The Romantic Hero Revisited — Essential Hero Qualities

Revisiting the Romantic Hero Formula —
except that there isn’t a formula, as I tried to show in the first blog on this topic. So, instead, I’m going to explore some aspects of creating the romantic hero.

With examples from a master of the art of hero-creation — Georgette Heyer.

Which Qualities Make a Romantic Hero Attractive — to Readers?

Most of us would say that our aim in writing romance is to create a heroine that our readers will identify with and a hero that they will lust after. Warning: it is not easy to do and not all readers will respond in the same way. Some may adore our hero and some may hate him. As romance authors, we’re winning if we have a lot more of the former. 😉

Tall Dark and Handsome?

Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister in "Game of Thrones."

Alan Rickman as Nottingham, Richard Armitage as GisbourneTall dark and handsome? Not necessarily. As readers we probably all have favourite heroes who are none of those. As writers, we may have created some of them, too.

Most telling recent example? Who became the abiding hero in the Game of Thrones series? Yes, Tyrion, the dwarf.

Integrity and a Sense of Humour

For me, as a reader, a hero needs 2 things above all — integrity and a sense of humour. As writers, we can also use those characteristics to make clear when a character is NOT a hero. If a character indulges in nasty jokes at other people’s expense, can he be a hero? If he does things that are dishonest or underhand, for his own purposes (rather than to help someone else), is he a man of integrity? And how should the heroine react?

woman walking away from red rose on ground

The heroine should walk away. Pretty sharpish, too.

A Georgette Heyer Hero : How Does She Create Him?

Take Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion.

Jack ought to be the hero. He’s handsome, strong, witty, a Corinthian etc. But even before he walks onto Heyer’s stage, it’s pretty clear that he’s not going to be her hero, though he is probably still the heroine’s hero at that point. Can we learn from how Heyer does it?
Let’s have a look. [Beware: this post is long because it contains extracts from the novel.]


Introduction to the story for those who haven’t read it yet (and who have a treat in store):

Kitty Charing is the ward of autocratic old miser, Matthew Penicuik. He decrees that he will leave all his money to her, provided she marries one of his 5 unmarried great-nephews. He has summoned them to his house for the purpose. If Kitty does not accept one of them, he will leave all his money to the Foundling Hospital and nothing to any of them. Kitty will be destitute.
     Two of them propose and are rejected. The third, a soldier, is abroad and cannot come. The fourth, Jack Westruther, the old man’s favourite and the one Kitty has always loved, has not obeyed the summons. The fifth, Freddy Standen, is on his way but without knowing why Matthew has summoned him.
     Kitty, trying to run away to London, meets Freddy at the local inn where he has stopped for a pre-Matthew dinner . . .

Candidates for Hero?

Jack is the heroine’s love object, and the most likely candidate to be the hero of the story.

None of the other men in the story appears to be hero material. The Rector is pompous and hectoring. Dolphinton is “touched in his upper works”. The soldier is cruel; and not around to propose anyway.

Freddy is a dandy, obsessive about clothes, and rich enough to spend a fortune on them. He’s brown-haired, slender and of average height, with an amiable but unarresting countenance and a demeanour that has a certain vagueness. He is neither witty nor handsome; his disposition is retiring; he’s too inarticulate to pay charming compliments. Not Tall, Dark and Handsome at all (though he’s a favourite with the ladies because he’s agreeable, dependable and no threat to their husbands).

Regency Buck by Georgette HeyerJack, by contrast, has the usual Alpha hero attributes. He’s tall, with the air and bearing of a Corinthian. He dresses well, but he’s no dandy. He has fine shoulders, powerful thighs, a handsome face, a mocking mouth and a pair of laughing blue eyes.

“. . . he’s a devilish handsome fellow and an out-and-outer—what they call top-of-the-trees! Of course Kitty has a tendre for him!”

Damned by his enemies

And yet we readers are wary of Jack in a way that Kitty is not. Heyer plants doubts through the reactions and words of other characters, though readers may be inclined to dismiss comments from the Rector, rejected suitor and “saintly bore”, when he says:

“. . . such persons as my cousin Jack must be repugnant . . .”

Liked by characters that readers dislike

Old Matthew, by contrast, really does like Jack. But we readers do not like Matthew — he is horrible to everyone and enjoys wielding power over them — so we’re not likely to give Jack the benefit of the doubt just because Matthew says:

“Damme I liked Rosie, and I like Jack! Spit and image of her! I don’t know why the rascal ain’t here tonight!”

