May 8 2012 10:00am

Current Contemporary Romance: Return of the Flawed Hero?

Don Draper in Mad MenTake away the bondage, and Fifty Shades of Grey is an old school romance between a worldly-wise but emotionally constipated hero and a naïve but emotionally intelligent heroine. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, almost all romance novels, historical and contemporary, featured this kind of dynamic. Like Mad Men’s Don Draper, the hero knew all about fine wine, guerilla warfare, engine repair and female orgasm, but some traumatic event had scarred him and left him completely closed off to any emotions, especially his own.

The heroine, on the other hand, was unworldly, having lived a life so sheltered that she had barely tasted wine, let alone orgasm. (I know, it’s easy to make fun of this trope now, but let’s face it, the female orgasm can be at least as tricky as engine repair, and almost as hard to pin down as guerilla warfare.)

I’m not going to list the many reasons this paradigm changed—or how grateful I am that it did—but the old school romance hero started out as teacher but wound up as student, which gave both hero and heroine clearly defined character arcs.

These days, heroines are allowed to be competent and experienced and less than saintly, but many heroes start out so well-adjusted, intelligent, nurturing and emotionally accessible that they don’t have much changing to do. And when heroes do change, they change fast, along the lines of, I used to screw around, but now that I’ve met you/exchanged wisecracks/smelled your pheromones, even Jennifer Lopez looks like my Aunt Myra to me.

Graceling by Kristin CashoreIn some of the YA books I’ve been reading, the hero has no changing to do at all.

In Hunger Games, Grave Mercy and Graceling, for example, uber-competent, lethally-skilled and hot-tempered heroines are paired with wry, tender but strong, emotionally savvy heroes. In these books, the old romance dynamic of outwardly weaker but inwardly stronger heroine winning the heart of the masculine other is flipped; the main emotional battle is usually between the heroine and her own hang-ups.

The only problem here is that the heroes of these novels are really too good to be true. Not only are these adolescent males brave, self-sacrificing and confident enough to be dominated by unruly women, they’re also endlessly patient. In Graceling, the hero is alone in a forest for weeks on end, able to read the mind of the woman he loves, aware that she wants him as much as he wants her—and he never even tries to initiate a kiss until she makes the first move. (Okay, so she could kill him with a flick of her wrist, and that might be a deterrent.)

Much as I loved Graceling and these other titles, I wouldn’t mind having a hero with a couple of flaws of his own, because without flaws, there isn’t as much of a character arc.

Hot Head by Damon SuedePerhaps the lack of established gender roles and the we-both-change-and-grow arc is part of what makes male/male romances attractive to a straight female readership. In Damon Suede’s well-written Hot Head, for example, two male firefighters grapple with issues of friendship, identity, and desire. (At the very end, one firefighter’s character arc turns into a flamboyant curlicue flourish, but that’s just quibbling.)

Of course, there are contemporary writers who challenge gender roles and create arcs for heroes as well as heroines. In Julie James’ latest novel, About That Night, the hero is a brilliant ex-con who used to serial date models. (He renounces his horndog ways quickly, but his drunken white-collar crime and resemblance to Sawyer on Lost give him flawed hero status, in my book.)
Pamela Clare’s romantic suspense heroes aren’t flawed, exactly, but they tend to be imprisoned, tortured, or (in her soon to be released e-novella) terribly scarred. This may not be an actual character flaw, but hey, it works for me.

Rescue Me by Rachel GibsonSusan Elizabeth Phillips and Rachel Gibson both write wonderful contemporaries with traditional structures (i.e., heroine does not usually kill people with a bow and arrow, and hero does not boast of decorating cakes as his special skill) but both writers create idiosyncratic and authentically flawed heroes and heroines. Gibson’s bad boy heroes are sometimes bad enough that they teeter on the verge of being anti-heroes, which gives a bite of chili-pepper to the chocolate of the inevitable happy ending. (If you’re scribbling down titles to take to the bookstore, Gibson’s new book, Rescue Me, is coming out May 29, while Phillips’ The Great Escape is out in July.)

