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Too Dark? Or Not Dark Enough?

Saturday, April 21, 2007
Posted in: romance heroes

Anne Marble, over at the AAR group list is asking the question, “How Dark Is Too Dark?”

She writes:

Now I do love me some dark and tormented heroes. I love heroes who have experienced real pain in their life, because as far as I’m concerned, these very struggles are what enables the author to hook the reader in.

I want to see the hero overcome his problems. I want to see him find the woman that he was meant to be with. I want to see the character develop, as the book goes on. It seems easier to do this with these kind of heroes, than with their fluffy counterparts.

One of the reasons why I love Nora’s J.D Robb’s Roarke so much is because although he’s in a pretty good position as far as his wealth etc, he had to go through pretty torrid times to get to where he’s at right now. I love his whole backstory. I love the fact that he came from nothing, and made something of himself. I love that he wasn’t always whiter than white, and wasn’t above operating outside the law.

When I think of my favourite books, a lot of the heroes were dark, or tormented. Anne Stuart’s Bastien Toussaint totally floated my boat because of his lack of scruples. I’m not sure what that says about me, but I’m convinced it’s because he was so far removed from the typical romance hero.

I recall being totally enthralled by Linda Howard’s hero in Cry No More. When I think about it though, Diaz seemed to have similar characteristics to Bastien Toussaint in Black Ice, so that may explain why.

The only time I recall really hating a dark hero, was in JW Mckenna’s Darkest Hour. Now he wasn’t just dark, the man was cruel beyond belief. The fact that he whipped the heroine to within an inch of her life (and no she most definitely didn’t get off on it!), as punishment for some BDSM related misdemeanour, made me so mad, I wrote to the author, asking him why he’d labelled the book a romance when it so clearly wasn’t. (The heroine spent about three quarters of a page with this twat of a man, then ends up with a ‘nicer’ guy in the last twenty or so pages of the book, wtf?)

He was gracious enough to write back and tell me that it was one of his earlier works, and that it probably shouldn’t have been labelled romance, but I have to say, Darkest Hour remains at the top of my Top Ten Worst Books of all time, to this day.

Apart from the above example, I can’t recall reading many romance books where the hero was so dark, he bordered on evil. What about you guys?

Also, is it ever acceptable for the hero to actually hit the heroine? Have you read any romance books where this happened, yet somehow the author was able to sufficiently redeem the hero?


  • cecilia
    April 21
    11:33 pm

    I love a “dark” hero, but when he is controlling to the extent of being psychotic, it’s not exactly romantic. I remember reading Judith McNaught books when I was a mid-teen and thinking the heroes were pretty swell. Later, I thought, if a friend of mine said her beloved was behaving that way, would I sigh enviously or send her to a shelter? Just to be sure, I picked one up again, and couldn’t finish it. I was absolutely appalled. However, you’re right, dark like Roarke is dreamy.


  • Kat O+
    April 22
    12:39 am

    Bastien hit Chloe, as I recall. 🙂

    There’s dark and there’s cruel. I don’t think cruelness can be redeemed in a romance (at least for me). But with very complex characters, that line often depends a great deal on the strength of the author’s writing.


  • Ann(ie)
    April 22
    2:27 am

    I love dark heroes, and I can forgive a smack if the heroine is being a hysterical twat, but anything beyond that, and I don’t dig it.

    I loved Diaz from Cry No More. Honestly, I think that’s about the only time an author has gotten a Latino hero right, as far as I’m concerned (and I’m married to one).

    Usually they go over the top until it’s stupid. This book I just read for review was craptastic in that regard. What real man thinks, “You are ripe for some Latino loving”? That’s so dumb it’s painful to read. A man is a man is a man. He might think, “She could use a good fucking” or something like that. Of course, this book also had the hero saying, “You took me for a criminal because of my mestizo-brown skin” or some shit like that. My husband howled at that.