In the early chapters, the jury is still out on Jack’s character. Maybe Kitty is right, that he is too high-minded to respond to Matthew’s horrid summons? Maybe the other great-nephews disparage Jack because he is the old man’s favourite? As readers, we don’t know. Jack, the reprobate, could become the hero, redeemed by Kitty’s love. Heyer may even have been undecided at this stage about who her hero was to be.

Damned by his friends…

hand holding out microphoneThen Jack is damned for the reader through Freddy, who has always looked up to Jack and admired him. Freddy has no desire to marry Kitty, or to marry anyone. So he has no reason to bad-mouth Jack. What’s more, although Freddy is not very bright, he comes across as a well-meaning, kind and straightforward man. So when he lets slip information about Jack’s shortcomings, there’s no reason for the reader — or Kitty — to disbelieve it. What Freddy says about Jack makes Kitty begin to doubt, just a little, though she’s reluctant to believe that her romantic vision of Jack is flawed.

The very thought of the way Mr Westruther laughed with his eyes drew a deep sigh from Miss Charing. “Yes,” she said wistfully…but the melting mood was not of long duration. . . “Did Jack—know—why he was sent for?” she asked.
       “Carlton House to a Charley’s shelter he knew!” said Freddy. “That’s why he ain’t here of course.”
       Miss Charing stiffened. “You think so?” she said coldly.
       “Not a doubt of it,” responded Freddy. “I must say, I call it a shabby thing to do! Might have told me what was in the wind. That’s Jack all over, though!”

Heroes do not behave shabbily to their friends. Readers suspect that Jack lacks integrity.

After a long discussion, and helped by rum punch and tears, Kitty cajoles Freddy into agreeing to enter into a temporary sham betrothal so that she can go to London for a month. The reader also sees that she is aiming to make Jack jealous and, possibly, to manoeuvre him into proposing. He is still her hero, though probably not the reader’s.

…and his potential lovers

Writer in control - inviting questionsThen, in London, Freddy’s married sister Meg — who finds Jack a very agreeable companion and an “enchanting flirt” — deals further blows to Jack’s character.

She reveals to Kitty, merely in passing, that Freddy was telling the truth when he said Jack was a gamester and had a shocking reputation.

Could Jack still become Heyer’s hero at this point? Possibly, but it would be difficult (even for Heyer) to redeem his flaws: not only lack of integrity, but selfishness and arrogance.
He fails on sense of humour too: Jack laughs at people, not with them.

Damned out of his own mouth

Jack finally appears on Heyer’s stage in chapter 7. Unlike Freddy, Jack is quick-witted enough to twig what Kitty is up to. And he is arrogant and patronising to Freddy. Kind, dependable Freddy does not deserve such treatment. Jack is sure he will be able to get his own way in the end with Kitty and with Matthew’s money. And he doesn’t care if he tramples over others in order to get what he wants.

“Our revered great-uncle’s whims are not unamusing, but this one goes beyond the line of what may be tolerated. When I go into wedded shackles it will be in my own time, and in my own fashion.”
       “Good notion—if the thing comes off right,” agreed Freddy. “Trouble is, can’t be sure it will!”
       His cousin laughed. “I’ll take my chance of that!”
       Freddy . . . for the first time, was nettled by Jack’s assurance . . . “Never thought there was any chance for me in that quarter: shouldn’t have gone to Arnside if you hadn’t given me a nudge!”
       If he had hoped to have confounded his cousin he was disappointed. There was certainly an arrested look in Mr Westruther’s face, but he only cocked an eyebrow, and said: “Can it be that I am to wish you happy?”
       “That’s it,” replied Freddy. “Mind, we ain’t puffing it off yet . . .”
       He had the satisfaction of seeing Mr Westruther’s brows snap together, and the laugh quite fade from his eyes; but it was only for a second. The frown vanished as swiftly as it had appeared; Mr Westruther grinned at him, and said: “No, Freddy, no! Doing it too brown!” . . .

       . . . “Brought her up to town with me. Wanted to present her to m’mother and father. She’s in Mount Street.”
       [Freddy] watched his cousin to see how this piece of corroborative information was being received, and was a little puzzled. There was a gleam in Jack’s eyes, and the hint of a smile playing about the corners of his mouth. “I see,” he said. He patted Freddy on the shoulder. “I felicitate you, coz: I am quite sure you will suit admirably!”

Jack to be redeemed as hero? I don’t think so. Not after showing such a lack of integrity. And especially not after that patronising pat on the shoulder. A real hero would have shaken Freddy warmly by the hand, as equals, and congratulated him without reserve.

