I used to be an avid fan of House, M.D. As any fan of House knows, though, the cynical and delightfully sarcastic doctor constantly screws things up for himself by just plain being an asshole. Recently my husband and I re-watched Season Seven, in which, shortly after declaring his total love for Lisa Cuddy, House completely lets her down by failing to be there when she needs him most, showing up only after he's fallen back on an addiction he'd been diligently fighting for almost two seasons.
Way to go, asshole.
Now, I can understand how a drama like House is dealing with layers and layers of character development and plot, so I can at least say this wasn't necessarily an example of bad writing...just incredibly frustrating writing. Let's look at another recent example: How I Met Your Mother.
Okay, so what the hell happened with this show? I don't have a whole heck of a lot of room to criticize anyone for breaking the rules of romance, but in this case I throw down the gauntlet without reserve. Was there ever a TV series that more readily deserved the title of Romance than How I Met Your Mother? The whole show revolves around one man's epic retelling of how he met his supposed soulmate. We know from the very first episode that is where this story is leading. Not only is it based on the main character's story of epic romance, but his supporting characters as well are featured in romantic epics of their own, from the traditional college sweethearts taking their traditional next steps into marriage and family, to the rakish, womanizing and yet utterly lovable bastard, who, in time, finds his own mate, in a relationship that may not fit the mold, but suits them in all the right ways.
Then the writers fuck everything up in the last episode. There are lots of things to complain about in regards to the HIMYM finale, but there was one thing absolutely destroyed the magic of the whole series for me.
I adored Barney, and I loved what he brought to the show. I loved most of all that his ultimate relationship would never be the traditional or expected relationship with a white picket fence and 2.5 kids. His relationship had a dynamic that worked for who he was, and no one was apologizing for it.
But it also changed him, and in a good way, speaking from a writer's point of view. It showed him growing up, maturing and evolving. He grew from a character audiences merely liked, the lovable jester of the ensemble, into one we adored, one we fought for and struggled with, one we loved for all he was and all he did.
Then the finale turns him into an asshole. Not even a lovable asshole, just an asshole. Why, you ask? Because he goes back to being a lying, manipulating, womanizing dirtbag, only now it isn't funny or endearing, it's just maddening, because there honestly is no reason. In this case, I call shit writing at fault, because there is no motivation behind this change.
What's my point?
There's a reason I stopped watching House, and there's a reason I can't bring myself to even watch reruns of How I Met Your Mother. The writers lost me.
There are lots of ways to lose a fan. One of the worst, I think, is by making them dislike a character they're meant to root for. House is unquestionably the "hero" of his story. Why would I want to invest myself in a story, though, when I can't even really like the hero? Barney was a hero of his own subplot that audiences became invested in. In the end, that subplot utterly betrayed them.
If we can't like your characters, why would we want to follow their story?
How does this play into romance? Because in romance, for some reason, there are lots of assholes.
Bella Swan is an asshole to pretty much everyone she meets: school friends, her own dad, a boy who genuinely likes her. She does incredibly unlikable things to these people. She acts without concern for the effect her actions have on others. And she never, ever changes
I'm reading the Immortals After Dark series, as by now might be obvious, and even though she hasn't lost me yet, Kresley Cole is pushing my buttons with the number of assholes in her books. She does even it out with a fair number of real heroes (Sebastian Wroth and Malcolm Slaine come to mind), but still I am often tempted to give up on the series when so many of the protagonists I'm supposed to like (most often the males, in Cole's universe) are jerks I have no reason to like. A werewolf who unapologetically sexually assaults a woman in the first few chapters and then proceeds to treat her like property, especially when she is supposed to be the most cherished creature in the world to him? (There's that 'mate' bond at work again.) Why should I want to read the story of such a douchebag? Why would I enjoy reading about him when he is so clearly an asshole?
Because he changes, you might say. And in many cases, you would be right, and that is how good character development goes. That's why we love Barney as much as we do by the end of HIMYM. He's grown into a better person, not necessarily because he becomes monogamous but because he learns how to be a better, truer man. It's why Spike is a more popular love interest in Buffy the Vampire Slayer than Angel is. He grows and learns, because he wants to be a better person for those around him.
I read a lot of romance lately, and that asshole thing is a trend. We like assholes, apparently. Though actually, it's that we love "bad boys", the "Anti-heroes", the dark, brooding types. I get that just fine: we like our heroes with a bit of an edge. I see it go too far, too often, though, and especially with new authors. It's one of those bad habits we are getting into: build the bad boy (or girl), but skimp on the redemption. When that happens, I'm very often tempted to put the book down.
Let me pause a moment to say, there's a difference between disliking a character and simply not caring for them. I don't care for most of the demons in Kresley Cole's series. There's nothing explicitly wrong with them, they're just not my favorite rendition of supernatural demons. This isn't bad writing, though; it's is just a case of one reader's personal preference.
You can write troubled, angry, violent characters. Your readers still have to have a reason to want to keep them around. A legitimate reason! And "he's just that damn sexy" is not a legitimate reason.
I can't for the life of me see any reason Edward Cullen wants Bella Swan. What motivation is there to want a person like her? If the answer is that she strokes his ego or wants his cock, that only makes Edward an asshole, too. What does Christian Grey see in Ana that's just so compelling? Why does he want her and not someone who readily accepts and embraces his lifestyle? If the answer is, "she's hot", I'm not buying it. Why do so many women in paranormal romance accept their asshole leading men, even in cases of sexual assault, physical abuse, and cruel behavior? If the answer is, "it all works out because they're destined for each other", I say the story needs to go out the window.
Writers, when you write a character with dark, edgier side, and when you write him or her to become a love interest, you must consider motivations. You don't have to castrate the character or turn him into a goody-goody (look at Spike). First off, take an honest look and decide, "is this character a jerk?". Maybe you didn't mean for him or her to be, but look at what their actions say. If you have created a jerk, intentionally or unintentionally, you have to do something about it if you want readers to appreciate the character. You do have to bring in some substantial redeeming quality that gives us genuine reason to care for him.
Have you given the character a motivation not to be a total jerk? If not, or if it's not a going to be a good motivation, chuck it. Have you given other characters a genuine motivation to come to like and appreciate the character, even if it takes some time? And does it go beyond "a vague feeling this was somehow right", or "she just couldn't stop being attracted to him"? If not, try again.
Mostly, have you given ME, the reader, motivation to like these characters? Because if not, I'm going toss the book, unfinished, and not bother with any more. As an author, you should see how that might be a problem.
Explore your characters and their actions, and ask yourself these questions.
1. Why are they doing this?
2. Is there a realistic reason behind it, in the character's eyes?
3. What is my reason for why he does what he does? (Beware of Deus Ex Machina)
4. Is it a good reason?
5. What are the obstacles?
6. Will my readers accept it ? (As a reader, I am not going to believe your strong-willed spitfire of a heroine will blindly accept a love match who abuses, belittles, and tries to control her, not without some serious work AND SUCCESS on his part to be better).
Remember if you fail to show your heroes grow, change, learn, and with good motivations...you will lose your readers. As writers, I believe we can agree, none of us wants that.