Bad-Idea Heroes (No, Like, Really Bad)

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.

About Cara McKenna

Cara McKenna writes smart erotica—sexy stories with depth. Read more >
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42 Responses to Bad-Idea Heroes (No, Like, Really Bad)

  1. Jenni says:

    Please don’t write about sweatpanted billionaires. They’re a dime a dozen.

    I’d have paid good money just to read this blog post.

    October can’t come soon enough.

  2. Ruthie says:

    Since I am also having this week, it is lovely to hear about yours. And also very funny. You don’t pull punches, do you, with the come-covered hand and the shame spiral? GOD. Of course I love him already.

    I think you’re right, so right, that the important thing here is what he has to offer the heroine. Because what I think we ultimately sell in a romance is not “Are these good people who deserve love?” but rather “What can she give him that he’s not getting elsewhere, and what can he give her? What do they see in each other that no one else sees? How do they make each other better/more authentic/more completely realized human beings?” That is the trick.

    If we’re confessing, I will confess that I’m working on a marriage-in-trouble story about a couple I’ve already introduced. Ten years down the road, they’re not in a good place, so it’s like writing a novella that starts with a black moment. I’m besieged by doubt that everyone will HATE me for torturing them this way. But what I want to do is to show that this is how marriage goes, sometimes — there are good patches and bad patches, and in a strong marriage the couple will always find each other again because the what-it-is-that-brought-them-together-in-the-first-place is still there, and they know how to locate it and nurture it. I guess I’m trying to write a story about the romance of continuing to choose your own spouse instead of the alternative — divorce, separation — even when the alternative starts to look easier.

    And then I read that and think, “Fuck, who would want to read that?” And so I stare at the screen for a while, trying to remember what you just said. :-)

    • Cara McKenna says:

      I know this couple of which you speak. And I love this couple. You are a cruel and ballsy wench, but I know if anybody can pull it off, you can, Knoxie.

      We do love to make our lives difficult, don’t we?

    • Kaetrin says:

      @Ruthie I want to read about this couple. I love marriage in trouble stories. I love stories where the couple chooses to do the hard thing and work it out rather than walk away. Moar please.

      @Cara I also want to read about Mr. Hermit Rope Drunkypants – I’m curious as to how you’ll get him from there to Mr. Hero Rope Healthypants.

  3. Of course, your explication of this hero only inspires love, and I imagine will inspire love in subsequent comments and in your future readers of the book. That was my very first thought. I love him–this rough hemp-bound, reclusive, mean alcoholic. And this shouldn’t be possible. The mean alcoholics in my own life have hurt me, have hurt others. The love I had for a couple of them was not redeeming, but complex and gutting. Why do your sketches here, delivered mid project, incite anticipation?

    Part of it is the comfort of the convention you’re writing inside of, even as I identify you as a writer who knows the convention well enough to move its borders around. Unlike the mean alcoholics in my own life, there is promise, here.

    That doesn’t explain it utterly, though. The promise that the heroine’s arc and the hero’s redemption are twined together, somehow isn’t completely enough. Part of it, too, is confidence in the author–I’ve followed your heroines into the apartments of dangerously kinked boxers and prostitutes, as you’ve said, and been deeply moved. I think that my confidence in you and the conventional promise that the heroine’s arc will complement the dramatic change of this hero are maybe two-thirds of my reasons for sighing over this snippets, thinking–yes. This. I love him.

    The other third is more elusive and why I seek out protagonists who are impossible, who are a Bad Idea. It has something to do with the fact that I, myself, am a Bad Idea. I am. Split open, on the inside of me, there are rotten places and places that are stunted and undeveloped. There are places that are ugly and have been overdeveloped and grown into ugly things. But I don’t split myself open, not really, or at least, not for everyone, and those few who do know, are only subjected in small moments–as much as I can stand it, even if they could stand more. I know all those awful places are inside of me though. If I lived as though those awful places were on the outside, maybe I would be in a hermit’s cottage, in the highlands, my hands wrapped around a gin bottle. Not even maybe.

    So loving this hero is a way I can love myself. It’s a way I can be something more than just a Bad Idea. In fact, the uglier and more undeveloped and overdeveloped and rotted you can make him, alongside the promise of the convention and the trust I have in you, the better. Because on the other side of “The End” there’s something that gets a little soothed in me, and some of that love I feel for him gets transferred to myself.

