Some of you may be aware of the recent plagiarism suit brought against Mills and Boon author, Kate Walker in relation to her novel, The Proud Wife, which a wannabe writer (I'm deliberately not naming names here) claims Kate's novel was plagiarised from the unknown writer's unpublished novel. I’m not going to go into all that here, but you can read about it on the Pink Heart blog and the case notes make very interesting reading on the subject of romantic tropes. There's also an interesting blog post here on 'original ideas' in fiction. There are certainly no original ideas in romantic fiction! But as a friend said to me the other day, new writers always think they've reinvented the wheel. I was the same when I was just starting out. You get on much better as a romance writer when you realise that the tropes are there, and all you can do is bring your own voice to them.
But what stood out for me about the case, and what led to this particular blog post, was that the heroine in the unpublished novel seemingly threw herself down the stairs deliberately to bring about a miscarriage. To be balanced about this, I don’t know if it was intended to address this in the story so that it wasn’t actually what happened.
But it did get me thinking about moral event horizons by characters. A moral event horizon is what a character crosses when they commit certain acts.
To me a heroine who harmed her baby in such a way would not be at all sympathetic. I’m not talking about abortions here, as I do believe it’s every woman’s right to choose (though I would suggest that in romantic fiction an abortion would be a hard sell). What I’m talking about is a deliberate and violent act meant to bring about the end of the pregnancy because the heroine was peeved at the hero for ending their relationship.
Of course some characters do cross the moral event horizon, especially if they’re meant to be the bad guys/girls. It can be as simple as kicking a puppy or as complicated as blowing up a building. But heroes and heroines are supposed to be above all that. I’ve often used the example of James Bond. We may not care if he kills bad guy Blofeld, but God forbid he should ever harm a hair on Blofeld’s cat’s head!
Really good television series can explore moral event horizons. 24, starring Keifer Sutherland, often posed questions of right and wrong, and grey and grey morality. Keifer, playing the hero, Jack Bauer, often behaved in ways that were distinctly un-heroic. He tortured people, and even shot one colleague because it would have caused the deaths of many more people if he had not done so. No matter what Jack did, we saw the reasons for it and we forgave him. Or if we didn’t forgive him, we understood the predicament he was in. But Jack wasn’t a romantic hero. In fact most of his lovers died or ended up in comas! I think this is another reason we forgave his transgressions, because he always had to pay a heavy price for what he did.
Heroes and heroines in romance novels have to be heroic at all times, and there are certain lines that they should never cross. When reading through entries for an open romance writing comp (as a fellow competitor, I should add, not as a judge!) I was put off by one hero who called the heroine a ‘whore’. To me there is nothing heroic about a man who verbally abuses a woman. Another story opened with the heroine being physically abused and myself and several others expressed a wish that a hero would come and save her, only to be told that this was the hero, who would turn out to be a 'nice guy' really. In my opinion, the fact of him physically abusing the heroine in the opening chapter put him beyond the realms of redemption.
I think the problem with heroes is that some people think that because a man is an alpha male, it means he has to be aggressive and perhaps angry at the world until the heroine comes along and saves him. That’s not how it works. Alpha males protect their mate and they protect others whom they love. They may have faults, but there are lines that they should not cross and in my opinion verbal and physical abuse is one of those lines.
Your hero and heroine are allowed to make mistakes, but they must be forgivable mistakes. A young woman throwing herself down the stairs in order to bring about a miscarriage is to be pitied perhaps, as she clearly has psychological problems, but that would be a different story altogether and perhaps not suited for the romance genre.
If she is the heroine of the story, she has to earn her happy ending, and she can’t do that by behaving in a way that brings harm to a helpless child.
My latest ebook, LonesomeRanger (formerly published as Sunlit Secrets) is out this week, published by Pulse Romance, (which is run by our very own Kate Allan). In that both my hero and heroine make mistakes. My heroine, Connie, takes the role as schoolteacher in the town of Ocasa based on a lie. She lets them think she is her older sister, who has died en route to the town. Nate Truman, the hero, has a dark and troubled past. They both make mistakes, but I hope that in the novel I’ve given a damn good reason for those mistakes and that the reader can forgive them, because essentially both are good, noble people.
It’s a balancing act, I think and you have to be careful not to make the reader lose sympathy with the characters that you really want them to be cheering for.
In pocket novels, which are set in a more rose-tinted world, it is more important than ever that your hero and heroine don’t behave in a way that turns the reader against them.
What, for you, would be a moral event horizon in a hero and heroine? Do you have any examples of heroes or heroines in romance books crossing that horizon? And if so, did they manage to redeem themselves?(It isn't my intention to bring a witch hunt against the wannabe writer in the Harlequin case, hence me not naming her in this piece. So please keep any comments on that subject civil and polite).