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20 May 2009

A Different Kind of History - Damaged Characters


No, I’m not talking about the damage an author can inflict with one too many rounds of revising (though that would make an interesting blog topic in and of itself). I’m thinking of characters who are damaged by their past experiences, whether it’s a painful childhood, battlefield trauma, the morally ambiguous life of a spy, or a love affair gone tragically wrong. Which comes down to the focus of this blog--history. Whether it's real historical events, such as the brutal aftermath of the Siege of Badajoz, or fictional history, such as a lover's betrayal or parental neglect, the scars of the past create damaged characters. To explore and heal that damage, a writer has to delve into the character's history.

As a reader and writer, I've always been fascinated by history, both real historical events and the history of fictional characters (I love sequels and prequels, seeing characters at differnet points in their lives, part of what I so enjoyed about the new Star Trek movie). So perhaps it isn't surprising that a lot of my favorite characters are defined by their pasts. Francis Crawford of Lymond begins his adventures in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles already an outlaw and an attainted traitor, estranged from his family and guilty over his sister’s death. Damerel, the hero of one of my favorite Georgette Heyer novels, Venetia, is a social outcast thanks to the scandals in his past. He’s convinced he’ll make Venetia miserable by dragging her into social ruin if he marries her. Venetia has to go to great (and very entertaining) lengths to convince him otherwise.

Lymond's past scars, while they involve fictional plot twists, are rooted in the real historical event of the Scottish defeat at the Battle of Solway Moss. Damerel's damage on the other hand is more personal--a love affair with a married woman, subsequent estrangement from his family, his father's death in the midst of it. Both Lymond and Damerel are wonderful examples of the classic tortured hero. Both have a complex backstory, which I think is one of the keys to doing tortured characters well (there’s nothing more annoying than a character who’s tortured over a deep dark secret that seems common place when revealed). But while traditionally it’s the hero who’s suffered the most emotional damage, I’ve always liked heroines with emotional baggage. Barbara Childe, the edgy, self-destructive heroine from Heyer’s An Infamous Army, is a wonderful example of the type. So is Dorothy Sayers's Harriet Vane. I know some readers find Harriet too prickly to be sympathetic, but she's one of my favorite heroines, struggling to come to terms with the past (her lover's murder, her own trial on charges of killing him) yet refusing to let herself be defined or defeated by it. Of course Peter Wimsey has scars of his own, rooted in historical events--shell shock from World War I. In one of my favorite scenes from Busman's Honeymoon, it's Harriet (who begins the series "sick of myself, body and soul") who comforts Peter. That scene shows the hard-won balance they've achieved in their relationship.

It can be particularly interesting when both the hero and heroine have emotional scars. I just finished Laurie King’s latest (quite wonderful) Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes book, The Language of Bees. In this series King (who talks about Sayers as an influence and has some wonderful Sayers parallels in books) took Holmes, who has suffered plenty of damage (some shown, some hinted at) in the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories, and paired him with the much younger but equally scarred Russell. One of the delights of the series is watching these two people, who both guard themselves carefully, reveal bits of their scarred pasts to each other and to the reader. There’s something particularly heartening about two damaged people being able to form a bond (the declaration scene in A Monstrous Regiment of Women is one of the most wonderful I have ever read, right among there among my favorites with the Harriet and Peter scene at the end of Gaudy Night). And of course, the bond doesn’t heal all the damage, which makes for interesting developments over a series. The previous book in the series, Locked Rooms, dealt with Russell coming to terms with the events surrounding her family’s death. In The Language of Bees, Holmes comes face to face with the “lovely, lost son” King referred to in a previous book and with a painful past that goes back to Irene Adler. King creates a Holmes who moves believably into the 20th century, yet he is still coming to terms with his past.