    So keep writing, is what I am saying.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      You know the more you praise me, the more certain it becomes that you’ll eventually have to beta-read this hot mess, right? :-)


      • And also, you’re pretty. And have my email.

        • Cara McKenna says:

          I’m glad you said that stuff about ugliness, too. There’s so much ugliness built into this hero, I sometimes get intimidated by the depth and darkness of the hole I’ve dug myself. And I forget something totally obvious—I love ugly characters. I love smooshing my hands into their ugly, right up to the elbows, ruining my clothes as I tinker and torture. So once this hump of uncertainty’s behind me, I know I’ll once again be a pig in slop, so excited to be writing this guy… If only I could fast-forward through this doubting stretch of the process!

          • Shelley says:

            Something Mary Ann once told me, that I think applies here, is also true– when you love your characters, your readers love your characters. There’s a quality of love-ability (not to be confused with the snuggly teddy bear kind) that shines through the writing. You’re convinced they are capable of loving and being loved, and so we feel the same way. It’s a kind of author/reader alchemy that happens somehow, that’s part of the magic.

  4. Christian Gray’s pants won’t stay up? Sweatpants, okay, but his suits must be fitted. They must.

    Take this with a grain of salt, because I prefer sympathetic characters by a large margin and I’m probably not your target reader. But your writing is so strong and this particular hero appeals to me, his kink and the setting especially. Not the alcoholism. Is he sober already? If he’s not, that would be a major roadblock for me in a contemporary romance. For a historical, I might be able to wave away reality.

    There’s a book by Marion Keyes called Rachel’s Holiday. It’s more women’s fiction than romance, about the heroine’s journey towards sobriety. She falls in love before she goes to rehab. They meet up again a year later and the spark is still there. I really enjoyed it.

    Not sure if this helps with your question about what this hero can offer the heroine, but good luck.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      He’s not actively drinking, in the book—he exiled himself in order to physically avoid alcohol, basically to put a stop to his own slow-motion suicide. But he’s not psychologically “recovered” either. He hasn’t taken a drink in two years, but he’s not exactly in a healthy place with his addiction.

      But suffice it to say, the heroine doesn’t meet (or fall in love with) the drunk, cruel version of him, only the socially anxious one he used to mitigate with the drinking, before he lost control. Whether she sees him drunk before the book is over, I don’t know yet… I’ll have to see what kind of shape he’s in, by the time they wind up in a town together. It’d be an awfully cruel black moment to spring on them, and one I wouldn’t resort to lightly.

      • Well, full steam ahead then! Relapse and recovery issues don’t put me off at all. It does bother me when a hero goes from blackout drunk to casual drinker (not possible IMO) or recovers too easily/quickly. Anything but that, thumbs up.

        • Cara McKenna says:

          He’s very much an all-or-nothing drunk, at this point in his life. No such thing as “just one sip” for this guy.

          I’m sort of dreading the black moment. Even if it doesn’t spring from a relapse, his potentially losing the heroine could easily trigger one. Must tread carefully…

  5. Amber Lin says:

    Everything you said about this hero sounds awesome. That’s really all I came here to say.

  6. Of course, like everyone else, my first thought was “I want to read this book NOW”. But I also find it telling that on my RSS reader, the post author for wonko doesn’t show up – yet from the first few paragraphs I knew this had to be you. So, yeah…what Mary Ann said. I know your writing and trust you to pull this one out (brilliantly).

    I think the author trust is key here, because in your case I know you’re also not preparing to make this a story about alcoholism. I’m not going to be preached to, and there will also be no magic lurve cure. So I’m already invested in finding out how you/this hero can navigate a way out of this mess that rings true for the reader and makes life better for the heroine.

  7. Liz Mc2 says:

    Um, wow, what Mary Ann said way more eloquently than I could. I read this post thinking “Ohh, yes, I want to read that!” too. Part of it, as a reader, is the interest of seeing how (I won’t say “if” given your state of mind this week) a writer manages to pull this story off.

