“All your heroes are too decent,” a friend told me. “You need someone different. A real scoundrel.”
So here’s the thing. I like decent men, and I’m none too fond of scoundrels.
Let’s define our terms
A decent man may have his problems. But he won’t deliberately pursue his own needs and desires careless of the consequences. He will make sacrifices without expecting a reward, because the happiness of someone else is important to him.
To a scoundrel, on the other hand, other people are not fully real. They exist as background, tools, playthings, or obstacles, but not as people. Even when he loves, he loves himself first. If he makes sacrifices, it is in full expectation that he is surrendering one thing to win another.
In fiction, as in real life, people sit somewhere on the continuum, from thoroughly decent to entirely scoundrelly. Scoundrelous? Scoundrelish? And my friend is suggesting that heroes too close to the decent end are both boring and unlikely.
It’s all about the journey
I’m looking for two things in a story I read, and both are to do with what changes for the main protagonists between the front page and the last.
The first is the external journey. Each main character has an external challenge to face and overcome. This is the plot, and it needs to keep my interest or I won’t finish the book.
The second is the internal journey. I am looking for my main characters to grow, mature and learn from their experiences, and above all from their interactions with the other characters. It’s one of the reasons I read and write romance. People in love are willing to put aside their fears and their habits for the sake of the other, so romances are a prime opportunity for internal journeys.
A well written internal journey shows in what a person says and does, and requires a deep understanding of human nature and of the characters who need to respond to outside pressures and personal yearnings according to their personalities and experiences. What might drive one man out into brothels and bars might set another into a hermitage and a third onto a battlefield. And what will bring each of them out of their despair will likewise be different.
I want to see the hero grow
So to me, a decent man needs to change to make the story interesting. He might be nursing a broken heart, obsessed with a goal to the exclusion of all else, fighting personal demons, even convinced the world revolves around him. If he is able to get out of the beam of his own sunshine to care about the needs of someone else, he is fundamentally decent.
A scoundrel is not ever to be trusted. When he makes choices, he will always have himself and what he wants as his deciding factor.
But I have to believe in the change
Continuum again. I can think of many books in which the scoundrel has a core of decency that the heroine is able to reach. But the ones that convince me show evidence of that core. The scoundrel saves an inconsequential child from a bully. Or is kind to an elderly widow. Or sends the heroine away because he is afraid of hurting her. In Elizabeth Hoyt’s Scandalous Desires, the river pirate king has been building a second secret life where he doesn’t have to be a scoundrel, and Darcy Burke uses the same device in Scoundrel Ever After.
By contrast, I’ve read a few stories in which the scoundrel hero is bad (or perhaps broken) to the core, but makes an exception for the heroine, and I don’t believe them. Not for one minute. Anna Campbell’s Duke of Kylemore walked very close to the line, but in the end Campbell convinced me that he has really made the transition from scoundrel to decent man. Lucinda Brant’s Duke of Roxton claims to care for no-one but himself, until he meets his Antonia. But the reader knows he is kind to his friend and his sister. Others remain scoundrels, and through-and-through scoundrels can’t love anyone but themselves, whatever their current emotional state.
If the hero decides what is best for the heroine based on what he believes to be best for him, the hero is a scoundrel. If the hero’s new respect for and decency towards the heroine doesn’t affect how he feels about anyone else, then the hero is a scoundrel. The change will reverse as soon as their relationship hits a dry patch (and all relationships hit dry patches). Either way, book, meet wall.
Non-fiction should be factual; fiction should be truthful
It matters because fiction matters. Yes, the stories we tell are fiction and fantasy. But they also reflect and in some ways shape people’s expectations. I write fiction, not fact. But fiction should, whatever it else does, tell the truth about people. I write romance, which means I have a responsibility to be honest about the places where love can thrive. And love with a scoundrel is not a place where love can thrive.
Rakes rarely reform. Bad boys remain both boys and bad. Love can go tragically wrong and end in abuse, even death. Or it can wound rather than kill, leaving its victims with broken hearts, low self-esteem, unwanted pregnancy and disease. Women are better off alone than stuck with a scoundrel. This is truth, and telling the truth is my job.
And that’s why my heroes are decent men.