I've mentioned before that "I don't want to like you, I don't want to like you, I can't stop thinking about your hair, DAMMIT" is one of my very favorite tropes in romance. This trope is most identifiable by some Very Large Reason why the hero or heroine cannot act on their attraction. Whatever that Very Large Reason is, it must be large enough to sustain tension through at least part of the story, but it can't be so large that it makes a believable or acceptable happy ending impossible. The "I don't want to like you" trope can vary based on that Very Large Reason.
For example, if the Very Large Reason is based on a character's commitment to be honorable and resist a temptation, the moral values of the character who is resisting the attraction can be quietly revealed to the reader. If the hero keeps himself in check, refusing to act or even acknowledge his attraction to the heroine because of the Very Large Reason, that Reason underscores the hero's values and his definitions of right and wrong. The Very Large Reason could be a boundary that's deliberately stated ("You stay away from her,") or more subtly encoded ("No dating the best friend's ex"), but regardless of what it is specifically, the conflict revolves around the idea that the hero (or heroine) wants to do something, but is pretty sure he should not.
I call this Honorable Resistance: There is a moral reason that the hero refuses to act on his attraction, one that tortures him for doing the right thing. He will disappoint or deny himself for a greater good—and look noble and hot doing so.
This conflict puts a good amount of internal and sometimes external pressure on the characters because one or both have to struggle with resisting their attraction, and in doing so, reveal themselves and their priorities to the reader. One of the best examples of Honorable Resistance is in Patricia Briggs' Alpha and Omega series, which takes place in the same paranormal world as her Mercy Thompson series. In Cry Wolf, the first book in the series, Charles, the son of the North American pack alpha and the pack enforcer (think: assassin), has been sent to Chicago to clean up the mess of a pack hierarchy gone horribly wrong. When he arrives in the airport, unhappy because of many hours in the confined space of the plane, he is met by a young woman, Anna. Anna had contacted Charles' father initially, but it wasn't her abuse and victimization that had caused her to call him. She'd discovered that her pack was kidnapping and killing young men, and knew that wasn't right. Despite the risk to her personal safety and almost guaranteed continued abuse, she asked Charles' father for help. We know from her actions that Anna is honorable and trying to do the right thing within the scope of her abilities.
Charles identifies immediately that there is something very unique about Anna. He quickly learns that she's been assaulted and abused by her pack, and she's terribly uneducated about life as a werewolf. In fact, she was turned into one against her will. Charles is also drawn to Anna, and his wolf recognizes her wolf as his mate. Charles' instinct, his wolf, has decided Anna belongs with him, but Charles intellectually realizes that Anna is in no position to make any decisions about her life, let alone be courted by a very alpha, very much older werewolf.
He wants her very, very much, and knows that she is his mate, but he refuses to act on his attraction because it would be the wrong thing to do: It wouldn't be respectful of Anna. He understands what's happened to her, and he refuses to complicate her life more than it has been, so he keeps his distance, even though it makes his wolf, and him, enraged to see any other male pay attention to Anna.
Their struggle with their mating bond creates a push-pull contrast. Their wolves accept one other as mates. As humans, they don't know each another very well, and each is afraid they carry too many scars and issues to be a good match. This layered conflict was absolutely delicious to me as a reader. I think I've read Cry Wolf about 10 times or more. The minute I peek at one of the pages, I end up reading the whole thing again. There is a ton of action in this book, and circumstances that throw Anna and Charles together repeatedly, but the part that I love most is Charles' honor, his intention to do what's best for Anna and leave her alone, even though doing so makes him unhappy. When that resistance is broken through, it's powerful reading.
Another example in a completely different genre is A Notorious Countess Confesses by Julie Anne Long. Her series set in Pennyroyal Green has all the familiar hallmarks of small town romance—only it's set in the Regency era. The town vicar, a very handsome man named Adam Syvaine, has been living a very quiet life since he took the vicar position, and his daily routine has little variation until the Notorious Countess, Evie, moves to an estate she's inherited.
Evie isn't accepted into local society very easily. She's a former actress and courtesan who married an elderly earl, and despite her title, she is not considered socially acceptable. Her marriage wasn't mercenary; she did care for her late husband. But after his sudden death, she has very little except for an estate in Pennyroyal Green. When she moves in, she asks for the vicar's help in making friends, something Adam knows will be very difficult, knowing his parishioners as he does.
Ultimately, the tension of the story rests on their necessity to resist one another. Evie has to resist her attraction to Adam, because she knows it will have disastrous consequences for him professionally and personally to be connected to her and her sordid history. Adam tries to resist his desire for her because he can't reconcile his feelings for Evie with his expectations of himself as a vicar, and because he knows that making a selfish choice for himself would cost him a great deal of the things he values in his life, including the good relationships he has with everyone in town.
Basing part of the resistance on the idea of what everyone will think can weaken the protagonists in the reader's eyes, because that kind of tension is difficult to sustain admirably. The characters resist because their feelings are not strong enough to overcome the consequences of what people think of them. Even though the consequences for the characters in A Notorious Countess Confesses are large and involve many aspects of their lives in Pennyroyal Green, heroism is not found in subjugating what you want to make everyone else happy and secure their approval. In this novel, though, I felt Long had layered the conflicts with other issues in a way that sustained the tension without diminishing the characters—though not every reader agrees with me, judging by various reviews. I really enjoyed this book because of the way each character tries to do what they feel is right, even if it costs them happiness or joy.
There is a character, Lady Fennimore, in A Notorious Countess Confesses who says of Adam, "He's a good man…but for the love of God, don't tell him that….The 'good' is in the trying, you see, and I shouldn't want him to stop trying."
For me, the power of the Honorable Resistance trope is in the trying: two characters trying to do what they think is right, even if trying places them at cross purposes with their own desires and wants. It reveals the characters' inner structure slowly, and when that resistance is broken, it can be very emotionally powerful. I end up reading for both: the resistance and the breaking of it.
Do you have favorite books where the characters try to resist what they want for honorable reasons? Which ones?
Sarah Wendell is the co-creator, editor and mastermind of the popular romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. She loves talking with romance readers, and hopes you'll share your new favorite romance reading recommendations. You can find her on Twitter @smartbitches, on Facebook, or on her couch, most likely with her eyeglasses turned towards a book.