The Problem of the Impossibly Broken Hero
While all of us love a good romance, I’ve come to the conclusion that we read them for different reasons. One reason is no better than another, but I’m going to suggest that it’s important for an author to be aware of what basic reason they seek to serve when setting out to write a romance. Through that authorial choice, we extend an invitation to a reader as to how we expect them to enter our story.
I’m not claiming to be encyclopedic about this, (so let’s assume my list is incomplete) but I’ve identified three primary emotional invitations to a romance reader—that is, three distinctly different reasons why a reader might want to read a romance starring two men. I’ll be brief about the first two, because I want to spend more time on the third.
- Reader as Stand-in.
The first is the most obvious—the traditional romance invitation, inherited unchanged from straight romance. This psychological structure invites the reader to enter the story through one of the main characters, and presumes that the other half of the romantic bond or pairing is considered legitimate relationship material, at least in fantasy: the powerful billionaire, the good-hearted veterinarian, the construction contractor, the youth pastor volunteering at the homeless shelter for queer youth, the geeky computer expert, the coffee shop owner, and so on. There’s a long list.
If one of the main characters doesn’t represent a satisfactory fantasy partner for the reader, the reader can’t relate to the other main character as an acceptable placeholder. The emotional premise of this kind of love story won’t work for a reader on that wavelength. I think it’s fair to acknowledge that this invitation is for a reader of the same gender identity and sexual orientation as the characters. How else could a reader identify as a stand-in for one of the characters?
For sake of full disclosure, this is the emotional approach I’m most inclined to take when reading a romance featuring two men. I’ve frequently finished one of our romances dissatisfied, and that’s what forced me to examine what other emotional invitations might exist for a reader. After all, our genre is full of wildly successful love stories that don’t use this basic premise.
- Reader as Empathetic Cheerleader.
The second premise presents a romance between two men without that explicit invitation to enter into this story through one of the main characters, or share their gender identity or orientation. Rather it presents the couple as legitimate relationship choices — for each other. We cheer for them and their happiness, but would never marry one. That presumption is unnecessary with this invitation. The reader then enjoys the story through watching the unfolding relationship. Alpha shifters, strippers and sex workers (depending on how they’re characterized), Navy Seal assassins, spies, and so on. Again, there’s a long list.
I began to understand this dynamic better through a conversation with Poppy Dennison. She told me that she’d given up on het romance because she didn’t find much to identify with in the heroines she found there. As a result she was drawn to romance between two men, where she could appreciate both the unfolding relationship and the sexual heat without any of the expectations that go with being an emotional stand-in for one of the characters.
- Reader as Healer/Caretaker.
This third structure is significantly different from the first two, psychologically speaking. It invites the reader to engage emotionally with the characters without requiring a reader to think that one of the main characters as relationship material at all when the story begins, even though we know they will eventually find love. Instead, we want to rescue or heal them. The characters are, in a sense, entrusted to the healing care of the reader.
This territory includes, amongst others, hurt/comfort tropes, starting with utterly safe, predictable wounds (he’s been cheated on and he doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to trust/love again – gasp! Clutches pearls…), and culminating in “the impossibly broken hero” who is so emotionally or psychologically damaged he’s incapable of being a love partner – when the story starts.
I believe this dynamic invites a reader to a completely different emotional experience, centered in the heartfelt conviction that everyone – even the most catastrophically damaged – deserves healing through love and a happy ending.
In this case, I suggest the Relationship, with a capital R, so profoundly central to the concept of romance, takes a secondary role to the healing of one of the characters. Sure, the healing almost certainly takes place because of love, but I argue (and you’re free to vehemently disagree with me) this kind of story is about healing first, and love second.
I am suggesting that for this kind of story, the reader’s point of entry is not the legitimacy of the characters as relationship material, but the woundedness of one of the main characters. This story invites the reader to connect empathetically with one or both of the characters as a rescue or rehabilitation project. The reader helps nurse a good but wounded creature back to health and happiness, and that’s the real emotional payoff of this kind of story. The resulting relationship simply becomes the proof of the healing.
