Honing Your Dark Hero: 4 Things I’ve Learned from the World’s Most Dangerous Men

Award winning author Laura Navarre, whom I was privileged to interview in May 2010, sold her first two books in rapid succession. Her debut novel, The Devil’s Mistress, a dark Tudor romance, was released by Samhain in June 2010 (ebook) and is out in print March 1st. Dorchester purchased The Devil’s Temptress, her dark Crusader romance and 2008 Golden Heart® finalist, which is scheduled for e-book release February 15th.

Laura at KGB cafe Tbilisi Georgia 2010

In her other life, Laura is a diplomat who’s lived in Russia and works on weapons of mass destruction issues. In the line of duty, she’s been trapped in an elevator in a nuclear power plant and has stalked the corridors of facilities churning out nerve agent and other apocalyptic weapons. In this capacity, she meets many of the world’s most dangerous men.

Laura is here today to give us an insider’s look at what makes these men tick.

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Honing Your Dark Hero:

4 Things I’ve Learned from the World’s Most Dangerous Men

By Laura Navarre

Like many romance writers, I came to this career sideways—unexpectedly—and my background is a bit unusual. For fourteen years I was a diplomat, working for the government on programs to control the spread of weapons of mass destruction, mostly with Russia and the former Soviet Union. This meant I was working with many of the world’s most dangerous men—nuclear, chemical and biological scientists whose research (in many cases) was capable of destroying the world and all of us many times over.

Surprisingly, as we worked together to find peaceful alternatives for their deadly skills, some of these guys became my pretty good friends. Once I overcame my initial wariness, I realized there were lessons I could bring to my fictional dark heroes from these real-life dark protagonists who inhabited my non-writing hours.

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Here are four things I’ve learned from the world’s most dangerous men:

Dark heroes know how to keep a secret. The guys I worked with were raised in an environment of absolute secrecy—until the Soviet Union collapsed, they were never allowed to talk about their work or their lives. Many of them weren’t allowed to publish (which is like death for a research scientist) or travel abroad. Sometimes their official residence was a post office box in a city that didn’t exist on any map—a city you could only reach by pretending to go someplace else.

In fiction, keeping my dark heroes enigmatic and secretive about their past has added (I hope) to their intrigue. Also, holding something back opens up all the dramatic possibilities of a late reveal. Imagine the impact for your heroine when she discovers this sort of secret about her hero!

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Dark deeds can be justified by noble intentions. When I began meeting many of these real-life dangerous men—often in the depths of a Siberian winter, at dismal facilities surrounded by spirals of barbed wire and scowling guards with machine guns—I didn’t think I’d ever be truly comfortable working with them. To my surprise, as time passed, we began trusting each other. My safety was in their hands, and often their reputations and careers were in mine.

Gradually, I realized most of these dark heroes were motivated by a strong sense of patriotism and the desire to build a better life for their families and nations. They absolutely believed their lethal efforts had been necessary to deter aggression and protect their countries. Also, for many of them, a top-secret government job meant the difference between a comfortable, privileged lifestyle for their families and the miserable existence eked out by many of the “normal folks” in the Soviet era. These strong and admirable motivations of patriotism and the desire to protect their families ultimately made these dark heroes sympathetic and understandable for me.

In fiction, I discovered the same device—a strong and worthy motivation—could inspire reader sympathy for even the darkest heroes. The darker his deeds, the stronger and more admirable the hero’s motive should be to justify his conduct.

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Perspective matters:  one woman’s dark hero is another woman’s villain. This one seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? When I arrived timorously at 2 a.m. on a dark train platform at a city that didn’t officially exist—a city whose presence had been denied for decades—I was a bit wary of the shadowy figures that glided forward to greet me! After all, some of these dangerous men had worked for many years on weapons that had been pointed at my country.

Then I’d meet their families, who often welcomed me into their homes with generous hearts for festive dinners. For the wife and children of each dark character, my Soviet-era villain was their hero—the man whose hard work protected them from a life of hardship and kept them safe.  Understandably, each family was immensely proud of the brilliance and hard work of their hero.

