Whenever I’m writing romance, I have to be careful not to think too hard about genre expectations. Otherwise, it’s quite possible that I’ll end up taking some of the teeth out of my heroes. The thing is, the genre is stuffed to the gills with heroic heroes, and even the “anti-heroes” are secretly noble and honorable and very apologetic about their flaws. I love romance, and I love those types of heroes, but sometimes, I want a hero who is a little bit less than perfect. A darker “hero” who is unapologetic for who and what he is.
Since I ultimately write the books that I want to read, that’s exactly how some of my “heroes” end up. Not that I don’t make an effort to redeem them throughout their book. After all, growth is what makes a character dynamic and interesting. But I don’t always want my hero to be Mr. Perfect by the epilogue either. I still want him to have a few flaws.
When I wrote Balfor’s Salvation, I struggled with the decision to cut the first chapter out completely, because it introduces my “hero” in a gory, violent scene. He is hardly heroic material at this point, and there’s a good reason for it, but I expected it to turn off a lot of readers in the genre. In fact, the original scene was much worse than what made it into the final draft. At one point, Balfor was almost irredeemable for me, and I was sure he would be irredeemable for many readers. (I’m considering offering the original scene as content for subscribers to a newsletter. Let me know if anyone’s interested.)
I suppose artistic integrity would demand that I leave him as he was, and that changing him to better suit the genre took something away from the overall story.
This was my struggle, and my unresolved question. Should I, or shouldn’t I?
Encouraging readers to review your book can be a difficult, time-consuming process when you haven’t yet built up a huge platform. At this point in my career, one negative review on a book could be the only one I receive, and that could literally kill my book’s chances. If it’s negative enough, it could kill all of my books. That may seem like a mercenary reason to alter my art, but I don’t want to just keep writing for myself. I want to share my stories with the widest possible audience.
Yet, I left the revised introduction to Balfor in the final draft of Balfor’s Salvation, because even though I changed him somewhat from his original incarnation, I still wanted him to be dark and dangerous, even somewhat villainous. I didn’t want him to be too safe. My heroine, Stacia, is a strong woman and I felt like she was capable of handling someone like Balfor.
Usually, my characters come to me whole-cloth. I imagine them as distinct personalities with well-defined backstories and as many negative as positive attributes. Perhaps Balfor started off a little too dark because he was never supposed to be a romance hero. I wasn’t planning on writing his story, but in the end, he demanded it, and he wouldn’t have anyone else but Stacia. I had other plans for her, but yeah…that wasn’t happening once he made up his mind.
A similar situation happened with Uriale. He was definitely only supposed to be the primary antagonist for my first two books. He was a monster. Is a monster. He’s done terrible things. How could he possibly ever be a hero?
The truth is that I didn’t want him to be at first, but it turned out that he had more dimensions to his character than the villainous side he revealed in the first two books. I discovered that he could be redeemed in my eyes. Can he be redeemed in the eyes of other readers? I guess I’ll find out. His teeth are already well established as sharp, so at this point, there’s no rewriting scenes to blunt them. Uriale’s Redemption (which I hope will be released next summer), will reveal whether he can use his power for good instead of evil.
In a way, starting with such a villain and being unable to change his past or make him “softer” and therefore more acceptable is a bit of a relief. It means I won’t have to struggle over whether to keep or delete scenes that reveal him in a less than romantic light. In the same moment that I decided to go ahead and keep Balfor’s introduction instead of stripping the worst of his character traits and actions out of the story, I also decided to take the risk with publishing Uriale’s story.
I suppose in the end, artistic integrity won out over marketing concerns. Granted, the changes I did make were significant, but I still feel like I remained true to Balfor’s character. As I will remain true to Uriale’s character. His past is even darker than Balfor’s, and he’s had many more years to grow twisted and corrupt. If nothing else, writing his story should be incredibly interesting. The outline certainly is.
I’ve included the first part of Balfor’s Salvation in case you wanted to see the scene I very nearly cut from the book. Let me know what you think. I’d love to get other opinions on this.
