It’s the beginning of a whole new year; what time could possibly be better to become more motivated and inspired? You have a whole 365 days ahead of you, and now is the time to start making them count, so we're asking authors what they've got planned for the year ahead!
Michelle Douglas outlines her writing focus for 2019: ditching the hyper-masculine romance novel hero in favour of a more modern interpretation.
2018 was the year I put the final touches on my PhD, and while I haven’t submitted yet, it’s basically done. Yay! My PhD focuses on feminism and popular romance, which is far too big a topic to talk about here, so I thought I’d share with you one simple (ha!) thing that I mean to focus on this year… My heroes.
Do you want to know a secret? Heroes are one of my biggest writing weaknesses. I don’t mean I have a pulse-rushing, weak-kneed thing happening here. I mean writing heroes is not one of my writing strengths. I find heroes so much harder to write than heroines. Thank heaven for revisions.
I’ve finally realised that part of the problem lies in my confusion about what I want a hero to be. I was a teenager in the eighties—when times were more enlightened than the 60's and 70's, but certainly not as enlightened as they are today. I recently watched a 1980's film that I used to love—and I still do—but the sexism and hyper-masculinity that prevailed in the film also horrified me. This was the decade I discovered category romance, which were the romances I cut my teeth on. Suffice to say, the 1980's were the years I started basking in adolescent, hormone-driven daydreams involving enigmatic, masterful men who didn’t hesitate going after what they wanted.
I suspect that these early fantasy archetypes can have an on-going impact. I also suspect that, unconsciously, I’ve been trying to write modern heroes who have some of those same 1980 —and 1970—traits. Rather than sexy and commanding, though, my heroes have been coming off as bullies and jerks—guys you wouldn’t bother feeding. Which means I’ve had to spend a lot of time editing and revising them.
So I’ve made an executive decision. I’ve decided to ditch the hyper-masculine hero of my imagination and start working towards a new-improved modern version. And I want him fully formed from the beginning of my writing process, rather than having to go searching for him after the first draft of my book is written and then taking endless drafts to perfect him. In service of this goal I’ve written myself a list of rules.
1. I want to write heroes who don’t loom, threaten, or intimidate my heroines.
Physical intimidation is not sexy. At all. Contemporary heroes who use their brute strength to control a heroine should be consigned to the rubbish heap. A hero should only ever use his brute strength if he’s stopping a heroine from falling off a cliff, if he’s taking a bullet for her, or if he’s fixing her broken faucet. This is also a guy who is totally aware of issues of consent. No means no, and he understands this. He never makes a sexual advance on the heroine without her permission.
Mind you, I now find myself wanting to temper the rule. What if my hero needed my heroine’s help to clear his name of a crime he hadn’t committed—or better yet, clear his sister’s name. What if he blackmailed her: “I’ll make sure your business doesn’t get the funding it needs if you don’t help me.” That’s a nice juicy threat right there, with the potential for lots of conflict. Right?
In all honesty, you could make the above scenario work. Good characters can do bad things in the interests of a sympathetic goal. And yet while that hero might have my sympathy, he’s not going to win my love. Instead, what if he were to approach my heroine with: “If you help me, I will give you the finance you need for your business.” Rather than blackmailing her, he’s now giving her a choice. Even knowing nothing more about him, I like this hero a whole lot better. And now he also fits my new, improved model for a hero.
NB: I don’t mean to imply that heroines shouldn’t feel intimidated by a hero. I just don’t want it to be because the hero threatens her or is deliberately trying to frighten her. If a heroine feels intimidated it’s because she senses on some primal level that this guy could be lethal to her peace of mind.
2. I want to write heroes who don’t judge women based on their sexual attractiveness.
I’ve been reading a book—not a romance—written in first person from a male character’s viewpoint. While I’ve been enjoying the story mightily, I’ve had to grit my teeth whenever a female character is introduced. No matter how minor, nearly every female character in this book is described and judged based on her sexual worth. And if she’s not deemed attractive, some pretty appalling metaphors have been employed for a cheap laugh. Needless too say it’s been having the opposite effect on me.
It has, however, started me thinking about all the various ways my heroes can consider the women that may make an appearance in my books—such as their friends, work colleagues, friend’s wives, ex-girlfriends, clients… And the heroine. For example, a hero can appreciate a woman’s attention to detail in her work, the intelligence alive in her eyes, the compassion in her smile, the sense of humour that lurks behind a wry comment. They can be curious about the zany jewellery she wears, wary of her sharp tongue, empathise with her addiction to pizza, and wonder at a turn of phrase she uses. There are so many ways to describe a person!
Obviously the hero is going to be attracted to the heroine, he’s going to be very aware of her physically, but it’s not the only thing he should be aware of and it shouldn’t be the only thing he appreciates about her.
3. I want to write heroes who are just as nurturing as women
Nurturance is a trait traditionally ascribed to women rather than men. I’m blowing raspberries at that. Nurturing someone isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength and empathy. I want this to be a universal trait rather than one that is considered a feminine trait. Also, a hero who nurtures a heroine makes me gooey.
4. I want to write heroes who believe in equality
The days when men were considered the head of the house are long past. I want heroes who believe in equality between the sexes. What I don’t want is paternalistic heroes who believe that they know what’s best for a heroine and who, despite her protests, ride roughshod over her to make sure she gets it. Heroines are autonomous individuals in their own right, and I want heroes to recognise and respect that; regardless of how much they may disagree with the course of action a heroine has chosen.
I want heroes who consider a heroine’s career path just as important as their own. I want heroes who don’t slut-shame women. I want heroes who firmly believe that childcare is as much their province as it is their partner’s. And if a hero is in a position of power, like a CEO, I want his business to employ just as many women as it does men. I’d like him to employ minority groups too, thank you very much.
I want heroes who are enlightened and progressive, innovative and forward thinking, rather than conservative and out of touch. I want heroes who don’t feel morally superior, who have empathy for their fellow man, and who hold themselves to high standards of honour and integrity. And it occurs to me that I can have all that and more within the pages of a romance novel.
There are only four rules here—so far—but I think they cover a lot of ground. No doubt I’ll add more as they occur to me. Fingers crossed they help me come to grips with my heroes, and help me reimagine the kind of hero I want gracing the pages of my books. And sometime in the not-too-distant future I’m hoping I can cross “Heroes” off my writing-weakness list. Wish me luck!
Michelle's latest release, The Million Pound Marriage Deal, is out now. For more information about her and her writing, check out her website, and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.