Monday, April 05, 2010

Bad Boy Heroes

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!


Jeanie said...

Paula, one of my favorite antiheroes is Snape, from Harry Potter.

He's the guy everybody hates, especially Harry, and he remains pretty unlikeable. But when Rowling tells his backstory in the last book, you see him in a new light. He turns out to be, in many ways, a hero, tragic figure and, surprise, surprise! a true romantic.

I have mentioned this book before in one of my blogs, but if you haven't read Mary Balogh's AT LAST COMES LOVE, you've missed out on a great antihero. Duncan starts out seeming to be everything that is anathema to a hero in historical romance: a libertine cad without honor. Turns out, he's the ultimate good guy.

I am always intrigued by bad boys. They have to be redeemable, of course, but they are fascinating. Many times, alpha male heroes ARE killers: cops, Special Forces, bodyguards, warriors, werewolves and vampires. But they have to kill for the right reason, to protect their country, the innocent, their species, or someone they love.

Good post!

Paula said...

Oh, Jeanie, I LOVE Snape. Drives my young nieces nuts, since all they can see is the mean guy tormenting Harry, Hermione and Ron. But he's actually the man who gives the most of himself in the books, acting against his emotional interests to help Dumbledore. Not only is it hard for him to forgive and forget James Potter's torment when he has to look at Harry every day, but he also sees in Harry the woman he loved and whose death was, in some part, his fault. Utter torture!

Becoming the bad guy after struggling so hard to become a good guy after his terrible early choices must have been a different sort of torture as well.

Snape was the best.

(Of course, I also find Lucius Malfoy hot, but only because I have a bit of a crush on Jason Isaacs!)

Jeanie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeanie said...

You and me both, girlfriend! I love me some Jason Isaacs, especially with that long blond hair! Totally hot.

I knew from the moment Snape was introduced in the first book there was more to him than met the eye. I cried when I read his story in the last book. Powerful and, as you say, hard to be the bad guy when he'd worked so hard to redeem himself. Brilliant writing, IMHO. His story was much more tragic than Dumbledore's to me.

Now you've got me singing the Hogwart's puppet song: Snape, Snape, Severus Snape. Hilarious, if you haven't seen them.

M.V.Freeman said...

Love your post, it is very thought provoking...

First I have to say I love Snape (and possibly because he's played by Alan Rickman who I've always drooled over...a change from the muscled, hard eyed men I usually adore--but that voice..*sigh*) And Lucious!!! OH I love him, and like you it's because of the actor who plays him... but I digress.

For me, I like to write anti-heros. Can't help it. I love the danger, the mystery...and developing the back story(I agree it bloody well better justify his badness). My current anti-hero is cool, flippant, and determined. He's killed, and will kill. He has suffered greatly, but has a strong moral code...granted, it might not be one you or I would have.

Examples of anti-hero writers that I like are:

J.R. Ward who writes an excellent anti hero in her Black Dagger Brotherhood series, some of my favorites have been: Zsadist, Vicious, Rehvenge.

Anne Bishop also writes outstanding anti-heros, in Jewels of the Blood series there is a particular Hero called Damon who is chillingly bad.

See, you've started me on my favorite subject....:-)

Jeanie--those blasted puppet kids were singing that for weeks! Drove me mad.

Carla Swafford said...

Anne Stuart writes a great antihero. I even held off reading her latest as the hero was the brother to the heroine's husband. A husband who was alive. So that meant she would be cheating on her husband. I detest those type of books, but she handled it so well. I loved it. Surprised me

There was an older book of hers I had to give away as the majority of it pinpointed the hero as the killer of his wife and children. Of course, she solved the mystery wonderfully, but it just bothered me too much. She didn't explain until about 3/4 into the book. Well written but freaked me out.

Christine said...

I love Alan R's very sexy voice as he recites Shakespeare. I abhor any kind of sexual violence in an anti hero, yet GENERAL HOSPITAL created a hero out of a rapist, Luke. And then another soap did it with a guy named Todd-ONE LIFE TO LIVE. Both ended up being tortured and conflicted souls.

My favorite anti hero to date is ANGEL who grew out of the BUFFY series. Now he is one interesting character. And sweet to watch.

M.V.Freeman said...

oooh forgot about Angel.....he is sweet to watch.

Gwen Hernandez said...

What an interesting topic, Paula! I think you hit it on the head when you said that honor is what we're looking for. At least for me.

My guys are always trying to do the right thing, even if they screw it up.

Jeanie said...

I like that, Gwen! Isn't that what most of us are trying to do, do the right thing, even if we screw it up? Therein, lies the human condition!

Paula said...

I never liked Angel on Buffy, but I ended up liking him a lot better on his own show. In fact, I liked the show Angel better than Buffy. Of course, my passionate love for both Geek Wesley and Dark Wesley might have something to do with that...

But if I have to fall for an ensouled vampire, well, it's Spike for me. You can keep the broody one. ;)

I think for a redemption story to really work for me, true and painful remorse has to be involved. A man's sins should eat at him, torment him, shame him. Otherwise, I don't think I can buy it.

I also think remorse alone won't do it. There has to be a concerted effort on the bad boy's part to do the right thing on a consistent basis, even if he fails at first.

prashant said...

Duncan starts out seeming to be everything that is anathema to a hero in historical romance: a libertine cad without honor. Turns out, he's the ultimate good guy.
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