Duke Ranove approached the campsite cautiously, noting the severed heads lined up along the trail. The scent of blood, spilled bowels, and death tainted the air. When he entered the sheltered area, hemmed in and shaded by basalt columns, he saw what he’d hoped not to see.
Prince Balfor crouched beside the sullen embers of an old fire, a severed adurian arm clutched in one clawed hand. Ragged flesh on the dismembered limb showed bite marks. The silver of adurian blood coated him from his horns down to his talons, mixing with his own black blood, also spilled in copious amounts. A coagulating pool lay beneath his feet as swirls of black and silver sluggishly dripped from the loincloth that was his only covering. In the clearing overshadowed by towering basalt, pieces of adurian corpses littered the muddy ground. Standing at the edge of the campsite, Ranove could barely detect the prince’s personal scent beneath the stench of rotting meat and old blood.
Though Balfor had his back to Ranove, his wings were partially extended in threat. The prince had no doubt sensed Ranove’s arrival from the moment he entered the basalt traps.
Ranove ventured a few steps in Balfor’s direction before a baleful growl from the prince froze him in place. He tensed as Balfor suddenly turned and charged him, a snarl twisting his blood-coated face to reveal chunks of flesh caught in his bared teeth. Ranove sidestepped the larger umbrose, sweeping his wings back to lift himself out of Balfor’s path. Balfor rushed past him, spinning a step beyond him to face Ranove, roaring in challenge.
Ranove lowered his head and wings. He’d have preferred not to fight and risk his own death, or worse, the possibility that he might win and Balfor would die. The power granted to Balfor by the Mother would inevitably pass on to Ranove as the next strongest umbrose. That was the last thing he wanted. He need only look at what it had driven Balfor to do just to escape Her influence. The primal was in full control of the prince now.
Balfor growled at Ranove’s submission, circling him. The prince feigned a lunge forward. Ranove didn’t flinch—which would have lowered him to the level of prey in the primal’s estimation—but he kept his head down.
Suddenly, Balfor lowered his head and rammed Ranove, bashing their horns together. Ranove staggered back a step—tasting blood from the force of the blow—but quickly recovered, resetting his footing to hold against Balfor’s onslaught. The bony, hollow thudding of their horns crashing together echoed in the canyon of stone columns. Digging into Balfor’s shoulders with both sets of claws to restrain him, Ranove strained to hold onto the heavier umbrose to minimize the damage caused by his head bashing. Venom dripped from his claw tips as they pierced the prince. His own skin burned from venom as Balfor’s claws sliced across his chest.
They pummeled each other with their wings. It was a primitive fight, but one meant for establishing dominance, not for killing. It had been a long time since Ranove had fought this way. The old way. The primal way.
Balfor was bigger and stronger. Despite that advantage, blood flowed freely from wounds on both umbrose when Ranove dropped to one knee in defeat. Balfor staggered back, lifting a hand to his forehead. He touched the broken flesh beneath one horn and then stared at his palm covered in black blood mixed with silver.
When he looked at Ranove again, the duke finally saw recognition in his eyes. “How long have I been gone?”
Balfor didn’t like the circumspect expression on Ranove’s face when the duke answered his question. “Two weeks ago you set the slaves loose in the basalt traps armed with weapons. You’ve been hunting them since then.”
Balfor frowned. Memories trickled back from the past two weeks. Ugly memories blurred by the mental veil he kept between himself and his primal. “How many slaves this time?”
Ranove glanced to his right. “Fourteen.”
Balfor followed the direction of his gaze and saw the corpses. Lip curling in disgust at the
sight, Balfor shook his head. “Did I catch them all?”
That was one relief. If the slaves had escaped, they could’ve reported his condition back to Uriale and Anata, jeopardizing Sanctuary’s safety. It would have been Balfor’s fault, and his burden of shame to bear. He was no longer fit to rule, but the Mother had chosen him and would not release him until his death. “How many slaves are left?”
Ranove’s expression told Balfor he wasn’t going to like the answer. “This was the last of them.”
