So what happens when you have a character show up in the first book of your 4-part series who is so annoying and unlikeable reviewers call him “a complete and utter PITA”? (P I T A = pain in the arse…as my mother would have said.)
Well…naturally, you make him your next HERO.
My working image of Austen Zabrinski.
In Cowgirl Come Home, my hero’s brother, Austen Zabrinski, shows up repeatedly. He’s…um…difficult. He has attitude. Here’s a snippet. Tell me if this sounds like a hero to you?
She only had a vague recollection of Paul’s older brother since he left for college before she and Paul started dating. But everybody in Marietta knew Austen.
His name had been in the Courier every week since he was MVP in at least three sports. All the girls wanted to date him, although he never had a steady that Bailey could remember. He gave the class speech at graduation. She knew that for a fact because she’d been selected as one of the four freshman girls to pass out programs at the door.
She’d listened closely because he had the audacity to buck the system, showing up with his longish hair artfully tousled, a movie-star goatee and bare ankles, hinting that he was wearing shorts under his gown.
At the time, Bailey had been impressed.
Now, not so much. She’d met more than her share of promoters, lawyers and wealthy stockmen over the years. And one thing she knew for certain was money did not automatically signify class.
More nervous than she had been when she left the house, she walked slowly and deliberately, trying not to limp.
Show no weakness. She couldn’t remember if the adage applied to wild animals and lawyers, or just lawyers.
Thank goodness I called in an order. She could pick it up and run. No need to bring up the ridiculous idea of going on a date. No harm, no foul.
She went straight to the cash register, not looking right or left. “Bailey Jenkins. To-go,” she told the young woman behind the till.
The girl–about sixteen working her first summer job, Bailey guessed–spun about and dashed to the kitchen window, where a clothesline of white orders were strung.
“Ironically appropriate, don’t you agree? A To-Go order. Your modus operandi, no?”
She turned, her purse clutched to her belly–bling side out, as if the glitter might magically ward off the attack she sensed coming. “I beg your pardon?”
Austen had changed since the cocky kid at the school podium. More than the expensive suit and cover-model haircut, his style shouted, “Warning: rich, influential, angry man with agenda. Look out.”
He leaned in. Not so his words were kept between them. No. In fact, he spoke loudly, with succinct clarity so the entire jury of her peers could hear. “It’s not my pardon you need to beg, Bailey. It’s my brother’s.”
I know. Right? A complete and utter jerk. So, what on earth would possess an author to pick such an unlikable character to make her next hero?
I wish I could tell you. I honestly don’t know. But I will say I found Austen intriguing. I wanted to know why he was so caustic, so judgmental. I loved his brother, Paul, so much I figured if Paul was so great surely there was some good, something redeemable in Austen.
And I learned a long time ago, while working with my first editor, that sometimes you don’t have any choice about who your characters choose to love.
My third Harlequin Superromance is called BACK IN KANSAS. This is a spin-off from a book titled His Daddy’s Eyes. The hero, Bo, is a recovering alcoholic. And in the course of writing His Daddy’s Eyes, he proved to be a very annoying character because he constantly wanted to be on center stage. I hate to admit this to non-writers, but there came a time when I said out loud, “If you want to be a hero, you can be a hero in the next book. Now, back off and be a good secondary character so I can finish this book.”
As strange as that sounds, he did. So, when I was working on my next proposal, I talked to my editor about who I thought would make a good heroine for Bo. She hesitated a moment and said, “But, obviously he’s in love with Chloe.”
It was my turn to hesitate a moment or three. “But Chloe is a reformed prostitute,” I reminded her.
My editor replied, nonchalantly, “I’m sure our readers are evolved enough to know that not every character comes to a story with an unblemished past.”
The voice in my head is freaking out. “There’s blemished and then there’s prostitute!”
To my editor, of course, I said, “Okay. Let’s give that a try. ”
What came out of that collaboration was a story that scared me to death to write but connected powerfully with readers. And from that point on, I no longer was afraid of unredeemable characters.
The fact is every one of us has our not-so-heroic moments. We’re human. Maybe that’s what makes the difficult ones–real and imagined–easy to relate to.
Austen Zabrinski is very human. When we meet him in COWGIRL COME HOME, he’s going through an extremely tough time (off screen). He’s at a crossroads in his life and he’s questioning whether everything he’s done to that point was for naught. We don’t know any of this until he shows up on my new heroine’s doorstep needing help. Luckily, as fate would have it, she is the perfect person to help him figure out exactly where he needs to be and who he really is.
I love it when that happens. Don’t you?
PS: the title of this blog made me think of Englebert Humperdink’s 1985 hit Please Release Me. Here’s the link in case you need a laugh. http://youtu.be/6S9ecXWCBCc I’m still giggling.
And if you’d like to “meet” Austen Zabrinski, leave a comment. I’ll pick one winner to receive a review copy of NOBODY’S COWBOY next week.
Austen–as the hero I always knew he could be.