Nailing down the coffin?

For me, as a reader, the final nail in the coffin of Jack-as-Potential-Hero occurs when he and Kitty meet at last on the page (in chapter 9). He is just as arrogant and condescending as he was with Freddy. Even Kitty is struck by it.

“Charming, Kitty! You are as fine as fivepence! Were you guided by Freddy’s exquisite taste, or is this new touch all of your own devising?”       
     This bantering tone filled Miss Charing with a strong desire to slap him.

Handsome young man in black mask, crossed out in red

So Heyer sets Jack up to be the Tall Dark and Handsome Alpha Hero, and then shoots him down in order to put Freddy — who is neither TD&H nor Alpha — in his place. For Freddy has the key Hero quality of integrity.

This reader, at least, was cheering Heyer on. And learning a lot about subtle writing on the way. That pat on the shoulder was, I think, a brilliant piece of craft.

What about you? Would you have preferred TD&H Alpha Jack? Or did you cheer for Freddy?

Joanna Maitland, author


21 thoughts on “The Romantic Hero Revisited — Essential Hero Qualities

  1. Michelle H

    It’s been a handful of years since I read Cotillion, and at the time it was absolutely my favorite. But then, nearly every one of Heyer’s I’ve read became my favorite after reading them. Not all but quite a few. I’m sure it didn’t take until Chapter 7 to figure out Jack wasn’t going to be the hero unless Heyer somehow reformed him greatly before the end. But I started cheering on Freddy pretty early on in the book, and then full out shouting ‘woo hoo’ at the end. Sigh….Freddy…. I’m with you on the integrity marker for the hero, Joanna.

    I find the hardest books to complete are the ones where the ‘hero’ acts so completely NOT heroic way past the half-way mark of the book. I’m struggling to finish an audio book right now, by an author whose books I’ve always loved because of this kind of ‘hero.’ I just keep thinking she is going to redeem him here pretty soon. Really soon, I’m hoping.

    Thanks Joanna for the memory and the hero discussion.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, Michelle. I’m with you on heroes who act unheroic for too much of the book, especially when they suddenly turn into a hero in the last chapter or two. Not always credible, though sometimes they are when the writer is really skilful. Let’s hope your audio book hero reforms soon, eh?

  2. Elizabeth Bailey

    Freddy all the way. Though when I first read it as a starry eyed teen I had to be convinced just as you’ve demonstrated. I remember being disappointed in Jack, but by then Freddy had made me laugh so much I was half in love with him already, just like Kitty.
    I keep trying to pinpoint where she realises how much her feelings have changed and I think it’s when she tells Freddy he has address.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, Liz. You’ve raised a point that I’ll have to go back and check, re when Kitty realises her feelings have changed. My memory for book details isn’t good and I had to do a lot of checking for this blog. In fact, I was quite surprised by some of what I found re Jack and how cleverly Heyer had undermined him via other characters. What I’d remembered was the feeling Jack was unheroic but not how she’d done it. Which goes to prove just how skilful she was, I suppose.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I think the interesting question is whether she could have turned Jack into the hero and how far into the book she could still have done it. My conclusions on that are in the blog but maybe she could have done it even after all that negative stuff? We have to admit that some of her Alpha heroes are not exactly nice, don’t we? Avon, for example?

  3. Sophie

    I don’t know if Heyer was deliberately setting herself an impossible challenge or was just feeling mischievous but she made Freddy sound like a Regency Bertie Wooster – the thinking woman’s favourite rejected suitor. I started to dislike Jack in Chapter One – he should have rescued Kitty long before this! But Freddy as a genuine love interest was a bit more difficult to get my head round.

    Of course he grew on me very quickly. And I think he also grows as a person. You actually watch him falling in love with Kitty and coming to the same conclusions as Jack about what she is doing – when he does, indeed, behave with truly heroic generosity and wants matters to resolve in a way that makes her happy. Not something that would have occurred to vain Jack.

    I don’t think Jack is redeemable – unless captured by pirates and forced to revise his philosophy and habits from the chained oar upwards. But I do think Heyer redeems the Alpha hero in principle in the handsome form of lovely Lord Legerwood. And his relationship with Freddy is a total gem.

    And a final instance of male characters beating their stereotype: pompous Rector Hugh’s spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling at the end has me cheering every time I read it.

    Blissful book. Great post.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Love the image of Jack chained to pirate’s oar, Sophie. And I do agree about Freddy’s father, who is such a wonderful character. The contrast with Freddy is clever but the love and respect between them is admirable.

