Saturday, June 22, 2013

HERO TOUR: DAMAGED GOODS: The Enduring Appeal of the Tortured Hero

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by Elizabeth May

From Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester to Christian Grey and Gideon Cross, the tortured hero is one of the archetypes of the romance genre, and hands down one of my favorites to read and especially to write about. Tortured heroes have scars, haunting nightmares, rough exteriors hiding shadowy pasts, and, being the alpha men they are, generally don’t share what’s eating them.

To paraphrase Leslie Wainger in her book, WRITING THE ROMANCE NOVEL FOR DUMMIES, (an awesome reference, especially for newbies) the tortured hero is tormented emotionally from past conflicts which prevent him from forming emotional intimacy.* After all, romance is the most character driven genre, and for character dramas to work internal conflict is key. What greater obstacle to love is there than a hero who believes himself incapable of love?

But where is the sexy in all this darkness? What is the ongoing appeal of these tragic, tormented characters?

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to hear Donald Maass’ presentation on character building at the Writers Digest Conference East. He talked about tortured heroes, which he referred to as “Dark Protagonists.”  According to Maass, the Dark Protagonist has to be actively searching for a way to redeem himself, a way to make himself more human or to improve his life in some way. Even if he’s not consciously aware of what he’s doing, or why he’s doing it.** Heroes don’t often see themselves as heroic, and the tortured hero is the prime example of this.

For example, in my RWA chapter contest winning novel, ETERNAL HUNGER, the hero Dylan MacRoyce is the would-be laird of a demised clan and a vampire. Five hundred years ago, Dylan’s wife betrayed their clan to his enemies, causing hundreds of lives to be lost and the entire clan to be destroyed. Dylan’s had centuries to curse the hand fate dealt him, but not nearly as much as he blames himself.

Now, it’s the year 1855, Victorian Scotland, a time of mass emigration and poverty among poor farmers and working classes. Although Dylan no longer has a clan to be laird of, he’s bought huge amounts of land and allows his tenants to live and work there almost for free. These are people who otherwise might starve or be forced to leave their homes. Without consciously realizing it, Dylan’s been trying to make amends to the clan he let down centuries ago.

But his real redemption comes when he meets Emily Iving. Emily is a forward-thinking, modern woman diagnosed with a terminal disease which she’s keeping secret. Emily is out to embrace life with an “I’ll-try-everything-twice” attitude, a stark contrast to Dylan who’s very much a product of the medieval era he was born in.

Despite their initial attraction, they manage to butt heads about everything. Emily’s a liberal thinker, literally living everyday like it was her last, while Dylan’s had centuries to grow bored and jaded with life.

Through knowing Emily, Dylan begins to see the world anew. He learns how to embrace each day for the precious and transitory miracle it is. By the end of the story, Dylan will be forced to rethink everything he’s ever known about the world and especially himself. When Emily’s life is threatened, he’ll make sacrifices he could never have imagined to save her.

To sum up, tortured heroes have an incredible staying power in our hearts and imaginations, but it’s the universal themes of redemption and the struggle for a better life, which give these characters such resonating, timeless appeal.

I encourage anyone reading this to comment and share their favorite tortured hero or heroine. What about this character’s journey moved you? Or better yet, tell us about a tortured hero you happen to be writing!♥

** Donald Maass. CREATING THE GREATEST CHARACTERS OF YOUR CAREER. Writer’s Digest Conference East. Presentation, 2013.

Elizabeth May is a writer, freelance editor, and teacher. Her novel, ETERNAL HUNGER, recently won first place in the Paranormal category of the CTRWA’s The Write Stuff contest. She is actively seeking publication.


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  1. There really is nothing sexier than a damaged hero! Both physiological & physical scars really add depth to a fictional hero!
    OceanAkers @

  2. like Zsadist from the BDB series because he overcame a lot

    bn100candg at hotmail dot com