It’s perhaps no wonder that as a writer I can be quite merciless in creating histories for my characters that leave them weighed down with emotional baggage. When I first began sketching out Charles & Mélanie Fraser, I knew that the secrets of Mélanie’s past would create plenty of angst for both of them. But it never occurred to me to stop there. Before I even had the plot of Secrets of a Lady (formerly Daughter of the Game) worked out, I had given Charles a tragic love past affair, an emotionally neglectful childhood, a strained relationship with his brother, and questions about his legitimacy. While Mélanie had suffered the horrors of the Peninsular War (specifically the carnage inflicted by the British Army during Sir John Moore's retreat) and lost both her parents and her younger sister. Quite a bit of that is mentioned or at least alluded to in the first scene between them in Secrets/Daughter. I wanted to show the damage these two people had suffered and the stable marriage they’d managed to build in spite it. To me, that made it all the worse when the very foundations of that marriage are threatened. All of that past damage also provides rich fodder for subsequent books in the series. Charles’s relationship with his family, particularly his father, was the starting place for Beneath a Silent Moon. And there’s lots more to deal with in Mélanie’s past…

Do you like stories about damaged characters? Do you prefer it to be the hero or the heroine or both to have the emotional scars? Any favorite examples to suggest? Writers, when you create characters do you think about how their past history has defined them? Do you try to work real historical events into their past history?

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22 Comments:

Blogger Cynthia Owens said...

Great post, Tracy. I love tortured characters, and I love to create them. In my novel, In Sunshine or in Shadow, it's the hero, Rory O'Brien, who has the darker past (an abusive father), but my heroine has lived through the Irish famine and lost her husband and young brother to betrayal. In my work-in-progress, my heroes have all been through the horrors of the American Civil War, so they have their share of trauma too.

3:20 AM  
Blogger Linda Banche said...

There's tortured and there's tortured.

I don't mind tortured heroes or heroines, who overcome their problems, but there are ones I have no sympathy for. For example, in a book I HATED, the tortured hero is a young, rich, handsome powerful duke, who apparently was abused by his mother (I don't know, because I didn't finish the book) and who took out his problems on others. He kidnapped the heroine, and actually raped her. He's suffered? The slimeball deserves every minute of suffering and lots more.

8:03 AM  
Anonymous Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I love tortured heroes and heroines, but I'm not sure that I like both characters to be tortured at the same time. Generally, I like one or the other. Mary Balogh does wonderfully tortured heroes. And I definitely love it if the torture comes from historical events, like Lord Peter Wimsey in World War I, or a heroine who lost her father during the Civil War. In fact, both the English and American Civil Wars are perfect for that because brother often fought against brother, and tore families apart.

I recently finished reading Mistress of the Elgin Marbles. Mary Elgin wanted to stop having children, because after having 5 children in six years, she was wore out and frightened of dying in childbirth. She'd also recently lost her youngest son. Elgin, on the otherhand, was mindful of only having one heir. In his own childhood, 3 of his brothers had died. You have two strong-willed people at an impasse, who can't somehow come to a compromise.

8:29 AM  
Anonymous Keira said...

Damaged heroes are my personal preference, heroines not so much. I really can't stand abuse/rape of heroines. Now evil stepmother abuse/neglect for a Cinderella type tale is a whole other matter and I usually like those just fine.

9:08 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I like it when both characters are damaged and have issues to work with/through. I simply find it more interesting as both a reader and a writer. The damaged hero and healing heroine trope got old for me when I was still in my teens, and at this point can actually induce groans and the flinging of books against walls (something about the too-perfect-to-be-believed heroine just irks me).

I do, however, agree that I’m not a fan of having a past rape be the heroine’s issue. I’ve seen it done well, but I’ve mostly seen it done really, really poorly (all is healed by the hero’s magic schlong *rolls eyes*).

I’m just not sure you can have a three dimensional character who isn’t damaged in some way (I mean, isn’t everyone?), and I know you can’t have an interesting one who isn’t carrying around some kind of baggage. It’s the damage/baggage that gives them depth.

9:25 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Cynthia, both your books sound fascinating--great use of historical events to shape your characters' pasts!

Linda, that's an excellent point. Tortured pasts, no matter how truly terrible, are no justification for bad behavior (one of the problems I often have with revenge plots). Which doesn't mean damaged characters have to be saints (I love morally ambiguous characters and situations). Damerel begins "Ventia" trying to seduce Venetia, but he never uses his past as an excuse for his behavior. In fact, he's rather inclined to brush off the damage. And then he grows and changes over the course of the book.

