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?
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?
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.]
GEORGETTE HEYER’S COTILLION—THE TALL DARK & HANDSOME HERO?
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).
Jack, 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…
Then 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
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.
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.
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?