In fiction, I can use this dichotomy to show multiple aspects of my dark hero’s character, and the heroine’s own journey from initial suspicion (often well warranted!) to hard-earned trust.

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Dark heroes are people too. As I developed good working relationships (and often friendships) with my dark heroes, I found ample opportunity to become aware of their shortcomings. Of course, they discovered the same about me. For instance, my towering impatience for bureaucratic delay on both sides became pretty well known. Okay, I was a bit notorious for it!

For my part, I grew to realize that my dark hero-colleagues shared the same peccadilloes and sometimes annoying little quirks as normal people everywhere. Even the world’s most dangerous men can be sometimes confused, uncertain, and conflicted. They can change their minds—often more than once—for reasons that sometimes make little sense to me. They make mistakes, sometimes costly ones, and for cultural reasons it’s often difficult for them to acknowledge their mistakes or express their genuine regret. Yet beneath those gruff exteriors, a human heart is beating, with all the vulnerability that entails.

In fiction, I use this understanding to make my dark heroes more human—flawed and fallible—despite their extraordinary strengths and alarming histories.   

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These four qualities have been critical to my ability to craft dark heroes and heroines like Allegra Grimaldi, a reluctant lady assassin who’s being blackmailed to poison Anne Boleyn in The Devil’s Mistress (available now), and the outcast Raven, a disgraced Muslim knight forced to kill his own father in The Devil’s Temptress (February 15, 2011). In fact, I found the topic of dark protagonists so intriguing that it’s led to a series of workshops, articles, and even a non-fiction book in progress:  Sympathy for the Devil:  Dark Heroes in Popular Fiction.

If you’re interested in learning more about dark heroes, recommending a book or movie on dark heroes (I can never get enough of those!), or sharing a few dark hero stories of your own, please visit my website at www.LauraNavarre.com, friend me on Facebook: Laura Navarre Author, or email me at TamaraDeLempicka@aol.com. I’d love to hear from you!

If you’d like to see how I applied these lessons from the world’s most dangerous men to my own dark heroes, you can find my dark Tudor romance The Devil’s Mistress and my Crusader romance The Devil’s Temptress at Amazon and other major outlets.

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Laura will be stopping by throughout the day to answer questions, so if you want to know what it’s like to work with real life dark heroes, take advantage of the opportunity to chat with this amazing woman who has.

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About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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23 Responses to Honing Your Dark Hero: 4 Things I’ve Learned from the World’s Most Dangerous Men

  1. Cathy West says:

    Wow, that was fascinating!! I love dark heroes. :0)) Great interview, Keli, and it was nice to ‘meet’ Laura and hear about her books. I shall go explore now!

  2. Susan Mason says:

    Wow, Laura, I’m totally in awe of your past profession! Sounds incredibly scary to me. But I love your take on dark heroes. Very interesting.

    Best of luck with your new endeavors!

    Sue

  3. Elisa Beatty says:

    What intense and wonderful experiences you’ve had! Makes me more eager than ever to read your books!

  4. Liz Selvig says:

    Hi Laura,
    I’m struck by the incredible intelligence (in both senses of the word) you have about such intricate aspects of the human personality. It boggles my mind to contemplate what you’ve been through, and the fact that you can turn it into story magic is even more impressive. I, too, can’t wait to find your books and see how you’ve managed it! Thanks for the great interview.

  5. I am revising to give punch and motivation to my antagonists in a current manuscript. I’m forwarding this blog article URL to my daughter/mentor in the Austin TX RWA. we’ve discussed antagonists GMC. The Greater Seattle RWA is offering an all day workshop Sat to members, discussing writing “the bad guys”. To think of dangerous and dark folks as protagonists is a great twist. Thanks for this great article.

    • Hi everyone!

      Marion, I’m thrilled this article was helpful to you. I’m going to be at that Greater Seattle workshop with bells on! It’s my opportunity to meet all my new sisters in GSRWA.

      Liz, Susan, Cathy and Elisa–thanks so much for your kind feedback! 🙂

  6. Laura, thanks so much for sharing your insights from having worked so closely with these real-life dark characters. It’s truly fascinating reading, chock-full of very useful information. I’m thrilled to read that you have a non-fiction book in progress. I look forward to having that on my resource book shelf in the not too distant future.

