A few years ago I had a manuscript rejected with the gutting comment that my romantic hero had no charisma.
The rest of my novel apparently had everything: likeable heroine, great setting and
dialogue and believable conflict. It was just that no one actually liked the hero enough to want to fall in love with him. And if you can’t love the hero, you can’t empathise with the heroine. And if you can’t empathise with the heroine, you just end up wondering why she’s attracted to such an arse, before putting the book down in disgust.
So, ever since then I’ve read literally hundreds of romances, trying to work out how other writers have successfully created an interesting romantic hero who we can actually care about, and during my research I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a certain type of romantic hero I’m drawn to creating – and unfortunately, it’s the type that’s most difficult to make likeable.
Some of my favourite heroes have remarkably similar traits. In John Masters’ Far, far the Mountain Peak, the hero, Peter Savage, is ruthless, single-minded and distant. In Laura Logan’s The Windflower, the hero is ruthless, single-minded and, yes, emotionally distant. In D.H. Lawrence’s The Fox, the young soldier is ruthless…OK, you’re getting the picture. And these aren’t the only examples of distant, brooding heroes in literature (or film, for that matter) – I’m sure you can fill in plenty of your own. Of course what makes these characters attractive is that there’s much, much more to them than just these outward traits – otherwise, quite frankly, they’d be terrifying, and not in a good way – but how to convey that to the reader?
Well, take Mr Darcy, as a classic example. At the start of the novel the reader sees Darcy mainly from Elizabeth Bennett’s point of view – he’s reserved, he’s proud, he’s an arrogant nob and he wants taking down a peg or two. Of course all that’s true, but Jane Austen cleverly gives Darcy a great friend in Charles Bingley, who is as nice a man as you’ll come across. Immediately we know there’s got to be more to Darcy than the cold fish Elizabeth thinks him, otherwise why would a lovely man like Bingley be such a good friend? Through Bingley’s friendship, we feel an interest in Darcy that we wouldn’t otherwise have felt.
OK, I understand all that – but how to create my own arrogant hero in a way that readers will find sympathetic right from the start of the book? Or if not sympathetic, at least worthy of sticking with for a while until the reader gets to know him better?
In my novel the hero and heroine are reunited at a funeral after some years apart. Without going into too much detail, there’s a history between them which makes them mistrust one another, and, in fact, as far as the hero is concerned he has every right to talk to the heroine as though she’s dirt. Of course, it’s all a misunderstanding, but that doesn’t stop the hero coming across in this scene as though he’s high-handed, arrrogant and frankly quite unnecessarily cruel. Since receiving those comments on rejection of this novel, I’ve thought long and hard about how to turn this around so the hero isn’t instantly obnoxious. Here’s what I thought:
- have the hero also introduced to other characters in the initial scene, and show that he’s actually quite a decent guy. I did this by having him meet the heroine’s teenage brother, who hero worships him. Instead of my hero brushing off this teenage fan in an arrogant way, he takes time to listen to him and treats the teenager with respect. The teenager takes an instant liking to him.
- the hero also meets the heroine’s father in the opening scene. I don’t show what they talk about, but the father later tells the heroine how surprised he was to find the arrogant hero was actually a perfectly pleasant, intelligent guy.
- have the heroine have an instant of doubt about her behaviour as a teenager. The hero might seem arrogant, but her own behaviour years ago wasn’t perfect.
So, my manuscript was duly revised and after much rewriting, it was published as The Silk Romance. One reviewer called it ‘a really lovely romance, well-written with credible characters. I really cared what happened to them.’ Hooray!
Anyone who tells you they find writing romance is easy…please let me know! I’d love to know how other writers have gone about this. And if you know of any other novels containing arrogant, controlling, emotionally distant heroes who are still brilliantly charismatic, and you think I might like them, please let me know in the comments. I’d really love to read them!