Write Byte

A Different Look at Dark Heroes

There was a recent discussion on one of the romance listservs about dark heroes awhile back. Author Alice Duncan wrote such an interesting response that we asked her to expand her thoughts, which are a bit different from most romance authors. Here is what she had to say on The Down Side of Dark Heroes:


The dark hero. We all know him. Many of us love him. He’s certainly a staple of the romance novel.You recognize this guy: He’s dangerous. He’s bad and beautiful. He’s sleek; he’s brooding; he treats women like dirt because his heart bears the scars of ancient wrongs. He’s harboring dark secrets in his soul. He is only waiting to be redeemed by the right woman.

He’s full of malarkey. Or possibly indigestion is troubling him. Or it may be that his favorite team just lost the big game.

This darkness of demeanor is, however, undoubtedly not caused by his being a wounded war hero everybody thinks to be a traitor. Or by his first wife having loved another man (everybody thinks Our Hero killed her, but she was actually thrown from a carriage whilst on the way to a tryst with her lover. Our Hero has been closed-mouthed on the subject ever since — God alone knows why, since his reticence only exaggerates his perceived guilt). Or. . . well, you get the picture.

Okay, so maybe I exaggerate. Most of us want our fictional heroes to be strong, powerful, relatively handsome, and maybe a little lost. I can buy all that stuff. What I can’t buy is heroes who treat heroines badly because they can’t handle their own psychic wounds. Too many heroes I’ve read about in romance novels have, with little reason, been brutal to the women they are supposed to love. Granted, we’ve progressed beyond the “enjoyable-rape” scenes we used to encounter in novels of the seventies. For my money, though, too many stories still contain heroes who are perfect beasts. These guys mistrust the heroine for no reason. They talk down to her. They hate her until the moment they realize they’re actually in love with her (and then all is forgiven). They don’t need a good woman; they need a shrink — or, better yet, a jail term and shock therapy (with a cattle prod). No matter how much a guy’s mommy/first wife/drill sergeant didn’t love him, and no matter how much grief he’s had to swallow in his day, there’s no excuse for him to abuse the heroine. Face it, we’re all wounded in one way or another. Most of us don’t treat people like dirt and then use our wounds as an excuse.

Mind you, tastes differ, but it’s difficult for me to imagine a woman who possesses the characteristics we demand in our heroines putting up with these scummy men. In the real world, women who go for louts like that end up in battered-women’s shelters with people advising them to get a grip — and some self-esteem.

When I read about a person, male or female, who deliberately injures another, either physically or mentally, my own personal psyche rebels. I don’t like mean and spiteful people. I withdraw from them. I avoid them. I think they’re stinky. I sure as blazes don’t want to read about them. When I read a story about a cruel man, I don’t want him to be saved by the heroine. I want him to be pummeled by her and a thousand like her.

Undoubtedly the appeal of these beastly “dark” heroes is the fantasy that a woman’s love can cure them. This is, in reality, an impossibility. For instance, in our imaginations we’ve all loved Mr. Spock. Mr. Spock, however, is a Vulcan. He’s genetically programmed to be logical rather than emotional. In spite of that, women all over the world want to believe they can be the one who who can melt the ice in his veins.. Unfortunately, no amount of love can alter genetics. This same type of my-love-can-change-him reasoning can even be dangerous. . . if not, all those battered-women’s shelters would have to close their doors.

My own reading preference runs to heroes who try and fail; who get lost and need help finding their way again; who are basically decent men who, for one reason or another, are having problems.

Heck, occasionally I even like to read about men who actually treat others well (gasp!). They exist in the real world, why not in the romance novel? When heroes of this type fall in love and find, with the help of the heroine, of course, a solution to their problems, I’m not left thinking cynically to myself, “Yeah. Right.”

Some of my favorite heroes have been in Carla Kelly’s and Jo Beverley’s novels, perhaps because they’ve seemed real. Neither Kelly’s nor Beverley’s men come across as warped. Certainly they have problems or there’d be no plot, but their problems aren’t of a psychotic nature. Love, not drugs or shock treatments or prisons, can help them grow and be happy.

Having said all that, I have enjoyed a few books containing seriously sick heroes. Megan Chance’s The Portrait, Mary Jo Putney’s The Rake & the Reformer, and Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm spring to mind.

In The Portrait, the author did a smashing job in convincing me the tormented, manic-depressive artist hero could actually have a satisfying life with the heroine — even though they both realized his problem would be with him forever. After all, this was an historical novel, and those poor people didn’t have access to thorazine or lithium. Yet, although I loved this book (and I almost hate to say this, because Chance did such a magnificent job with it), I had a sad feeling in my innards that the heroine was abandoning her own life’s happiness for this dreadfully damaged man. Note: The man in this book was sick; he didn’t treat the heroine like a pile of poop for the heck of it.

In The Rake & the Reformer, the hero was an alcoholic who ultimately realized his problem was bigger than he was. Anybody who’s ever loved an alcoholic can appreciate this book. In Putney’s book, of course, a happy outcome seemed much more likely than in Chance’s book, because the poor hero didn’t need drugs that didn’t exist at the time in which he lived in order to help himself.

In Flowers from the Storm, the hero suffered a stroke. He wasn’t a bad guy to begin with but, rather, an over-privileged fellow whose appetites had never been questioned or checked. His stroke checked him with a vengeance. He and his friends tricked the heroine a couple of times, too, in his desperate fight to remain unconfined. She didn’t put up with it without a good fight, though, and I believed the happily ever after ending.

Perhaps my imagination isn’t good enough to transcend the “dark- hero” fantasy. Maybe my own life has been too hard too often for me to appreciate women sacrificing themselves to brutes, or putting up with them until they “get over it.” Perhaps my own brand of hero is too easy-going or prosaic for some romance readers because they want to be lifted entirely out of the real world.

I think, and hope, it is more likely that there’s room for a variety of heroes in this wonderful genre of ours, which seems to be stretching at its seams daily. While we hate it when our own personal seams are subjected to such strain, in romance I believe it is to be applauded as a Very Good Thing!


Alice Duncan



histbutYou can e-mail Alice

histbut┬áRead an AAR Review of Emma Craig’s (aka Alice Duncan) Cooking Up Trouble.

histbutRead an AAR Review of Emma Craig’s (aka Alice Duncan) Enchanted Christmas.

histbutRead an AAR Review of Alice Duncan’s Beauty and the Brain.

histbutRead an AAR Review of Alice Duncan’s Her Leading Man.

histbutRead an AAR Review of Alice Duncan’s Wild Dream.

histbutGo to Suzanne Brockmann’s Write Byte on The Up Side of Dark Heroes.

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