Sunday, March 1, 2009

Writing the Tortured Hero and Heroine

The Tortured Hero and Heroine

One night, while dog sitting for my daughter and her boyfriend, I tried to judge a writing contest and was having difficulty reading. Anyone would have problems with a seventy-five pound Mastador trying to sit in your lap while licking your ear. After laughing and pushing Ruger off, I got to thinking about problems I’ve encountered when judging previous contests. The biggest one is assigning fair points to an entry in the “Is the hero likable?” column when the author has attempted to make him seem like a jerk because he is wounded and emotionally torturing himself. Part of his character arc is to heal and become likable later in the story, but I only have a first chapter to read.

Writing the tortured hero and heroine takes finesse. If a reader gets upset that your hero is snapping at the heroine and making sarcastic remarks to push her away, then the reader may toss the book. So, what do you do? What follows is my understanding of traumatized people based on articles, books, movies, and having many friends who were tortured heroines. I believe most of us have had some sort of traumatic experience we can tap into to for our stories. It could be the loss of a parent, a divorce, or even a dysfunctional childhood. I added some interesting websites at the end of this post which might help. I suggest you do further research if you tackle this subject in your book. This post is only meant to be a springboard to get you started. Use what rings true and works for you.

First, what makes a character a tortured hero or heroine? Basically, they are suffering from a severe, unexpected, emotional trauma from which they have not yet healed. Think of the Tom Cruise character in Top Gun. He blames himself for the death of his wingman. In Cliffhanger, Sylvester Stallone blames himself when his friend’s girl plummets off the mountain. Because romance authors usually write about macho alpha males, our hero is usually suffering due to the death of someone close, and the ensuing self-blame for not doing more to save that person. We could be dealing with the aftermath of a violent act or it could even be the loss of a child due to disease or an accident, etc.

Our heroine is the damsel in distress, so we have much more latitude on what could be torturing her. In movies, she is usually the victim of physical abuse. Think Julia Roberts in Sleeping with the Enemy and Jennifer Lopez in Enough. Our heroine could also be tortured because of the death of a child, spouse, marriage, or even her innocence in an abusive childhood. Like the tortured hero, she also pushes the other main character away because she is afraid or doesn’t feel she deserves the good guy. Victims of abuse often feel they should have done more to save themselves (even children can think this way). The victim might even think she brought it on herself. An abusive husband will tell her it’s her fault. Sometimes, she believes there is something inherently wrong with her that allowed that person to think they could touch her in such a harmful way. Most of this is subconscious. You should keep in mind, when writing about a woman married to a wife beater or a man who is emotionally unavailable, that character could have been abused as a child and never completely overcame the trauma. An unhealed person may end up with another unhealed person because he/she feels familiar. Drama begets more drama.

How does the tortured hero/heroine act? Both characters may become moody and withdrawn, perhaps due to fear or feelings of inadequacy. In Cliffhanger, the hero takes off, leaving his girlfriend for almost a year. In Sleeping with the Enemy, the heroine doesn’t trust the hero at first. She pushes him away. When the new love interest is introduced in our novels, the tortured hero/heroine is unlikely to think about how hot that character is and mentally list off all of their fine qualities. Weave in bits here and there. For example, he could think she looks like an angel, but he believes he doesn’t deserve one. Our abused heroine is probably going to decide if the hero looks friendly or not at first. She needs to know if she should run, not whether or not she should make love to him. I know several people who went numb after a trauma. I call it going into robot mode. They can’t feel anything; it’s just not there. Our kind, wonderful hero can’t make her love or want him. He can’t make her feel anything. Even if he is perfect for her. It could take weeks, months, or even years for this to pass. It depends on how deep-seated the fear. If multiple traumas wore this person down or they first occurred in childhood, it could take much longer to heal.

The snarky hero or heroine should be carefully written. The tortured hero is sometimes rude, short, or sarcastic to keep people away. In Sea Change with Tom Selleck, he is often short and admits wanting to force one of the deputies to quit. If your hero is rude in the beginning of your story, I believe you will need to show he is tortured and has redeeming qualities in the first chapter as well. (More on that in a minute.) The tortured heroine is less likely to make sarcastic comments unless nothing else works to push away the hero. The tortured heroine may also alter her appearance so she looks less attractive; she may lose the makeup, wear frumpy clothes, or even gain weight in an attempt to keep men away.

