Saturday, November 13, 2010

Guilty Heroes - Kathleen O'Brien

Forgive and forget.

Great words. Words to live by, to love by. But pretty tough to follow.

I was thinking about them today, as I worked on my new novel. My hero and heroine are facing some difficult issues. In the past, he was a rat. She’s burned and bitter. Now what? Can I get them beyond this barrier?

Ironically, a romance novel is only about a third "romance." (I made that number up, of course.) Most of the book is about conflict. It's not a sweet, sexy list of little blue diary entries covered in hearts and exclamation points. It's an exploration of a couple’s struggle to overcome the obstacles that stand between them and a happy ending.

So, paradoxically, the best romances are the ones in which those hurdles are really big and bad. But there's the hitch. How bad is too bad? Is there something a hero could do that you, as a reader, couldn't forgive? Is there that one action that's an absolute deal breaker?

Think about Daphne du Maurier’s timeless classic, Rebecca, for instance. Max de Winter…. No, wait. Should I issue a spoiler alert, even though it came out in 1938? Well, here it is: If you haven’t read it, stop here. I’m going to reveal the ending.

Max KILLED his first wife. As in murdered. Really. Not falsely accused, not an accident, not an over-active guilty imagination. Gun. Shoot. Dead.

I’ve loved Rebecca for half my life. It has always had (and always will have) a place on my bookshelf-right next to the picture of my brilliant, sharp-minded mother, who introduced me to it.

When I first read the novel, as a teenager, I completely accepted that the black-hearted Rebecca had manipulated Max into shooting her, and he wasn’t really to blame. When I re-read it decades later, though, I wasn’t so sure. Something hard inside me just wouldn’t melt.

Then I realized that my only reason for not forgiving him as easily was completely illogical. I wasn’t feeling merciful because he was such a thoughtless beast to his na├»ve and vulnerable new wife.

Yes, he’s haunted. Yes, he hates himself. But why couldn’t he be nice to the poor girl? If only he’d said, just once, “Look, honey, I know I’m moody as hell and hard to live with. But it’s not your fault.” That might have helped. But he didn’t. He just kept brooding and barking and making her feel like dirt, which her “companion,” Mrs. Van Hopper, had already been doing for years.

And that’s when I realized I could maybe, just maybe, forgive him for snapping once, fatally, under the pressure of Rebecca’s manipulation. But I could not forgive his self-indulgent, bad-tempered, day-in-and-day-out cruddy behavior toward the second Mrs. de Winter.

Illogical, but there you are. Being unkind to the innocent new wife was the deal-breaker for the grown-up me—not the murder of the first one.

What is it for you? Infidelity? Violence, gambling, drinking, lying? Not being there when the heroine needs him? Not caring as much about her as he does about work or money or keeping up with the Joneses? Not respecting her family? Being distant or unkind to her children?

All of the above? Where is that line in the sand...the one even the best writer can't coax you to step over?


Virginia C said...

"Rebecca", both in print and on film, is a classic example of romantic suspense with deep tones of "noir". Is it the question, or the answer, of which we are most afraid. The villain should be intelligent, intriguing, and multi-layered in shades of gray. A villain is always much more interesting and the evil more intense when a touch of humanity shows through ; ) Unfortunately, the desire for power will always be the controlling factor in the existence of any society. Human, animal, or supernatural, there is always the quest for dominance. Evil is insidious, but it is never simple, or just black and white. The more layers and shades of gray it obtains, the more horrific and invasive the evil becomes. Most humans have a touch of evil. It may be just a flicker, but it’s there. True evil seeks out that weakness in others and uses it for its own dark purposes.

gcwhiskas at aol dot com

Linda Henderson said...

Physical violence to the heroine, or hero for that matter. I don't care for abuse of anyone. To me that's a reason to put the book down and not pick it back up.

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Virginia, your comment that all characters (and all humans) have both good and bad in them is so true. It does complicate the question, doesn't it? I guess that's why, no matter how frustrated I get with Max, I re-read the book every few years! Are you a REBECCA fan, too?

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Linda, I think that is a pretty sane place to draw the line in the sand! :) What about a character like Max de Winter, though, who had done violence to someone else? Does that still kill the story for you?

Linda Henderson said...

You know I've never read that book and I think it's because I knew I wouldn't like it.

Terry Odell said...

I'm another who hasn't read Rebecca. Then again, I haven't read Jane Austen either, although I finally downloaded two of hers to my phone for free, so maybe I'll get around to reading.

I can forgive a lot of negative qualities as long as the author shows the characters stepping into the light, even if it's going to take the whole book. What I can't forgive are stupid characters, or totally self-centered characters.

(And for other readers of this blog, Kathleen will be my blog guest on November 23rd! I, for one, can't wait for her post)

Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Linda, it's funny, isn't it, how we can sense a good match--and the opposite, too? I can definitely see why REBECCA wouldn't be for everyone. It's quite dark. I have a split personality, in a way. Sometimes I love the lightest, most upbeat stories I can find, and sometimes I'm after a lot of mystery and angst!

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Terry, that's an awesome answer! I think creating a stupid character is perhaps the worst mistake a writer can make. And I just now realized why. It's because the truly dense (or, as you say, self-absorbed) will never learn from their mistakes. We all make mistakes, so probably we can all identify with a flawed character. But a character who never grows...that's just not someone we can root for!