  4. Helena Fairfax

    My favourite Georgette Heyer novel changes depending on which one I’ve just read, just like Michelle commented above! At the moment it’s The Unknown Ajax, but Cotillion is always well up there in the list. It’s funny and well-plotted and Heyer plays a blinder with the romantic interest in the way your post shows so brilliantly. Whenever I tell people I’m a Heyer fan, they always give a sort of patronising smile, as though she’s just a fluffy writer. Take this article here on “guilty reads”, for example Why “guilty”? Her books are beautifully researched, witty and well-crafted, and filled with great characters. Not only is Cotillion one of my favourite of her books, Georgette Heyer is one of my favourite authors.
    Thanks for reminding me what a great writer she is!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Why “guilty” indeed, Helena? You are absolutely right about Heyer’s talents. But people who sneer at romantic fiction — and usually have never read any — will always say that it’s all trash, won’t they? Their loss, I’d say.

    2. Michelle H

      Helena, who are these people who think Heyer is just fluff? Did they READ any of her books? You deserve friends with more respect for your fave genre. Don’t we all! Hand them Frederica, Faro’s Daughter, or A Civil Contract. Yeah, when I read Frederica I definitely thought it was going to be my favorite of all time. Helena, I’ve read and listened to The Corinthian so many times, now that one IS kind of the old traditional madcap ‘heroine gets into ridiculous scrapes and the hero rescues her out of them a number of times.’ But it’s sooo charming. And then omg, Venetia. BTW, I loved The Unknown Ajax too. Now I absolutely have to go back and reread that one, as well as Cotillion.

      1. Helena Fairfax

        You hit the nail on the head, Michelle – they haven’t read any of her books. If they had, they would surely love her as much as I do 🙂 You’ve listed some more of my favourites…and I’m going to straight to my bookshelf to read The Corinthian again!

  5. ninevoices

    Thank you for this wonderfully insightful analysis of how GH plants the clues! I especially love the revealing exchange between Kitty and Freddy soon after Freddy finds out about Dolph and Miss Plymstock: ‘Tell you what, Kit! Got too kind a heart!’
    A smile swept across her face. ‘Oh Freddy, how absurd you are! When you have a much kinder one than I have!’
    ‘No, really, Kit!’ protested Freddy, revolted. ‘Haven’t got anything of the sort! Been on the town for years!’
    ‘Yes, you have,’ averred Kitty, lifting his hand to her cheek for a brief moment.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Welcome to Libertà. And thank you for that lovely quote. I especially like “revolted”, which is a wonderfully incisive Heyer touch. And tells us such a lot about lovely Freddy, doesn’t it?

  6. Elizabeth Hawksley

    As a teenager, I didn’t really go for Freddy as hero but – as with all Heyer’s novels – I re-read the book frequently and, gradually Freddy grew on me. Nowadays, he’s one of my favourite Heyer heroes – OK, he’s not particularly good-looking, but as Kitty says herself, he has ‘Address’. And he’s kind – a quality I have learnt to appreciate.

  7. Jen Kloester

    What a delightful post and so insightful. I adore Cotillion and remember my first reading and being quite taken in by Jack for several chapters – a sure sign of Heyer’s brilliance. Freddy is one of my all-time favourite Heyer heroes and a close second to Hugo Darracott and Sir Tristram Shield. I’m convinced Heyer had Freddy in mind for her hero from the get-go. She was inspired to write the story by Ferdy Fakenham from Friday’s Child but in a letter to her publisher she explained that ”when I got down to brass tacks I found he was just a little too foolish, and so changed him into Freddy Standen”. I think she did a great job with both Freddy and Jack and plays them off against each other with all her usual flair, but in some ways I think the real heartthrob of Cotilion is Lord Legerwood!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks so much for this info, Jen, especially about Heyer’s letter. You’re not the only one who thinks Lord Legerwood is terrific, either.

  8. Sandra Mackness

    There’s a radio programme called ‘I’ve Never Seen Star Wars.’ To my shame, I’ve never read Heyer, and I’m bowing my head in shame as I type, so please forgive any errors. Your great post plus comments from friends have inspired me to dip my toe in the Regency pool and I shall begin with Cotillion and can’t wait to meet these characters and discover my own hero!

    1. Joanna Post author

      No need to be ashamed, Sandra. I didn’t find Heyer until I was quite old (not saying how old) and I got so hooked I spent every lunch hour scouring the bookshops for more. That was in the days before internet ordering, of course. Just think what a treat you have in store, provided you like them. I envy you that first reading of many of her books. I do hope you love them as so many of us do.

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