Hi everyone! I’m happy to bring you a guest post from Bonnie Dee today on the appeal of hurt/comfort fiction. Enjoy!
One character is either physically or emotionally wounded in some way. Another character supplies nurturing and draws out the other’s pain. How many times have we all read this trope in one form or another, usually with a brooding hero who hides his sorrow under a stoic mask? Only a special someone can reach through the layers to the vulnerable man underneath. What draws romance readers to such scenarios over and over? Does it have something to do with the basic nurturing instinct in women—this is presuming that the majority of romance readers are women and that we all have a built-in instinct—or is there more to it than that?
I tried to do research on the underlying psychology of the subject, but all my searches mostly brought up definitions of hurt-comfort as it relates to fanfiction. In fanfic, an injury, wound or illness can serve as a catalyst to bring together two characters who might not usually come into proximity in actual canon. It’s great for shipping unusual pairings, or, on a more distasteful note, to bring in a Mary Sue character to do the “nursing”.
But fanfiction aside, this trope is well traveled territory in romance. Sometimes the damage is physical, ie. a wounded warrior, but at the core it’s the underlying psychological scarring only the lover can heal that appeals. The moment of the reveal of that bruised heart, when the lover finally breaks through the protective shell, is the peak of romance. It satisfies deeply.
If I was a smarter, wiser person, I’d share some scientific reasons why. But my uneducated gut instinct is the “mommy” factor. I believe women are genetically programmed to want to comfort and heal and fix. There’s something about having a strong, competent man laid low, vulnerable, completely exposed like a raw nerve that grabs hold of that instinct and tugs hard. Although maybe it’s not only females who respond that way. The hurt/comfort dynamic runs strong in gay romance as well, including those not penned by women.
Digging a little deeper, maybe it has more to do with everyone’s common need to be needed. If the reader is identifying as the nurturing protagonist in the story, then the satisfaction in comforting has everything to do with their basic desire to feel absolutely vital to at least one other person in this world. To touch and move and affect someone no one else could reach—how fulfilling is that? Answer: supremely.
So maybe the hurt/comfort dynamic is egoistic at heart. Altruism becomes egoism if you scratch deep enough; love becomes self congratulation. “See what I can do? See how I heal with my magic love power?” Such an idea is deliciously empowering, isn’t it?
Or maybe that’s all bullshit. I am not psychologist nor have I recently stayed at a Holiday Inn Express so there’s nothing to qualify my rambling. What do you all think about the subject of hurt/comfort and why it appeals? Any particular favorite reads you’d like to share?
One of my perennial favorites is Wild at Heart by Patricia Gaffney, in which only the patient and loving Sydney can reach and teach the “wild man raised by wolves” Michael. It hits all my hot buttons with its touching comfort scenes, an uncivilized virgin hero, and the totally outside the norm premise.
Of course, the crux of hurt/comfort is that it’s never really one-sided. Whatever is lacking or damaged in the nurturer is also fixed by the nurturee. “You complete me” becomes “we complete each other”, and that’s what makes a love story.