Rakes, Rapists and Alpha-jerks

This is the flip side of my ‘In praise of decent men‘ post. In this post, I’m going to talk about ‘heroes’ you won’t find in my stories (and a little about heroines that I won’t write, too).

You can’t reform a rake

One enduring trope of romantic fiction is that reformed rakes make the best husbands. Nothing wrong with that. It ignores inconveniences like illegitimate children and sexually transmitted diseases, and embarrassments like knowing your husband has slept with half the women you meet at any given social occasion, but this is, after all, romantic fiction.

It also makes the possibly erroneous assumption that said rake’s conquests depended on an application of charm and technique that could later be applied to the lucky wife. I’ve written comparing the rake of fiction with the real rakes of history, but again, let it pass. Undoubtedly, some rakes were both charming and skilled, so why not the hero?

I don’t object to heroes who have been rakes and who reform to become devoted husbands. Some of my favourite novels have ex-rake heroes.

What I don’t like and won’t write is the concept that all the rake needed to reform was the love of a good woman. I mean, I know this is fiction, so I’m not looking for fact, but I am looking for truth. We all know what happens to any female who takes this trope seriously and tries to apply it in real life. Maybe he’ll behave for a few weeks, or even a few months. But soon enough someone else’s perfume lingers around his shirts, and he spends more nights out than home (working late again? Yeah, right.)

You can’t reform a rake. The rake can choose to reform, and falling in love may be the impetus for the final shift in behaviours. But I’m looking for signs that he was already changing his way of life before the heroine came along, or the book goes.

At the worst end of the scale is the guy who falls in lust with the woman, seeks to seduce her thinking that will get her out of his system, and then is converted to true love by the power of her Magic Vagina.

Do Not Finish. Hate that Hero. Don’t much like that Heroine.

No doesn’t mean try harder

Rape was purportedly popular in romantic fiction decades ago. The heroine is in the hero’s power, and he uses that power to coerce her into sex, which she absolutely loves. She then goes on to fall in love with him, thanks to the potency of his Magic Penis.

I’m okay with seduction, and it is even more fun when it’s a game two people are playing, neither one aware of the intentions of the other. I absolutely abhor forced seduction, of any kind.

An arranged marriage story can be beautiful, if carefully handled. I’ve even read a story or two that I really liked where the heroine is in the hero’s power. If he’s the right kind of hero, he will leave her room to give true consent, and if he doesn’t, he’s no hero.

If one of the sexual partners has not consented, then it isn’t intercourse, it’s rape. Simple. Doesn’t matter if the unwilling partner then enjoys the physical sensations. In fact, the betrayal of one’s own body probably makes it worse.

Do Not Finish That Book. Throw At Wall.

Alpha-jerks are still jerks

Woman who trusted an Alpha-jerk

The Alpha, Beta, Gamma classifications have fallen out of favour in animal psychology, so I’m told. Pack dynamics are more complex than people thought. But they still have some useful application in writing romantic fiction, as I’ve discussed in a post called ‘Alpha and Omega‘.

An alpha hero is a natural leader; the man everyone turns to when things go wrong, the man who makes the decisions and keeps the group strong and together.

That doesn’t make him a good man or a good hero. It just makes him the boss.

Is he bossy, domineering, unwilling to listen to anyone else or to give credit to others? He’s not a hero; he’s an alpha-jerk. Stand clear. Do Not Breed From This Man.

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In praise of decent men

“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.

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