    But with a lot of writers, I would run fast in the other direction. I think that’s because often, heroes (and it’s almost always the heroes, in romance) like this are presented as “fixer uppers.” He’s Wrong and Dark not because real people are, because readers are, but because “we” like the fantasy that our love will cure a guy like this. The woundedness is just an angst and conflict generator, not an organic, realistic part of the character. But you don’t seem like you’re going there–it would surprise me if you did.

    I’ve enjoyed that “fix him” fantasy sometimes myself. But the older I get, the less it appeals to me, partly because I’ve seen the harm it can do in real life, and partly because I’ve learned that we have to redeem those dark and broken parts ourselves, or learn to live with them, or some combination of the two. Others can help, but not do it for us. I’ve been loved, and have loved, for over 20 years now, and it hasn’t “fixed” either of us, though I’m grateful for it every day.

    This is why I look forward to Ruthie’s marriage in trouble story, too. Because it’s a real part of marriage, that up and down and falling back/deeper into love. And I like to see that story told as a romance.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      Yeah, this guy can’t simply be “fixed.” His own perceived fix—the exile—is unsustainable, and I think he knows that, deep down.

      If there’s a catalyst that could spur him toward a healthier, more practical sobriety—and a genuine desire for that sobriety—it’ll be feeling accepted by the heroine as his awkward, seemingly unlovable, sober self. He’s got to heal that bit, and his dysfunctional relationship with his sexual desires, and clear away those triggers, before the alcohol / self-medicating behaviors can become manageable.

      If he can stop resenting himself, he’ll hopefully feel less compelled to slowly poison himself to death, when he next rejoins civilized society. Now, how to make him see the man the heroine does… Hmmm…

      Damn, I’m so glad I wrote this post. You guys are the best support group ever!

  8. Corina says:

    I think your comment above about the fact that the heroine doesn’t meet and fall in love with the *drunk* version of the hero is key to making him redeemable, and her love understandable. If she falls in love before witnessing all his baggage, even if she *knows* about it, it’s easier to imagine her sticking around to help him deal with all of it. He doesn’t have to be completely emotionally sound by the end of the book, he just has to be healthier, and we readers have to see that more improvement is both possible, and given what we’ve seen to that point, likely. As a best friend, that’s all I ask once my friends have fallen in love. That he is *working* at being worthy of her, that he wants, more than anything, to be that. I have full faith that you can get there from where you say you are.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      Yes, and so far, she *doesn’t* know about his alcoholism. She’s managed to weasel his kink out of him, but since there’s no obvious pay-off to his admitting what a horrid person he was to his ex-wife… They’re only expecting to spend a finite amount of time together—the heroine’s in Scotland on vacation—so he’s telling himself, “This is a glorious, fleeting connection I never in a million years expected to find with anyone. No sense buggering it up by mentioning I’m a raging drunk, on top of already being a moody hermit with a sexual perversion.”

      • Corina says:

        He really does sound very sympathetic. (No irony there. Totally sincere.) I *want* this guy to be be loved. These are exactly the kind of characters that make me think the various avatar theories of why women love romance are hooey. Because F*CK NO do I want to be the one loving him, but I do want to read about the woman who does.

  9. This is a really interesting post & conversation. I disagree with Ruthie Knox above–I do read romance for that first reason (are these good people who deserve love?). The compliment each other thing isn’t enough for me. I don’t care how fully realized they are if they’re assholes.

    Also, I’m with Corina in thinking that this character sounds sympathetic. But I diverge on the second part of her comment. When I read romance, I want to imagine myself in the heroine’s place, falling in love with the hero. I have to be able to relate to her feelings and see what she sees in him.

    • Amber Lin says:

      “I disagree with Ruthie Knox above–I do read romance for that first reason (are these good people who deserve love?). The compliment each other thing isn’t enough for me. I don’t care how fully realized they are if they’re assholes.”

      I don’t really want to despise the characters (AKA. I don’t generally read cheating for that reason) but I also would rather see them matched well than likeable. Ideally we want both, I think. But I do think I’ve read too many books with a moderate amount of likability and no matching whatsoever with some insta-lust or convenience to cover up the patches. And not only does it feel very surface, but it also doesn’t give me much faith in the HEA when I think about it.

      In Mary Ann’s last post she said:

      “We want the author to convince us that this love is the only way, and we want every part of the story to argue, in chorus, for this love until we would rather gut ourselves than have it denied the h/h.”

