Many books establish reader sympathy for the tortured hero early in the book. Reader sympathy allows a secret and somewhat omniscient understanding of what appears to other characters to be aloof, arrogant or even cruel behavior. If the reader didn’t know the hero has a tortured, miserable past, or a turning point in his life that changed his character, he’d seem more like a shit and less like a hero.
In Lord of Scoundrels, Loretta Chase establishes from the earliest pages Dain’s miserable childhood, and his feelings of distrust, abandonment, and shame. He does not fit, he does not look like any of his peers, and he’s picked on – until he grows up a little taller and tougher than everyone, and those same bullies turn to seek his admiration and approval. Dain is baffled, but because he’s not stupid, he uses this turnabout to his advantage. Yet when he meets Jessica and has the sense that someone has shoved his head in a privy, the reader knows why and how that recollection is so powerful, painful and alienating for him.
Similarly, in The Duke and I, Quinn also establishes Simon’s misery as a child so that the reader carries that memory forward into the present time of the story, aware along with Simon of how isolating and miserable he often feels in social situations, and most notably when confronted by his father in public.
…no one had the ability to crush his confidence like his father, and as he stared at the duke, who might as well have been a mirror image, albeit slightly older version, of himself, he couldn’t move, couldn’t even try to speak.
His tongue felt thick, his mouth felt odd, and it almost seemed as if his stutters had spread from his mouth to his body, for he suddenly didn’t even feel right in his own skin.
Simon also has Dain’s experience of being outside the fold of popular children, though not as harassed as Dain was, and then finding himself admired and the subject of attention for rather positive reasons.
In both cases, the reader is aware that the hero possesses a core of some hurt innocence that might, and could (and will because He’s the Hero), translate to honor and a desire to do the right thing, even if the right thing was not done by him in his past. Quinn particularly often allows the reader into the secret of the hero’s backstory, establishing him as a sympathetic character early on.
Whether it’s paternal or maternal cruelty, and both abound in romance, or a terrible event that still hurts, the technique of damaging the hero early on works in small doses, too, but I have to say, I prefer that the hero’s drama and damage are revealed early instead of later. Revealing at the end the hurt that lurks in the hero’s past and influences his action through the story can damage my impression of the story overall. I lose sight of the happily-ever-after because I finally understand what was torturing the hero at the end, and the negative too often overshadows the positive.
For example, and I won’t get into details because of the spoiler-y nature of the reveal, I don’t look back on “The Secret Passion of Simon Blackwell” with happiness. I see the book or think about it and am more sad than happy. I don’t even remember the heroine, to be honest – I remember the heartbreak the hero reveals toward the end, and it overshadowed the happy part of the ending to the point where I barely recall it. (I had a similar problem with the heroine of Victoria Dahl’s historical A Rake’s Guide to Pleasure, in which the heroine’s drama was revealed towards the end and fractured the story for me at that point).
Anna Campbell played with the drama and damage of the hero in her controversial novel “Claiming the Courtesan.” The hero had some major damage in his psyche, and the role of that drama in influencing his actions toward the heroine has been tricky for readers. Was he lacking in self control and a weak hero, or did his past serve as enough reason to understand and forgive his actions toward the heroine?
While revealing the emotional hurt that haunts and influences the hero in the early part of the story can easily be over-served with too big of a spoon and way too much pathos, I love the early and initial peek into the hero’s backstory, particularly when at the end, only the heroine and I know why the hero is the way he is. Revealing the drama and enduring hurt that influences the hero’s actions too late into the story means that I as the reader have to grapple with my knowledge and feelings about the event in question and get over them as the hero does in time for the happy ending to be believable.
What about you: do you like the early insight into the hero’s tortured past, or do you prefer a mystery to be revealed later? What stories of heroic hurt still haunt you?