Aug 24 2012 9:30am

Marry One Hero with a Sad Childhood and Get the Second One Half-Off: the Trouble with Empathy Coupons

The Vampire Diaries’s Klaus draws Caroline a pictureI have a problem with a certain type of romance. The type where, whenever an AlphHole hero is being a misogynist idiot to the heroine, the heroine will conveniently discover something about the hero that renders her more sympathetic and receptive to his advances, without the hero actually changing or improving his brutish behaviour.

For me, those things are “Empathy Coupons”—traits or characteristics that are tacked onto a protagonist in order to make them seem more sensitive or sympathetic. These traits are incredibly common throughout romance, and they’re not terrible traits in and of themselves as long as they’re supported and developed by the story. However, these traits become Empathy Coupons whenever lesser authors use them to depict a protagonist’s innate, hidden goodness, instead of having their actions or behaviour demonstrate this.

Need a specific example? Here are my top six Empathy Coupons:

6. A Secret Artistic Talent

In Sophie Jordan’s Sins of a Wicked Duke, the crossdressing footman heroine pays witness to countless examples of the hero’s cruelty, misogyny and debauchery (many of which he inflicts upon her person against her will), but once she finds out that he paints in his spare time, well, her heart just melts like a helpless soldier figurine in a microwave.

A secret artistic side (sketching, writing, music, butter sculpting, etc.) is often used as an implicit indicator of the hero’s innate sensitivity. This is clearly indicated by history, since all the greatest writers, sculptors, musicians, and painters were famed for their good sense, morality and faithfulness to women, right? Right?

5. He’s Nice to Animals

Congratulations! Your hero isn’t a serial killer! He calls the heroine a whore and gropes her without her consent but he rescues kittens from cold puddles, and so is clearly deserving of the benefit of the doubt.

Except not. It’s nice to know that the hero can be gentle towards non-verbal creatures he doesn’t want to have sex with, but I’m not going to care how tenderly he can artificially inseminate his favourite cow if he doesn’t treat the heroine’s vagina with the same courtesy.

4. A Hidden Phobia               

Woe is this poor hero! He’s been afraid of burnt toast ever since his mother left the toaster on when she abandoned him as a child. He is subsequently rude, abusive, patronizing, and even violent towards the heroine because he is secretly terrified that she’ll find out about that other thing he’s secretly terrified of and then his Manly Man Image will be over!

Romance novels would be more entertaining on the whole if heroes stopped being afraid of obscure, harmless things like Heights, Public Speaking and Death and started being afraid of being Punched In the Face By Their Put-Upon Girlfriends.

3. A Love of Literature

This is an Empathy Coupon I’ve encountered with protagonists of both genders, and, when you think about it, it’s a particularly lazy and obvious ploy. You’re clearly reading this romance for pleasure—why not have the heroine read for pleasure? Wow! Suddenly she’s so relatable! She’s just like you—except that she lives in the nineteenth century, in England, and has to dress like a hermaphrodite elephant tamer to escape an arranged marriage to her necrophiliac cousin. But essentially, you’re twins!

If I had a nickel for every historical romance heroine who was a huge fan of Jane Austen, well, I’d have enough to buy me a litre of ice cream to drown my disappointment with how some authors prefer focus-group-friendly character tropes over legitimate development.

2. A Physical/Mental/Intellectual Disability or Limitation

The blue Handicapped sticker on the hero’s rearview mirror guarantees him a prime parking spot for his car, not for his junk. Nobody wants to kick the dude with the wheelchair, or the cane, or the seeing-eye dog, or the debilitating learning disability, but that doesn’t give him an excuse to act like a wanky jerk to the heroine for the majority of the novel.

The hero has to earn his heroism by overcoming his limitations to make heroic decisions—he is not a hero simply by having these limitations and remaining physically attractive. Using a physical disability as an Empathy Coupon is doubly hypocritical because while the intended message is to judge the hero by his actions, not his disability, the heroine is asked to do the exact opposite: to feel pity and sympathy for him because of his disability and ignore when he’s being an ass.

1. A Sad Childhood

In Romancelandia, the biggest Get Out of Jail Free Card is the Traumatic Past. Throw in an abusive father, a sexually promiscuous mother, a mysteriously dead brother and a dog who ran away and bring it all to a slow boil. Poor, poor Alpha Male hero. Somebody took your toys away, and that’s why you treat the heroine like a day-old turd from that faithless pooch who did you wrong.