“Father’s Curse!” He clenched his fists and spat on the ground, wanting to rid his mouth of the foul taste of raw meat and blood, but also of failure. “I killed them all, then?” He glared at Ranove. “Why didn’t you stop me?”
Ranove wouldn’t meet his eyes. “Even the Mother could not stop you.”
The revelation shook Balfor. He’d already lost control of his primal four times in the two years since he’d been freed from the adurians. Each time, he’d disconnected from the Mother and enjoyed the blissful silence behind the veil where even She would not go, but the price for that silence was too high. His primal was growing stronger and more difficult to restrain. There might come a time when he became lost to the primal forever.
Now that most of the umbrose males were off fighting the war against the adurians, they needed the slaves to work the fields to offset the loss of their labor. He could not risk allowing the females to leave the safety of the city boundary when their population was still so small. “You didn’t inform me we were running out of slaves.”
Ranove bowed his head, but not before Balfor saw a flash of anger cross his face. “Your Highness, I did pass on that information.”
The duke’s tone bordered on disrespectful. Up until this point, Ranove had always been his staunchest ally; the advisor he trusted the most. It angered him that Ranove would slip up and reveal his disdain. It disturbed him that he might have lost the other male’s respect for his multiple failures to attend to the duties that only the Mother’s Chosen Prince could perform.
A vague recollection surfaced. A warning from Ranove about the slaves. It had irritated him at the time, preoccupied as he’d been by his concubines and heady shadowberry wine. Overindulgence in both had done nothing to silence the voices, but they’d made it easy to ignore his second in command.
Those voices whispered at him now, a susurration that made it difficult to hear the breeze weaving through the basalt canyons. The Mother was disappointed in him. The weight of Her displeasure hung over him like a physical burden. His people were already in dire straits because of his negligence. Any further attempts to escape his responsibilities would bring far harsher punishments from the Mother of Shadows than this current manifestation of Her displeasure. There would be no more escape from Her will. “Give me your report.”
Ranove looked around them again as if he wasn’t comfortable surrounded by the grisly evidence of Balfor’s loss of control. Balfor wondered when his duke had grown so soft. Probably the human female making him weak. He allowed Lilith’s presence in Sanctuary because Ranove wanted her. Acceding to his wish gave Balfor leverage, but that didn’t mean he liked having a human among them. For too long, the star-people had been the servants of his enemies. They could not be trusted.
“Your legion commanders have reported successes in their campaigns. Aduria is neutralized and the Summer Palace has been completely destroyed.”
Ranove’s optimism didn’t spread to Balfor. “Uriale and Anata are not fighting. That doesn’t make sense.”
“Uriale is little more than Anata’s puppet now, and her madness has infected him. She weakens him instead of augmenting the Father’s power within him. I saw this for a fact when I was their captive.” Ranove’s tone didn’t change as he spoke of his captivity, nor did his expression, but fine tension vibrated the duke’s muscles, and his wings twitched with his words. Like Balfor, Ranove had suffered in adurian hands. In fact, the adurian princess had taken an obsessive personal interest in breaking Ranove, which had made his unexplained transfer to the human facility he’d escaped from a reprieve. Balfor had not been so lucky and had remained in the hands of Uriale and Anata, subject to their torture. The bright ones had no mercy for the umbrose. The feeling was entirely mutual, and someday Balfor would repay them for every wound they’d inflicted upon himself and his people.
Balfor crossed his arms over his bloodstained chest. “I have also witnessed Uriale’s waning power. He must be trying to reject their bond.” He grimaced at the thought of being bonded to a twisted sadist like Anata. He almost pitied his mortal enemy, because Uriale couldn’t break what was forged by the Father of Light, any more than Balfor could deny the will of the Mother of Shadows. No matter what Uriale tried, he’d be tied to Anata forever. “But that’s not enough of an explanation for their failure to defend their own people. Anata is arrogant enough to try and fight me despite my connection to the Mother’s Heart, even with Uriale’s greater experience cautioning against it. Yet they’ve issued no challenge and aren’t fighting alongside their own legions.” He turned and paced the width of the campsite. “They’re up to something. Searching for some way to overcome the advantage the Mother’s Heart gives me.”
