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26 March 2007

In search of a romantic hero

When I was a child, my vision of the writer's life went something like this: I'd wake up at noon, go out to a seedy café for breakfast, and sit around all afternoon with a congenial group of writers in darkened coffee shops where most of the men wore sunglasses indoors. We'd talk about novels, characters, writing...we'd dissect famous and not-so-famous books, pulling apart the elements to try to decipher what made the stories work. We'd scribble on lined steno pads when the muse struck.

Now that I write romances, my writing pals are all women; the men in sunglasses are gone. But the deep conversations about novels is one element of the fantasy that I got right, thanks to some good friends who live nearby.

Last week, I had tea in San Francisco's Castro district with our own Pam Rosenthal, who is up for a much-deserved Rita award for The Slightest Provocation at this year's RWA Conference. Go, Pam! Back to tea. In the course of analyzing some of our favorite romance novels, Pam and I started talking about what made a fictional man a romantic hero. Was it wealth and power? No, clearly that wasn't it. There are plenty of "commoner" heroes, and that's my favorite stripe of historical romance. Was he a hero because he had power? Not necessarily, though most romantic heroes have stature in their own eyes, if not the larger world of Society. Was he the hero because he rescued the heroine? Nah. Cinderella is only one plot; there are dozens of others that don't involve a rescue fantasy of any sort.

At some point in the conversation, it hit me that what makes a man a romantic hero is how he relates to the heroine. He sees her hopes and dreams -- all of her ambitions, her plans, the secret fantasies she dare not speak for fear of being ridiculed (or worse), and he encourages her to act on those dreams, no matter how unrealistic they might be.

This is a particularly potent fantasy when the setting comes into play. I'll speak to the Regency and early Victorian periods, because that's the setting I know best. Women of that era -- even wellborn women -- were often just a roll of the dice away from prostitution. The death of her father, a profligate heir who drives the family into sudden bankruptcy, a cruel relative who takes over the family estate -- any of these could send a woman onto the streets. In a world where only a handful of women could own property or work for a living wage, the financial lives of women were tenuous.

Then along comes a man who looks at the heroine as a real person: a man who listens to her opinions, who takes her seriously enough to argue with her, who finds hidden depths in her and encourages her to share them with him and the larger world. He encourages her to be herself, to talk about all of her unrealistic fantasies and socially incorrect feelings. This is what makes a character a romantic hero.

The paradox is that he isn't a romantic hero until we see his interactions with the heroine. Without her, he's just another man. Noble and wealthy perhaps, but not the kind of man readers swoon over. Readers (at least this reader) swoon over men who know how to love a woman well. Men who recognize the deep inner characteristics of a woman and bring them to the fore. Men who will take on Society as a whole to help the women they love be happy.

That's why a hero can be wealthy, or not. Titled, or not. Handsome, or not. His heroic qualities have nothing to do with the physical. Or even the internal. His heroic qualities only come to light when he begins to relate to the heroine. So it seems to me that the heroine is the one with the real power in a romance.

In my last historical Bedding the Beast, the hero is ugly and not particularly rich. But to the heroine's eyes, he is almost a god in his knowledge and wealth. He owns a small farm and a one-room house, but this is incredible wealth to a woman who's family was so poor, she never had brand new clothes. The hero's knowledge of her body and his insistence that she enjoy sex is something she never dreamed she'd find in a man. With that tipping the scales in his favor, she barely notices that he has a big nose, bushy eyebrows, and a scar on his face. To her, to the reader (I hope), he's clearly the romantic hero.

I'm still musing about this, still forming ideas and flushing out contradictions. I'd love to hear your thoughts. Virtual tea and scones, anyone?

Doreen
www.doreendesalvo.com

5 Comments:

Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I'm with you on what makes a hero. A great looking guy with a trust fund who treats women like crap is not a hero (though he could become one if the right woman appeared on the scene and slapped him into shape). An ok looking, or ugly, man who treats a woman well and truly loves her? He’s total hero material (though the publishing industry may not agree, LOL!).

1:53 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Ditto what Kalen said, Doreen. Its all about character and confidence, and true bold heart.

There were so many heros in history who were not good looking, or rich...oh the stories!

6:37 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Read your post with great interest and had to think about it awhile.

After considering each of my heores (both published and unpublished), I realize that every one of them has honor at the core of their being, are loyal, generous and --this is so key-- listen and learn from the heroine.

It may be the first time they have ever really listened and acted on a woman's advice (esp William in Captain's Mermaid) but the fact is that they learn something fundamental from her and make it a part of his life and their relationship.

Thanks for making me think about it. I must admit that money and looks do not come into it at all, (see secondary character Simon Marfield in His Last Lover) but my second Bantam book will be the first time I have ever written one where the primary hero is not wealthy (that will be along time coming since I have not even finished the proposal yet!)

Mary Blayney

7:47 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

The paradox is that he isn't a romantic hero until we see his interactions with the heroine. Without her, he's just another man.

Actually, I think you've hit upon a parting of the ways there, Doreen. The alpha man hero model isn't "just another man." He is, per some old rock song lyrics, "the leader of the pack," and that's a crucial element of the alpha man fantasy for some romance readers, though not for you or me -- partly because you and I are such suckers for artsy guys, who have their own challenges.

But I have found that when I write about non-artsy heros, I need to at least give them men friends and a sense of involvement in the world. Because the heroine has to relate to the hero's world as well as his person.

Oh and thanks for the congrats.

9:10 AM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Great post, Doreen! I totally agree. The hero of Scotsman is comfortable, but not as wealthy as the heroine in her own right. He's a farmer too! Though in Scotland. And he's naked. Wait, that's just the cover. He wears clothes sometimes.

But I agree with you. What makes the hero sigh-worthy is his interaction with the heroine (and the other people around him).

5:12 PM  

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