I used to read a lot of romance novels. For the past several years, though, I’ve hardly read any. And until recently, I couldn’t have pointed to why, exactly. I’d just been less interested in the genre.
Recently, though, I read an article https://bookriot.com/2017/04/10/if-it-doesnt-have-an-hea-or-hfn-its-not-romance/ that started “If a love story does not have “an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending,” (via Romance Writers of America) does it fit in the romance genre? In a word: nope.”
And I realized; a lot of the romance novels I’d been trying to read hadn’t been emotionally satisfying me. Even ones that came highly recommended.
I’m not going to name any names here, but I am going to name a trend; the “alpha” hero who acts like a jerk to the heroine (and everyone else) and still gets the girl. Maybe with a token apology, maybe he says that “I was such a jerk because I didn’t like how you made me feel” but really? Far too many times, I had no reason to believe that the “hero” was really going to change.
Why should he? The Heroine has accepted his apology, without seeing any real work on his part.
To clarify, I’m not talking about a hero who is brusque, or rough-around-the-edges, or even suffering from a bout of situational rudeness. I’m not talking about a guy who takes charge in an emergency situation, or because he’s genuinely the expert. I’m talking about entitled “heroes” who boss the heroine around because they can, because they view her as potentially or actually their property.
I don’t know if jerkass “alpha” heroes who end the story not much less jerky than when they began it have really become more common, or if I’m just more aware that they’re probably going to continue to be assholes than when I was younger, or less willing to tolerate a “hero” who acts like an ass, no matter what kind of tragic backstory the author gives him.
I’m not saying that these books should never be written or published or given good reviews. I know the difference between fantasy and reality, and I know that (despite what critics of the Romance genre might imply) the overwhelming majority of readers also know the difference.
But that doesn’t mean that the Duke of Summerseve is my fantasy.
It’s not “emotionally satisfying” for me to watch a character that I’ve come to care about decide to stay with someone with a proven track record of jerkass behavior just because he’s apologized once. (Especially if she’s living in a historical period where she has little or no ability to divorce him when he inevitably relapses to jerktitude.) I need to see some indications that he’s actually working on changing his behavior. And not just when the heroine is around to see it, either.
Furthermore, it needs to be clear that he’s actually realized a) that he was wrong, and b) why.
“I’m sorry that I called you a tramp; I don’t own you and I was completely out of line, and to make sure I never treat you or anyone else like that again I’ve signed up for anger-management classes,” is a completely different beast from “I’m sorry I didn’t wait to find out that the guy you were talking to was your cousin before calling you a skank in front of a room full of people.”
Also, it matters that he’s not just changing so that the heroine will let him back in her pants. I want to see that he’s actually changing because it’s the right thing to do, because he wants to be a better person, not just because it will get him laid.
In short, I want to have some confidence that he’s actually changed, rather than putting on a show for long enough to get the heroine to the altar or the bedroom.
Of course, it’s impossible to tell from the first chapter whether any given book is going to have the jerkass “hero” rehabilitate into a mature, emotionally healthy guy, or whether this is going to be one of those books where his big “character growth moment” is just going to be excusing his own douchery by blaming it on being in love.
And really, what I want isn’t just the knowledge that the hero will stop being a giant tool by the end of the story. I want stories where he doesn’t even start out that way. Stories where my main question isn’t “why the hell hasn’t she bailed on this douchebag already?”
I realize that for a story to be satisfying, both characters have to grow. And to have room to grow, characters need to start out with a character flaw. But does it always have to be that he’s a big bag of dicks? After all, there are many other starting places for a character arc than “total jerk.”
I know that there are stories like that out there; I’ve read some. (Zoe Archer’s Blades of the Rose is one series that springs to mind.) And now that I know what I’m looking for, I can figure out a strategy to actually find the kind of stories I like, with heroes that are worthy of the title through the story, not just in the last chapter.