“Our scouts are out there. I’ve already told them to look for signs of Uriale and Anata.”
“Good. I need to know what they’re planning.”
“I will report to you immediately if I hear something.” Ranove spread and folded his wings as he spoke again, his words coming slower in a hesitant tone uncommon to the normally decisive umbrose. “About the crops ….”
Balfor suppressed his sigh. “You have a solution.”
“I have a suggestion.”
He already suspected what Ranove prepared to say. “I’m not going to like it.”
Ranove bowed his head. “The humans want to open up trade with Sanctuary. Their domes were damaged during the rebellion and most of their resources have gone towards rep—”
Balfor lifted a hand to silence Ranove. “I don’t care about the humans’ problems.”
“They have the laborers to work our fields in trade for our resources to rebuild their city.”
“And you’ve already worked out a deal with them, I suppose.”
“Not without your permission.” Ranove’s voice sounded smoother, reassuring. “Their primary materials provider, Dornan Industries, has made several inquiries in that direction. They wish to send a representative to personally meet with you.”
“Dornan? I’ve heard that name before.” He’d more than heard it. It had been a refrain in his mind for two years now. Even though memories were sketchy at best lately, that one stuck out.
“That is the second name—the family name— of the soldier wounded during your extraction from the adurian tower. She is my concubine’s closest friend.”
Balfor had been told her name by the human rebels after his rescue from the royal tower in Aduria. It had been mentioned in an aside, a tally of casualties in the hopes of impressing a debt upon him. He’d felt no obligation to them—indeed, he still looked upon most of them with disdain—but he’d caught the name and remembered it. Just as he remembered her.
An appealing feminine scent beneath the reek of blood, a soft moan of agony he scarcely heard because of the sharp retort of human weapons. A slight weight rested against his shoulder. Slender fingers gripped his forearm as pain coursed through the body beside him. He moved his arm, and the fingers fell away. Immediately regretting their absence, he quested for them with his own hand, hardly moving because of the crippling pain from his many wounds. Then they were in his grasp. A victory! He held them tight, engulfing them in his much larger fist as pain wracked them both. She needed him, and that gave him purpose, and the will to fight.
“I remember the female.” Balfor’s voice was a mere whisper as the memory faded, but the feeling of her fragile hand in his, and the memory of her scent that clung to him—even after she’d been taken from him—remained clear in his thoughts. Plagued with problems upon his return to Sanctuary, he’d never hoped to see the human again and had made no effort to even find out more about her than what the humans called her. Private Dornan. He’d learned that the first word had been a military rank and not her name. Since humans had multiple names for some reason, he didn’t even know her familiar name, because Dornan was her family’s name, passed down from her sire.
Until the humans had listed her as one of their wounded, he’d wondered if he’d only dreamed her. Surely the star-people had never produced one so compelling that she reached him even though his agonized stupor.
Ranove’s brows lifted nearly to the horns rising out of his forehead. Regarding Balfor with shifting wings, he opened his mouth to speak, but after a moment, closed it on silence.
Balfor ignored Ranove’s discomfiture. She smelled of moonfloss blossoms in bloom with just a hint of some unknown musk that was hers alone. With all the blossoms in the last two years’ harvests, I haven’t been able to recapture that elusive scent. “I will consider a trade agreement with this Dornan Industries, but only if they send my choice of representative. Prepare a message that I will meet with this female named Dornan in one week’s time.” He wanted to know her familiar name. “What is the name she is called by?”
Balfor repeated the syllables. “Stacia.” For once, the many voices in his head remained silent, not even correcting his pronunciation of the human word as they’d so often done when they’d taught him the language humans called DC Common. He reveled in the moment of silence. He was almost able to smile at Ranove because of his relief. “Bring this Stacia to me in one week’s time, and I will consider her proposal.” He turned his back on Ranove, facing the grisly campsite without really seeing it.
Ranove’s wings rustled as he bowed to Balfor’s back. “I will send the word, Your Highness.”