      Which I agree with completely. And so maybe part of that IS likability, because that helps us root for them. And thinking that they’re smart and deserve love, but it’s also about this specific love and why this meeting of the souls is perfect and so rare and would be so incredibly, almost impossibly hard to find with someone else–because those are the stakes, and the uniqueness of their pairing is what makes them high. If very nice and smart and pretty Sally can walk down the street and find this with another hunk, then the stakes are low.

      • Yes, I think you’re right. I’ve never thought about the stakes being higher for difficult-to-love characters. I usually think of it as “if he screws this up, he’ll never be happy” (because he won’t love another!!) but I like the idea of a h/h being sort of unfit for anyone else.

        Also, what makes a character likeable for me isn’t necessarily how good they are, but how *real* they are, or how much I can relate to them. Perfect people are impossible to relate to. What Mary Ann said above about ugliness and loving ourselves is really insightful. In a recent story I read (Knox’s Big Boy), I related to something in the heroine that I didn’t necessary like. I liked that *she* didn’t like herself at times. I also really enjoyed V. Dahl’s anxious control freak hero in Crazy For You. I’m an anxious control freak and I don’t like it! But I loved him.

        So maybe relatable is more important than likeable. Goodness is definitely a factor for me. I don’t think I can root for characters who don’t seem like real, decent people.

    • Kaetrin says:

      I don’t put myself in the heroine’s place routinely – I’m more of a “voyeur” type of reader I think. But I need to see why *that* guy and *that* girl – the courtship and developing regard and affection, lust and love – that’s why the insta-love rarely works for me. I agree the characters have to be relateable too but if I don’t get why that particular pairing it won’t work for me. So the Scottish highland visitor lady will need to see something in Mr. Rope, get something from him, share something with him that she doesn’t see/get/share elsewhere and vice versa and I need to see it on the page – that’s what I saw in Curio (as an example).

    • Ruthie says:

      Maybe my dichotomy was false, there. I just think we get so wrapped up in characters’ goodness sometimes that we forget that two good people does not a romance make. And that watching two perfectly good (except for a few teensy unimportant flaws) people fall in love is kind of boring. I don’t believe that the spectrum is “good or asshole” (and I know you don’t either, because I’ve read your books). Good people make mistakes all the time — sometimes terrible mistakes. And I sympathize with people who make mistakes. I want to see them figure out how to stop making them, and to move forward in their lives with someone who can help them find the best version of themselves.

      Also, it’s possible that I believe that no one is an asshole, deep down. So “fully realized” = “not an asshole,” automatically. But some people are so far from fully realized to begin with that it’s not possible to convincingly get them to “good” within the pages of a romance novel. That is, perhaps, the boundary Cara so loves to flirt with. And she always manages to sell me on the transformation, which is why I love and admire her work so much.

      • Not a false dichotomy, just a different way of looking at romance. A lot of readers/authors disagree with me about the placeholder theory and sympathetic characters. I’m wondering if the two are related, and if my tendency to slip into the heroine’s space shapes my preferences.

        I didn’t mean to dictate rules or criticize Cara’s work. I realize it sounds like I’m calling her other characters unsympathetic in my first comment, but I’ve never actually read her. I’m just offering a general, kind of traditional opinion. I think it can be helpful to hear pros and cons before making a big decision about a character.

        • Cara McKenna says:

          Oh goodness, I didn’t take it that way for a second! Never fear. Even if I had, I would never fault anyone their preferences—everyone’s allowed their own dislikes, be they unsympathetic characters, or beta heroes, or books with closed bedroom doors, or any of my own weird reader turn-offs. We can’t help what pushes our buttons, good or bad!

          • Okay, whew. I always feel like I’m putting my foot in my mouth!! I’m writing a post right now that relates to this topic, so it’s been helpful for me to discuss.

  10. Shari Slade says:

    What Mary Ann said x10.

    And also, I like the “bad idea” heroes because they’re more real to me. Most (if not all) of the men I’ve know have been “bad ideas” in one way or another. That uber-perfect, Navy SEAL, on a white horse, with lots of zeros trailing his bank account…rings false. I don’t *know* him.

    I can suspend disbelief with the best of ‘em, but for a story to really gut-punch me I need MOAR ugly.

