Since I’m not an aspiring writer and a moody rather than trendy reader and have little interest in predicting and anticipating the the kinds of stories, protagonists and heat-levels that I will likely encounter on the shelves in a year’s time, I generally don’t pay much attention to wish lists posted by agents and romance publishers. But every so often I do stumble upon one of those lists. This week a friend sent me a link to an post by an editor describing the kind of heroes this particular line was looking for.
When I get comfy in my nice big armchair with a cup of tea close at hand, I like to read books with heroes who are confident and sexy and, well, heroic. I don’t want too much realism. We all know guys who tell gross jokes or refuse to clean their bathrooms, so reading about them kind of ruins the mood, you know? I like a hero who has a bit of an edge and is tough enough to protect the woman he loves. Oh, and he has a sense of humor, too. The perfect man, right? Well, he doesn't have to be perfect; he can have flaws and vulnerabilities, and this is what makes him seem attainable.
I ended up thinking about that post for a long while. I was particularly struck by the fact that she seemed to be saying that the flaws and vulnerabilities are there to make the character seem attainable.
I know everyone has different kinds of character catnip, but attainable is probably the last thing I look for in romance novel protagonists. While rock-stars, billionaires, sports-stars and CEO’s are all over the place, I personally really enjoy blue-collar or no-collar protagonists the best but not because they are more attainable. While I might be inspired to sigh at a romantic gesture or find a particular character incredibly swoon-worthy, they are in the end fictional. My enjoyment of romance is not tied to whether I think or dream about that story happening to me. Some of my favorite romances have been ones set in times/places completely apart from my life experience and when I judge my satisfaction with the romantic arc I care a lot more about whether they are attractive & attainable to the other protagonist, not to me personally.
What I look for in romance protagonists is wider and murkier. I love characters who are competent and love their jobs which is why so many of Julie James’s & Emma Barry’s heroines appeal to me. I love it even more when characters who are super-competent in one part of their life but not super-competent at the rest of their lives like Tamsen Parker’s India Burke in the Compass Series or both Charlotte & Gabriel in Nalini Singh’s Rock Hard. I like cranky, grumpy protagonists like Ilona Andrews’s Dali Harimau and KJ Charles’s Stephen Day. I love witty & charming characters who use their humor to hide their pain & vulnerabilities like Courtney Milan’s Sebastian Malheur & Blake Reynolds. I like humble, earnest & some-what self-conscious characters, like Laurenston’s Lachlan "Lock" MacRyrie, Meg Maguire’s Patrick Doherty or Florand’s Matthieu Rosier while at the same time enjoying deadly & dangerous characters like Kit Rocha’s Lex & Dallas & Carolyn Crane’s Thorne.
I know some readers are very hero or heroine centric, readers who love to read a fantasy about their perfect kind of man or woman, and I am not judging that. I can understand the appeal of a great care-taking alpha fantasy, or being able to sink into a story because you are able to deeply connect with one of the characters. For me only characters that evolve beyond their “type” will allow me to develop a lasting interest in a story. Just recently I DNF’ed a promising book because 25% of the way in the characters were still describing each other in the same repetitive & superficial fantasy-word-soup, all the descriptors were incredibly attractive but if the characters could only see each other as that limited list of descriptors that far into the story I was not going to invest any further time into trying to finish.
Yes, I want to read characters with flaws and failures, characters that are imperfect because our imperfections highlight our common humanity. They are not just qualities that make idealized characters seem attainable. I want the characters I read about to have vulnerabilities because I find character arcs richer when I see characters grow and mature through the course of the story.
I know many readers have bright lines about needing their romance protagonists to be heroic. I while I have lines, I have to admit that they might not be as bright for me as they are for some other readers. I've come to terms with my weakness for bad-boys (Spike over Angel, everyday!). I will happily read about pirates, outlaw bikers, con artists, fortune hunters, spies and assassins. I frequently read stories about morally compromised men and women finding love they surely don’t deserve and enjoy it. What matters to me when I read these stories is not whether the character’s morality is compatible with my own, but whether I believe the character to be capable of loving the other protagonist and able to do right by them.
I do love a good redemption story, but my acceptance of non-heroic characters has limits. I will not apologize for avoiding stories that center on slave traders, slave owners & exploiting colonizers. While I believe they like all sinners are able to be recipients of God’s incomprehensible Grace, I am not interested in reading their stories of romantic fulfillment.
One of my gray areas is characters who hold racist, sexist or homophobic views. My acceptance of those kinds of characters depends greatly on whether those views are presented in order to be challenged in the course of the story. If there is no change or rebuke, if those views are not a source of internal or external conflict, I am not likely to enjoy that book however compelling the romantic arc is. The way the author handles people of color and other marginalized people in the story is also going to greatly affect if the book is successful for me. Life is too short to read yet another “privileged person learns a lesson” story where marginalized people are nothing more than props.
So whether the main character is a troubled con artist or a lonely firefighter the biggest thing I am looking for is that they are rounded and real enough to carry stories that illustrate hope and joy. I want characters who reflect the same capacity to love and fail as the people I live and work with everyday. Sign me up for protagonists that are not simply attainable perfection but whose flaws, quirks and failures illustrate a shared humanity that shines through whether they live in ancient Rome, a story-book castle, a cramped urban apartment, a starship in a galaxy far away, in steam-punk China or a small suburb much like my own.
What qualities are you looking for in protagonists? What kinds do you want to read more of? The quirky, witty, competent, unlikable, sweet, feisty, troubled…? What are your bright lines? What are your exceptions?