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This Writing Life: Is Your Hero A Bully?

14 June, 2012

I’ve been reading a book recently (which I won’t name, because I want to use it as an example of a larger point, rather than an exercise in author bashing), which has got me thinking about anti-heroes, and more specifically how they relate to the characters around them.

You see, in this particular book – billed as a ‘romantic fantasy tale’, no less – the female main character and the male main character (who both have POV) really get off on the wrong foot when they meet. Stories of lovers who start off hating each other are nothing new, but this book goes a bit further. In their first confrontation, the hero and heroine get into something of a fight. He insults her, spits at her, even drags her around by the hair. At the end of the scene, he does offer to help her, but grudgingly, and only because he needs her help in return.

So, the wrong foot, as I said. The relationship continues in much the same vein. I kept expecting – hoping, really – that the female character would stand up for herself a little more: that she’d kick the hero’s arse, deliver a rousing speech, even just spit in his soup (she cooks for him on several occasions). Instead, she shows her defiance in coldness and a straight back. Given that she’s scared of him but trying not to show it, that’s perhaps fair enough.

The real problem, though, comes from the hero and his POV. Given that this is supposed to be a romance, he really is nothing more than a bully. He continually insults the female character and is aggressive towards her (which is supposedly because he ‘does everything passionately’, and because he’s had a hard life – ‘extenuating circumstances’, if you will). He is angered by her apparent defiance, and immensely pleased when he finds out she’s scared of him. And when his feelings towards her start to soften, as is inevitable? It’s not because he starts to understand the heroine, or believe that she’s not actually loathsome after all. Instead, he becomes attracted to her. He still hates her, is still aggressive towards her – but he’d also quite like to have sex with her.

Now, I’ll admit I haven’t finished the book, and there could be a massive reversal before the end (I have flicked ahead though, and they do end up together). Still, after reading two-thirds of the story, I can’t help but think of it as anything more than a catalogue of abuse. No matter how often the author tries to show the hero doing the right thing, he’s consistently vicious towards the female main character, making the idea that they’ll get married at the end not far from abhorrent.

I’m not, in the end, trying to say that you shouldn’t write unpleasant characters. There are plenty of brilliant anti-heroes out there, both male and female. If your character needs to be a bastard, to have done horrible things, to be almost as terrible as the villain – then write the character that way. But if you’re trying to build a romantic relationship between two characters, no matter how opposed they might seem in the beginning? Please, don’t make your hero a bully.

  1. Spijder permalink
    14 June, 2012 1:26 pm

    That’s billed as a romance? It sounds as though the author might have some issues or one could hope for some sort of comeuppance type of twist at the end.

    • 14 June, 2012 6:06 pm

      That’s what felt most appropriate to me, but in flicking through to the end, the hero actually goes for a marriage proposal (quite a grudging one, too) and the heroine accepts. I think we’re supposed to find that the hero has been through enough hardship on the heroine’s behalf to be worthy of her, but I couldn’t make myself read further to find out.

  2. Xenoia permalink
    15 June, 2012 4:33 pm

    Maybe the author is setting up for a second novel where the heroine realises the hero’s bullying behaviour and decides to do something about it?

    • 16 June, 2012 10:28 pm

      Now that could actually be a far more interesting novel, particularly when most romances assume that falling in love is the important bit, and everything afterwards isn’t worth reading about.

      Unfortunately, the author has written a handful of other novels since this one, and none of them seem to be follow-ups, although it’s always possible sequels were planned but not picked up by the publisher.

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