Friday, November 1, 2013

Romancing the Nice Guy: Molly O'Keefe's WILD CHILD

As I write today on Halloween, many of my fellow romance bloggers and reviewers are uploading posts about the monstrous men of romance: werewolves, vampires, demons, and their ilk. I thought I'd mix things up a bit by posting instead about the opposite: the nice guy as hero.

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.

"Nice. Sure. Everyone thinks he's nice," says Gwen Davies of her older brother Jackson. Didn't Jackson give up law school to come home and take care of Gwen after their parents' died? Hasn't he spent the last few years struggling as the mayor of Bishop, Arkansas, trying to dig the dying town out of a financial hole? Isn't he perfect at walking the line between town father figure and monk, careful not to raise false expectations in any of Bishop's women? Jackson's a nice guy, a can-do guy, a guy who holds doors and apologizes when he says anything the least bit rude. Nothing happens that can't be fixed, and Jackson's the man to fix it.

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.

But both Jackson and Monica are dealing with the difficulties of living up to other people's expectations, each caught by the roles they've adopted in a "bubble of distance," a bubble that keeps any intimate, meaningful relationships safely at a distance. By recognizing such behavior in Monica, Jackson gradually becomes to see the ways in which his own good guy act serves the same purpose:

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?

Illustration credits:
Nice Guy Emotions: Mr. Oblivious
Mr. Nice Guy T-shirt:

Bantam, 2013


  1. I admit I love the nice guys. I especially love the nice guy betas. It's not that I can't enjoy any other kind of hero, but my favorites are always the nice ones. Probably top on my list is David from Meljean Brook's Riveted. Smart, kind, considerate, him! Another favorite is Jamie Donovan from Bad Boys Do by Victoria Dahl. Sounds like a funny choice because he's supposed to be "bad" in the book, but I'd argue he's very nice, always doing for others, always friendly, trying to do the right thing, etc. (He actually uses his bad reputation to push others away from the real him, who is just a normal nice guy.)

    1. Jen:
      Yes, I'm a big nice guy fan, too. And you've mentioned two of my favorites, both by what I think of as a newer generation of romance writers. Are younger women more accepting of the nice guy hero that were women who grew up under stricter patriarchal norms, do you think?

  2. A male reader here, who loves "nice guy" heroes. So many others aren't men whose company I'd like to keep, in fiction or in real life. Dahl writes wonderful heroes of that stripe (Quinn's my favorite); Crusie's Cal, from Bet Me, is another.

    1. Ah, yes, Quinn's my favorite Dahl hero, too (and the subject of one of the earliest posts on this blog!). Do you think either of them uses niceness as a shield?

  3. Jess in Pamela Morsi's Simple Jess is a lovely person, and Jedwin, in her Wild Oats is also a good person. Georgette Heyer's Freddy in Cotillion's a nice, helpful person and her little Duke in The Foundling is very sweet.

    I don't remember coming across any characters who use niceness as a shield.

  4. I love nice-guy heroes (not that I don't also love bad-boys or alpha-jerks or villains-turned heroes as well.)
    Some of my favorites are:
    Marcus from Kleypas' "It Happened One Autumn" as he is genuinely kind and trying to do the right thing, but is a bit naughty on the inside.
    Joe Travis from Kleypas' "Smooth Talking Stranger" who might be just a tad bossy, but still goes way out of his way to help out Ella and her nephew.
    Phin from Crusie's "Welcome to Temptation" -- I love the nice-guy, straight-laced hero who meets the wild-child heroine.
    Adam from Julie Anne Long's "A Notorious Countess Confesses" -- what a great character he is! I love how he has to navigate the faith/love/public opinion tangle in the book.
    I also love two of Kristen Ashley's "nice guy" heroes: Mitch from "Law Man" and Hank Nightingale from "Rock Chick Redemption" -- both are cops and both are bossy, but they are both very NICE as well.

  5. Nice post! I like the nice guy heroes too. Christy from Patricia Gaffney's To Love and To Cherish fits the bill, although his foil (the heroine) was really obnoxious to me, much as I hate to contribute to the hypercriticism of female protagonists in literature.

  6. My favorite nice guy heroes in romance? Any Crusie's heroes. To mention one, Alex from 'Anyone but you'
    And I think that's the way they are, not a phase in their personal development or anything.
    IMO, JAK's 'Dangerous men...' has got a few outdated ideas. For instance, this idea that the heroe must be in some way dangerous for the lady, or the 'forced seduction' or the purple prose as 'a code of the genre'?. No, sorry, it's a book badly written, you can write great love stories using a correct language.
    The thing is that I found some of the first nice guys in the genre precisely in JAK's novels.

  7. Although sometimes I wonder if we're a little too quick to assert we like nice guys, maybe in response to the sexist notion that "girls don't like nice guys," which seems to pressure women to like nice guys or else, be like Them, those other women.