June 5, 2014

Criminals and Heartbreakers

Image description: blue card with an illustration of a medieval couple. He is wearing an armor and she seems to be speaking to him. The caption reads: You're not my hero. You're an asshole.
Image Source: Someecards

Jane’s insightful review of The Devil’s Game by Joanna Wylde sparked a though-provoking twitter conversation about cracktastic reads, reader consent, and violence in Contemporary Romance. I was happy just silently following the discussion, but lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about violence in contemporaries, so I thought I should share those thoughts --which are in no way fully formed-- with you today.

Cover Description, Hard Time by Cara McKenna: It just a close up of a man's chest. the title is in yellow.
Now, when I say violence in Contemporary Romance, what I really want to talk about is the violent hero. Months ago, I read Hard Time by Cara McKenna. It’s a novel set within the same realistic universe as After Hours, one of my favorite books of 2013. In Hard Time, the hero is a convict and the heroine is an outreach librarian working at his prison. Their relationship develops through letters that are just pure fantasy and also quite safe. Their communication doesn’t involve physical contact and she can stop their exchange at any moment, in part because he gives her the power to do so by telling her that, if and when she decides to end their relationship, she should wear a particular color during her next visit. But when he is released on parole, what happens when they meet again?

Interestingly, at first, Annie seems more upset about the fact that he hid his potential release from her than by the fact that he was in prison for beating someone within an inch of his life. A crime, I should say, he does not regret committing and is willing to do again if necessary. To complicate matters further, Annie’s previous relationship was an abusive one, so there’s plenty of conflict to get in the way of their eventual HEA.

Annie is a complex character, but in this book, I felt like she was a placeholder for the reader who was the one who needed to believe and forgive the hero. At least I know I had a hard time forgiving him, but the books is entirely devoted to humanize and, yes, excuse his actions. He did it to avenge his sister’s rape, and that right there felt like the text’s blatant attempt to redeem and justify his actions. He is completely unrepentant and is willing to do it again, even when his stubbornness could cost him the woman he loves.

I am torn because I felt that the text was asking me to forgive this man by portraying the violence as a misguided act of love, and thus making them heroic. But on the other hand, he is unapologetic about his actions right until the very end, so in a way his attitude undermines the efforts of the narrative.

Ultimately, the book worked for me, but I felt like the Erotic Romance label hurt it, because it meant imposing what I thought was an unbelievable happy ending. But heroes who commit violent acts for vengeance or to protect the heroine are very common in other sub-genres, so why am I having such a hard time forgiving this behavior in a Contemporary hero?

Cover description, Heart of Obsidian by Nalini Singh: a city on fire on the background and we see a man walking away in the middle of the rain. He's wearing a black raincoat, but we just see his silhouette. The tones of the cover are all blacks and yellows.
For example, in Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling series, Kaleb is one of the most popular heroes, even though (or maybe because) he was a villain throughout most, if not all, the series. This man committed murders to further his political ambitions and was raised by a psychotic serial killer who raped minds and tortured one of the previous heroines. But the more we knew, or not knew, about him, the more intrigued we became. Then his book was announced and the excitement was almost unbearable. Part of the excitement was enhanced by the game of anticipation, but most of it was about a genuine fascination for the character. And this fascination and love didn’t wane even after we realized that Kaleb was psychological unstable and willing to commit mass murder and take over the government. This is worse than beating your sister’s rapist, and yet I easily accepted him as a hero and found his book romantic (although I don’t think it stands the proof of the second thought, to be perfectly honest).

This dichotomy of sorts is fascinating to me. Why is it harder for me to deal with violent, criminal heroes in contemporary settings? Does this mean that not all heroes are made the same? Shouldn’t heroic qualities be the same across sub-genres? I don’t have an answer to those questions, but I do know that from now on, I’ll be paying closer attention to how I react to certain types of characters and contexts.

In a community like ours, in which the conversation can be a pretty hero-centric, one would expect these issues to be constantly evaluated and examined, yet the conversation is often superficial in nature. And although I think lighter discussions are necessary and fun, I appreciate the opportunity to talk about heroes under a different light.

So what do you think? Do you judge all heroes equally? Do you think the different sub-genres have different rules and definitions about what’s acceptable and what constitutes heroic behavior?


  1. This is such a great post, Brie. Obviously I've been thinking about this, and the comment threads at DA really brought it home to me.

    I think that the reason readers embrace these characterizations in PNR and historicals but they balk in contemporary romance is because the text is asking you to validate violence (as you say in your post). To do that in a contemporary setting feels like validating "real" violence, whereas PNR is AU and historical is safely in the past.

    But that ignores the ways in which the violence is the same, which is the way the reader experiences *and enjoys* the text and the characterizations. I'm not saying she explicitly wants to read about violence, but the violence is integral to creating both the characterizations (especially with alpha heroes) and the setting, and it helps to create the emotional response.

    We don't like to admit that we get a thrill from reading about vigilante behavior or violence we tell ourselves is justified, and it's easier to accept when we can create distance (not our world, or long ago when things were different). But that's what it's doing. People who can admit that they enjoy it generally probably don't have much trouble reading it in contemporaries.

