In an essay written in 1992, Jayne Ann Krentz argued that a hero who is nice simply does not cut it in the world of romance:
The hero must be part villain or else he won't be much of a challenge for a strong woman. The heroine must put herself at risk with him if the story is to achieve the level of excitement and the particular sense of danger that only a classic romance can provide.
And the flat truth is that you don't get much of a challenge for the heroine from a sensitive, understanding, right-thinking 'modern' man who is part therapist, part best friend, and thoroughly tamed from the start. You don't get much of a challenge for her from a neurotic wimp or a good-natured gentleman-saint who never reveals a core of steel. —Jayne Ann Krentz, "Trying to Tame the Romance"*
Though the taste for the overbearing alpha male that Krentz and other authors in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of Romance (1992) extol certainly continues twenty years later, most romance readers no longer demand such a monolithic vision of masculinity in their romances. Dominating men, damaged men, funny men, former best-friend men—they all take up their fair share of space on the romance genre bookshelf. And, more and more often, the nice guy is asking (politely, of course) to join the club.
Do nice guys fail to provide a "challenge" for their strong female counterparts? Wild Child, the most recent romance by contemporary author Molly O'Keefe, suggest that "niceguyness" can be just as much a defense mechanism against emotional engagement as is the arrogant callousness of any a more obviously damaged hero.
But the people closest to Jackson—teen sister Gwen, best friend Shelby—know that Jackson's nice-guyness is a way to push people away, even while it deceives them into thinking they've been invited in. "He managed to gather people close, earn their trust, their affection—sometimes their love. Without ever investing back in them. He was closed off. In some respects, totally untouchable," Shelby thinks to herself.
That Jackson's nice-guyness is a performance—a comfortable, familiar performance, but still a role that Jackson dons for his own protective purposes— is something that former television reality star Monica Appleby recognizes almost immediately: "I see you, she thought. All the parts you hide behind that smile. And they aren't all pretty," she realizes when polite Jackson politely urges her to leave Bishop shortly after her arrival, to avoid disrupting his current plan to save the town.
At first glance, Monica appears to be Jackson's opposite. She's dealt with the spotlight of fame by turning into a "wild child," running away from home, severing relations with her mother, sleeping with rock stars left and right, creating a name for herself as trouble with a capital "T." Jackson is certain that bad-girl Monica's arrival in town will derail his plans to make Bishop shine in a televised contest between other towns vying to win the favor of an America-first cracker manufacturer looking for a site for his latest factory. Especially since she's writing a book about the murder of her father, the most notorious crime in Bishop's history.
He realized, watching her, how skilled she was at letting people think they were getting close while in reality she was keeping them at arm's length.
Something prickly ran up his neck, an awareness.
I do that, too.
O'Keefe asks both her characters and her readers to look not only beyond the reality-TV gloss, but at the the roles everyone puts on, to protect themselves from the slights of real life. For we're all always playing a role, whether we're on a reality TV show or just interacting with acquaintances throughout our quotidian days. Are these roles serving us well? Or are they getting in the way of creating meaningful relationships?
Who are your favorite nice guy heroes in romance? And is their niceness a performance that they need to grow beyond? Or a quality that the text holds up as hero-worthy?
Nice Guy Emotions: Mr. Oblivious
Mr. Nice Guy T-shirt: Zazzle.com