I am fortunate to know, in real life, author Jessica Scott. She’s part of the fabulous romance community in my area and we’ve gotten to know each other over the past few years. Jessica recently spoke at Unsuitable, a series of events being held this spring at Duke University that focuses on women’s interests and popular fiction. I’d planned to go hear Jessica speak but found myself stuck at home instead with a bitch of a cold. I asked Jessica if she’d share the gist of her speech with AAR and, because she’s a lovely person, she said yes. She also offered a giveaway to one lucky reader, the details of which may be found at the end of this blog. Thank you greatly, Jessica.
This contest is now closed.
The alpha male in romance tends to be kind of a dick. He’s powerful, he’s forceful, he can be pretty selfish. Then along comes the heroine who may or may not force him to change. I think we’ve got some pretty stereotypically limited roles for romance heroes: cop, firefighter, Navy SEAL, billionaire, Duke, vampire or werewolf. I’m not saying these are the only romance heroes out there but they tend to be a large segment of the market. Why is that? Well, that’s complicated.
If we look at the Greek pantheon, we used to have all these different gods and goddeses that were different aspects of being male or female. We had Ares, Apollo, Hephasteus, and Hermes. Ares was the god of war, Apollo was wisdom, Hephastus the master of the forge and Hermes was the messenger god. All of these gods were archetypical males but in romance, we’ve narrowed it down to alpha and beta males.
Alpha is also shorthand for protector in a lot of ways. If you look at the jobs these alphas tend to have in romance novels, many of these jobs are shorthand again for protector. Cop, soldier, firefighter – these are protector archetypes.
For me, that is actually what defines a strong alpha character – at least one that I want to read about.
I have zero desire to read some of the alphaholes we’ve got running around the genre these days because I don’t connect with them. They’re not alpha – they’re just an asshole and unless the author is someone I trust to really take me in and show me that no there’s more to this character than the asshole you see on the surface, I’m not buying it. Someone who does the redeemed alphahole beautifully is Nalini Singh in Archangel’s Blade. In the first three books of the Guild Hunter series, Dmitri is a terrifying man whore. He threatens to kill one of the main characters and is an all around womanizing asshole. But when his book opens and you learn the true depth of destruction that made him what he was, man, the transformation of this character is amazing. It’s one of my all time favorite books bar none.
The military hero is somewhat paradigmatic in the genre. Military – and especially Navy SEAL or special forces – is shorthand for a) badass and b) selfless. If you look at the most respected professions in American society, soldiers are at the top of the list. So when you write typical a military hero, you create a character willing to defend something beyond himself.
The military hero, though, suffers from some the same challenges that developing any character risks. You have to take the mold or the framework and turn it into an actual character. So how do you take your military archetypes – Navy SEAL, emotionally detached and or scarred – and make them into believable characters readers can connect to?
For me, in developing those characters, I start with a name and usually a rank. Whether they’re an officer or an enlisted soldier is going to shape a lot about their background simply because we know that there are pretty big divergences in who commissions in the military and who enlists. The name gives a label to this generic character in my head. Then I go to both of my go to writing books: Screenwriting Tricks for Writers by Alexandra Sokoloff and 45 Master Characters by Lynn Victoria Schmidt. Alexandra’s step in character development asks two key questions: What does the character want and why can’t he or she have it? In answering those two questions, you have set up the primary motivation not only of the plot but of what is making the character get out of bed every day. In answering the why can’t they get it, you’ve started excavating the roadblocks in the character’s way.
Sociologist John Dewey says that action is people going about their habitual daily life and the problems they encounter. So you’ve got your character in their normal environment and then you have to define the problem they encounter.
My environments are different from most romance novels. I set them in the active duty life I lived at Fort Hood for a few particular reasons. I love a sexy Navy SEAL as much as the next romance reader, but I was tired of the romantic suspense or the life after the military stories I kept finding. I wanted to write about the changes that not only our army as an organization has gone through but what the men and women serving have gone through.
