Finding Heroic Proportions

So, I’ve been reading up a storm lately in the historical mystery shelves, trying to get a handle on what’s going on. (As Marvin Gaye would say, apparently. Have a bunch of his songs stuck in my lately. Not sure.) I mean, what’s going on in the field of historical mysteries.

The mystery formula is pretty easy to get your head around, and I’m starting to notice some good techniques for the suspense, the red herrings, the false suspects—you know, all the fun props that go with the genre. Looking forward to all that stuff.

But, what really stood out to me is how little I liked most of the “heroes” offered to me. Take Tasha Alexander’s first book And Only to Deceive (and this is nothing against TA. I finished her book in two days, so obviously I got into it. Long may she prosper), but anyway, in her book she’s got two heroic possibilities offered to her main character: Andrew, who is supposed to be charming and playful, and Colin, uncommunicative and moody/smoldering.

One of them is the man she’s destined to be with and one is SECRETLY PURE EVIL. Both propose marriage.

This is a good scenario for a suspenseful, semi-romantic mystery, right? Yes!

Does it work? NO! I hated them both!

I hated them because I’ve never been attracted to a) superficial dingbats or b) uncommunicative moodfests, and I found it unbelievable that any woman really would be. Every time the main character got all “Oh, ANDREW” on me, I was like oh, for the love of.

And then it occurred to me that the whole plot  hung on Colin’s uncommunicativeness because if he communicated one single fact to the heroine, the mystery would have been over. (Also, she would not have been put in danger and the bad guys would have been put in prison). This is not awesome, but it’s a staple of romantic male leads since Mr. Darcy first decided it was a good idea to conceal Wickham’s true character in P&P.

I can’t really blame Jane A. She couldn’t have known it was going to go down like that.

But, it sure seems like lazy writing for the rest of us. Lazy and, when you think about it, really unattractive. The more I started categorizing the qualities of heroes the more confused I became. I mean, honestly, to whom is this arch-hero so magnetic?

This is your standard hero: strong, brilliant but arrogant, uncommunicative, moody and/or angry, secretive, overly sexed (though sometimes undersexed in mystery writing. See Adam Dalgliesh and William Monk), with a dark and bitter secret.

Gosh, sign me up.

I know writing is fundamentally a creative pursuit and there’s definitely room for all kinds, but my obsession is emotional realism. I realize my plots aren’t always going to have the plodding reality of an 11 o’clock news story. I get that there’s creative license in what people do and definitely in what they say (who’s even half as articulate as their lead character?), but I need each character’s driving emotions to be something I can understand and believe in.

What frustrates me is that this Byronic hero is so much a staple of literature that most writers—male and female, from romance to science fiction—are fishing for their male leads out of the same pond. I understand romance isn’t going to change any time soon. That’s a whole different animal, in my opinion, but for the rest of us, I think we need to start getting a whole lot more intentional about what sort of hero we’re building.

Personally, I feel a moral imperative about it (girls who swoon for Edward Cullen are girls who won’t recognize an abusive relationship until it, literally, starts to hit them. Sad but true), but you don’t have to get morally indignant to know that good writing is true writing.

What is your hero really like as a person? Would his arrogance repulse people? Would he actually get invited to parties? Does he wash his own dishes? Is he uncommunicative to make the plot better, and if so, would you or anyone else really want to be with somebody who can’t communicate?

These are important issues, because I don’t know about other readers but I’m getting to the point where every time I find another square jawed brooding Byron—whether he’s solving crime or piloting the starship Galactatron—it’s all I can do to keep from launching the book across the room.

Save me some fees at the library. Write about real people.

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2 thoughts on “Finding Heroic Proportions

  1. Unfortunately, handsome but arrogant is real. Not certainly the whole story or all of the options but…um…yeah…those guys exist. Now, if you’re objecting to painting this type as the hero or some sort of romantic ideal then I’m with you but, hey folks….seems to me like people are either ugly, stupid or mean….these are basically the faults available and real characters have faults. I guess you have to decide what combo of faults are the best options for heroes then eh?

    Am so curious about why you have Marvin stuck in your head! lol

  2. Clarification: I didn’t mean to imply the handsome but arrogant thing isn’t real. It’s very real. I call those people Bad Guys.

    Who in the heck wants to spend time with people like that?

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