Your reader needs to know you are dealing with a tortured hero or heroine. One way is to begin the story with the moment the trauma occurs. In Cliffhanger, we see him lose the girl on the mountain. In Enough, we see the abuse. If you don’t show it unfolding as it happens, then you should weave in the past events so you don’t info dump. In my book, Liquid Hypnosis, I allude to her killing someone with her supernatural gift, but we don’t get the details until much later in the story. It’s not enough to know this character has been traumatized. We need to know he/she has redeeming qualities and will be worth the time it takes to read the book. In Sea Change, he drinks too much, but we know he is a good man because the dog sits by his side all night when he’s passed out, the female deputy keeps an eye on him and gives advice, an old friend on the phone tells him people there care about him, and he reads to a deputy who is in a coma. One or two redeeming qualities in the beginning of the book should be enough to allow for a few rude comments given by your hero. The idea is to keep the reader hanging in for more info and more redeeming qualities.

Building the romance takes time. The tortured hero/heroine is not going to fall for the love interest right away. It would be a good idea to force them to remain close. The abused heroine may be in protective custody with our law enforcement hero. In Sleeping with the Enemy, the hero lives next door. He is patient, yet determined, so he doesn’t give up. He also knows not to push the issue too far when she can’t make love to him. Come up with a logical reason why these two have to run into each other often. Slowly build trust and time needed for healing.

Our couple cannot live happily ever after until our tortured hero or heroine has healed. In books and movies, the hero or heroine often has a second chance to face their demons. In Cliffhanger, Sylvester Stallone fights off the bad guys on the mountain. In Sleeping with the Enemy, she shoots and kills her husband. In fact, she tells the police dispatcher she killed an intruder before she shoots him. Great line! It shows she has become stronger, yet she doesn’t fully break down and cry until she thinks he is dead. This shows she was suppressing a lot of emotion throughout the story and finally feels safe. When she first moves to the new town, she knows he may find her, but even if he were already dead, she still wouldn’t feel completely safe. We often fear the unknown. That is why so many women stay with abusive husbands. At least he is a demon she is familiar with and has survived. New surroundings are often frightening until they become home in our hearts.

If your character can’t recreate the events of the trauma, he/she might heal by working to help others. A mother who loses her son in a drunk-driving accident could volunteer with MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers). Your hero or heroine could work with troubled youth or counsel rape victims. I know several people who healed their childhood wounds after raising their own children to the best of their ability. They didn’t allow history to repeat itself.

Once you have shown the healing process has occurred, you need to show the relationship has advanced to a deeper level. Our main character is no longer tortured and can now love the patient, kind hero or heroine who has been helping all along. This can be a love scene, but it doesn’t have to be.

For those of you brave enough to tackle the tortured hero/heroine, I hope this post helps. Remember to do additional research related to the specific type of trauma your character is dealing with, so you get a feel for the type of demons they are facing. It will help make your characters come alive.

Good luck,
Tina LaVon

Articles online I found interesting:


Edie said...

Good advice, Tina! I read Susan Elizabeth Phillips' What I Did for Love, and her hero is tortured. But she writes him so well and he's so interesting, I wanted to know more about him. Plus, he's aware that he's acting badly. The real jerks don't think they're jerks. LOL

In Dead People, my ATV book, the hero is tortured and sarcastic. But he has an unhappy eleven-year old daughter and is trying to do everything he can to make her happy. That's something that keeps him from being a jerk in the reader's eyes.

Tina LaVon said...

Thanks for adding your input. The tortured hero can be very powerful when written well. I think he gets to a woman's desire to save and nurture her man. In real life, he would be so much work. In our novels, he is worth it because we know he will come around in the end. No such guarantee in real life.

Laurie Schnebly Campbell said...

Last year at RWA National, screenwriter Blake Snyder gave a workshop called "Save The Cat" -- and his advice is to (within the first five minutes of the movie) show your tortured hero saving a cat from a tree...or whatever will prove he really IS a good guy.

I'm not sure what the romance novelist's equivalent would be, but I love the notion of "Save the cat!"

C.C. Harrison said...

Great article, Tina! Very insightful, and thanks for the informative reference links at the end.

Carol Webb said...

Thanks Tina for a wonderful article.

I love Blake Snyder's book. I did a review of Save the Cat on the blog.

Anonymous said...

Great article, Tina. I'm dealing with a tortured hero myself right now. Thanks for the sites to look up more information.