09 February 2007

How Do We Like Our Heroes?

Let's talk about men!

As readers and writers of unusual historical romances, our settings are different from the Regency ballroom that has become so popular in recent years. Often in these Regency or Victorian-set historicals, the hero is some kind of nobleman or member of the aristocracy, which, oddly, doesn’t interfere with his work as a spy. Sometimes, these aristocratic heroes are also interested in science, or agriculture, or industry, but they are still predominantly wealthy noblemen.

Obviously, the spying duke is popular for a reason, especially in the United States, where we have no landed gentry, and the fantasy of the aristocrat is potent and exotic. But he also needs to be daring and brave and a useful, contributing member of society underneath his identity of the dissolute rake.

Those of us who turn to unusual settings as both readers and writers find that our heroes do not often fit into this aristocratic mold. For example, in my current WIP, set in 1870s Mongolia, my hero is a former army captain from Yorkshire. And in my latest book, LOVE IN A BOTTLE, set in Gloucestershire in the 1760s, the hero is a mountebank (an itinerant seller of quack medicines).

My question to you is what sort of characteristics do you like when you read/write heroes in unusual historicals? Should the hero still be an aristocrat, only in Ancient Rome? Is he wealthy and powerful? Why or why not? Can a hero still be a hero if he is poor or undistinguished? Without the typical indicators of a hero's "alpha-ness," (i.e. a title, ancestral lands) what makes him heroic?

14 comments:

Jen said...

I admit I like the traditional rich, noble, successful hero, but no, he doesn't have to be. He can be an average Joe (even if that term wasn't used way back when and where), or even dirt poor. If it were modern times, I should think he'd be doing better than dirt poor--don't spies today get paid well?--but I don't know about in ancient (or not-so-ancient) times. But I do want him handsome and strong.

Tess said...

Though my heroes tend to be noble (either legit or illegit), I don't mind heroes from other strata - as long as they're heroic. I'm not big on the uberAlpha hero, though. I prefer mine more Gamma

Christine Koehler said...

My first instinct is to say believable, but I suppose that’s a given. I don’t mind them titled or landed or rich, there’s appeal to that – you don’t have to worry about them working for a living and taking away from the storyline. Today it’s different, I suppose because everyone works. A spy, to my thinking, wouldn’t be a peasant farmer – how hard would that be, to farm someone else’s land and spy for (or against) your country? The army works, because so many were in one as something or other. Even if one was a spying cook that could work with the right hero.

Personally I like my men, er heroes, smart, strong, quick witted, and able to respect a woman. If that last doesn’t work, it all falls apart for me.

Eliza said...

Zoe,
The simple fact that your hero is a mountebank does it for me. That's just -interesting-. And that your pre-Regency heroine is a botanist makes it all the more interesting.

So yes, occupations do matter. I loved Darcy once I figured him out, and I loved Emma's Knightley even more. But as long as the heroes have those sorts of sensibilities to them, I'm happy, no matter what their position is.

Since I like reading Gothics so much, there's usually a big house involved that's made a character of itself, and usually a man with the deed--and he usually has to have money, and of be of some good birth. So I'll take noble blood there if it gets me a complex, tortued character like Maxim de Winter or Philip Ambrose.

When creating them, I like 'em with dirt behind their ears, and somehow involved with crime...because crime is interesting.

Delia DeLeest said...

I like my heros with some kind of flaw, either mental or physical, it makes them more interesting. Him having money helps, since I can't stand stories where the h/h are always struggling to get by, either financially, or because they're stranded somewhere and are without their usual resources. If I want to read about financial issues, I'll just balance my checkbook.

carrie_lofty said...

I do not care about a hero's profession, but I care a great deal about his personality. I have no time for assholes. The old-fashioned Alphas bother the crap out of me. The story arcs generally revolve around an arrogant dude getting knocked down to size by luuurve, particularly if his heroine is extra special keen and can also redeem him and give him a heart.

I like my heroes in reverse, although they are a rare breed. I love it when a man finds himself. He's lost, he's tortured, he's unfit for human consumption. He's not an asshole because he's confident, but maybe a little bit because he's so insecure. Then love for the heroine brings out the medieval kick ass in him. Maybe he's never been a fighter before, or a leader of men, but he unearths that inner strength by simultaneously finding himself and his true love.

(Perhaps I get this because of my husband -- he's a quiet, self-effacing, docile Englishman. I like contemplating the scenario whereby he, too, would turn medieval kick ass. Haven't thought of one yet.)

Oh, and I love when they brood. This one of Sting and this one of Hugh Jackman... sigh. They look so distant and unattainable, like dark lovely moping gods. Wanna kiss 'em better, but said English hubby makes me leave that to my heroines.

Anne Whitfield - author said...

