Mar 12, 2012


I heard the Kenny Roger’s song Coward of the County the other day. Actually, that’s a little white lie. It was The Gambler I heard, but that led me to thinking about Coward of the County, you see? But in the interests of brevity… :-)

It started me thinking about how cowardice is a trait we romance writers never give to our heroes. Villains, you bet, but never our heroes. And I started to wonder, Why not? I mean our heroes are never perfect. It’s vital they have at least one flaw to make them both believable and interesting. After all, part of the joy of a romance novel is to watch the characters grow and to experience that growth right alongside them.

Emotional cowardice is rife in romance—how many heroes have you read who are scared to risk their hearts again after a bad experience or who are simply too afraid to believe in love—but I’m talking about physical cowardice here. Hmm, and I best temper that. There have probably been heroes who have a phobic fear—of flying, of snakes, of heights, claustrophobia, etc. But do you know any heroes in category romance who have been afraid of and do their best to avoid a physical confrontation with a villain?

I can’t.

I can think of heroes who are ugly, rude, angry, overbearing, stubborn, reckless, frightening, ruthless, and even humourless, but cowardly? Nuh uh. (I can’t think of one who is stupid either, come to think of it.)

I can think of heroes, particularly in paranormal romances or romantic suspense, whose speciality is not fighting but who do have some special talent (their psychic powers will save the world, or their super-duper whizzness at computer coding will expose corrupt governments) and, hence, they have a bodyguard (usually the heroine). And when the fighting starts they try to stay out of the way because that's usually in everyone’s best interests. But it’s not that they’re frightened of fighting, they just know they’ll get in the way (and most of the time they get involved anyway).

So my question, dear reader, is this: could you love a hero who avoids a physical confrontation with a baddie because he’s afraid? Even if by the end of the book he has faced his fear and overcome his cowardice?


  1. Great question, Michelle... ummmmm, I wish I had a great answer! LOL But you've definitely got me thinking and there's certainly nothing leaping to mind.

    I do feel as though there's an elusive thought somewhere in my brain... so if it pops out, I'll come back to share it!


  2. Michelle, you've got me wondering. I think it could work, if his fear was well motivated.

    Off now to think some more . . .

    Great post. :)

  3. Michelle, such an interesting question! Reminds me of an interview that JK Rowling did about the Hogwarts houses in Harry Potter. The sorting hat allocates students into various houses based on their merits. Ravenclaw, for example, values intelligence, knowledge and wit.

    Gryffindor is Harry's house, and it values bravery, daring, nerve and chivalry. In the interview I saw (or read?) JK said the action of the books happens in Gryffindor / Harry is a Gryyfindor because bravery is the trait she values most.

    So perhaps this is a question that's broader than the romance genre?

  4. Sharon, if your elusive thought comes back then don't forget to share it! :-)

    Cowardice, I'm thinking is unattractive, but overcoming cowardice isn't. I'm not sure, though, that there's enough space in a category romance to give the theme the treatment it deserves. But then again... Would love for someone to correct me.

  5. Oh, yes, Helen! Motivation would have to be key. Well said!

  6. Rachel, I think you're right and the issue is broader than category romance. From memory RED BADGE OF COURAGE is about a soldier who flees from battle because of his fear (which, I think, he faces by the end of the novel). I just don't know if I could write a cowardly hero in a category that readers would love. While I love character growth in a category romance...I also want to love the hero asap. Could I love a cowardly hero? A romance hero who is a wimp? I really don't know. Maybe it's stretching the boundaries between fantasy and reality a little too much.

    It seems that Heroes, almost by definition, should belong to Gryffindor. :-)

  7. Michelle, that's a great question. I think a lot of physical courage is instinctual, act first and think about it later. I'm not sure I could love a hero who walked away because he was afraid for himself. But I'm willing to be convinced otherwise.

  8. Ooh, good point on courage being instinctual, Sue. Like you, I'm not sure I could love a hero who was physically cowardly...but also like you I'm not going to say never say never. :-)

    I wonder if I fell in love with a hero at the beginning of a book because he did something wonderful/lovely/smart etc...and then I found out later about his cowardice, if that would change things for me.

    Cowardice shouldn't make a hero irredeemable, but...well...maybe it does?

  9. Stupid & cowardly do not a hero make. Sorry, I can't see it myself. It would have to be something exceptional to make me change my mind.

  10. Marybelle, I have a tendency to agree with you. I do think there's a place in fiction to explore themes of cowardice...and I think watching a character overcome it would be quite rewarding and uplifting. But am thinking that the place for it isn't between the covers of a romance. :-)

  11. Hi Michelle,

    Thought provoking post! I have to agree that cowardice isn't a heroic quality and it's not what we want to see in a romance hero. However, I can see that someone who gives in to cowardice and then faces it in the end will be a heroic character, Usually they don't take the lead role in films these days or in romances. I can't remember all the details as it's years since I read it, but that's pretty close to the idea of Conrad's 'Lord Jim' I seem to recall which has a lot to do with honour and bravery. I think in a romance though it would be better if the act of cowardice was well in the past (preferably in childhood!).