What I have yet to read: A contemporary romance that plays with gender roles by featuring an emotionally-contained, utterly competent heroine – and a hero who has a character flaw, and not just a scar or a missing limb. (I did read a male/male with that dynamic, KA Mitchell’s No Souvenirs, a boy-surgeon-meets-boy-dive-boat captain tale of lust on sea and land, but found myself skimming sex scenes to get to the emotional payoff.)

So this is what I want: A contemporary male/female romance with a flawed but competent heroine, a flawed but emotionally accessible hero, intense specific yearning and hot, but not ubiquitous love scenes. Has anyone read one lately?


Alisa Kwitney is a former editor at Vertigo/DC comics. She writes romantic women’s fiction, YA and graphic novels, and (as Alisa Sheckley) writes sf/fantasy.  You can visit her at www.alisakwitney.com

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Megan Frampton
1. MFrampton
I have heard so many great things about Julie James, and haven't yet tried her--she's next on the TBR pile. Thanks, Alisa!
Ruth Madison
2. Ruth Madison
I'm a fan of flawed heroes! That's pretty much all I write. lol.
Ruth Madison
3. Ruth Madison
Though, now you've inspired me to try to really flip the gender roles more, like you describe. I'll have to give that a try!
Ruth Madison
4. AlisaKwitney
I'll look for your titles, Ruth! One question that occurs to me (belatedly): How alpha does a hero have to be in order to bake that cake and still feel sufficiently masculine? In other words, would Suzanne Brockmann's heroes have been "allowed" to cry if they weren't Navy Seals?
Ruth Madison
5. Elena Dillon
I definitely just wrote a too perfect hero in my first book but my heroine kind of needed him to be. The next book I'm writing he is not near as perfect and a lot snarkier. I think it must be difficult to pull off the flip of gender roles. He has got to be really tough to begin with. I am having trouble with Prince Charming in Once Upon A Time. He's a little wussy for me. I love a tough guy but of course Suz pulled that off. Nobody could accuse Sam of being a wuss =)
Lege Artis
6. LegeArtis
Great post, Alisa! I love heroes that have character flaws but I hate when authors write that all that emotional baggage disappear as soon as they met heroine. Life just doesn't work that way. For example, if hero is control freak for some reason, I don't buy that in the end he doesn't have the need to control every aspect in his life any more. Why can't herone just say to him : "Honey, I love you even if you're control freak. This is not going to be easy, we'll fight a lot, but we'll try to make it work. "
I love how you included m/m fiction, too. I love this genre. One of my favorite m/m couples are Adrien English and Jake Riordan. Jake is one of those flawed heroes- as Josh Lanyon wrote and Sarah McLachlan sang, he's a beautiful f**ked up man.
Have you tried Broken by Megan Hart? It's intense and one of the most emotional books I ever read. I think hero and heroine fit those characteristics you're looking for...
7. EvangelineHolland
I think the flawed hero and the inexperienced heroine dynamic is just as interesting as the flipside (flawed heroine and honorable hero). My only issue with the former is that too often the amazingly complex relationships these bad boys can have with equally bad girls are sacrificed for the fantasy of the good girl taming the bad boy (Smash, I'm looking at you!). Watching the bad girl become the villainess simply because she's flawed (or "worse", has sex with the bad boy because she's attracted to him), while the pure and naive good girl "earns" him because she spurns his advances and heals his wayward ways, just leaves a yucky taste in my mouth.
Ruth Madison
8. AlisaKwitney
LegeArtist, what book are you beautiful f**ked up men in? And I'll definitely take a look at the Megan Hart.