    I also loved Sheridan from Seize the Fire and he was quite a son of a bitch to poor Olympia over the course of the book. And I still loved him. So did she. I admit, I wasn’t entirely sure that book would even HAVE a happy ending, though it was classed a romance. Talk about well-written.


  • Camilla
    April 22
    5:20 am

    Why does the hero always have to be dark? Why not the heroine?

    My take on darkness is this: there’s no such thing as too dark if it fits the story/character and doesn’t come across as gratuitous. Good kind of dark: Black Ice by Anne Stuart, Gratuitous(and annoying) kind of dark: A Rose at Midnight by Anne Stuart.

    As for the hitting thing, I was watching Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief and he slapped a woman, and I was a bit shocked that I found nothing really offensive about it. Same thing with Buffy and Spike knocking the shit out of each other, or when Carlos slapped Damali (L.A. Banks VHL series)–if it’s an author who has made me trust the h/h, I tend to trust the author to write the h/h out the mess. I’m not condoning the hero just bitch slapping the heroine for no reason or a “romance” about a wife-beater and his wife(or those horrible, horrible spanking scenes from the 80s), but if an author choses to write the hero hitting the heroine, I trust it was integral to the plot and/or character growth and not something totally random.


  • Karen Scott
    April 22
    7:02 am

    Kat, I couldn’t remember if he had hit her or not, but I don’t recall feeling annoyed, so Stuart must have made it work for me, lol!

    Why does the hero always have to be dark? Why not the heroine

    Totally agree, it would be good to have more dark heroines, but I find that a lot of romance authors prefer to stick to the traditional or stereotypical characteristics of women. What annoys me most is when the author turns the heroine into a mat, who doesn’t change throughout the book.


  • Sam
    April 22
    11:40 am

    First I thought the post had something to do with skin color, but then I started to read? My allergies are making my head feel like it’s stuffed with cotton wool (soaked in ether…)
    I love the tormented hero. One of my favorite tormented heroes is actually in a mystery series – Martha Grime’s hero, Richard Jury?
    Dark, handsome, and tortured…a perfect romance hero stuck in a murder mystery series! lol


  • Amie Stuart
    April 22
    2:46 pm

    I read somewhere (I THINK it was Megan Hart but don’t quote me on that) that one of the reasons we love parnormals is because we can get away with dark heros–I think the same could be said for heroines even if we don’t see a bunch of them. Vicki Pettersson’s heroine in SOS definitely has a dark past but doesn’t come off as depressing. Of course that’s urban fantasy not romance.


  • Anonymous
    April 22
    6:26 pm

    So now I’m curious… has any one read “Gentle from the Night”? What does the hero do?



  • Rosie
    April 22
    9:43 pm

    I love dark heros too. I think what separates the “good” dark hero from the “bad” dark hero is that the reader has to believe there is some inherent goodness and something redeemable.

    Years ago when I first started reading romance I read a Rosemary Rogers. It was one of the books with Steve and Genny(sp?). I think he was just plain mean. She was not very likable either as I remember her. And yes I do remember him hitting her in anger. Their relationship was so over the top and violent even. I didn’t like the book but, can remember my reaction to it to this day.


  • eggs
    April 23
    7:35 am

    I agree with Kat, there’s a huge difference between being “dark” and just plain cruel. I’ve been on a 1970’s M&B Presents binge lately, and a lot of these so-called hero’s are just arseholes who I can easily see slapping the heroine around in years to come if she doesn’t toe their line. This is cruelty is completely different in my mind to a “dark” hero who’s not afraid to use physical violence in order to achieve what he perceives to be the greater good (kill the vampire, kill the drug runner, kill the designer who invented low-rise pants, etc). These men (and sometimes women) are using physical violence as a rational tool to overcome evil do-er’s. This strikes me as completely different to the 1970’s M&BP hero who is using physical violence just because he wants the heroine to do as he says. Just because.

