Every once in a while I will fall in love with a hero. Kit from Mary Balogh’s A Summer to Remember comes to mind. I loved his laughing eyes. I loved his sunny nature. As I typed this half a dozen scenes from the book came to my mind and I found myself with a smile on my face. I love Kit, it’s that simple. I also love Francis from Balogh’s The Famous Heroine. It’s his sense of humor which drew me, his sense of chivalry, his amazingly cheerful personality. Francis is a happy person and I just can’t imagine anyone being miserable around him.
Those are romance heroes. Sometimes I will also fall in love with a hero in a book that is most definitely not a romance. Will Laurence from Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon springs to mind. There is no romance in this novel but there is plenty to love about Will. He’s honorable and loyal and kind. He may not have much of a sense of humor but he has an outstanding sense of duty. Yes, by the time I had closed the pages of that book I had lost a piece of my heart to Will.
I also love another hero from a dragon centric novel – Jamie Lanister from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga. However, where Will, Kit and Francis are all my ideas of a complete dreamboat, the type of man I am absolutely attracted to between the pages of a book (or in film or TV) as a romantic hero, Jamie definitely is not. Jamie is a terrific character – complex, riveting, growing and changing as the many hundreds of pages unfold – but I will not lose my heart to him romantically. His demons are too much for me, his depths too deep. I love what he brings to the book but I sure don’t fantasize of traveling through time and universes to meet him. In fact, the thought of it kind of scares me. With Jamie, you’ll never know how that encounter could end up.
There is another character in that saga about whom I am about to take a highly controversial stance. Ned Stark to me is no dreamboat. He’s no Jamie whom I love but not that way. He’s a douchebag. When we first meet dear Ned he’s about to chop the head off a man who was running from the Wall in fear for his life. Ned shows no mercy – the law is the law blah blah blah. He ignores what the man says – which by the way was actually pretty darn important. He could have redeemed himself after that moment but he doesn’t. And that is due in large part to his treatment of the Jon and Caitlin situation. Jon is, to all the people in Winterfell, Ned’s bastard son. Caitlin, Ned’s wife, hates Jon.
She makes his life very difficult. She is openly hostile. Ned never really deals with the issue – and he is sitting on some information that could make the whole thing disappear, which is hinted at very clearly in book one. But even if he hadn’t had that intel, he still should have intervened. Seeing a child emotionally abused when you are that child’s parent? Unforgivable to me.
The above is not an analysis of Ned as a character – it’s an analysis of Ned as a romantic hero. Ned as a character is – complicated. I have complex feelings for him and his role in the world of Ice and Fire. But as a romantic hero he’s not that complicated – he’s completely lacking. I couldn’t fall for him. At all. He has too many character traits that are just a complete turn off, too many actions highlight those traits throughout the book.
One of the great things about fiction is that it invokes these visceral reactions. Sure, a great novel can be thought provoking but when you are talking romance you are talking the heart. These instinctive heartfelt reactions toward heroes or heroines show that the author has done at least one thing right – they have created a character we are responding to. Especially in romance where we are deciding quite simply whether or not the character works for us in the role of romantic hero or heroine.
I’ve been thinking about what makes a hero work for me romantically the last few months as we have done the Dreamboat or Douchebag columns. I know his treatment of the heroine is paramount. I can accept the questionable actions of a hero like Jamie from Outlander if the character strikes me as thinking of his heroine with love and kindness. Jamie does. He risks himself to save Claire. He listens to her. He talks to her. Their partnership may not always be an equal one but there is a partnership and it improves with time. Jamie works for me as a romantic hero because on top of being an honorable, decent human being he’s a good lover, not just physically but emotionally.
Something else that I love in a hero is the accepting of the heroine for who she is. Jamie works darn hard at accommodating who Claire is. She is more outspoken than the women of his time, she is different in many other ways too. He doesn’t try to make her “grow up” or whatever other excuse a hero dreams up for making his heroine change. He does try to help her fit in better with his community for both their sakes but I didn’t see that as him trying to change the core of who she is. I’ve never been able to enjoy Balogh’s The Plumed Bonnet for that reason. For all the hero’s protestation that he doesn’t want to change the heroine he does nothing but try to change her. That’s not love in my book –it’s Stepford Wifing a convenient body.
Beyond his treatment of the heroine I fall for a hero who is kind to kids and the elderly (even if he is shy or awkward about it), a man who has a good sense of duty and integrity, someone who at their core is what I consider a decent human being. He can have flaws – Luke from Elizabeth Camden’s Beyond All Dreams is arrogant, overbearing and has a nasty temper but I love him anyway. He respects his heroine, he loves her, he accepts who she is. And who she is is someone who combats his arrogance with gentle wit, refuses to yield to his bossiness and who demands he get that temper under control. He’ll always try to get the upper hand, there will still be times when he stomps off in a rage, and he may on occasion try to act superior; they’ve worked it all out. I can love him because I see him in a great relationship with his heroine, I see him have all the traits I admire and like with a real person I can be reasonable about the rest. Perfect characters are boring anyway.
Now I am going to put the question to AAR staffers – what makes you react to a hero not intellectually but emotionally? What traits make up your romantic hero? What traits tend to be deal breakers?
Dabney: My answer for the hero is the same as mine for the heroine. He needs to deserve his happy ending.
Melanie: I’ve been sitting here thinking about it, and (alongside Dabney’s “needs to deserve his happy ending”) I think that whatever his faults may be, he must be ultimately redeemable. And not redeemable by “the love of a good woman” or such rot, but has to work to redeem himself. Some of my favorite heroes are dark and damaged, but work to move themselves past their history, and not solely because of their current/future/potential love interest. There’s something about what is basically a self-made man (not about money, but about themselves) that is incredibly appealing. In a romance novel, that type of hero will put that same effort into their relationship with the heroine. I’m a little in love with him already just thinking about it.
Lee: I like heroes who have a softer side and a good sense of humor and are willing to really listen to what others have to say, especially what the heroine wants to contribute to the conversation. Deal breakers are smokers/drinkers/guys who sleep around (especially in historicals though I know they probably did that in real life).
Mary: A good hero for me is one who listens; one who sees beyond the superficial and, if not at first, eventually learns to see their heroine (in the case of a heterosexual couple) as their equal. An ability to compromise is also an essential quality. No one wants a doormat be they male or female, so as in real life, people who are different have to be able to work out those differences in order to live in some kind of harmony. A good hero also shows how they love the heroine and doesn’t just say the words. They certainly do not have to be perfect. Perfect characters are pretty boring in my opinion. But if they are deeply flawed, there needs to be believable growth and redemption. I first read Pride and Prejudice when I was about 11-12 years old. For the first half of the book, I HATED DARCY! I never would have guessed at that point he would become one of the most iconic heroes of all time. What turned the corner for Darcy was his becoming self-aware. So, I want a hero who can think. They do not have to be educated, but for their character to resonate with me, they need to be intelligent. Being nice to children and animals helps too. :0)
Readers, what are your thoughts? What characteristics does a hero need to have for you to deem him swoon-worthy?