Thursday, January 8, 2015

First impressions of heroes

Among the many warnings in How Not to Write a Novel is that the first thing the character does shouldn’t be off-putting (e.g. ogling a stranger, going to the bathroom) unless the author wants that impression of the character to be firmly fixed in the reader’s mind.

That was made clear in a couple of romances I critiqued recently. In one, the hero was at an extremely low ebb at the start—depressed, lonely and drunk. In another, the hero was much younger than the heroine, to the point where I thought he was about ten years old. When he noticed her breasts, it was a massive turn-off.

Romance revolves on the hero. He doesn’t have to be a former SEAL billionaire who now runs a BDSM club when he isn’t racing with his biker buddies. But he does have to be someone readers can find attractive or interesting.

Some of the keepers on my romance shelf have unconventional heroes. A mortician. A near-sociopathic assassin. A man who’s developmentally disabled. But all of them were assertive in their different ways, able to hold their own among their peers. Even if they were younger than the heroine, or less intelligent, they didn’t give me the impression of being weak and powerless.

So what’s to be done, if the story begins with the hero helpless or broken in some way?

Change the start

In one of my keepers, Pamela Morsi’s Wild Oats, the first time Jedwin Sparrow sees Cora Briggs, he’s perhaps fourteen or fifteen, while she’s twenty—not just a mature woman, but a divorcee. He’s intensely aroused both by her reputation (or lack thereof) and her beauty.

But if the story had started with a teenager getting an erection over an older woman, it would have reminded me of Mary Kay Letourneau. I might not have read further.

Instead, though, the story begins ten years later, when he’s an adult and a professional man, making enough money to offer Mrs. Briggs an indecent proposal. Although he’s younger and less experienced than she is, they’re on a much more equal footing from the start, because he knows what he wants and is going after it, rather than being a tongue-tied, sweaty schoolboy. That flashback comes later, once the first impression of him is clearly cemented.

Make it clear he’s more than the sum of his problems

This was an issue in the story where the hero was drunk and depressed at the start. There wasn’t much to his personality other than “sad boozer”.

Whereas there are tons of romances which begin with a hero in jail or in an asylum or chained to an oar as a galley slave (I’m guessing here), and which are great reads because the hero is intriguing. He doesn’t have to be innocent of the crime which landed him in prison, and he can be in Bedlam for what people of that time thought were good reasons (e.g. Summer Devon’s and Bonnie Dee’s The Gentleman's Madness).

But if he’s strong and intelligent, and if he fights back in even a small way, that will be part of the readers’ first impression too. And believe me, a lot of people love a Hurt-Comfort read. They just need to know that your Hurt hero is worth Comforting. :)

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