Yes, it's true. Like the hero, your heroine can be tormented by her past. Notice that heroines tended to be tormented rather than tortured. This is because heroines usually react against their turmoil by suffering on the inside, feeling insecure and unloved, while heroes are more likely to "act out." Think of it this way... Trouble heroines are more likely to be inflicted with self-doubt, while troubled heroes are more likely to act like jerks -- perhaps the troubled heroes are hoping to drive away all the people who might care about them and thus possibly reject them.
Deeply flawed heroines are a possibility. Famous examples include Scarlett O'Hara, Kathleen Woodiwiss' Shanna, the stubborn and passionate Margaret Mary Concannon in Nora Robert's Born in Fire, and the heroine of Mary Balogh's Regency romance The Christmas Bride. A more recent example is the heroine in Elizabeth English's The Linnet, who starts out as harsh and even nasty. Deeply flawed heroines are often paired with a patient hero.
However, deeply flawed heroines are a greater challenge than deeply flawed heroes. This might be why there are fewer flawed heroines and so many "perfect" heroines. Readers have less patience with heroines than with heroes, maybe because they are the same gender or perhaps because of societal conditioning. A tortured hero who acts out in an outward way on his inner turmoil is acceptable, but a heroine who acts out will most often bring fear and loathing upon herself. For example, many people loved Katherine Sutcliffe's tormented heroes, particularly in classics such as A Fire in the Heart, but they loathed the heroine of Sutcliffe's more recent book Jezebel, considering her too selfish and unsympathetic.
Yes, this is a double standard, but it exists. Readers want heroines who aren't perfect, but sometimes, they back away when they get what they wish for. While heroines may be allowed to get away with more today, it's still hard to get beyond this double standard. If you have the guts, however, go ahead and write a book with a deeply flawed heroine, and again, tell me when it's coming out so that I can buy it.
Things to Avoid
You might have noticed that the things to avoid in heroes are those that tend to make him act like a jerk -- that even kinder, gentler heroes can be ruined by being boorish. Of course, your heroine shouldn't be a jerk, either. But the things that ruin good heroines are usually things that make her weak.
So above all, avoid making your heroine weak. I don't care how adorable your hero is. If he is acting like an idiot to her, the heroine should be strong enough to stand up to him, rather than turning into a doormat. Also, avoid making your heroine TSTL -- that is, too stupid to live. These are heroines who suddenly toss out their common sense and go off and do stupid things, usually to move the plot. Even worse, but more subtle, are heroines who are supposed to be smart, but turn into squishy, flighty, clumsy things when the hero comes into their life. Yuck! While some readers might think this kind of heroine is cute, to me, this ruins the entire book because it trivializes their relationship. As the relationship is the heart of the book, making the heroine act like an idiot whenever she is around the hero is bad.
The Hero and Heroine Together
Ah, yes, the relationship. Never forget that although they are separate people and must be individuals, the hero and heroine are two parts of one all important thing -- the relationship. So while you have to think of them separately, you can never stop thinking of them together.
Like any real-life relationship, the relationship in a romance novel has highs and lows, ups and downs. Both characters should work toward making the relationship work. Otherwise, you don't have a real relationship, you have a codependency or even (ick!) a stalker.
It is almost always necessary for the relationship to become threatened. Sometimes, the forces that threaten the relationship are external forces -- such as a war that drives the lovers apart. More often than not, however, it is the hero or heroine (or sometimes both) who threaten the relationship -- and they are the only ones who can get back together. Get back together they must (as Yoda would say), or you will not have a romance novel.
There are some romances where the relationship is smooth sailing from the beginning, but those are rare and very hard to pull off. Like real people, the hero and heroine should enter the relationship with doubts and misgivings and fears, and those doubts, misgivings, and fears should drive what happens to the relationship.
Goals and Motivations
Goals can bring the hero and heroine together, and they can drive them apart. Like all great fictional characters, your hero and heroine should both want something and try to work toward that goal. It might be something completely different from what the other wants, which would drive the conflict between them. The hero and heroine might be working toward the same goals, although in different ways -- resulting in (you guessed it) conflict. They might even join forces against a common enemy, in which case the conflict would be driven by external foes rather than clashes between the hero and heroine. (For more information about conflict, see Conflicted About Conflict, by Anne Marble, or Conflict and Resolution in the Romance Novel, by Linda Shertzer.)
When characters have goals, they also have motivations. When writing, keep in mind the typical scene of actors shouting "What's my motivation!" Motivation is just as vital to your fictional characters. Think also of little children in the "Why" stage and keep asking yourself "Why? Why? Why?" Why does your hero want to tear down the heroine's bed and breakfast? Why is the heroine not only refusing his offer but doing so vehemently? Why are your characters acting a certain way? The answers are to be found in their backgrounds. Make sure you know those answers, and make sure they are clear to the readers as well.
Heroes and heroines are people. They will probably break the rules, especially the ones above. They may want to be jerks, they may want to lie and cheat, they may want to mistreat each other. If you can work with characters who do so in a romance novel, then go for it.
Sometimes, your characters may even stamp their feet and refuse to act as they "should." Sometimes, when your characters act willfully, that's a sign that you have placed them in the wrong story, maybe even the wrong setting. In those cases, rethink the story. It's a lot of work, but it's better to do so now than to be faced with a whole book in which the characters re out of place. But sometimes, what your characters are saying is, "I'm not that person. Let me break the rules." In that case, then go for it.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Anne M. Marble has published articles in Gothic Journal and Writer's Digest and is a columnist for the At the Back Fence column at All About Romance (AAR). In her "spare time," she moderates AARlist, a busy list of romance readers sponsored by AAR. Just about everything she writes includes a romance element, even if it's a fantasy novel about a lord and a countertenor. Her day job involves editing articles for the Journal of Biological Chemistry.