I love heroes who have redeeming qualities, they may be an arrogant sonofab*****, but something inside them melts when confronted by the heroine and usually they don't know what the hell hit them. LOL

I don't read a lot of books that have lords and ladies, my own books feature heavily on the working class or middle class.
But whatever their status, a hero has to be a good man underneath everything else, a man who would die for his woman.

Michelle Styles said...

I love and adore alpha heroes -- leaders of men. And as I love them, I write them. All my Romans, Vikings and Victorians are heroes and leaders of men. They are powerful men. Although I have a tendency to take that power at some point either in the backstory or in the story itself. It makes it more interesting for me. But I would never want to write about a follower. I like leaders, men who are capable of independant thought and action.

As I am currently reading DANCING INTO BATTLE -- A Social History of Waterloo, I do find the idea that somewhere there were no dukes and earls involved quite laughable and irritating.
Wellington was a snob. All of his so-called family of ADC were members of the aristocracy. Wellington is on record as saying that he did not believe a man could be raised from the ranks and he had a running battle with the artillary because they were professional soldiers rather than men who had piad a commission. He felt paying a commission gave a man a stake in the outcome.
All one has to do is look at the regimental lists for the fashionable regiments like the 10th Hussars. The Army was and continues to be an acceptible occupation for the British aristocracy...

So I have no problem with the titled, but equally I have no problem with the powerful untitled, having just written and had accepted an early Victorian with a self made man as a hero. Regency and early Victorian society was far more fluid than is sometimes protrayed.

Vicki Gaia said...

I love my hero troubled, and tortured but who has a sense of duty, and underneath is a roller coaster of emotions. He doesn't have to be perfect, in fact he makes mistakes, and can be an ass at times. But, he's transformed by a woman's love and will do anything to keep it once he realizes he loves her.

Then again, I like the hero who's the girl's best friend, and he's secretly in love with her! He can be a nerd, and a nice guy, but underneath his clothes he's a hunk, and very passionate.

Bonnie Vanak said...

Good question, Zoe. I like both traditional and non-traditional heroes. I love a strong Alpha but I've read a few Beta heroes who are great.

carrie_lofty said...

I think Vicki found a commonality for all of us: passionate. And not the "comfort zone" type of passion that Lisa blogged about. The hero has to care about something, have strong emotions, take strong action. Whether he's a computer nerd or a Viking warrior, there has to be something compelling about him. Otherwise... well, we're left feeling like the hero has too much in common with real life men ;) Whether alpha or beta, no one wants to read about a couch potato hero.

(PS: does anyone else get kinda creeped out by all these alpha/beta/gamma things? For me -- too many flashbacks to Brave New World. Maybe as long as we stay away from Epsilon heroes we're still ok??)

Zoe Archer said...

I, too, am not a huge fan of the uber-alpha. When a hero acts like an entitled jerk, and runs roughshod over the heroine, it's what you might describe as a turn off for me. I suppose we all do like the idea of a hero with some kind of power because it acts as an extended metaphor for who he is as a person, and a man. He controls a vast shipping empire, ergo, he is a man of deeds and action, and his competancy in the realm of business indicates that he is smart, driven and passionate, and can provide, which, let's face it, is a very basic-level need that goes all the way back to primitive societies and even other animals.

I must say that I am a little more flexible about how wealthy/powerful I want my heroes to be, so long as they are intelligent, resourceful and capable. I'm willing to forgo external indicators of success for someone who's more well-rounded on a basic level. I'm not a big brooding hero fan. Never have been in life, and not in my fiction, either. That isn't to say that the hero is perfect or has no emotional issues to work through, but an excessive case of moodiness just isn't appealing to me. I also like heroes with a good sense of humor, as I've posted here and elsewhere, and someone who can be a good friend to the heroine, while simultaneously rocking her world. It's important for me to know that the hero and heroine will be happy together after the book is over.

Camilla said...

I've noticed a trend in my own writing: untitled heroes who actually DO something(scientists, scholars, soldiers, politicians,etc) who are mostly self-made men or second sons or relatives of noblemen. I'm also attracted to the middle classes of the Victorian era(Forsyth's anyone?), but the trend isn't for anything lower than the aristocracy, so those plots are shelved(mournful).

I can appreciate a good Duke or Viscount, but I dislike the fact that so many of the heroes in historicals are noblemen in name only--no managing estates, seeing to tenants as extended family, engaging in Parliament, being High Sheriff's and so on. There was much, much more to titled life than going to London and enjoying the Season(and even then, the characters don't even take advantage of the many pleasures of London and its environs: Windsor, The Tower, Kew, etc).

So basically, my complaint--and one I hope to change within my own writing--is that the characters of most historicals live shallow lives that inaccurately depict the life of a British peer.

DDB said...

Money is nice, but for me the heroes character means more than his social standing. Right now I'm reading Brenda Novak's DEAD GIVEAWAY. The hero is a suspected murder. The heroine is a cop. I read to escape, if I want reality all I have to do is turn on the news.