  12. Michelle, great post! I've thought about your question on and off all day. Coz in the back of my mind I knew there was a cowardly hero I loved.
    No, it wasn't category romance. I'd love to see someone actually pull it off in our genre. Not sure it can be done.
    But the cowardly hero I adore is Johnny Depp in the movie, Sleepy Hollow.
    I remember as a kid watching the Disney cartoon version of the Headless Horseman, with Goofey playing the lead. He was such a jibbering mess.
    JD is all shaky too, but he's also extremely good at what he does - deduction - and he comes through with flying colours at the end!
    Just before he faints.

  13. Oh, Annie, great point about an act of cowardice belonging in the past in a hero's backstory for it to work in romance (ugh, terribly convoluted sentence - I need more caffeine) -- watching him come to terms with it, facing it again in the present and then overcoming it could be both gripping and uplifting.

    I think part of the problem with cowardice and romance is that we want the heroes to be capable of taking care of the heroine and defending her when need be. A cowardly hero is just not going to cut it.

  14. Oh, Robbie, you reminded me of the cowardly lion from The Wizard of Oz. I always had a soft spot for him...and while he might've been shaking in his boots, he came through in the end.

    I haven't seen Sleepy Hollow, but will check it out as Johnny Depp sounds wonderful in it. :-)

  15. What a great question! I was trying to think of examples, and the closest I could get was thinking of several examples where formerly brave/risk-taking heroes who have fallen in love suddenly turn 'cowardly ' because they realize they have a lot more to lose than they once did. That's when backing away from a fight can be heroic -- although I guess we could still argue whether or not it was actually 'cowardly'. ;) Perhaps the distinction is between 'strong' and 'weak' -- a heroic coward is still strong -- he avoids the fight for the right reasons -- whereas a villain or other character who is a coward is often weak -- whether physically or morally.

  16. Michelle,I think the word 'coward is a seriously negative term. If I think of the term 'coward', I think of someone I can't rely upon, but worse, someone I can't trust. Someone who won't take ownership for a deed, who will throw you under the bus to save himself; who will probably lie and cheat. I think these are very different to someone who is afraid of physical attachment/violence/involvement - and I can't see these former traits being redeemed in a romance novel. Well, not easily, anyway...

    And I know everyone here will probably cry that a 'wimpy' hero sounds very unattractive, but for me that description inspires a milder reaction than the word 'coward'.

    'Maybe' wimpy or something milder (and better!)like this, is a term we can apply to the not-so-brave comedic hero which is a scenario that can can work beautifully in the sense that it can be part of his (hero's) charm. Think Cary Grant type characters. (And I know not all his roles portrayed those kinds of characters).

    For me, maybe it works then because we know that it is (only) the physical violence that he's afraid of and we already know that he has other really strong moral traits.(Also that less-than-brave attitude plays to the comedic theme).

    Also while he doesn't like physical violence, we KNOW he won't walk away from the heroine - and even if she's the one who ultimately bops the antagonist on the nose(!) he'll still be there with her.

    I also personally think this scenario works well in the ultimate visual form of story because a lot will be conveyed and understood through facial expression.

    Oh wow - here's me over-analysing again... And getting nowhere but back to where I began. Sigh...

    But it's your own fault because you pose too many interesting things for me to ponder...

    (LOL! Is that the definition of a coward? Someone who won't take responsibility for their own actions?) Oops! Stones and glass houses and all that...

  17. You know, Emmie, I'm wondering if the hero and process you describe isn't more the growth of someone who's previously been too reckless and taken unnecessary risks. His fear isn't for his physical safety as such. He's grown in responsibility and comes to acknowledge everything he has to live for. So I think you're right and he's not really "cowardly."

    But, oh, yum! I just love the kind of hero you described!

  18. Kerri, I agree -- coward really is a terribly negative word. And a coward as a hero is probably an impossible sell in romance.

    But I think a "wimpy" hero could have some charm. Like you say, especially in the kind of comedic writing that you do so well. :-)

    I love Carey Grant and I love how the characters he plays often deflect violence with wit and intelligence (because the baddies are always far from bright). It marks him as smarter and classier on several different levels. But I always had the feeling that if he had to throw a punch or two, he would.

    You've reminded me of the young computer nerd in the last Die Hard film. He was brilliant and a great foil for the Bruce Willis character. And, of course, he turned out to be a true hero. :-)

  19. Hi Michele,

    i think i could love this hero because in the end of the book he has faced his fear and overcome his cowardice ;)

  20. Oh, yes, Eli! Finally someone who believes she could love our 'Fraidy Cat hero! Kudos to you. I love the idea of a story about someone overcoming their cowardice, facing their fear and feeling whole and well and secure by the end of the book.

    Still not sure it could be pulled off in a category romance as I think the "overcoming the fear/cowardice" story would overshadow the "romance" story...but it's certainly something to ponder. :-)