  7. Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

    Nicely done, Laura. Dark heroes aren’t my favorites, but I understand their timeless appeal. You have an excellent handle on why. I especially like the daddy hero/world villain dichotomy. The human psyche is a facinating minefield, isn’t it?

    • Hi Gwynlyn! Loved the daddy hero/world villain reference. 🙂 My heroes don’t necessarily have to be dark, but I *do* like them to be complicated, with more to them than meets the eye.

  8. Jill W says:

    Great interview Keli and Laura! “Even the world’s most dangerous men can be sometimes confused, uncertain, and conflicted. ” Laura, that is so true. I think that applies to all of us. Well done ladies.

    • Thanks, Jill! I definitely think one of the challenges of writing is making even the villains human. Someone said, “Every villain is the hero of his own story.” They have human motivations, conflicts and concerns (unless they’re totally nuts like the Joker.) And of course, some of my favorite dark heroes in fiction are the guys who started out as the villains!

  9. Diana Layne says:

    Fascinating stuff!

  10. Wow, what a great topic and with such an expert. I’ll be looking for your fiction and non-fiction books. Your philosophy goes along with what I always say, “It’s all a matter of perspective.” Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience.
    Julie

  11. Bob Mayer says:

    Well I’m sure scientists are dangerous men when you look at the big picture. What I found in Special Operations was that the truly dangerous men, the stone cold killers, were very quiet. If someone tells you in a bar they were a CIA sniper, they’re a liar. Anyone who boasts about it, isn’t.
    My former A-team executive officer, who shot people at point blank range in the eye with a silenced .22 Hush Puppy, now coaches a soccer team of kids with Downs Syndrome. My former team sergeant who was at Desert One and served in a classified unit in Berlin during the Cold War is now a physical therapist.
    And I hate the way Tom Clancy, the former insurance salesman who never wore a uniform depicts Special Ops as right wing, nut jobs. Our thinking kept us alive.

    • Bob, I haven’t had the same exposure as you have to the Special Ops guys, but I absolutely believe they weren’t braggarts, which must have facilitated their return to “normal life” when the time came. In my own experience, the most quietest and most nondescript guys in the room were the “watchful eyes”–the non-scientists sent by the other side to keep an eye on us. They usually just introduced themselves with a muttered last name and, if pressed, said they were from the facility’s security office. 🙂 They weren’t chatty, but if you ended up interacting with them, they weren’t lumbering brutes either.

  12. “And I hate the way Tom Clancy, the former insurance salesman who never wore a uniform depicts Special Ops as right wing, nut jobs. Our thinking kept us alive.”
    ——-

    Amen to that, Bob! (sorry, I couldn’t resist).
    But you are so right.
    Ahem, no pun intended.
    🙂
    Seriously, I agree about the braggart wanna-be’s. As the saying goes, “It’s the quiet ones you have to watch.” It does my heart good to hear about the ex-Special Ops living such normal lives. It couldn’t have been an easy adjustment for them trying to fit back in.

  13. Hi, Laura and Keli!

    Laura, what a fascinating life you lead! And what a valuable post, too, in terms of characterisation. Too often, particularly in some older thriller novels and movies, villains are portrayed as being inhuman and we’re not given real insight into how they came to be that way.

    • Thanks so much, Vanessa! On characterization, I do pretty detailed character sketches before I start writing, and I always do the hero, the heroine and the villain. I like to know those guys as well as I know the hero. One of the most valuable character resources I’ve found is the templates in THE PLOT THICKENS by agent Noah Lukeman.

  14. Donna L Bolk says:

    Interesting read. Thank you.

  15. Diane says:

    Dark heroes add a lot to a story and keep us guessing . Love to see one in a book I’m reading. :O)

  16. Shea Berkley says:

    Great observations. I come from a family of military men and we all knew better than to ask where they were going and what they were doing. Sometimes, it’s best not to know.

  17. Okay, I’m days late on this. I kept it because I wanted to read it when life finally slowed down a bit. Not sure Laura will get this but the blog was totally enthralling and useful for me. Thanks!

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