first published in the Brisbane Courier-Mail 4 November 2006
Heroes occupy both a crucial and uneasy role in romance novels. Readers can overcome an annoying heroine, shaky plot, even purple prose, as long as the hero is strong. With a bad hero, however, the story is shot.
Critics of the romance genre have long focused on the hero as a problematic figure within the genre. Many believe, for example, that there is a touch of orientalism about him: women writing men as they’d like them to be, instead of as they really are. The heroes take on the role of the noble savage in romance novels, written about with authority, but little real world significance.
An author I had dinner with recently referred to these heroes as ‘girls in men’s clothing’, heroes who parrot what writers think readers want: ‘Oh darling, let’s go shoe shopping!’
Others, including super-author Jayne Ann Krentz, believe that female readers relate more to the hero than the heroine. Being women themselves, they are too close to the heroine —instead of empathising, they are constantly comparing and contrasting. Statements like ‘I would never have done that’ and ‘She made the wrong choice’ are frequent when talking to readers about heroines. Like the heroes, readers are evaluating, determining whether the heroine is right, whether she is good enough for the hero —and the reader herself.
So what makes a hero good? It’s not necessarily the obvious, or the clichéd. While heroes are often good-looking, equally as often they’re not. Derek Craven from Lisa Kleypas’s Dreaming of You has a scar across his face. Marcus, in It Happened One Autumn, is stocky with short legs. Teresa Medeiros wrote the aptly named The Bride and the Beast. Zsadist from Lover Awakened by JR Ward is described as terrifying, too skinny with a bald head. Loretta Chase’s Sebastian in Lord of Scoundrels is hulking, dark, and heavy-featured.
The same discrepancy lies in wealth and status. Jamie, hero from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is a poor farmer. Yet he is regularly listed as a favourite hero. In historicals, you often find heroes with either status but no wealth, or wealth but no status. Or neither, as is the case in Hope Tarr’s Vanquished or Amanda Quick’s Desire.
There seems to be no unifying trait across the boards, except that each of the heroes is flawed. The notion of the ‘perfect man’ is as distant in romance novels as it is in reality. Readers love imperfect heroes, men who have suffered, who have scars, who need something beautiful to remind them of the good in life. And who is better for the task than an equally imperfect heroine?