I not sure I want to know what this says about me, but I love characters with baggage. Not simple rainy-day baggage, a crummy job or a lame sidekick. I’m talking the truly deep, heavy baggage that takes a whole novel to unpack. The kind that makes for a multi-faceted characters and really good drama. The kind that I probably wouldn’t tolerate for a moment in real life, but that I utterly revel in when it comes to books.
Mr. Rochester, in my opinion, is and ever will be the tortured hero against whom all others should be measured…though Edmund Dantes, the titular Count of Monte Cristo, certainly comes close…but that might very well be a blog post for another day…. In terms of more modern novels, however, there really is only one place to start: Loretta Chase’s continually shocking and always entrancing Lord of Scoundrels.
It’s a rare event when this book isn’t included toward the top of a list of ‘Best Romances’, and it is because Loretta Chase created a hero the likes of whom had never been seen before, and has been hard to best ever since. Sebastian, Lord Dain, seemingly born unattractive and unlovable, was left to fend for himself and to survive the beatings and bullying of the world alone. Unsurprisingly, by the time he is in his thirties, he commands all the fear and approbation due to the Devil himself. Having lived a lifetime without love of any kind, it’s doubtful whether Dain has any idea what hit him when he first sets eyes on Jessica Trent (he tries to convince himself it’s merely indigestion from some rancid butter). And though she is everything Dain has publicly disdained, she is, in fact, the one person on earth that he needs—and one of the very few who isn’t afraid of him or his reputation.
What I found so incredible about Dain was the fact that he managed to be so duplicitous. On the outside, he is completely implacable, meeting every situation with ruthlessly calm disdain. But on the inside, he is totally unsure of himself, especially around Jessica, and constantly compares her physical beauty and smallness to his own bulk and brawn (While I don’t think I’d want to meet Dain in a dark alley, I tend to believe a bit more in Jessica’s description of him than his own). And though he tries terribly hard not to show how much her concern and her tolerance—not to mention her love—mean to him, Dain needs Jess more than oxygen. Jess gives as good as she gets, of course, and watching these two navigate their way to a happy ending (believe me, it’s quite the journey) is one of the most memorable experiences of my literary life.
Though my devotion to Dain is long-standing, there is no one for me who can quite compare to Lucian Knight, the hero of Gaelen Foley’s Lord of Fire.
Like Dain, Lucien has come to accept that he is alone in the world, both because of his profession as a master spy for the Crown, and because his decision to abandon his career in the army for a life of espionage has estranged him from his twin brother, Damien, the only friend he’s ever truly trusted. Never mind that the reason Lucian took up spying was in order to keep his brother safe by any means necessary. He shoulders that burden, along with so many others, and determines to live a life of notorious depravity in order to keep the respectable world that abandoned him at arm’s length. Lucien’s life is one of thwarted ambitions and heartbreaking setbacks, culminating in his ongoing battle with Claude Bardou, a French spy, and the man responsible for breaking Lucien, and for killing his mentor. Bardou’s appearance in England (with characteristically dastardly motives) coincides with the arrival of one Alice Montague, sister-in-law Lucien’s most recent conquest. And, like Dain, from the moment he sees the lady, Lucien’s life is irrevocably changed. In her, Lucien sees his last chance at redemption, an antidote to the blackness of his life and the one person he refuses to learn to live without.
If Dain’s charm is in his self-deception, Lucien’s is found in his absolute, heart-rending simplicity, and the lengths that he goes to hide that sincerity from a world he can no longer trust. But as layer after layer of this complex man is peeled away, it becomes obvious that, more than being a ruthless opponent, and a savagely clever spy, Lucien is a fundamentally good man who wears his heart on his sleeve, and that heart belongs to no one but Alice. I loved that she wasn’t the paragon of virtue that her sister-in-law makes her out to be, but rather, she is honest and loyal and unpretentious, while Lucien, despite his own reputation, is weary and careworn and terribly, terribly lonely. I’ve read this book over and over, and I still can’t past one specific scene without going all to pieces, usually on the shoulder of a stranger on the subway, or cheering in triumph at the books explosive ending.
Naturally, it’s not only historic characters that get the entire collection of emotional luggage; even immortal demons get the blues sometimes.
Michelle Rowan’s Living in Eden series features a wonderfully tortured demon, Darrak, who through no fault of his own, obviously (ahem), finds himself in possession of one Eden Riley, a somewhat forlorn young woman who has inherited one half of a failing private detective firm. Together, our leading lady and demonic anti-hero have enough issues to open a news stand: Eden’s mother passed away just before the series’ opening, after a lifetime of poor decisions and bad behavior, leaving Eden without a family, no information at all about her father. Darrak, on the other hand, has spent millennia trying to free himself of the human bodies he is forced to possess, after being cursed during particularly bad breakup with a very powerful witch. But after finding Eden, Darrak finds he is increasingly unwilling to leave, even though his presence might be doing her far more harm than good. Both are Hell bent (pun intended) on finding a way to “cure” Eden and her soul of Darrak’s influence, but as their impromptu partnership develops and their personal relationship heats up, it looks as if Darrak might just be willing to defy Hell itself to stay with his troubled beloved. These two work spectacularly together, and their snarky banter (made even better by the fact that they inhabit the same corporeal space) is topped only by those moments of tenderness when we get to see just how close these two have truly become. For those of us who hate cliffhangers, the last book in this trilogy (That Old Black Magic) was released in December, so you can enjoy the entire story without pesky interruptions.
A bit closer to reality, Drew in Blue, one of my favorite reads last year, features two characters whose baggage isn’t nearly as visible as some of our above-mentioned heroes and heroines, but carry an incredible amount of emotional punch.
Drew Doyle’s childhood was less than memorable, spent in a number of foster homes after his mother’s sudden death. As a result, he’s become a confirmed loner as an adult, with few close friends outside his high-school love and lifelong best friend, Kristina. When an ex-girlfriend drops by unexpectedly and leaves Drew with a son he didn’t know he had, his entire world is suddenly upended. Not only does he have to learn the intricate rituals of feeding and changing and walking, but he has to face his own fears of being a father, of learning to love this child in a way he never was. Thankfully, he has Kristina, who stays by his side even through his less-than stellar attempts at relationships. But when Drew at least realizes that she could very easily be the woman to fill the void in his and Nick’s life, it might be too late. Drew broke Kris’ heart by walking away from their budding romance, and convincing her that he is willing to change now might be his biggest challenge of all.
Like Eden, Drew’s family life has left its marks, and, like Lucien, he has learned that hard way that showing your vulnerabilities will get you terribly hurt. His childhood pain and misconceptions have colored his whole outlook, and the idea not only of relying on someone, but on being responsible for someone, is genuinely terrifying. But, as we’ve seen, sometimes true love can conquer the most improbable of situations. This story faces the biggest of issues with simple honesty, and every scene is all the more powerful for it, especially as the real magic between Drew and Kristina is let loose. From heart wrenching loss and gut-twistingly awkward (and painfully funny) mishaps, these characters begin beautiful transformations. This is one of those love stories against which I tend to measure all others, and no matter how many times I go back to it, Drew in Blue continues to tug at my heart.
The list could go on from here, of course, but what do you think? What kind of characters keep you coming back for more? Recommendations are enormously appreciated!