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Men Behaving Badly: When Heroes Become Unheroic

Did anyone else watch the recent movie version of Phantom of the Opera and love the Phantom at the cost of caring about Raoul — and not just because bad boy Gerard Butler is way more hunky than nice boy Patrick Wilson ever could be?

Thinking about it, I understood why: Raoul performs only one truly heroic act in the movie. Even though he was a murderer three times over, Phantom was far more heroic. Raoul was a hero who became an anti-hero in his self-absorption and lack of empathy.

How does this affect us as writers? In my opinion, the writers of the movie, in changing the story to make the Phantom sympathetic, did other characters a grave disservice. They turned Phantom into a sympathetic anti-hero at the cost of Raoul in particular.

This is a trap we all can fall into. As writers we all love our characters, and we should — if we don’t adore our characters, who else will? But this can blind us to what others — namely judges and editors and agents — can see in them.

The word I dread most from my fantastic CPs is: — Unheroic! — They’ll say, — Why is he so rude/hurting her so much (or for this, insert bland, boring, wimpy or anything that adds up to unheroic)? Your villain is far more interesting. Why don’t you make him the hero? I love him!

And I rush to explain, — But you don ‘t understand! In his past, he had this …

The trouble is, if I have to explain to my critique partners, who are with me on my journey, know my book and support me more than anyone, it’s useless. I can explain to my editor why my characters behave in such an awful way, but this an unpublished writer can’t do. They ‘ll get the dreaded rejection — because as Emma Darcy says: *A hero should always be heroic!*

You’re probably thinking there are many bestselling books that prove a hero can indulge in unheroic behaviour and get away with it — a classic is Laura Kinsale’s magnificent Flowers From The Storm, when Christian treats his pregnant lover with revolting callousness (then gets his come-uppance by the end of the chapter — that man really learns empathy!). I’ve read some of Nora Roberts’ and Linda Howard’s books where the characters have acted with similar callous unconcern for the feelings of others for a little while, at least.

The trouble is I’m not Laura, Linda or Nora. Neither are you. And with that cruel fact of life accepted, we who are not in the stratosphere of sales must also accept that we cannot get away with what bestsellers can, and make our heroes and heroines heroic!

There are many ways to make a hero unheroic overtly or subliminally; but lack of empathy is the easiest to fall into. For example, Raoul became callous and uncaring when he said: — This man, this thing is not your father — within hours of hearing Phantom’s horrendous life story.

For those who haven’t seen it, in the movie version Phantom is abandoned at birth, shoved in a sideshow. This child lives with a burlap bag on his head, beaten and humiliated, with scraps of food tossed at him. A toy is his only companion. When he kills his torturer he’s forced to live underground, hidden in darkness from childhood. Years later, he finds a girl he trains as a singer, gives her fame — and of course this lonely, starved soul hopes for love. When she’s afraid of his darkness, he tries desperately for a life of acceptance and light and love. Who wouldn’t?

Then Raoul comes along, no longer the poor singer from the book we can identify with, but handsome, rich and titled. He has family, title, fortune, and acceptance by his peers. Then when Phantom reacts to this competition in violence (because nobody taught him other ways to win love), our hero condemns him without question and tries to kill the Phantom at least twice.

No empathy, not one heroic act toward a suffering soul condemned to live forever alone.

This is why I say in rewriting the story to make the Phantom more sympathetic, the writers did their other characters a disservice. They loved the Phantom so much they forgot to give their other characters redeeming features.

On the other hand, Kingdom of Heaven showed Orlando Bloom heroic from the start. A penniless bastard, when his wife kills herself she is beheaded and buried outside holy ground; the priest steals her crucifix — the fact that Baillian kills in such tearing grief is excused. For the rest of the movie he behaves with strength of morals and compassion toward others. Watch it to see how a humble blacksmith, the bastard son of a lord, saves a city, becomes a lord and wins a princess — and it’s all based on the true story of Baillian the blacksmith, who negotiated the release of thousands of people from Jerusalem with Sal-ah-haddin (Saladin) won the city. Baillian deserved the title of hero!

But there are many wonderful heroes who will never make it between the covers of a book because, in her love for hero and story, the writer hasn’t realised that she hasn’t given the hero enough empathy to allow him to get away with unheroic behaviour.

If you want verification of how readers react to unheroic behaviour, visit www.slake.com and click on ‘the wall ‘. It’s a site where readers can destroy a book ( ‘The Pedestal’ allows them to praise a good book). I’ve learned a lot by visiting the site. The most common complaint I’ve read is that a top author got a book published when the characters are so damned awful.

So, now look inward to your own work. Look hard. Do your hero and heroine have a smidgen of compassion for the other characters in the book? Do they care for fellow humans, or are they so blinded by what they want (or their past suffering) that they behave toward others with a callousness that revolts the average reader? Does their looks, money or prowess in bed excuse it all? Or are you blinded by love of your characters to the point of excusing offensive, abusive or unheroic behaviour without making that excuse obvious to the reader?