    Give me all your damaged bastards, your thick-shelled curmudgeons, wounded and bleeding (literally, figuratively, bonus points for both).

    What hits me in my squishy place?
    1) If he has compelling reasons for being a “bad idea”
    2) If I can see glimmers of his *capacity* to love

    For me, it isn’t about being good enough…it’s about being loved despite not being good enough (for real REASONS – a la influencing the heroine’s character arc) and then about trying like mad (and failing, oh the failing) to *become* good enough.

    Eh, this ramble is probably all my own damage.

    I just want to read “Unbound” like whoa.

  11. willaful says:

    I think I’ve placed most of them, but which is poor impulse-control guy?

  12. Olivia Waite says:

    “Take this with a grain of salt, because I prefer sympathetic characters by a large margin and I’m probably not your target reader. But your writing is so strong and this particular hero appeals to me, his kink and the setting especially.”

    I feel the same on both counts — I tend to like my heroes charming and sweet, with hidden steel. This guy wears all his prickles point-outward. But what I’m seeing just from that short, brilliant snippet above is that this hero is so damn specific, he has to be real. Billionaires are boring because they’re interchangeable. We know all about their fancy apartments and immaculately tailored suits and somehow squeaky-clean sex dungeons (who cleans those, anyway? do they get paid extra?).

    One of my favorite damaged heroes is S. T. Maitland from Laura Kinsale’s Prince of Midnight, which is in itself a pretty wonky piece of romance. And because S. T.’s a depressed, half-deaf former highwayman turned hermit who lives in the ruins of a French castle with a wolf he’s managed to tame … well, it works. I get very nervous about the damaged hero as an archetype, for the same reason Liz does: in real life the “fixer-upper” narrative often overlaps with the practices of abuse. But this guy you’re writing sounds like an individual rather than an archetype — the bones are there, but you’ve fleshed him out. I can more easily believe in the heroism of individuals.

    And I really, REALLY want to see the scenes where he works out the rope kink. What can I say? I married a sailor. I like knots.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      Ooh, I must read this book! Thanks for alerting me. I love hermit heroes.

      And I liked your comment about “the heroism of individuals” a lot. I think that may be what’s keeping me from surrendering myself [surrendering not unlike a vaginally orgasmic virgin with no gag reflex] to Fifty Shades—that hero is so frigging all-over-the-place, in his characterizations and reactions, even the way he speaks… I have no idea who this guy is. Which is making it really hard to care about him. Or indeed understand the heroine’s attachment. He is fifty shades of inconsistent. I hope maybe I’ll feel like I know him by the end. We’ll see. The heroine’s gotten a bit better, as the book’s gone on.

  13. Amy Raby says:

    Thanks for this post. I am at “that point” in my WIP as well, and this helped clarify my thinking.

  14. Jessi Gage says:

    “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.”

    I love these words, Cara. And I totally sympathize. I think every writer hits that point where he/she’s like, what the hell have I been doing the last 40, 50, 60k words? How do I end this freaking thing?

    It’ll happen. I can NOT wait to read this hero of yours. Purple splotchy bruised with liver damage alcoholic hermit with a rope kink. Count me IN! Gimme Gimme Gimme. Girl, your CPs are the lucky girls in the world. They get the goods before the rest of us pleebs who stalk you on Amazon.

    Good luck! You’ll work it out.

  15. Shelley says:

    Your post, Mary Ann’s post, and Amber’s post, all in a row, all work together to create a narrative of how this all works, I think.

    So much of it has to do with a reader’s ability to trust the author, and that comes down to the factors you’ve all talked about– honesty. Voice, for sure, is a big part of that. Think of Charlotte Stein, who has voice out the wazoo– and it rings with honesty. Those weird little moments inside her characters’ heads, where you go, “Oh my god, someone else thinks this way too!”

    In the hands of a writer who can give readers that essential honesty, we find we can trust them. When these fucked up characters find what they need in each other, it’s not a fairy tale or a fixer-upper, it’s two real people who find a way to navigate real challenges.

    It’s true that trust in an author is often built over time– the summary of Willing Victim was very scary to me as a reader, and then I read it, and discovered I was in smart and capable authorial hands, and will pretty much follow you anywhere now– but trust is also built through a book’s voice. And thank god for that or new authors would never be able to take any risks at all.