Creating dark heroes; how dark should you go?
Lee Child, writer of the Jack Reacher novels, said recently in a radio interview that he believes the reason so many of his readers are women was that Jack Reacher has a ‘feminine emotional intelligence.’ Reacher conducts relationships in a way that women understand, relate to and can trust. That last word is the clincher for me. A good hero is fundamentally trustable.
In a way, I’ve come straight to my punch line because, while I enjoy heroes who are complex and even, when provoked, capable of extreme behaviour, I need to feel, as I fall under his spell, this is someone I could invest my emotions in and not end up scarred and scorched afterwards. If a hero can’t do this, I’m not reading a romance, I’m reading a different kind of novel.
Romance is read as escape – we know that because if we write it and if we read it or both. As life meanders on in its perplexing fashion, we like to be reminded that there are such things as solutions and happy endings. Heroines have their psychological dilemmas to work through alongside the external, physical ones. And the heroes . . . well, on top of being desirable and attractive, they often represent the side of human nature that the heroine is trying to confront, overcome or perhaps, to avoid at all costs. In my historical novel, The Dress Thief, my lead character Alix falls for a man, Verrian Haviland, who insists she confronts the possibility of war in Europe, when in fact, she’d rather dress up and pretend nothing bad was happening. With her abiding fear of abandonment, loving Verrian means loving a man who leaves her to fight what he considers a necessary war.
At the heart of a good romance is the notion that beyond the pain and rejection of the present lies the hope of happiness. And being happy, according to Plato, is the common desire of all humanity, and I’m not arguing with Plato! I have read romances where the hero dies at the end, and though that’s a real downer, there is nevertheless the sense of a satisfactory ending. But I can’t recall a romance where hero and heroine end the book still at emotional loggerheads, or if I ever read one, I probably threw it at the wall.
Which brings me to my current conundrum. Given that we sometimes like to create heroes who are challenging, damaged or who exist outside normal society in some way, how dark can we go? Jon Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men certainly wades in obsidian waters with his drinking and womanising. He is hard and callous at times; think how he turned his back on the gay character Salvatore Romano, or refused to forgive British character Lane Pryce his paltry embezzlement, driving the poor fellow to suicide. I’m going to stick my neck out and say that twenty years ago, a character such as Don Draper might have existed in popular media, but he wouldn’t have been allowed to survive and prosper. (Note, I’ve only watched up to series 5, so no sneaking in and telling me how he ends up!)
To what extent can we threaten our own and our readers’ sense of ‘right-ness’ by giving our heroes dark characteristics?
And what is dark, exactly?
Well, here’s a list. The following manly vices are not dark, or IMO, not dark to the point where we’d give up liking the man:
Driving a performance car, too fast.
Notching up sexual encounters in youth.
Being divorced. Experimenting with drugs when young and unfettered.
Fancying the pants off the heroine, while having no intention of a long term relationship (Until chapter three, anyway)
Serial monogamy (terms and conditions apply) Causing death, injury to others, brawling, firing a gun, doing time in prison (terms and conditions, ditto)
The following vices are, IMO, too dark to make you care for the man.
Getting drunk and violent, with no intention of stopping
Smoking with kids in the room (Hey, they’ll find a cure for cancer by the time junior’s grown up!!)
Driving a performance car, too fast, without concern for other road uses, or small, furry creatures.
Still notching up youthful sexual encounters when old enough to know better
Being divorced because he was a grade II, gold plated sh*t to his ex. Add to his, leaving his kids because he can’t deal with commitment
Still taking drugs while old enough to know better, doing a bit of dealing
Fancying the pants off the heroine, with no intention of a long term relationship long past chapter three
Serial monogamy, with emphasis on serial.
Causing death, injury either for self-gratification or reckless stupidity. Being in prison for same.
The difference between the two lists is form one stuff. List one describes a person with human failings that are redeemable and in some cases admirable. A soldier fighting for his (or her) country against an oppressive foe can be on the side of the angels. That same soldier coming home and getting into bar fights, taking on loudmouths and bullies, has us rooting for him. He may end up in jail, but we know he’s sound at heart. List two describes schmucks and losers. The sort of men you’d warn your daughter off, or if you’re young enough to be my daughter, I’d warn you off.
And that, I think, is clincher #2. Paint your hero as dark as you like. Make him flawed, testosterone fuelled, overly blunt, nay, rude. A risk-freak, even a recreational drug user but if we’re going to care for him, his baseline must be trustable and moral. I mean, apart from Jon Hamm’s mesmerising good looks, why do we go back for more? Thinking about it, the one thing for me that makes Don Draper worth emotional investment is that he loves his children and in spite of everything, is there for them. He doesn’t do a perfect job, but he tries.
After that, he can be as dark as a pot of Marmite. He can be a vampire who has to have his daily quart of O-positive, or a warrior who slaughters hundreds in the name of freedom. He can like imaginative sex, kinky or even weird sex (so long as it is never coercive or vicious). He can do two-wheel turns in his Ferrari round hairpin bends, so long as it’s only his own life he’s putting on the line. I truly believe that no romantic hero can depart from that baseline. You may disagree – I look forward to your comments.
Natalie Meg Evans
The Dress Thief, published by Quercus Books June 2014
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