I confess I love romance novels in which there is a tortured hero, because I think any love story needs conflict, some struggle that must be overcome, and inner conflict is, for me, the most compelling. I love human characters, real characters, who are imperfect and wrestle with themselves, because these are people with whom I can relate. Heroines are always conflicted, but when the hero is truly tortured, you cannot help but feel a pull to him. You yearn to soothe him and fix him, and you’re awash with empathy for his plight – such powerful feelings which make you keen to read on.
For me, the attraction with tortured heroes began back in my teenage years with two characters created by two very famous literary sisters:
Mr Rochester, Jane Eyre: Such a mysterious man, and surely the original silent-and-brooding type. As a reader, you cannot help but feel a little wary of him on your first reading, and yet you are unable to stop yourself willing Jane and he to find a way to be together.
“No – no – Jane; you must not go. No – I have touched you, heard you, felt the comfort of your presence – the sweetness of your consolation: I cannot give up these joys. I have little left in myself – I must have you. The world may laugh – may call me absurd, selfish – but it does not signify. My very soul demands you: it will be satisfied: or it will take deadly vengeance on its frame.”
Heathcliff, Wuthering Heights: A tragic hero if ever there was one. Charlotte Brontë’s writing allows us to get right into his mind and see at first hand the torment he endures as a result of cruel circumstance and his love/hate relationship with Cathy.
“Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!”
When the story for my novel Burning Embers first started taking shape in my mind, I knew at once that Rafe, the hero, would be a tortured soul. He is an honourable man, a loving man, but he is entirely impeded. First, by his reputation as a womaniser and heartless exploiter of Coral’s father. Second, and far worse, by a dark secret he locks away in his heart – a secret that so pains and shames him, he feels himself undeserving of love.
A hand pinched Rafe’s heart, and his eyes clouded. Could the idealistic, platonic love he had nurtured for her portraits turn into something deep and even more wonderful: the salvation to his jaded life? But how could a man with years of baggage behind him aspire to be with such innocence and purity? And how could Coral ever be interested in Rafe when general society condemned him for, among other things, disloyalty to a man who was adored and respected by everyone and who had lent him a helping hand? Her own father, no less. Coral had everything going for her: beauty, a promising career, money, and, by the looks of it, courage and character. Surely her heart was already engaged, and she wouldn’t spare him a thought? Anyhow, as she’d said, his reputation had preceded him. And if he should try to defend himself to her…to what end? She would never believe him, and in any case, he had too much of a past for her to take on. No, it would be wrong to attempt to see her again or to entertain thoughts about things that could never be.
Poor Rafe; my heart ached for him as I wrote. Could I write a book with a hero who had no emotional baggage; who was perfectly at ease with himself and had no lessons to learn, no difficult obstacles to find the courage to tackle? No, I don’t think so.
To celebrate its third anniversary, my publisher Omnific is holding a great Kindle giveaway, and to tie in each author is writing a post from their hero to their heroine on Valentine’s Day. As a break from the norm, I’ve decided to have fun creating a pictorial love note from Rafe of Burning Embers to Coral. Enjoy!
This Valentine’s Day I want to show you how much I…
… you. So I’m taking you on a date. We’ll drink…
And walk hand in hand, by the light of the…
I’m flying you to one of the most magical cities in the world. Where? You have to guess.
We’ll visit an art museum…
And take in a show at the opera house…
Then we’ll climb the top of the tallest tower and take in the city from the heavens…
Finally, we’ll take a dinner cruise along the river, and drink in the glorious sunset…
And as night falls, I’ll hold you close, and when the very symbol of the city of love passes by…
I’ll kiss you until you see…
When developing the idea for a novel, one of the areas I must consider carefully is the job of the hero and the heroine. Sounds superficial and unimportant, perhaps… after all, we are not our jobs; we are much more besides. But the job of a character is important for two reasons
First, the career helps convey the identity of the character. For example, Coral in Burning Embers is a freelance photographer, and this tells us much about her character. That she takes photos for a living tells us that she is creative and interested in the world around and in different perspectives – and possibly also that she feels comfortable being a spectator rather than feeling the need to be an actor, in the centre of a drama. That she is photographing animals tells us that she cares about wildlife and respects the creatures that are native to Kenya. And that she is freelance, rather than employed, says much about her independence and her courage in following her own course.
Rafe, the hero, is also self-employed – running a successful sisal plantation and a nightclub. The nightclub element shows us that he has a sensual side with which he is very much in tune. And of course his independence and success in business make him attractive as a love match.