After thinking about this for a long time, I’ve come to the conclusion that this dynamic draws on a different kind of love in us – specifically, the maternal instincts present in women and gay men. Many of us, I believe, are hardwired to be nurturers, helpers, and healers. Indeed, if we’re not careful we can easily become chronic rescuers – which is not always healthy for us, or anyone around us.
For better or worse, we nurturer-helper-healers are suckers for things that make us go AWWwww: skinned knees, wanting to save the baby bird that has tried to fly too soon, the hopeless hero who struggles to cope, broken by personal tragedy, or broken on the rack of heartless society in general.
So our maternal instinct allows us to feel love on a very different basis from the traditional premise of a romance. This psychological difference is significant and I think it’s valuable to explore some of the strengths and pitfalls of this approach.
The most obvious strength of this approach is the emotional power it can pack for us caretaker/healer/maternal types. A deeply wounded, compassionately written character can set even a routine romance plot on fire. But here’s a serious caveat: if the tragic woundedness is used just for the emotional hook, I say that’s cheating the reader. Healing is far too significant and complex a human experience to be used just as a form of emotional kindling to make a story catch fire. For me, the healing has to have a real and believable arc.
The most obvious risk for these stories is crossing a line between writing a romance about wounded character(s) and losing credible claim to being a romance. A wounded character is one thing, being truly broken is another. If the character can’t logically sustain a romance relationship for a believable HEA, then it ceases to be a romance. Maybe the story turns out to be a terrific psychological thriller, or a mystery, or general fiction instead. But if such a story is presented as a romance, romance readers will subjectively feel the difference and be disappointed.
The first red flag for me in this kind of story is whether the story focuses more on the woundedness rather than on the healing. Take it from me, pages and pages of “battling his demons” is not the same as healing. Suffering does not necessarily equate to internal conflict. Conflict produces a change, no matter how small. Sure, there has to be some orchestrated set-up to show how wounded the character is, so there can be an arc. But his healing has to be a real arc, not a hundred and eighty pages of depressed, agony-laced self-loathing and twenty pages of miraculous, magical transformation into a viable relationship partner. In this kind of story, I suggest the hero’s decision (and real efforts) to heal must begin in act one — long, long before the “all is lost” moment.
In the real world we know that love alone is not always enough to save someone from themselves. They have to want to be saved, and have to accept help. In romance novels, the same is still true, even if some of the lines can be softened. Is there room for some compassionate tough love in a romance featuring a broken hero? I think so. It can help keep the story on track, instead of bogging down in a toxic quagmire of pity and angst.
My biggest beef with these stories is that too often the broken hero is passive – even resistant (perfectly understandable at first, increasingly loathsome as the story progresses) – toward his healing. Does he want to be able to sustain a HEA with someone, or is he just going to wallow defiantly in being unworthy damaged goods until someone else magically fixes him? That is, is it rational to expect even a dedicated romance hero to stick around for someone who won’t try?
So authors – show your wounded character as proactive in wanting to heal. Does he seek help? Does he try to grow and change over and over? Does he fight for his relationship? A passive hero is a limp hero, and there’s a big difference between being wounded and being limp. In romance stories a limp hero is unworthy of love.
Another question for authors to think about is how the healing comes. Psychological help is often given the briefest lip service if mentioned at all, but there’s a reason those folks are called therapists. Good ones help a client find a way to heal. If the hero is impossibly broken, love alone is not enough. He needs professional help. Can a deeply wounded protagonist ever earn an HEA? Absolutely. But it takes more effort than many MCs seem able to summon in order to get there.
There’s no shortcut around that healing, and an author writing an impossibly broken romance hero needs to understand that. So authors, I beg you not to hike out into “impossibly broken” unless you’re willing to work as hard and as realistically for his healing as your hero must.
(This article first appeared May 2017 in my column “Through My Lens” for Genre Talk at http://www.thenovelapproachreviews.com.)