Of course, once the heroine learns about the Sad Childhood, she’ll immediately start thinking the hero isn’t so bad, that it’s not his fault, that she should try to fix him. In romances like these (throw a rock into Judith McNaught’s backlist and you’ll hit one), the heroine does all the legwork and the hero just has to sit back and let it happen, without changing his behaviour one little bit. Because he strained his back, you know? Sad childhoods are so bad on the back. Don’t forget to make him a sandwich while you’re healing his traumatic man pain.

And as for heroines with Empathy Coupons, you’ll often find Mary Sues who proudly carry all six of these traits around like Girl Scout Merit Badges.

That being said, giving your hero a mysterious tragic past, a romanticized facial scar, or a particular anxiety isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. These traits are all excellent ways to develop a character and explain his motivations and actions, but explaining his actions is not the same thing as excusing them.

It’s not enough to have a private tenderness or a secret pain. A hero has to be publicly heroic, he has to let his decency and his desire to be loved show through with his actions. The concept of Empathy Coupons only arises when his fears or his insecurities or his unexpressed softer side are used as replacements for actual development or maturity on his part.

Can you think of anything else that’s commonly used as an Empathy Coupon? Or do you have really dastardly examples of the aforementioned?


Elizabeth Vail hails from Alberta, Canada. A book reviewer and aspiring YA writer, she currently runs the review blog Gossamer Obsessions under the screenname AnimeJune.

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Carmen Pinzon
1. bungluna
My personal pet peeve is "One woman done me wrong so all females are WHORES!" trope. I run accross this explanation of why the hero is mistreating the heroine and I put the book down.
Nicole Neal
2. icecharm
I am sitting at work, the front desk for four cardiologists, giggling like an idiot. Thank God I have no patients in my waiting room!
I recently came across this while reading Lothaire by Kresley Cole. I love KC, but there is a certain part (you who have read it probably know what I'm talking about!) where I was all "NO, no, he did NOT just do that! This is NOT OK!" Oh, wah, his mommy died and his daddy's an a**hat, this makes it allright for him to act like this?!
Victoria Janssen
3. VictoriaJanssen
I love that phrase. I must now use it all the time. Because I see it all the time.
4. KateRothwell
Bunglunga got mine. Do unfaithful mommas who flee with lovers count as cheatingwhorewomen or do they fit in the bad parenting trope?

A really skilled writer, like Loretta Chase, can pull off some of these. I'm thinking Lord of Scoundrels. Maybe he was forgiveable because he was more than his dark side. It's when we're supposed to think more highly of a hero because he's all injured and bitter and so so soulful--that's when I want to hurt someone.
Wendy the Super Librarian
5. SuperWendy
In the same ballpark as he's kind to animals - he's kind to "unfortunates." Sure he treats the heroine like crap, but it's OK! He donates sacks of coin to the local orphanage, and not only that - those mysterious trips he takes on Sunday afternoon? He's secretly visiting the orphanage playing tiddly-winks and baking cookies for the tykes!

6. Nevena
"Congratulations! Your hero isn’t a serial killer! He calls the heroine a whore and gropes her without her consent but he rescues kittens from cold puddles, and so is clearly deserving of the benefit of the doubt." //Awesome!
Kiersten Hallie Krum
7. Kiersten
I’m not going to care how tenderly he can artificially inseminate his favourite cow if he doesn’t treat the heroine’s vagina with the same courtesy.

Totally with you.

One of the many things I love about Lord of Scoundrels is that he has angsty back story and as she falls in love with him and learns his story, she is sympathetic. But when the crap hits the fan, she turns to him and says, "I know this hits all your buttons, but you're going to have to get over it and man up b/c there's a child who needs you and is more important than your Mommy issues." That's when you know you married the right person. It's also what makes them great rom hero/heroine.
Jordan R
9. jrojrojro
Kiersten, that is EXACTLY why I love Lord of Scoundrels so much. He's got issues, she knows about them, she tells him to suck it up, they get over them together!

Also, I am now that weird person who laughs out loud in public for a long time because of this article!
10. LynneW
Jayne Ann Krentz had a wonderful interchange in one early book (sorry, blanking on the title) where the heroine calls the guy on his behavior because he "had a bad day" and was taking it out on her.

*That* was a keeper!!! (Ah, and now I have to go re-read her backlist to figure out which one it was. Such a burden ... teehee)
Virginia Green
11. vloveg
I love this! I'm going to have to bookmark this for references, because I have a feeling I'm going to be using this term a lot in the future.
12. Merianne
This is so true! I know I have read one book or another in wich I think...What is wrong with this guy?!
13. CWH
You just described the entire 50 Shades Trilogy LOL
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