Contrary to received wisdom in some quarters — particularly those parts of the media that love to sneer at romantic fiction — a romantic hero is not always tall, dark and handsome. Sometimes his looks matter; sometimes they don’t. And sometimes, they don’t even rate a mention!
If you don’t believe me, just think back to those ageing actors in movies, making love to heroines less than half their age. Were they tall, dark and handsome? Nope. More like grey, thinning on top and struggling to keep their bodies in half-decent nick for the screen. But, greying or not, saggy or not, those men are still movie action heroes according to Hollywood. And fans go along with it.
So if it’s not what he looks like, what is the secret? Are books different from movies? And is there a timeless formula?
The Romantic Hero Acts — the Heroine Screams
The Romantic Hero is active and the heroine is, essentially, pretty passive. He takes all the decisions, she does as she is told and — at least in older action movies — dutifully screams in terror when confronted with the villain or the oncoming train or the gaping chasm into which they’re both about to fall.
The hero does not scream. Of course not. His brilliant brain is too busy working out how he’s going to get them both out of the fix they’re in.
Books, using the subtlety of words rather than fleeting visuals for impact, were never quite so black-and-white about this. If authors choose to, they can get inside the heroine’s head and show what she is feeling and thinking, rather than lazily assuming that a mere female confronted with something life-threatening will always scream in terror and/or collapse in a soggy heap.
The Romantic Hero is the Confident Arbiter of Right and Wrong
Another variant on the all-powerful-hero trope. Think of the hero in so many classic Westerns, fighting alone against apparently overwhelming odds but knowing his cause is just. As Sophie puts it — she can do American accents and I can’t — it’s John Wayne saying: “Never apolojahse. It’s a sahn a weakness.”
Or, on the book front, think of the Heyer Heroes that we were discussing here on the blog just recently, the ones that a blogger elsewhere called “utter douchebags” and “jerks”. She termed it “sexism and classism”. But I wonder if the issue is partly that heroes written at that period were supposed to be supremely confident in their own judgement of right and wrong. They weren’t expected to consult mere females. So (a lot of the time) they didn’t.
The Romantic Hero is Dominant and Brutal
Back in the last century, some very popular authors — Ethel M Dell was the big name, and later E M Hull (The Sheikh) and Barbara Cartland — regularly wrote romantic heroes who were arrogant, hard, even cruel. Why?
Was it market-driven, a reaction to wars? Was a huge population of bereft women looking for a strong, self-assured and competent man to fantasise about? Many women had been left with no man to marry at all, in an age when marriage was widely seen as woman’s primary role.
Towards the end of those romances, the hero often growled “You little fool” as he jerked the heroine into a fierce embrace and kissed her passionately. She — being a woman of her times and a woman after the author’s own heart, too — duly melted under his irresistible onslaught.
Cue virgin riding off into the metaphorical sunset with ruthless man of power, now just a fraction tamed by the love of our heroine.
Timeless? Not a chance.
Why? Never mind the heroes. Women have changed. No more virgin sacrifices, chained to a rock waiting to be rescued by Our Formidable Hero. The modern heroine is quite capable of hammering a piton into the rock face, paying out a rope and abseiling down to freedom all by herself.
And she’s unlikely to be a virgin, either.
The Romantic Hero Formula?
So… is there a formula? There may have been, once — particularly in parts of Hollywood — though it’s debatable. I’d argue that there certainly isn’t a formula now. I’d say most of the tropes I’ve pondered above don’t work any more, if they ever did. But maybe you think they do?
What does work nowadays? Ah, that’s another story and another blog. Coming soon!