    If it weren't hitting a chord we wouldn't read it anywhere.

    1. Yes, the distance some sub-genres provide makes the violence easier to accept or, if not accept, to see as a necessary evil that doesn’t take away from the heroic qualities of the hero and at times even adds to it. And there are other things at play here like the bad boy fantasy, the protector, the lure of the powerful hero (and how we equate power with violence and masculinity).

  2. For me, the differences are about the necessity of the violence. In a contemp, I can take violence in a moment of pressure (say if the McKenna hero had interrupted his sister’s rape, and just lost control), but it’s harder to take it as pre-meditated (he learned of his sister’s rape and plotted attacking the guy). Though I do *get* where the sense of vigilante justice comes from when you know the rapist will get away with it and you’re helpless to fix that (I fully admit to cheering at the end of Fair Game when the father kills the villain, because there was no way that guy was ever going to stop murdering people, and the law had proven itself a failure).

    In many PNR settings, punishment (and prevention of future harm) has to come from the PNR world, because the “real” world isn’t set up to deal with the crimes or the perpetrators. Either it’s a hidden world, or the villains are too powerful for humans to deal with and contain.

    In historicals, the violence is often either not optional (hey Highland warrior, you don’t want to fight, fine I’ll take your stuff, rape and murder your people, and spit on your grave!), or it’s necessitated by the failure of the law to hold the powerful accountable and thus prevent future harm (and yes, I think this serves as a proxy for modern angst about this same thing holding true today; if you have enough money, you can often get away with quite a bit, certainly rape, and occasionally murder). This is where I hit a bump in the comparison of violence in a Highlander book to violence in a motorcycle club book. The highlander has no choice. That’s his world. He can’t chose a different life in a place where war and violence aren’t prevalent. A member of a MC has chosen to live a life of violence and criminality outside the norm. Yes, the violence may be necessary within his chosen world, but the fact that he CHOSE it (and that the books present this as a supportable choice and not something to escape from) remains inescapable for me.

    1. I agree. Context and worldbuilding is what often justifies the violence in PNR’s, because these heroes are usually in charge of justice or there are no institutions or other people that will do it for them. And yes, I have a hard time with MC romances because as you said, there’s a choice there that’s no present in different settings and circumstances, and maybe our justice system isn’t the best, but it’s not a dystopia either. I wonder if the MC setting is so completely alien to some readers that it almost acts like another PNR or Fantasy setting.

    2. I kind of assume it has to, but as Erin says below, my ability to suspend my disbelief doesn't stretch that far in a real world setting. IRL, I'm hoping the "hero" goes to jail!

  3. Hmm. I read the story differently. It seemed to me that the heroine was speaking for sanity and reason, and we were meant to agree with her rather than to excuse him. (Though the narrative does go out of its way to assure us he wouldn't hurt a woman.)

    I also think class issues were vital to their disagreement -- he comes from a background with a certain code, and it's not an easy thing for him to give up.

    1. You’re right; I oversimplified the plot (and his character) for the purpose of this post, and his background and family life inform his character in a way that allows us to make sense of his actions and of how he feels about what happened. But I did feel that the way she tried to understand and accept him, as well as decide whether she was willing to be in a relationship with him or not, was an attempt at making the reader excuse him, or maybe it’s just seeing him through her eyes and following her rationalization of their relationship and his character what in a way mirrors and canalizes the way the reader sees and ultimately accepts him. I don’t know if this makes any sense, but I don’t disagree with you, I just think that regardless of how we read it, there’s an effort here to make him worthy.

    2. It does make sense; I see your point.

  4. I find there are many things, violence included, that I find more acceptable in non-contemporary genres. For me, it is because actions or behaviors may fit into the world the author has built. Like Kaleb, we have no current or historical frame of reference for the mindset and the history to either deplore or applaud his actions. It belongs solely to that world, and it seemed very consistent with the world building. Contemporaries on the other hand HAVE to fit in with our current world view, so anything culturally out of bounds now feels like it must equally be culturally out of bounds for characters in that setting. Besides the violence, I also find uber-alpha males more acceptable in UF, psy-fi or historical.

    I tend to think of it as willful suspension of disbelief. I specifically use the word willful rather than willing, because it takes effort for me, and the amount of effort it takes to force a contemporary into current cultural views is directly correlated to my enjoyment or acceptance. Things that aren't contemporary, I either buy into the different world or I don't, and so long as the author doesn't randomly change their own world rules it takes very little effort for me to accept or enjoy the story.

    1. Hi Erin! Thank you so much for your comment and welcome to the blog.

      I think the distance those different worlds gives us is part of why it’s easy for us to accept certain situations, but even then we have a present point of view (and so do the present authors writing them), so in the case of the Psy-Changeling books, the world is rich and nuanced, but it still has elements from our society, and even if it was completely alien, there are things that should be unforgivable regardless of context, so the fact that Kaleb is willing to commit what’s pretty much a genocide should bother us and it’s more than enough reason not to think of him as heroic. So that willful suspension of disbelief you mention is at play here, even if it’s not so obvious or conscious.

