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Heroic no more? Rise of the bad, bad men.

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In romance, the main characters are referred to as Hero and Heroine.  The terms are formed from the base word, hero. The term “hero” in modern vernacular refers to someone who is “of distinguished courage or ability, admired for brave deeds and noble qualities.”  In the romance genre, there are often good guys and bad guys, or heroes and villains; but the line has been blurred in recent years, particularly within the paranormal genre which gives rise to the question of whether hero and heroine are appropriate terms.

Let me be clear. I am not saying that the morally ambiguous character or even villainous characters can’t be the main protagonist in a romance book.  What I am suggesting is that the use of hero or heroine to characters who are not heroic imbues qualities upon them that they do not possess.  Perhaps hero and heroine have become ubiquitous terms that simply stand for male and female leads.  Alternatively, the terms may be taking on new meaning.

For me, the morally ambiguous or even villainous character has to have an admirable trait. Would Dexter be admirable if he was killing moms and dads whose biggest crime is speeding?  What makes him laudable is that he’s killing people that the audience agrees “needs killing” (if I can paraphrase Hardy Cates from Blue Eyed Devil). In Death Angel, the male protagonist is an assassin but he doesn’t kill women or children. Just bad people.

One commenter to the review I wrote said that the assassin’s one good character trait is the pureness of his love for someone else. Can the ability to love another person selflessly be sufficient to place that character into hero territory? Lisa Marie Rice’s Dangerous Passion features a former arms dealer as the hero. He is willing to give up his fortune and his life to save one talented artist. Stephanie Draven’s Poisoned Kisses is about a current arms dealer who is supplying weapons to rebels in order to reduce violence.

Is one good trait sufficient to apply the “hero” label? Does a character need anything else other than the ability to love to be admirable in a romance book? I understand we are dealing in fantasy tropes, here, but what do we as readers expect from the leads in our books? Do they even need to be admirable?

I know it is often stated that readers love a bad boy. I suppose there is nothing badder than a villain but is there any line over which an anti hero cannot go past? There are a couple of terms here to think about. If a character is morally ambiguous, it means that the morality of the situation isn’t quite clear. If a character is amoral, then the character is without morals. Which character is the antihero?

What is it that readers like about characters who are the antithesis of a hero?  Are they really longing for characters who are not courageous or do not engage in brave deeds and noble qualities?  Bonnie Tyler sang the song “Holding Out for a Hero” in 1984 for the Footloose soundtrack.

Where have all the good men gone
And where are all the gods?
Where’s the street-wise Hercules
To fight the rising odds?
Isn’t there a white knight upon a fiery steed?
Late at night I toss and turn and dream
of what I need

Are heroes and heroines passe? I’m all for just referring to the leads as male and female protagonists without the hero and heroine labels.  They just don’t fit in all cases and it seems a little naive, perhaps, to continue to use the labels.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

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