Hurt/Comfort Fic: Why It Appeals — A Guest Post by Bonnie Dee

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.

Wild at HeartDigging 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.

About Ruthie Knox

Ruthie Knox writes witty, sexy romance novels for grownups. Read more >
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3 Responses to Hurt/Comfort Fic: Why It Appeals — A Guest Post by Bonnie Dee

  1. Mia West says:

    Great post, Bonnie! I think you hit it in your final paragraph. Everything before that is true as well, but a romance takes two and demands change from both parties. My favorite hurt/comfort relationship is Christian/Maddy in Flowers from the Storm. While he’s the most obviously injured, she gains from the healing as well. And I think I like it so much because Maddy isn’t sentimental in her care for Christian. Or not right away. She sees how she can help, doesn’t take no for an answer, and then discovers she actually likes him.

  2. Bonnie Dee says:

    Yeah, if there’s not change in both parties then one is probably written as too much of a Mary Sue or Marty Stu :)

  3. Elinor Aspen says:

    I think another reason the trope is so popular is because it serves to equalize the power imbalance between the hero and heroine. Mia’s example of Flowers from the Storm is a very good one. There is no way that a wealthy Duke would have married a commoner (and a Quaker at that) without the affliction that struck him. Suddenly he needed her even more than her family needed his patronage, and they were able to enter the relationship as equals.