And yes, Evangeline, I'm with you on the reformed rake losing his personality syndrome, which (I hate to admit it) seems to be afflicting Don Draper in the past few episodes.)
Lege Artis
9. LegeArtis
@Alisa - It's Josh Lanyon's Adrien English series. There are five books in series. Jake is deeply closeted cop and he's not easy to love at all. By the book #3 you'll want to hang him. :) I recommend it wholeheartedly.
Marian DeVol
10. ladyengineer
@Evangeline, I also prefer a more complex dynamic than the simple "sweet, naive, innocent" virgin tames and reforms the rake without any effort but her naiveté. For one, I believe it a bit better when the flawed hero has to struggle at his reformation. For another, a reader risks a diabetic episode from that much naive innocence - too many haunting echoes of Barbara Cartland heroines. ;->

I have not read much contemporary romance, but am starting to (thanks Alisa et al for your suggestions).

For historical romance, I like Anne Stuart's House of Rohan series. In Ruthless, the first in the series, the darkly rakish hero relentlessly pursues a "sadder, but wiser" heroine. It is a satisfyingly emotionally complex tale.
Ruth Madison
11. JacquiC
I was blown away by "Broken". God. Not a light read at all. I think every character in that book was flawed.

And I second the recommendation of the Adrien English series. It is really well-written. I wish there were more of them!

The m/m genre does seem to contain a lot of examples. I thought of one of Marie Sexton's Coda series -- I think it's called "A to Z" (the story about Angelo and Zach).
Ruth Madison
12. Hope Tarr
Thank God MAD MEN is back! Don Draper is sufficiently flawed as to come close to anti-herohood though this season his struggles--to stay faithful to the new wife even in the midst of a boozey brothel boys' night out, to not get drunk so much (at least not morosely drunk), to try and understand that his wife might actually have her own career goals (acting v advertizing)--show enough soul to keep me rooting for him.

I love to read--and write--flawed heroes but I think it's often easier to do so in an historical context than a contemporary one. I'd like to think that's shifting somewhat. Perhaps inspiration will be drawn from the m/m romances you reference? Hope so.

Regardless, great posted. Enjoyed it.
rachel sternberg
13. rae70
I need to get the DVD series of Mad Men! I have yet to watch it! Would you consider "Mikael" from The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo (USA version) a flawed hero? While I haven't actually read the books, I felt that way about him in the movie and look forward to how Mikael and Lisbeths characters relationship further develops.
Jessica O'Brien
14. JLOBrien
I like flawed. Flawed makes the character seem...well more real to me. And I just finished 50 Shades (I am late to the party) and I have to say, Christian was just a little too much of a "flawed hero". I need to see some potential and I didn't get it from the story until much later into the series. I do like that his baggage didn't "disappear" immediately, like mentioned above...but it also took too long for me.

I have to go to one of my favorites...Cameron McKay from Lorelei James' Should Have Been A Cowboy. He is both mentally and physically (in his opinion) messed up. Actually a lot of her McKay characters have issues.

I guess I am a fan of reasonably flawed men..and I am laughing because I am not sure if "reasonably flawed" is actually a concept lol.
Ruth Madison
15. AlisaKwitney
Rae, I'm abashed to admit I haven't read the Dragon Tattoo series, so I can't comment on Mikael. I was a big fan of Ken Follett's oddball heroes back when he wrote espionage, though, and did have vague thoughts about how Hannibal Lector was oddly appealing...until that last novel where Harris went off the deep end and made the subtle thread of connection between serial cannibal anti-hero and FBI agent heroine a little too (yech, ptui) explicit. There is such a thing as too flawed!
Elizabeth Halliday
16. Ibbitts
Hannibal Lector appealing?
I had a downright fascination...
But having not read the books, I just thought it was the Anthony Hopkins influence.
Ruth Madison
17. Laurenkusa
In the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series Mikael and Lisbeth don't have the typical HEA as the romance is over by end of the first book, also shown in the movie.

Regardless the relationship development is interesting.
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