11:10 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Keira, I've written heroines who've suffered physical abuse, but in general I find both heroines and heroes more interesting when their emotional baggage comes not (or not just) from being a victim but from their own actions (perhaps in situations in which they faced hard choices). Neither Barbara Childe, Harriet Vane, nor Mary Russell have been abused in the physical sense. Barbara had an unhappy childhood, a disastrous marriage to a cynical older man at age 17, and a string of destructive love affairs/flirtations; Harriet had an unhappy love affair and then was accused of murdering her lover; Russell lost her entire family at the age of fourteen in a car accident she feels guilty for causing.

11:23 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Elizabeth, I've always found the Elgins fascinating. And you're right they're a great example of two people whose competing objectives are shapes by their own pasts and the expectations of their era.

11:26 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Kalen, as I think you know, I too prefer flawed/damaged heroines to heroines who are too perfect :-). Perfect characters, heroes or heroines, don't tend to interest me that much. I agree, pretty much everyone has some sort of emotional baggage (how does one get through middle school and high school with out it?). The scars of damaged characters are perhaps just a heightened version of the past issues we're all dealing with.

11:29 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Tortured pasts, no matter how truly terrible, are no justification for bad behavior (one of the problems I often have with revenge plots).

I have certainly stumbled across the occasional book where the hero's (cause it's almost always the hero) motivation and the actions he takes, or plans, just make him too big an asshat for me to EVER be able to accept him as heroic. I love a good anti-hero, but there has to be a serious motivation and a logic to his actions, or he’s just one more psychopath out there . . .

In fact, I just *wallbanged* (I know that’s not a word, but it should be!) a book by an author who’s usually a favorite because her set up requires the hero to be so astoundingly unheroic that I just couldn’t turn another page. A hero can do questionable (even bad) things under the influence of the right kind of pressure (if I understand and at some level respect the motivation), but he can’t be a spoiled care-for-nobody who ruins other people’s live cause he’s bored! That guy is lives in “Villainville” in the part of Romanclandia that I frequent.

12:38 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I enjoy good anti-heroes too and particularly morally ambiguous characters whose choices make you questions what's right. But I need to understand the character's motivation. The problem I often have with revenge plots is that revenge tends to be a very negative goal. It doesn't right the wrong or fix the past. So even when the crime being avenged is truly horrific, a revenge-driven character can come across as self-absorbed and vindictive. It's tough to pull off (which is why it's a plot I tend to avoid as a writer :-).

1:11 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I enjoy good anti-heroes too and particularly morally ambiguous characters whose choices make you questions what's right.

I think this is key. Getting ME to question what's right has to happen. Getting me on their side has to happen. Getting me to want them to win simply has to happen. It can be especially wonderful (and horrible) when you can see both sides and you know that only one can will. Sharon Kay Penman has a real talent for this IMO.

I always end up thinking of the little boy who sat beside me at the theatre for Reign of Fire; at the end he yelled "Mommy, I wanted the dragon to win" and you could just feel the raw emotion in his voice. I had the same problem with the X-Men III. Intrinsically I sided with Magneto and the mutants who wanted to be free to be themselves: free from harassment, detention, experimentation, etc. I just couldn’t help it. They were right. And the clear certainty with which I felt that rightness made me question the IQ level of the X-Men (and be bothered by the fact that I didn’t see more of an internal struggle with the issue amongst them).

2:13 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great points, Kalen. For myself, I don't even necessarily have to be on the character's side, but I have to at least question which side I'm on (when it comes to a lot of Mélanie's and Charles's conflicts, I'm often not sure whom I agree with, which is probably good since I have to write from both their povs).

Going back to Amanda's great post about Shakespearean Couples, when I took my friend's two young sons to Henry IV Part I, I told them the story over our picnic dinner before the play. The nine-year-old listened carefully to my story about the King, Prince Hal, Hostpur, and the rebels, frowned, and said "But who's right?" I told him to see what he thought after the play. When I asked him afterwards, he said he thought the King and Hal were, because they rebels turned down the last peace offer. I'm not sure I agree, because the rebels are manipulated into doing so, but I thought it was great he was paying attention to the story and drawing his own conclusions. His six-year-old brother was firmly on the side of the rebels. But his favorite characters also include Darth Vader's Storm Troopers and Cardinal Richlieu's guards.

