I wrote a post once–wish I could find it now, dadburnit–in which I discussed fake conflict. I had just read a romance novel where the heroine was being a jerk for no apparent reason. Angry with everyone–even though she’d just met them, and even though they were doing her a favor. Snarky. Sullen. Just being a general jerk.
She got on my nerves. Ticked me off. I couldn’t figure out why she was acting like that and could take it for only so long. I didn’t bother to finish the book. I didn’t care enough about her to find out what her problem was or to discover whether she resolved it.
No one likes to hang out with unpleasant people.
The author was trying to create conflict and tension. But for that to work, there has to be a reason for the character to act like the most spoiled self-proclaimed princess in the entire universe. The author hinted at the reason, but not enough to make sense–and certainly not enough to justify her character’s behavior.
Recently, I’ve read more stories where the hero is a jerk from the moment he appears in the opening scene–and the heroine still falls for him immediately. Huh?
He’s handsome, dreamy, whatever, but he acts like everyone owes him adoration simply because he exists. And, in her mind at least, the heroine pays homage.
You gotta be kiddin’ me!
No one likes saccharine-sweet characters. They’re dull and unrealistic. Even Melanie in Gone with the Wind had a bit of fire in her gut periodically. But no one likes jerks, either.
Remember the movie, Grease? Danny and Sandy fell in love one summer. He was a wonderful guy–she wouldn’t have fallen for him otherwise. Summer romance at its finest. But fall came, and with it came the first day of school. Sandy ran into Danny again. She was all sighs and giddiness–and he was a complete jerk. Why? Because he wore the leather jacket of the T-Birds. He had to keep his tough-guy image in front of all the other tough guys. Even though Sandy didn’t understand his behavior, we viewers did. But to be sure we continued to understand her attraction to him, we got to see his tender side now and then.
In my novel, Give the Lady a Ride, Patricia considered Talon a jerk at first. She’d inherited a Texas ranch from her uncle and came to see her new property before she put it on the market. But Talon refused to show her around. Why? Because he was the ranch manager, and as ranch manager he had a responsibility to be certain she really was the new owner.
She offered proof. “I have the key.” And instead of saying, “Great! Let me show you all the intimate details of the ranch and its finances,” he said, “So do I. Don’t make me the owner.” Jerk.
In Grease, Sandy fell in love with Danny before she realized what a jerk he could be. Didn’t change the fact that she loved him, but there were times when she sure didn’t like him. In Ride, Patricia didn’t fall in love, or even admit an attraction, for quite some time.
Having a jerk for a hero or heroine isn’t unusual, but writing such a character has to be handled carefully. Showing the reader early why the hero is being such a jerk is one option illustrated in both Grease and Ride. Another option is to put both characters on equal footing. Illustrate one as being perfectly capable of handling the snarkiness of the other. Having the two characters butt heads is classic romance material–but the attraction doesn’t happen until later. Yes, he’s cute, but he’s such a jerk! is a common attitude among the heroines of these novels.
Best example I can think of for this comes from a Hallmark movie, A Taste of Romance, in which a former fireman opens a restaurant right next door to a fancy French chef. He thinks she’s hoity-toity, she think he’s a Neanderthal. He plays jokes on her; she rolls with them and hits him with gags of her own. Much later in the movie, she discovers he’s not the jerk she thought he was, and love blooms.
In other words, don’t let your character fall for a jerk right off the bat unless, as in Grease, she doesn’t know he’s a jerk. Having your hero act rude for no apparent reason is more an indication of poor characterization or plot planning than a creation of great conflict and tension. And having your heroine fall for him when he’s acting his worst is unrealistic.