I believe I've mentioned before that I'm a sucker for a good redemption story. Well, I'm also a bit of a sucker for a story where someone who seems completely irredeemable gets a second chance to get it right.
Which got me to thinking (dangerous, I know) about what a hero has to do to be a hero. Regardless of his background and history, what does it take to be heroic?
Could a thief be redeemed? I think this particular crime has the most potential, because slick, sexy jewel thiefs are an old staple of movies and stories, so you wouldn't have far to jump to make one of those guys a hero.
But what about a guy who steals to keep his family fed? It seems a little more sympathetic on the surface--but heroes are supposed to be able to take care of their families without resorting to crime. In a perverted sort of way, it's more egregious for men to steal food than diamonds, at least in terms of what we're looking for in a hero. A diamond thief is doing something very difficult, breaking security systems, taking big risks. He's proactive and alpha in a way a common grocery thief wouldn't be.
But let's think a little harder about the food thief. What if he was a young, single father, left to take care of a new baby, out of work because the economy tanked and thanks to a troubled family life and having a child so young, he's never gotten enough education and training to pick himself up and make something of himself?
We could set his story later in his life, after he's worked his way out of the mess he was in and now he's trying to go back to every place he stole money from (because he's so consciencious, he actually kept a journal documenting where he stole and what he stole because he intended to pay them back. Now we've got a hero with a real quirk, a real sense of honor, and someone who could make a very interesting hero with the right story. By going to lengths to pay back the money he owed, by even keeping the record in the first place, he's displaying honor as well as being proactive and daring about doing what's right. That's the kind of behavior we look for in our heroes, no matter what the background.
Could a con artist be redeemed? I keep going back to the TV show LOST because all of those characters need redemption in one way or another. But James "Sawyer" Ford was, for much of the early run, a near villain on the show who slowly, over time and with much suffering in the meantime, found his way to a measure of redemption. He's still an anti-hero type, rather than a full-blown hero, but he's rootable enough to be our protagonist most of the time.
What has made his redemption story work is that he's not really changed his essential self--he's still clever, determined and at times ruthless, but his motives have changed. He cares about other people in a way he didn't before. He takes into account the feelings and needs of others. He'll even put himself on the line to help others, something he didn't do in the early, unrootable days of the show. He was always proactive, but now he's showing honor as well.
I should point out that Sawyer is also a murderer--twice over--which I think is normally very hard to forgive in a hero. In both instances, Sawyer thought he was killing the man who destroyed his family. He was right one of the times, but not before he mistakenly murdered a man who was not guilty of the crimes he thought. The otherworldy, almost allegorical nature of LOST allows for viewers to overlook some pretty egregious behavior by the characters.
But in a romance, I think it would be very hard to have a murderer as a hero unless the circumstances were extremely mitigating (like killing a man who killed your daughter or wife) and the hero had since repented of his behavior and accepted the moral and legal consequences of such a crime as being fully deserved.
I don't think rapists or sexual predators of any sort would be likely candidates for heroes because sexual violence is usually rooted in deeper psychological problems that those who commit the crimes won't be able to overcome. It would be a really, really, REALLY hard sell, both to an editor and to the reader.
But are there other crimes you think would be unforgivable for a potential hero to have ever committed in his lifetime? And are there bad guy characters in books, on TV or in movies that you think are prime candidates for a redemption story? Tell us about them!