Nas Dean said...

For me it's physical violence and lying. But if that charactor admits to his lying later then I like him but not the violent one. A violent person never changes his habit so I don't like to read about a main charactor who is violent. It throws me out of the story.

Mary Anne Landers said...

Thank you for your write-up, Kathleen; and Lee for posting it.

Wow, what a question! I could write for hours on this topic. But don't worry, I won't.

I've never read "Rebecca". But I've seen the movie, in which Maxim de Winter (played by Laurence Olivier) was considerably whitewashed. And this has quite a bearing on our discussion.

The movie came out in 1940, during the Hays Office era. For those of you not familiar with films of the mid-twentieth century, I'm referring to the Hollywood censors. According to their rigid guidelines, the famous (or infamous) Hays Code, wrongdoing---at least on the part of a principle character---ALWAYS had to be punished.

If Olivier's character really had killed his first wife, there could not possibly be a happy ending for him and the film heroine played by Joan Fontaine. In this version of the story, everything was Rebecca's fault, and was demonstrated as such. And since she was already dead, she'd already been punished. Her husband was off the hook.

Okay, that's one way to deal with the more disturbing elements of a character, particularly a romance hero. He might be suspected of an unforgivable crime. He might even be convicted of it. But sure enough, he's innocent. And this will be proven by the end of the story.

Even nowadays, many romance novels follow this sort of storyline. If it's this popular, obviously many readers go for it.

But I'm not one of them. To me it's a cheap shot, an easy way to create suspense and tension but still allow for the obligatory happy ending.

Far more interesting, at least to me, are characters who actually have serious problems, who really take or have taken actions that put stress on a romantic relationship. If not destroy it.

As for your question: Which offenses are unforgivable?---well, I can answer that only on a case-by-case basis. So much depends on the context of the story, on the motivation of the character, on extenuating circumstances. And on how hard the character is fighting his or her demons.

And if the story is set in a time and place far removed from our own, we've got a whole can of worms. Suppose an act that you or I would find outrageous, that would automatically kill a relationship, is sanctioned in the characters' society?

A famous example: In every version I've encountered of the legend of El Cid, including the movie, the hero, Don Rodrigo, quarrels with the father of his beloved Chimene. The two men, both champion swordsmen, have a duel. Rodrigo kills his opponent.

Chimene is beside herself with anger and revenge. And why wouldn't she be? Any of us would feel the same way.

But remember, given its social context, this killing wasn't murder. It was a duel of honor. It was well within both the laws and customs of Spain during the Middle Ages. In the eyes of the law, Chimene's reactions were irrelevant.

So Rodgrigo got off scot-free, and claimed her as his bride out of a chivalric sense of duty. He'd killed her father, her only protector. Now he owed it to her to become her husband and therefore her new champion. Many angry scenes and ice-cold stares followed before she could bring herself to accept him. And I'm not sure she ever forgave him.

I brought up this example to demonstrate how any crime, even the murder of one's nearest and dearest, isn't necessarily a deal-breaker in romance literature. It all depends on what else is going on in the story. And especially in the hearts and minds of the characters.

Keep up the good work!

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Mary Anne, what a fascinating response--it really requires us, as readers and as writers, to think outside the box.

I haven't seen El Cid in decades, but you've made me think I might want to revisit it. What you said reminds me a little of Hamlet, in which our protagonist also kills his love's father. The ending doesn't turn out well, of course, but we don't *hate* Hamlet for it. He's set up as a man so tortured, teetering on the edge of insanity, and we see how agonized he is that he's done such a terrible thing. It may not be the classic "happily ever after," but it would be hard to argue it isn't compelling storytelling!

As always, thanks for stopping by and adding your wonderful perspective!

Mary said...

That's a great question. I remember one historical book and which the title I cannot remember but the Hero comes back for his wife after her family beat him to a bloody pulp and left him for dead and she knew nothing about it.

He comes back after getting his title back and has a lot of money and status, he kidknaps his wife and makes her live with him and he thinks that she knew what her family did to him and is madder than hell.

He tells her that when she gets pregnant with his child he will take the child from her as soon as it's born and she will never see any of the children they have.

By the end of the book he knows she had nothing to do with what her family did but she becomes pregnant and even though they have made amends and are happy, she is afraid to tell him she is pregnant because she thinks he will take the child away from her.

The fact that he was so cold hearted and scared her so badly made me really hate his character.

I don't like a lot of violence in books or men that are so pig headed they won't listen to reason.

Annie Madison said...

1. Physical abuse
2. Rape
3. Stupidity. Not doing something stupid, but being too dumb to come in out of the rain.

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Mary, yikes! That sounds like a very high-stakes plotline! Sometimes those plots work, but so often they end up putting off the readers. I wish there were some secret formula for the writers, so that we would know when we've stepped over the line. I'm not sure I could have loved that hero, either. I have some pretty strong feelings about men and the way they should feel about their unborn children! Born ones, too! :) In fact, that may actually be my line in the sand.

Kathleen O'Brien said...

LOL, Annie. That's a no-nonsense, no wiggle room list, and I love it!

Mary said...

I agree, if the Hero isn't good to his children, born and unborn that really turns him off for me too.