    There are an astounding number of scenes in these 1970’s things where the hero leaves the heroine with bruises on her as “a badge of his passion”. This casual harming of the heroine on a regular basis actually strikes me as more violent than some navy seal shooting a Real Bad Guy in the head. At least he has a rational reason for his actions.


  • Emma
    April 23
    1:36 pm

    Lucan from Lynn Viehl’s Dark Need. I don’t know how to describe him. All I can say is he is definitely dark and Lynn Viehl cemented me as a fan for life with him. He’s raw, brutal, and unapologetic. From his first introduction in Private Demon you know that he’s not exactly a good guy but still you want to know more about him.


  • Shiloh Walker
    April 23
    6:12 pm

    I like the tormented type, hero or heroine, doesn’t matter.

    I’m not into fluff.


  • Shelby
    April 23
    9:22 pm

    Hi, Karen! How’s ya, gal?

    I take this topic as a sign from the universe that I’m heading in the right direction with what I’m currently working on. LOL I’m starting a story where the hero is from hell. Literally. That probably sounds un-doable, but the challenge to redeem him is too hard to resist.

    As for dark heroines…as a reader I need to be able to relate to the heroine, so if she’s too far out there, I can’t connect with her. But that’s just me. 🙂


  • Shelly @ Bewitched
    April 24
    3:13 am

    I really like dark heroes (and heroines) because I can really get into the more flawed characters. Some really dark heroes I’ve read about lately would be JR Ward’s vampire series.


  • Karen Scott
    April 24
    6:13 am

    Hi Shelby, long time no see!


  • Teddy Pig
    April 27
    3:31 pm

    Dark Darker Darkest!

    I want serious issues!

    No, I really really love a well done messed up bad boy hero.

    It’s juicy.

    But on the condition that the writer knows I hate the following…

    Alcoholism or out right physical abuse that is never addressed again or written off as some sort of bad mood/character flaw that is easily put aside.

    That is just BAD Writing.

    You have to have the characters work it out in a realistic way or you should never have gone there to begin with.


  • web
    May 2
    11:47 pm

    As one of the Four Bitchin’ Babes put it, when she was a kid she loved Wuthering Heights, but as an adult she’s thinking, “Cathy! Get some therapy!”

    Jo Beverly has a hittin’ hero in An Unwilling Bride and its portrayed very much as a one-time-learning-experience thing. I dunno, it still kinda bugs me. Good book though.


  • Kit Tunstall
    May 5
    6:46 am

    I love the darker heroes. Honestly, I usually find the villain sexier in most movies and books than I do the good guy, depending on how he’s written. I guess it’s because most books show the good guys as always honorable, while the villains are more complex. Evil just for the sake of being evil isn’t sexy, but if there is a reason for the villain acting the way he does, I can usually sympathize more with him.

    I’d love to try writing a book where the hero is truly dark, but still good to the heroine. I don’t believe he should slap her or dominate her (except sexually, if they are both into that), but he should have a dark, scary edge. Brooding comes to mind. The closest I’ve yet come was with BELOVED FOREVER (*self-promo blurb* Available at Cerridwen Press). My other romances seem to naturally have strong heroes with softer sides. I guess I haven’t found the right vehicle yet for a really, really dark hero.

    Well, off to look up “Gentle From the Night” to see what made it so hated.


  • Eileen Dreyer
    May 18
    7:23 pm

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head for me, Kit. I love dark heroes, too, but the line drawn in the sand for me is that he must show himself to be redeemable, and there is never unredeemed violence, especially against the heroine. Excellent discussion.

    eileen dreyer


  • Darshu
    June 2
    1:25 pm

    Ladies forgive me but a romance novel for me will not be a (guilty) pleasure if the hero is a poster boy for ‘PC’ness.

    The darkest of the dark heroes I have read (and loved)is Lord Simon Baldevar from Trisha Baker’s ‘Crimson Kiss’.

    I’m not talking just ’bout smacks and whacks….This is not for the faint hearted. No bdsm but plenty of pleasure free torture. loved it! loved it! LOVED IT!!!!


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