Historical Romance Deal Breaker #1: Reluctant Heroes

Literally decades of reading historical romances have led me to develop strong opinions of what defines a truly satisfying story, so the other day I set about making a list of characteristics that turn a potential five-star read into a one- or two-star. Admittedly, there are some skillful authors who manage to successfully incorporate one or more of these scenarios in their books; however, I have run across quite a few more who in my opinion haven’t quite managed it.

These are what I call “deal breakers”—characteristics that make a book a wall-banger instead of a pleasurable diversion. Not surprisingly, many involve character, particularly, the character of the hero and heroine. They have to be likable. They have to be three-dimensional, i.e., well-drawn-out characters with flaws, not fairy princesses. And they have to be able to fall in love, convincingly, the head-over-heels kind of love.

The first deal breaker for me is the reluctant hero.

Nothing is guaranteed to turn me off a book so much as a hero who denies his feelings until the very last chapter. Certainly some initial reluctance is expected; what Regency buck is eager to tie himself down to a leg-shackle before he has sown his wild oats? But the attraction needs to happen fairly soon after he meets the heroine; there must be indications early on that he enjoys her presence, resents it when other men pay her attention, etc. Which doesn’t mean that love at first sight is de rigueur. Instant attractions can be quite wonderful, but ultimately, the feelings between them must be based on something other than physical characteristics.

Below are some examples of reluctant heroes I have encountered recently:

  • The hero was so in love with his deceased wife that he cannot imagine ever risking his heart again, so when he starts falling for the heroine (poor thing), he determines to marry another young lady he doesn’t care as much for instead. Heroes cannot be idiots.
  • The hero recognizes his soulmate, but continually spurns her because childhood traumas make him feel unworthy. Heroes cannot be whiners.
  • The hero is damaged from his experiences in the war, but not too much to fall into bed with his deceased best friend’s sister. When events come to the point where her reputation will be ruined, he refuses point-blank to marry her. Heroes cannot use the heroine and then abandon her.
  • The hero is a notorious rake who has determined never to marry, and when faced with the love of his life, he runs away with another woman, forcing her to marry another man, who abuses her cruelly. Heroes cannot be jerks.
  • The hero and the heroine share a kiss in a moonlit garden and arrange several more meetings. When the heroine, who is being pressured to marry a wealthy old man, begs the hero to marry her, he confesses that he is already married (how could he forget?), and abandons her to a miserable marriage. Heroes cannot be cowardly or adulterers.

Of course, the above cases are extreme; many times the reluctant hero is simply. . . reluctant. Not mean or cruel or particularly stupid. . . just there. While he may not get my dander up, he’s also. . . boring. And frankly, heroes cannot be boring either.

What do you think? Can you add some examples of reluctant heroes that you have encountered lately? Or can you think of stories where an initially reluctant hero successfully makes the transition into delightfully besotted hero? I’d love to hear about them!

*Disclaimer: This series of “deal-breakers” is meant to refer to books labeled historical romances, and not to erotica, which is a completely separate sub-genre and has an entirely different purpose.

5 thoughts on “Historical Romance Deal Breaker #1: Reluctant Heroes

  1. We are, in the word’s of my granny, “on the horns of a tenterhooks,” in the sense that SOMEBODY has to be reluctant about something, or our book will be done by page 17. I think what you’re alluding to though, is the male version of too stupid to live, though we might call it un-self-aware, emotionally blind, or some other euphemism. And I agree with you, a little of that stuff goes a loooooong way with me and it had better have a very credible motivation.

    All I want from my heroes is kindness, and responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

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    • I do not object to some initial reluctance; as I said, few men are ready to head down the altar right off the bat. And if they were, as you say, what is there to write about? But as a reader, I find that a truly satisfactory HEA has to be a lot more than a guy saying, “Okay, I give up. Let’s get married.” at the end of the story. I have to be convinced that he is falling in love relatively soon after meeting the heroine. Of course there are obstacles to be resolved as they get to know each other; one of them may be a certain reluctance to succumb. But a hero who rejects the heroine over and over again throughout the book—especially when the rejection is accompanied by cruelty—until the last chapter. . . well, that’s a deal breaker for me. I just don’t find that romantic, and I find I lose respect for the heroine for accepting that sort of behavior.

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    • ” kindness, and responsibility for the consequences of their actions.” I love that. Some reluctance is a good thing for plot, I agree. Just she he (or she) doesn’t diddle too long and for some dumb reason.

      This is a great piece, Susana, by the way.

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  2. There’s a fine line between a hero’s reluctance and tension necessary to keep the reader reading. In my books, I try to make it obvious to the reader that the hero is head over heels, while that fact may not be so clear to the hero. A writer needs a perfect mix of external and internal conflict for the characters to overcome.

    A hero’s premature admission of love makes the ending seem almost anti-cathartic.

    I absolutely adore Brenda Joyce’s historicals where the heroine knows she’s in love at first sight and the hero fights the attraction tooth and nail to the very end. Julia London writes some very worthy heroes.

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    • I do enjoy the rare story where the hero falls first and has to persuade the heroine, though, as in the book I just finished, Elizabeth Hoyt’s “Thief of Shadows.” Any other hero would have given up, but this one knew the heroine’s feelings were stronger than she realized, that she herself had the courage to stand against society’s strictures when it really counted. It’s like Hoyt wrote this book as an antithesis to the norm, i.e., the hero is younger and a virgin and the heroine is the one with sexual experience who seduces him. Such a delicious reading experience!

      I miss Brenda Joyce’s racy historicals. Some of the scenarios are still vivid in my mind 20 years later!

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