  5. This is such an interesting post. My experience with Hard Time was unusual because I couldn't get past Annie visiting the jail for the first time and the reason for that is a close family member was in jail a few years ago and the first time I visited him was, as you can imagine, overwhelming. I remember feeling such anxiety, being so scared and extremely worried so when I reached that part in the book I freaked out a little which I will readily admit surprised the hell out of me. The reason why I'm even mentioning this is I think the distance no longer existed for me, I could relate to that situation whereas in a PNR or historical setting I can't. So maybe that does have something to do with it. I do find myself more accepting of violence in pnrs or historicals rather than contemps which is I have realised is somewhat unsettling to be honest. So in this has certainly given me something to think about, thank you.
    I do apologise for the ramble :-) Hopefully some of it made sense.


    1. That was not rambly at all, but rambles and long comments are welcome here, so no one should apologize for it ;-)

      I completely understand why HT affected you so much (also, *hugs*). I wonder if there are people who are the opposite -- they are more accepting of violence in contemporaries than in PNR's, or are equally accepting in both, or don't accept it in either. I should have included a poll! And like you, I was also unsettled by the realization that I had a bit of a double standard.

  6. Oh, fascinating topic Brie! I struggled a bit with articulating my discomfort with Devil's Game in my own review (even though I liked the book). I'm one of the ones who's said all along that the MC romances are a kind of urban fantasy for me. They're so divorced from my own world that there may as well be fae running around next to them. But Hunter/Liam is an enforcer for the Devil's Jacks and this means he's a killer. A cold blooded killer. While almost all of what he does for the DJs is off page, there is reference in the book to him having to execute traitors. While I don't think he relishes the tasks, he still does them.

    The violence in the earlier books either had a different tenor or stopped short of cold blooded murder (or possibly I'm just a hypocrite - something that's equally possible actually) but here, seeing so coldly on the page, it made it more difficult for me to accept Liam as hero.

    I thought in the first book of the Reapers' series the author made efforts to gloss over or camouflage some of the violence and criminality and while I saw it, I appreciated it also because it made it easier for me to accept the book.

    I think Isobel Carr was right (above) where she said:

    In many PNR settings, punishment (and prevention of future harm) has to come from the PNR world, because the “real” world isn’t set up to deal with the crimes or the perpetrators. Either it’s a hidden world, or the villains are too powerful for humans to deal with and contain.

    In historicals, the violence is often either not optional (hey Highland warrior, you don’t want to fight, fine I’ll take your stuff, rape and murder your people, and spit on your grave!),

    Context can make all the difference.

    I'm wondering as I write this comment if it's the "cold-blooded murder" I have a problem with. I never liked knowing that Roarke (In Death series) was capable of basically being a serial killer - he meticulously planned revenge killings on the men who raped and murdered Summerset's daughter - he didn't just put them down, he arranged elaborate and torturous deaths for them. It's something I stick my fingers in my ears and sing "la la la" about actually. That's a futuristic series but the stories to me don't seem far enough out from contemporary for me to accept his actions as in any way ok, even though those men would not have been brought to justice otherwise. It's arguable whether they were brought to "justice" at all of course - they were murdered and it wasn't quick or painless.

    Part of me looks on curiously at where I draw my various lines in the sand. I've really only read Kristen Ashley and Joanna Wylde in terms of MC romance and I think I have 2 other MC books on my TBR I haven't got to yet but I'm fairly picky about the ones I'm prepared to read - partly because I don't want to see too much celebration of lawlessness. There was one Jane reviewed where the author tried hard to make drug running "noble" but it just wasn't. Jane's my gatekeeper for MC books - I don't want to go near that. If I'm reading an MC book they need to be clean (a la Chaos - KA) or the criminality needs to be vague and amorphous (Wylde) - the more overt it is, the closer it is to what I can read in my newspaper here, the less the "fantasy" works for me. Because real life MCs are not the least bit sexy or attractive to me and they're super scary criminals over here.

    I don't really have any answers either Brie, but I'm fascinated by the discussion. Some books I read, I realise that what I thought was my do-not-cross line wasn't actually there at all and others, I get tripped up by lines which I never knew I had.

    I think I win at the rambling comment competition today!

    1. I thought I read in a review one of the KA books that the hero was a pimp (a noble, protective pimp)? That doesn't sound "clean" to me.

    2. Different series.

      Knight is in the Unfinished Heroes series. I haven't read it because pimp crosses my line. As far as I know (and I stand to be corrected because: haven't read it) there is no MC in that series.

      Dream Man series has Motorcycle Man and Chaos series has Ride the Wind and Fire Inside. All of them are set in and around the Chaos MC club.

      Chaos used to do drugs and pimpage but Tack fought to get to the presidency and when he did, he cleaned it up and now the worst they do is keep the area around Custom Ride (their custom car and motorcycle business) free from drugs and pimps and other criminals. They don't exactly use lawful means to do it but it is vague in the books as to how they achieve it.

      So, Chaos, the MC I was referring to in my comment aren't actively involved in criminal activity such as drugs or gun running and they're also not involved in the sex trade.


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