The other day, my proclivity for loving really, really broken characters and gleefully watching as an author puts them through the wringer came up in a conversation on Twitter. The context was Jackie Ashenden’s Having Her, in which a hero with a schizophrenic mother and a heroine with a struggling business and virginity issues tumble into a fairly surprising relationship for a “best friend’s older brother” trope book. Then everything falls apart in a bunch of really bad ways. And it doesn’t get better until about 95% of the way through the novel. I adored it.
As much as I would like to say that it’s fun for me when both the characters are a mess, what I love is screwed up heroes. My top three heroes ever are 1) the Duke of Jervaulx from Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm, 2) S.T. Maitland from Laura Kinsale’s Prince of Midnight and 3) Rob from Cara McKenna’s Unbound. For those keeping score, that gives us a three out of three on “avoiding his life,” a hero who keeps falling down, a hero who can’t actually speak for a good part of the novel and a hero whose profound issues I won’t reveal because I know someone who reads this blog hasn’t read it yet. Self-possessed, omnipotent alphas these are not.
In romance, this works partly because no matter how much characters screw up, there is redemption and healing in the end. They eventually get their acts together with the help of the heroine and everyone gets their happily ever after. Even the worst put-together people who make the most horrible mistakes in the most fraught situations can still be dreamy objects of someone’s affection.
While I appreciate the romance heroes who make everything okay by virtue of their very presence, they’re not the ones that get my heart pumping. Mary Balogh does this with Wulfric Bedwyn. Any time he shows up, the reader just knows everything is going to be okay, often with just the lifting of his quizzing glass. And in Grace Burrowes books, I’ve started referring to certain endings as “Deus ex Moreland” because the Duke, the Duke’s heir and their primary investigator/spy all seem to have the power to put to rights any situation a character finds him or herself in, no matter how perilous or scandalous. And to be clear: I’m actually charmed by this. These books make up my favorites for when I just want a little light reading. But charmed is not the same as head over heels in deep obsession.
Oh, and let’s make another distinction. I’m not talking about heroes who had a bit of a sad childhood because they were orphans, got bullied in school or had murderous relatives. Or they’re afraid of ruining a friendship or because duty calls them elsewhere. Those are pretty standard romance reasons for having trust issues, confidence problems and not flinging themselves headlong into the arms of their heroine. It’s the bare minimum for the standard of conflict in a romance novel. There are a lot of great books where these set-ups worked wonderfully, but the fact is, they’ll never make my top five.
In the case of Having Her, Vincent Fox actually has his life pretty much together. He has a thriving business, a best friend, a good relationship with his sister (if not his parents) and he’s building a home. But he’s hit a wall that seems precipitated by his mother’s latest mental health crisis, his sister’s move and a business expansion. I think a psychologist would call this an adjustment reaction. And what he uses to bring himself through it is very wrong indeed. His destructive impulses are impressive. I was angry with him for most of the book, which paradoxically is why I liked him so much when he got it together again.
So give me your felonious heroes. Heroes with PTSD. Heroes missing limbs. Suicidal heroes. Heroes with addictions, scars and blindness. Any time you can find a new way to break a hero and then fill the broken place with love, I’m all in.
Speaking of broken heroes, tune in Monday for my review of Patricia Gaffney’s Wild at Heart, a story of a “lost man” found in the woods without the ability to speak and the manners of a wolf. See? Broken. I thought it was great.