2:29 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

His six-year-old brother was firmly on the side of the rebels. But his favorite characters also include Darth Vader's Storm Troopers and Cardinal Richlieu's guards.

He needs to play with the "dragon kid", LOL!

I don't even necessarily have to be on the character's side, but I have to at least question which side I'm on (when it comes to a lot of Mélanie's and Charles's conflicts, I'm often not sure whom I agree with, which is probably good since I have to write from both their povs).

I think this is more where I was leaning, esp with the Penman comment. A truly GREAT conflict arises when both sides are right to some extent, but in a romance, unlike historical fiction, you have to make sure the stakes aren’t so high that an HEA becomes impossible.

3:35 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I once said to romance writer friends that the challenge of writing romance is creating two people who can't possibly have a happy ending and then giving them a believable happy ending. But I don't think the happy ending necessarily means one admitting the other's side is right. I like characters living with differing points of view (provided the historical context doesn't mean one of the will be thrown in prison:-).

3:48 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

But I don't think the happy ending necessarily means one admitting the other's side is right.

I think it's about finding the right compromise for that particular couple; the right balance. Sometimes it’s about one partner discovering they were wrong and growing as a person, but I really do prefer it when BOTH of them discover they were a little bit wrong and grow as a couple (further proving why I don’t so much care for the wounded hero/healing heroine scenario).

7:15 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Right, it can work with one character growing as a person (particularly if they've led a sheltered life and haven't seen things from a different pov. Or both can grow. Or they can learn to live with their differences which can also be interesting (though a difficult balance). As you say, it all has to do with the couple (and the nature of the issues that divide them).

And I think I prefer both the hero and heroine to be somewhat damaged for the reason you mention--having one character heal the other seems too simply somehow.

9:59 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Chiming in from vacation -- the sun is finally out in Savannah!

But I digress...

Terrific post, Tracy. I love damaged heroes and heroines. Not only do I like to read about complex and flawed characters, whether based on historical personages or wholly fictional, but I write them as well. Lord Nelson, of whom I wrote extensively in TOO GREAT A LADY was physically damaged, as was Tarleton in ALL FOR LOVE, and I saw Nelson as a flawed hero and Tarleton as a flawed antihero. But I think those men had emotional scars, too -- how can a war hero not have them?

Some of the women I write about were damaged heroines too (Emma Hamilton, Mary Robinson) whose lives were in many ways colored by the fact that there was no father in their life (Emma's died when she was 2 months old; and Mary's betrayed the family and ran off with, then shacked up with, his mistress when Mary was a child).

8:09 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

You've written about some fascinating real historical figures who are damaged, Amanda. In fact, I think a lot of the real historical figures who are the subjects of historical fiction are damaged. Partly because, as Kalen said, most people have some sort of emotional baggage. And partly because the sort of people who become the subjects of historical novels tend to live through turbulent historical events.

Enjoy Savannah!

10:43 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Ooooo, Savannah! I love it there. Esp if I'm on the River Walk with a "Rolling Thunder" (it's an alchoholic slusshie from Wet Willies that tastes like a fudgecicle).

Have fun!

11:43 AM  
OpenID bkwrm_n3 said...

"I’ve seen it done well, but I’ve mostly seen it done really, really poorly (all is healed by the hero’s magic schlong *rolls eyes*)."

Let's not forget the hero who is healed by the heroine's magic Hymen! I'm surprised Romanclandia's doctors haven't taken a sample of one from a virgin; it seems to cure every kind of mental trauma - even turns a sociopath into a nice guy.

7:36 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

LOL, bkwrm. I have to say neither scenario of healing damage through magical sex is my favorite plotline. There's just too much that's interesting in all the emotional baggage damaged characters carry for one night (or even a really great week) of sex to cure it, imo :-).

9:06 PM  

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