We’ve been at war since 2001. I’ve been on active duty both before the war started and have lived through the changes the war has had on our force. I wanted to tell the story of that change. Not the Navy SEAL but the everyman. The guy in the battalion ops who is so jaded and cynical. Where did that cynicism come from? How does that impact his life? Or the crusty sarn’t major who seems so mean and cruel but he’s doing everything he can to bring his boys back from war. War is so much more complex than one bad explosion or losing your best friend. There’s this entire environment around soldiers that is largely foreign to the broader American public and that environment influences choices. I wanted to tell those stories in a way that would actually reach readers outside of the military echo chamber.
So I take these characters which are largely a name and a rank in my head and figure out what their interaction with their environment is. What’s their normal life? Then what is going to change? So the hero in All For You, Sarn’t First Class Reza Iaconelli, he’s a warrior. He’s Achilles pure and simple. His best friend is another warrior – Captain Claire Montoya – and if you want a nice divergence, try writing a female warrior. It’s easier today then it was in the past but it’s still really challenging which is probably why I keep doing it.
But back to Reza. He fights and he knows that he’s good at it and he gets really irritated when something gets in the way of preparing his men for the fight. And therein lies the problem: Captain Emily Lindberg is a problem for him. She’s working to keep soldiers in a military Reza doesn’t believe in remaining soldiers.
In his book The Righteous Mind Jonathan Haidt argues that morality blinds and binds. It binds you to a group but it also blinds you to the world beyond your group. My heroes are strongly bound to their group. Their identity is often wrapped up tightly in being a soldier. And they’re all pretty damn certain about the world they live in and the way that it works.
Then along come the heroines and they hold up a mirror and show those men that the world may not be the world they thought it was. It’s not that they’re wrong so much as it’s that they’re not right.
The challenge for me as the author is to set up a way for both my hero to be right and my heroine to be right. I don’t want to break either of them. The idea of a happily ever after for me is not one being wrong or right but to find a partner who makes you better. So back to Emily and Reza, Emily is strong enough to tell him she’ll stand with him if he wants to try and heal from his alcoholism but she’s also strong enough to walk away if he can’t do it. Reza has to realize that he will be a better man if he’s with her then if he’s not – that there’s more to life than the war he’s allowed himself to sink into.
The central idea in all my books really is coming home from war. It’s not just getting off a bus and putting on civilian clothes. It’s changing everything about the way you interact with the environment. It’s changing the people you are around. When you’re deployed, the people around you are other warriors. The normal world that you take for granted here – going to the grocery store, toilet paper in the bathrooms, or even just going to sleep with the relative certainty that you won’t die in your sleep – are all things we don’t really think about every day. But when you come home, it’s a culture shock. The only place you feel “right” is with the people you were deployed with. And it’s a process to reconnect with your family. And for someone who has never had that connection, it’s a complete upending of his way of interacting in the world.
The military heroes in my books are drawn from the men and women around me. I try to put a human face on the military- to knock it off the pedestal our society has put it on. My heroes are flawed, deeply. Some are scarred by war like Noah from Before I Fall. Others, like First Sergeant Sorren from Homefront, are haunted by the choices they made and the major events they missed because of their service. Still, readers have managed to fall in love with my heroes, despite their flaws, and I am so grateful for every reader who picks up one of my books. With any story, character is key. Make your military characters believable and real and most importantly, strong and the story will follow.
USA Today Bestselling author Jessica Scott is a career army officer, mother of two daughters, three cats and three dogs, wife to a career NCO and wrangler of all things stuffed and fluffy. She is a terrible cook and even worse housekeeper, but she’s a pretty good shot with her assigned weapon and someone liked some of the stuff she wrote. Somehow, her children are pretty well adjusted and her husband still loves her, despite burned water and a messy house.
She’s also written for the New York Times At War Blog, PBS Point of View Regarding War, and IAVA. She deployed to Iraq in 2009 as part of OIF/New Dawn and has had the honor of serving as a company commander at Fort Hood, Texas twice.
She’s pursuing a graduate degree in Sociology in her spare time and she was featured as one of Esquire Magazine’s Americans of the Year in 2012.
Jessica is also an active member of the Military Writers Guild.
She has very generously agreed to give some lucky AAR reader digital copies of her entire backlist and a signed copy of It’s Always Been You. (US only) To be entered in this giveaway, leave a comment below.