I know some romance novels have this kind of hero or heroine, or both. I’ve read unlovable heroes and heroines who indulge in disgusting behaviour such as rape, abuse or abandonment, or the dreaded self-pity, and have their sins forgiven because they’re good-looking or rich (or great in bed, or have a sad past). This won’t cut the mustard for many editors these days, especially for a new writer. Yes, a great author at the top of her game and fame did it — but you are not her. The fact that she did it and it sold well, will not excuse you. Believe me, I know!

I’ve read books where the hero only reveals his terrible torture in the final pages, and that is supposed to forgive the fact that he’s been a jerk to the heroine through the whole book. I have heard many reader complaints of feeling cheated, calling the hero a pig or the heroine a wimp for putting up with it.

I’ve done this, too. I’ve read a story where the hero ditched the fiancée he adored because he found out *her uncle* had been the school bully that beat him mercilessly when he was fourteen. He punished the bewildered heroine for something she hadn’t even known about. I didn’t finish it; it became only one of two wall-tossers I’ve ever read.

On the other side of the spectrum are wonderful authors Lucy Monroe or Lucy Gordon, to name only two, who do wonderfully complex jobs of making even unheroic behaviour sympathetic. And they do it in 55,000 word books, which is an outstanding feat! Their books manage to be both fantasy-fulfillers and real. Catherine Mann and Fiona Brand are two of my favourites for similar reasons. Not to mention Janet Evanovich and Jennifer Crusie, who has characters so human, funny, and hilariously unheroic at times you just gotta forgive ’em.

I recently read a romance where the heroine was a complete b*tch to the hero throughout the entire book. While the hero continued being heroic, she kept treating him like dirt for a terrible mistake that ended up being a deception on another person’s part. She never once tried to believe in him, nor was she ever willing to listen or forgive him until the deception came into the open. Does this sound appealing behaviour to you as a reader?

A list of the 5 top traits I would define unheroic behaviour (in heroes or heroines):

  1. Physical violence or sexual assault, or coercion in any form
  2. Abuse of other characters for sins that belong to another person (this includes punishing a heroine for the desertion of hero by another woman. Mistrust is fine; punishment is not!)
  3. Lack of empathy — not even seeing others’ pain, or thinking that pain doesn’t compare to their own (if it really doesn’t compare, make sure you show that, but enduring suffering usually breeds understanding for the suffering of others. So please have him empathize, even with his arch-enemy. It takes away the ‘Snidely Whiplash’ effect, making both hero and villain human.)
  4. Inaction when something desperately needs to be done! ‘I can’t’ is the sentence of death to a hero. A hero might fail honourably and be forgiven by the reader, but he must try!
  5. Constant agonizing over things that can’t be changed (if this is your hero’s conflict, make damned sure he knows it’s his problem! Have him show he’s trying to get over it, and give him a more tangible reason to feel unworthy, unloved or mistrustful!).

These five are, to me, the top reasons for tossing a book away, or just losing interest and putting it aside without ever picking it up again. It’s my 5 top reasons for marking down entries in contests — and my 5 top reasons for revisions from every editor I’ve had.

And the award for worst mistake a writer can make goes to —

—-Excusing your character for unheroic behaviour without ever making it clear why they behave that way. Give your hero and heroine the character arc that forces them to learn empathy by having the circle of life turn back on them, and allowing them to change and grow (As Christian did with his second chance, in Flowers from the Storm).

For more information on character arcs, come back next month, when I’ll have a new article up on character growth and making your characters both satisfying and lovable.

So if your story has a ‘misunderstanding’ that a simple conversation could end the heroine or hero-bashing, or if they’re indulging in inexcusable behaviour no matter what the provocation, then change your plot. Give them a reason, not an excuse, for what they’re doing — and I mean a compelling reason — or move it to later in the book, or delete it altogether.

If you find a reason, give it at the start, not the end of the book! The 10-page rule is pretty true — an editor gives you 10 pages to set up your book and characters. It’s better to make the hard changes now, in private, than have an editor remember ‘that writer who does really unsympathetic characters’. Editors keep files — and they have good memories, too. I’ve been astounded by what many editors remember about me.

I want you to think hard about this because I know how many times I’ve tried to explain bad behaviour to my CPs and ignored their advice, only to have my editor point out the exact same problem. And I have the distinct advantage of my editor willing to work with me, which many of you don’t. You have to get it right!

So when your CP (or contest judge) brings out the dreaded word unheroic, will you listen?


Melissa James
Melissa has an avid desire to find out all things historical and medical. Research is the stuff of life! Reading, learning and doing field research (such as finding out how to fly a plane in a monsoon storm, or how it feels to be smothered with a pillow or almost fall off a cliff) all comprises part of her day, as does walking at her local beach with her husband or with friends or the kids -- even the dog sometimes! Watching movies, especially suspense or romantic comedy, and shows like Alias or 24 is always terrific for imaginative inspiration. Falling into writing through her husband, who thought it would be a good way to keep her out of trouble while the kids were little, Melissa was soon hooked. Using inspiration from university readers or journalists' articles and photos for her books is common for her. Vivid, real-life stories or graphic, painful pictures bring a fire and passion to her books -- though writing the occasional loopy comedy is a great way to stretch the imaginative muscles. Melissa loves to hear from her readers via email at melissaj@bigpond.net.au or through the Silhouette New York or Harlequin Sydney office. Visit Melissa at MelissaJames.net

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