Today’s post is going to be a self-indulgent talk therapy session. I apologize in advance. But I’m having one of those writer weeks, the kind where self-doubt is an itchy, wet sweater, weighing you down and making you twitch, and the only way out of it is to keep. Writing. Much as the writing may feel like futile, thrashy flailing for the time being.
So, I like the book I’m working on—it’s called Unbound, and it’s set to be released by Penguin in October. I like the heroine, I like the premise, and I love the hero.
But oh, this hero…
This hero has issues. No shock—all good heroes have them, but this one’s got a lot. He’s living in self-imposed exile in a far-flung crofter’s cottage in the Scottish Highlands, which is strike one, as bad-idea-hero signifiers go. Hermit, check.
Strike two, he’s also got a paraphilia, a deep groove carved into his sexuality that’s obsessed with rope—really scratchy rope—which on its own, nurtured in a sex-positive environment, needn’t be an issue at all. But unfortunately, the fixation isolated him from an early age, distanced his mother, filled him with shame, stunted his ability to socialize, and as an adult he lost all control over it, exacerbated by strike three, a far more troublesome issue—severe alcoholism.
Rob wasn’t the kind of drunk who made an arse of himself at weddings. He was a mean one—petty and cruel, if not violent. He was the kind who’d kept a fifth of gin in his desk and glove box to mitigate the shakes, and who’d for years lost the ability to simply fall asleep, so routinely had he blacked out. He’d drunk himself into the early stages of cirrhosis by thirty-three, a sleep-walking wretch covered in angry purple bruises…
Rob didn’t need a treatment plan, or a support group, or Jesus. He needed exile. Solitary confinement.
And so as the story opens, Rob is not a recovering alcoholic—he’s merely an alcoholic who’s not actively drinking, because the booze is now too far away to be conveniently accessed. He hasn’t fixed his drinking problem, he’s simply shut it in a figurative trunk with a dozen padlocks and crossed his fingers he’ll never get desperate enough to take a crowbar to the hinges.
It wasn’t always this bad.
He’d been good at it, to start.
Two lagers, maybe three, and Rob could shut his brain off enough to get lost in a conversation. To make people laugh. To smile, and really, truly feel the ease and happiness it reflected. The memory of that miserable child had begun to fade, like a bad dream forgotten with the sunrise. A liquid sunrise, golden and pure, poured into a glass to warm the very heart.
And from perhaps eighteen to twenty-eight, he’d managed a balance. For that decade, alcohol had been but a crutch, the lubrication that loosened his brain and mouth enough to let him to enjoy the company of others. To make him charming enough, calm enough, to foster two successful businesses, to court and marry his wife.
Except Rob totally fucked his marriage up, and the fetish he thought had been cured by the booze-soothed ease their early romance (and which was soundly rejected when he finally did roll it out) inevitably returned and, soaked with gin, spiraled out of control. He only indulged it while drunk, in his dark, locked office, with strangers on the Internet…
…only to be dowsed with self-hatred the second he came, the blinding light of reality shining to reveal him as he truly was—a pathetic drunk, one hand bathed in come, wrapped around his limp, spent cock. The other still on his computer mouse, screen awash with some incriminating image, suddenly devoid of its allure; strangers bound and gagged; video of a hog-tied man being fucked by another man; ridiculous words typed by some anonymous nobody. Yeah. That sounds hot. That makes me hard, the nobody might say. What else?
What else? There was nothing else, once Rob came. Shut the offending window, erase his Internet history, get back to the chore of drowning his self-loathing in a bottle of Booth’s.
[Rob’s not gay, by the way—it’s just far easier to find like-minded, narrow-focus kinksters among the male population. Plus the gin didn’t render him particularly choosy. Did I mention he has issues?]
So yeah, this is my hero! Kinda sounds like a romance heroine’s evil ex, the one who saddled her with a major man-distrusting complex, remedied only through the Power of Lurrrve™, as administered by the dashing real hero (who’s probably a former SEAL and definitely not a socially inept hermit.)
And so taking a step back after a feverish first 40,000 words, I’m feeling a bit daunted by my challenge.
How do I make this guy lovable? Not like, “lovable,” in the cuddly, charming sense, but in the sense of, would anyone be able to love this guy? Because pity is no substitute for admiration.
It’s not enough to employ the Christian Grey Method, which is to make him mega-hot with fally-downy pants, thus blinding the heroine to his certifiable emotional retardation. Plus I think Rob’s hot already. In my head, he’s totally Armitage, if Armitage routinely forgot how to shave for a week at a time. But unshaven-Armitage appeal is not enough to paper over Rob’s gaping psychological cracks. (Just as picturing Christian Grey as Michael Fassbender has not aided much in my struggle to enjoy Fifty Shades.)
The issue here is, would Rob pass best-friend muster?
I came to realize, rereading the initial draft, that, “No heroine’s best friend would ever give this man her endorsement.” No real-life best friend would sign off on this guy, and that, I thought, must be a non-starter.
Until I realized, I’ve written plenty of guys who most friends would refuse to sign off on. The average woman probably wouldn’t advise her best friend to date a guy with a rape kink, or a male prostitute crippled by a panic disorder, or a masochistic sociopath with no impulse control, or a pushy borderline chauvinist, or a tactless French creeper who happens to be really good at sculpting naked ladies.
Yet I wrote all those guys, and they seemed to work for readers. Moreover, all those weirdos also earned the blessings of their heroine’s best friends (or sisters), despite them presenting like the Worst Suitors Ever.
But why? In every single case, it came down to the same thing—it wasn’t about how the guy came off. It was about how being with him changed the heroine. A case of the hero bringing out something in the heroine, a tangible, positive transformation that her closest friends and family could see. These guys contributed to their heroines’ character arcs in ways no other heroes could have. (Though the masochistic sociopath was, in fact, the Worst Suitor Ever, despite the heroine’s positive arc.)
So the challenge, I’m realizing, is that I need to figure out what this current hero offers the heroine.
What does she need in her life but isn’t getting, and couldn’t get from a man who wasn’t burdened by all these massive issues? How can his massive issues—or rather, the healing of them—in fact enrich the heroine’s life?
And how do I redeem this guy, not just to the reader, but to himself? He’s not one of those cocky heroes who needs to be humbled by love; quite the opposite. He needs his self-worth constructed, not his arrogance mellowed. And it can’t simply be that he meets this woman, she wheedles his kink out of him, blows his mind by indulging it, and [glittery harp segue] he’s fixed, suddenly able to rejoin polite society, wander into a bar and order a soft drink with no angst—sobriety, check! The sex in this story is intense, but it ain’t magic.
This guy has some serious proving to do.
And so I’m at that point in a book, yet again, where I understand what needs to ultimately happen, but have no clue what shape the resolution will take. And I’m at that point where I have to remind myself that I wind up at this point in nearly every book I write, and that the answer always presents itself, as long I don’t try to guess the solution too early on, as long as I keep grinding my gray matter into the keyboard, keep plumbing the freaky brain-depths of the creeps I’ve birthed, keep taking long, spacey walks with the proper musical accompaniment. Which is just what I’ll have to do, to the tune of 49,900 words in the next five weeks.
Though maybe next time I’ll be smart, and just write about a mega-hot billionaire whose sweatpants won’t stay up.