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?