Tortured characters—why do we love them?

Image credit: evdoha / 123RF Stock Photo
Image credit: evdoha / 123RF Stock Photo

Or perhaps I ought to say, “why do I love them?”. Because I do. Just last week I was down with a nasty cold, and wanted something engrossing to take my mind off things. I picked up three “angsty” romance novellas and read them back to back—Jackie Ashenden’s Black Knight, White Queen, Laura Florand’s Snow-Kissed, and Rebecca Rogers Maher’s The Bridge. (Romance, because, dude, I wanted that happy ending! No one wants to get depressed while ill.)

All these novellas feature some pretty damn tortured characters. Izzy is recovering from her sister’s suicide, and Aleks was adopted but sent back to the orphanage because his new mother couldn’t deal with him. Kai and her husband went through three miscarriages, and destroyed their marriage in the process. Henry and Christa meet on the bridge they both plan to kill themselves from.

It sounds bleak when I list it all like this. And yet I loved the gritty darkness of these stories. The sadness, mixed with the romance. How the trauma of the past wasn’t just glossed over and gotten rid of, but affected these people to the very core of their being. And by the end of the stories, they were all a little bit less alone, a little bit closer to happiness.

Having recovered from my cold, though, I couldn’t help but wondering why I’m so drawn to these types of stories. Do I enjoy reading, and writing, about people suffering? (The marriage-in-trouble romance I’m currently writing is really emotional and dark at times. And my fantasy novels are pretty full of angst as well.)

I guess, in a way, the answer will have to be ‘Yes’, but not in a “Mwa ha ha, look at how they suffer!” sort of way, or a “Whew, look how lucky I am!” way, but rather in a “Man, I hope they make it through” way. I feel for the characters; I want them to find happiness. Desperately.

Don’t happy people deserve love and, well, even more happiness? Well yes, I suppose. But I like to read about how there’s hope even when things are really dark. How it can turn around, no matter how bleak things seem. And really, what is more uplifting than that?

Another thing I like about these types of stories is the absence of perfection. The hero and heroine, even at the very end, don’t have perfect lives. They’ll carry their scars with them for a long time, probably as long as they live. But finding each other, sharing their love, the burden becomes a little bit easier to bear. They can find happiness anyway.

Love and happiness don’t require perfection, you guys! How awesome is that?

Another aspect, which is also one of the reasons I love erotic romance and darker fantasy, is that these types of stories bring a realism to them that I crave. And with that I mean realism in how they depict the world. Everything isn’t just sunshine and roses. Bad things happen to good people. They get cancer, lose their hope for a child, get let down by the people supposed to protect them the most. And that sucks. And yet, life goes on, and good things happen too.

So I guess the answer to my original question—why do I love tortured characters—will have to be: because they feel real, and they fill me with hope.


(Anyone have recommendations of darker, grittier romance? Bring it on!)

Ruthie Knox wrote an interesting piece on Snow-Kissed and The Bridge here, and how one reason these types of stories resonate is because we can see ourselves in them. (I’m going to have to pick up Making it Last next!)

Over at “The Passionate Reader”, Dabney Grinnan posted about Making It Last and Snow-Kissed, and how they can be seen as as “life stories” rather than “love stories.”

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