Think about it. If I read a historical where the hero comes along, tells the heroine she will be his, and they engage in a courtship that seems to consist of bickering, near rapes, and the hero having to mark heroine as his in some physical way, you’d think I was reading an old-school 1970s/80s book, wouldn’t you? Sure, every now and again a novel comes along that has a hero pushing the envelope in terms of sexual coercion or controlling behavior, but it’s unusual enough that it often sparks controversy and readers talk about it.
However, if I gave a similar plot summary for a paranormal, some readers might not consider it quite their thing, but more than a few would probably just ask me which series I’m talking about. Given what’s been popular on the market in the past decade or so, it seems paranormal heroes have largely been given a pass when it comes to controlling behavior and even downright rapey sex scenes. I’m not talking about a hero simply being strong, confident, and alpha – I’ve loved plenty of books like that; These seem to have something more. They’re strong guys, but there’s often a certain controlling quality, a lack of regard for the heroine and her wishes that factors into the hero’s treatment of her. It’s something I’ve been noticing more and more in my paranormal reading, and I have to admit that the rise of these sorts of heroes somewhat worries me.
Take A Hunger Like No Other. Once you move past the admittedly powerful prologue, the hero Lachlain (and I tend to use that term “hero” loosely) breaks free of his torment and seeks out the mate he has scented. His mate, the half-vampire, half-Valkyrie Emmaline, has no real say in things at this point. Lachlain kidnaps her and proceeds to hold her prisoner in her hotel room while he forces himself on her sexually. And this barely gets us through Chapter 2! In case you’re curious to know how Lachlain starts off wooing his mate, his technique seems to involve breaking her spirit. Take this tender little snippet from their first night together:
He remembered her reaction, though. She’d looked hopeless, as if she’d finally realized her situation.
She’d attempted escape one last time, and again he’d enjoyed letting her think she was about to succeed before he dragged her back and tucked her into his side. She went limp, then passed out. He didn’t know if she’d fainted or not. Didn’t particularly care.
Real prince of a guy, huh? Granted, he most definitely qualifies as a tortured hero, and he does get a bit better at the end. Still, kidnapping and sexual assault aren’t exactly your average Big Mis and in most subgenres, would not be the stuff of which grand romance is made. Yet, as probably everyone in online Romancelandia knows, this book kicked off the hugely popular Immortals After Dark series.
And there are myriad examples of books where paranormal heroes might not be actually raping the heroine, but they are still so controlling that in a regular contemporary or perhaps even historical setting, many of us might find them uncomfortable. The Smoke Thief is one of those books. As with many books by the author, I found the language enchanting. However, the romance at the heart of the story involves a young woman of the drakon who has been captured by the “hero” and is told that she will be forced to marry him and return to the drakon. When she resists, he tries coercion and a bargain that is is pretty well rigged. As a result, I found it quite difficult to believe that the heroine fell in love because at times it really looked more like she simply just caved in as the hero treated her to force, manipulation and deceit.
Overbearing heroes abound in paranormals and they feed very well into what has become a very popular plot trope – the fated mates. Somehow it’s usually the heroes that figure out that the heroine must be theirs. And they will pursue her, kidnap her, cut her off from her usual support network, you name it. And then there are the shapeshifters – many will tap into their animal side to be not only extra strong but also to show their power over the heroine. And of course, the heroine is usually someone fated to mate with him. Just once I’d love to see the shapeshifters falling in love of their own free will, or perhaps even the normal heroine who tries really hard to get the mysterious jaguar guy next door to notice her.
And what about young adult fiction? Take the Twilight series. You don’t get much more controlling than a guy who sneaks into the bedroom at night to watch you, who tells what you can and cannot do, tells you you’re fated to be his, and tries to cut you off from friends and family. Edward definitely walks that lover/stalker line, but we as readers just lapped it up even if in real life I probably would have made sure Bella knew how to contact her local women’s shelter.
A not insignificant number of readers will take to the message board and other places online to defend these sorts of heroes. One of the main reasons for letting them off the hook for their behavior? The argument seems to run that since the hero isn’t human, we shouldn’t expect him to behave the same way we would a regular hero. I’ll freely admit that rationale just doesn’t work for me. If the male lead forces the heroine into sexual acts against her will, I’m going to call that rape and I don’t care if he’s a duke or a demon. The hero’s possession of fur, fangs or even wings does not suddenly render overbearing or downright violent behavior romantic in my eyes.
Yet this doesn’t seem to be an uncommon attitude. I have a number of friends and acquaintances offline who enjoy paranormals and several of them will admit that they aren’t bothered by coercive paranormal heroes the way they are with bullying and even cruel heroes in other subgenres. And it makes me wonder. Where do we draw the line between an alpha hero and one that’s too controlling of the heroine? Why are readers so willing to give paranormal heroes a pass when it comes to their behavior? Or do you?
– Lynn Spencer