The second important element of career choice comes down to compatibility. Interestingly, a recent survey has found that you are most compatible with someone from a different career to your own (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2195922/Women-teachers-likely-firemen-How-career-affects-date.html). According to the survey, the following couples are most compatible: banker and teacher or doctor, and teacher and fireman. That may be so, but I believe there needs to be some common ground – some similar values when it comes to career.
Do a freelance photographer and a self-employed businessman as in Burning Embers have enough in common? Will each understand the other’s career, support it, respect it, value it? Do their careers allow for mutual balance; equilibrium, so one is not carrying the other? Yes, I think so. Each gives the other a chance to see them at work, and each finds their love deepened by getting to know this facet of the other. And as Sigmund Freud put it, ‘Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.’
The phenomenal success of Fifty Shades of Grey has brought romance (of the erotic variety) into the public eye. The book series has sparked all sorts of discussions over feminism/anti-feminism in terms EL James’s plot and characterisation.
It got me to thinking about romance stories, and about the balance of power in them. Is there still room today for a damsel in distress in a romance novel? Is it accepted? Is it an integral part of romance, or a castback to a bygone era?
I think women have always been drawn to strong female characters. As an author, I know that the characters I write have to engage a reader – the reader must connect to them, and empathise with them – and this simply would not happen were I to create feeble, pathetic characters. Plus, I’ve no desire to create heroes and heroines that I do not admire and like myself!
But how far, as a romance author, do you take characterising your heroine? Must she be an ardent feminist, and demand equality with the hero in all respects to the point of never letting him shelter her, protect her, help her, save her? Can she ever melt into his arms; enjoy the fact that he is larger, stronger; wobble in the face of danger and be held up in his embrace?
I think there are areas in which, as author, I must ensure my heroine is strong, courageous, independent and free. So Coral in Burning Embers, for example, is a freelance photographer with a great career; is brave enough to start a new life in Africa; is unafraid to be mistress, alone, of a plantation; and gives as good as she gets when it comes to sparring with Rafe and looking after herself.
But when we read a romance novel, is not part of the appeal the romance – the yearning for a strong male who can challenge a female on her own terms, but also be virile and protective and yes, rescue her when she is in distress? When I read a romance novel, I love a fiery, headstrong, independent heroine, but I also love the moments when she is vulnerable and will allow the man to be her mate in the most primitive sense and look after her. But – and this is the most important part – in return, so too will the hero allow the heroine to ‘rescue’ him when required; he too will show vulnerability. So, for example, in Burning Embers Coral has a car accident, and it is Rafe who finds her and cares for her. But later in the book, Rafe is desperately ill with malaria, and then it is Coral’s turn to save him.
Every lasting relationship is based on balance, and this, I think, is the key to the modern romance novel. We need a touch of vulnerability, and a backbone of strength; a world of opportunity, and a desire to stay rooted; an abundance of freedom, and a tie to another; an ability to stand alone and fend for oneself, but also the humility to accept help when it is needed. Women do not need to be saved, and neither do they need to be dominated; but sometimes, just sometimes, the greatest love can bloom out of allowing another to be the stronger one.
… Or so the popular saying goes.
Heathcliff and Cathy. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester. Pip and Estella. Dexter and Emma (One Day)… Romantic stories throughout the history of literature are peppered with the prolonged separation of lovers, which serves to bring them closer together.
Being apart from someone you love is, of course, painful. But in a romance story, I think it is essential. The separation is a means by which the lovers have some space to explore their feelings; to think on the events that have led to this point; to wonder about, worry about the other person; to get some perspective and consider a future alone, without the other; to reach the point where they both realise that they are no longer a singular, lone entity, but one part of a whole – and without their soul-mate they are incomplete, lost, aching, empty.
In Burning Embers I don’t pull the protagonists, Rafe and Coral, apart for long – because their love develops in an intense, fast-paced way. Nonetheless, I felt it important to move them apart at some points in the plot. The story is told mostly from the point of view of Coral, so it is her perspective on the separations that we are most aware of. She uses the time to explore her feelings, and she realises that she is drawn to Rafe, and life lacks colour without him.
The final separation is the one that is most key to the realisation of their love. They have rowed over a misunderstanding, and they have walked away from each other, too stubborn to swallow their pride. But in the ensuing split Rafe becomes ill: he quite literally can’t live without her. And Coral is a shadow of her former self. The illness, once it is discovered by Coral, becomes the catalyst for their reunion.
Thus I would echo the words of the great playwright William Shakespeare: ‘Absence from those we love is self from self – a deadly banishment.’ But I would add to this the wisdom of Kahlil Gibran: ‘But let there be spaces in your togetherness and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.’
Both absence and togetherness have their place in love.