Recently, I’ve read a few books that have left me dissatisfied. I even stopped reading in the middle of them. Gasp! They were not JAFFs or even Regency Romance. They were Contemporary Romances which are always a hit or miss for me anyway.
The contemptible sin?
The hero was unlikable.
Oh, they didn’t begin so unlikable. In both situations that I am thinking of, the hero and heroine had a past together and were separated by the hero’s wanderlust. Then, a chance thing throws them together and all seems well for weeks or even months. The heroine works through layers of distrust and just when she seems to have come all the way through it, he leaves again.
Logically, I understand this is the “dark moment” of conflict which all stories require. However, if he leaves the woman before the story even starts, we then go through the entire book and it seems like he has had actual character improvement, and then he reverts back and does the same thing–nope, not reading that. Especially when there is less than 30% left of the book. He’s going to get a second aha moment and somehow just when the heroine’s distrust is totally proven and justified they’re going to get through it again? What were all the other pages for then?
It’s worth adding that although this is a second chance theme, at least one of the books was not labeled as such. There was nothing in the blurb which suggested they had known each other first.
This scenario doesn’t have to apply only to heroes with wanderlust. This character regression scenario can happen in any sort of plot and with a heroine as well. When I write a story, I try to be very aware of the journey my characters are on. If Mr. Darcy is suddenly arrogant again at the climax of the story when he seemed to have learned his lesson and behaved well for the last 15 chapters–that’s a major structural issue. If Elizabeth swears she has learned from her past mistakes and then we see her doubting Darcy in the last third of the book–how can I trust her character arc?
Consider how Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice. Darcy is revealed to have not been as awful as Elizabeth supposed. After his letter, she realizes that there were signs with Wickham she ought to have always seen. However, it’s not a sudden reversal of her opinion. She continues to think Darcy is unlikable until they meet at Pemberley. Then his behavior is so different and general reports of him so good that she comes to realize that she had never fully understood him before. She trusts him enough to tell him about Lydia’s elopement. Once Lydia is married, she doesn’t worry that he will be vindictive and spread the news around. She doesn’t even worry too much that Lydia’s elopement would keep him from Longbourn except at the idea of being brother-in-law to Wickham. That concern is due to a belief that Darcy is so justified he should not be subjected to such a degradation. When she hears that Darcy helped arrange Lydia’s marriage, Elizabeth does not doubt it or assign mean motives. And when Lady Catherine storms to Longbourn and insists that Darcy will marry her daughter, Elizabeth can only think that his aunt’s arguments might, justly, fall on his weakest side. She is entirely humbled from her earlier opinion about Mr. Darcy. When they next meet, she opens the conversation with gratitude, not remonstrances or sly comments as she had done a year before.
Elizabeth Bennet is not always likable. She makes fun of people. She makes mistakes and they hurt innocent people. However, as she continues on her arc, she truly changes. When everything seems darkest for Darcy and Elizabeth, the story does not rely on Elizabeth reverting to her old behavior and way of thinking. That, to me, would be an unlikable character.
What do you think? Is that sort of character arc important to you when you read?
2 thoughts on “Tuesday Thoughts– Unlikable Heroes”
It is hard to change our learned behaviors. But for someone we love – yes, that is what makes me love Darcy. I have heard it over and over again that if a man doesn’t change for a woman before marriage he is not going to change afterwards and I think that is mostly true. Elizabeth also learned that about first impressions and not taking everything at face value but getting both sides of the story. It is so hard to really know a person in a short amount of time, as Elizabeth also learned about Wickham…and Darcy. So I would hate the story you first described but in Persuasion we do have a lovely story about second chances and look at how he tortured her with his flirtation with Louisa.
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I definitely think people seldom change for other people. I think they change for themselves. Honestly, I don’t think I could like Darcy as much if he only changed because Elizabeth screamed at him. It’s that he saw the truth in her estimation. However, I’m not one that thinks he actually did a lot of changing. I think Elizabeth changed more than Darcy did but I know I’m in the minority there.
I do certainly believe in second chances but I would like to see continued improvement. Wentworth does torture Anne (mostly unintentionally since he didn’t think she still cared for him) with Louisa but once he’s aware of his continued love for her, he quickly puts aside all possibility with Louisa. He does everything he can to break Louisa’s attachment to him, and thankfully it works. Then he goes to Bath and we don’t see him entertaining any other ladies. Everything he does there is out of regard for Anne, as he even tells us in his letter. The books I have mentioned in this post do not have that. It’s a second chance and everything is going good except at the Bath moment they are having second thoughts and the call of adventure (and one of them had hints at romantic rivals) are showing up. I didn’t finish reading them but I believe the endings and closure would have been far too rushed. From a writer perspective, I think it was the author trying to cure a saggy middle which is just poor plotting. I agree that a conflict needs to continue to build. As we look at Persuasion, we can see that even as Wentworth seems to be interested in Anne and even after we hear that he is not marrying Louisa, things remain uncertain for them. Anne may actually be tempted to marry elsewhere. Lady Russell is in the corner once more. There are rumors. There are expectations. Wentworth may quit the scene. Jane Austen brilliantly managed all of that without Wentworth deciding to shack up with someone else, leave for sea, or have Anne fling herself at another man. Modern writers could certainly stand to take some pages from Austen’s notebook. Tension can continue to be built without sacrificing character development.