Historical Romance Deal Breaker #1: Reluctant Heroes

Blast From the Past: Susana is traveling in Scotland this week and she thought some of you might enjoy revisiting some of her previous posts on Susana’s Parlour.

Decades of reading historical romances have led me to develop strong opinions of what defines a truly satisfying story, so the other day I set about making a list of characteristics that turn a potential five-star read into a one- or two-star. Admittedly, there are some skillful authors who manage to successfully incorporate one or more of these scenarios in their books; however, I have run across quite a few more who in my opinion haven’t quite managed it.

Overview of Susana’s Historical Romance Deal Breakers

  1. Reluctant Heroes
  2. Adultery
  3. Anachronistic Behavior and Historical Inaccuracies
  4. Cliffhanger Endings
  5. Unattractive or Drop-Dead Gorgeous Heroines
  6. Heroes With Mistresses or Who Sleep With Servants
  7. Drop-Dead Gorgeous Heroes
  8. Promiscuous Heroines
  9. Contrived Endings
  10. Waifs and Silly Heroines
  11. Long Separations
  12. Excessively Cruel Heroes and Heroines
  13. Breaking the Rules: Why Some Authors Get Away With It

These are what I call “deal breakers”—characteristics that make a book a wall-banger. Not surprisingly, many involve character, particularly the character of the hero and heroine. They have to be likable. They have to be three-dimensional, i.e., well-drawn-out characters with flaws, not fairy princesses. And they have to be able to fall in love, convincingly, the head-over-heels kind of love.

The first deal breaker for me is the reluctant hero.

Nothing is guaranteed to turn me off a book so much as a hero who denies his feelings until the very last chapter. Certainly some initial reluctance is expected; what Regency buck is eager to tie himself down to a leg-shackle before he has sown his wild oats? But the attraction needs to happen fairly soon after he meets the heroine; there must be indications early on that he enjoys her presence, resents it when other men pay her attention, etc. Which doesn’t mean that love at first sight is de rigueur. Instant attractions can be quite wonderful, but ultimately, the feelings between them must be based on something other than physical characteristics.

Below are some examples of reluctant heroes I have encountered recently:

  • The hero was so in love with his deceased wife that he cannot imagine ever risking his heart again, so when he starts falling for the heroine (poor thing), he determines to marry another young lady he doesn’t care as much for instead. Heroes cannot be idiots.
  • The hero recognizes his soulmate, but continually spurns her because childhood traumas make him feel unworthy. Heroes cannot be whiners.
  • The hero is damaged from his experiences in the war, but not too much to fall into bed with his deceased best friend’s sister. When events come to the point where her reputation will be ruined, he refuses point-blank to marry her. Heroes cannot use the heroine and then abandon her.
  • The hero is a notorious rake who has determined never to marry, and when faced with the love of his life, he runs away with another woman, forcing her to marry another man, who abuses her cruelly. Heroes cannot be jerks.
  • The hero and the heroine share a kiss in a moonlit garden and arrange several more meetings. When the heroine, who is being pressured to marry a wealthy old man, begs the hero to marry her, he confesses that he is already married (how could he forget?), and abandons her to a miserable marriage. Heroes cannot be cowardly or adulterers.

Of course, the above cases are extreme; many times the reluctant hero is simply…reluctant. Not mean or cruel or particularly stupid. . . just there. While he may not get my dander up, he’s also…boring. And frankly, heroes cannot be boring either.

What do you think? Can you add some examples of reluctant heroes that you have encountered lately? Or can you think of stories where an initially reluctant hero successfully makes the transition into delightfully besotted hero? I’d love to hear about them!

6 thoughts on “Historical Romance Deal Breaker #1: Reluctant Heroes

  1. Unforgettable Rogue by Annette Blair is an example of a reluctant hero, for me… but ultimately a satisfying one, in that all characters involved evidence true growth and personal gains of understanding. He returns “damaged by war” as you mentioned, thoroughly deeming himself unfit in body, mind and spirit to love or be loved. Much of the book is spent with the man locked inside himself and being undeniably stupid despite progressively more obvious and desperate overtures of intimacy from his wife. But he’s not an a-hole or a flake like other Reluctants; he’s genuinely battered, inside and out, and his heroine is ultimately rewarded (as is the reader) for her patience in the most gratifying manner– not with simple physical satiation, but mutual deep and abiding love, respect and affection. 🙂


    • Most of them start out reluctant, and I suppose that’s natural, but I really hate it when they have to be pushed into it and it’s only at the end when you see any sign that they have any feelings at all for the heroine. I mean, even with a story told in the first person, there should be SOME sign that the hero is interested before the last chapter. Or some really good REASON for his reticence!


  2. I laughed at these examples, but sadly they are all too prevalent in romance, not just Regency. What really caught my attention was the title of your blog since the title of the Regency I’m writing is The Reluctant Rival. He’s certainly not reluctant. He’s in love by the 5th chapter and proposes by the 10th. She refuses though she’s in love with him. She has a very good reason which the reader knows, but the hero doesn’t, but like a hero, he doesn’t give up. Then I just discovered Laurie Alice Eakes has one coming out called the Reluctant Courtship, but I’m keeping my title for the time being.


  3. Great topic. Darcy was reluctant. Don’t you think it depends on what makes that reluctance? Class or station is a good one. Aloof for the sake of aloof serves no point in a romance novel. Nobody likes a jerk hero


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