The Cultural Gutter

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"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

Holding Out For a Hero

Chris Szego
Posted July 8, 2010

bittyhero.JPGI recently read a column by Ilona Andrews about heroes, which A) though light-hearted was also informative, and B) I immediately decided to steal use as a springboard for an article of my own.<

There’s a lot of discussion as to the role of the hero in modern Romance. Is he a placeholder for the reader, as some would suggest? A Jungian construct created to be the catalyst for the heroine’s own transformation? The prize for surviving the plot? Maybe. But I don’t think the hero represents any one thing – at least, not all the time. And definitely not every hero.

Because not all heroes are created equal. Which doesn’t imply that some are superior to others, rather that different kinds of stories require different kinds of heroes. In this case ‘different’ doesn’t refer to looks, or occupation, or any plot-dictated particulars: it refers to the kind of person the hero is. An 18thcentury Scottish clan chief is not going to say the same things or use the same weapons as a modern Navy SEAL – but each might react
to danger in the similar take-charge manner. Seeing how writers conform to (and expand on) heroic archetypes is one of Romance’s particular pleasures.

Thumbnail image for heroes big.jpgSo here, for the sake of edification and argument, is a small selection of some of the most popular heroic archetype. A few things to keep in mind:

–these categories aren’t neat boxes, but broad ranges.

– while heroes in a category will likely share traits, achetype is more than simply a checklist of characteristics.  Stock characters are not archetypes.  

-No matter what category a hero comes from, he will also fall somewhere on the Golden Hero/Dark Hero scale. This range covers every category, and isn’t so much about who the hero is, but how he acts. Nor does it have to do with ‘good’ and ‘bad’. A Golden Hero and a Dark Hero might end up at the same place, but the former might get there through nobility of purpose and action, while the latter is driven by his own dark impulses. Superman, for instance, is a Golden Hero; Batman is more of a Dark Hero. (A Dark Knight, in fact. Go figure).

The Ruler

While there are plenty of aristocrats in this category, it also encompasses businessmen, politicians, and surgeons, anyone with power or clout. Command is key: the Ruler is used to being obeyed. He’s also used to taking care of those around him. At his best, he’s immensely responsible and hardworking; at his worst, he is arrogant, inflexible and controlling.

Golden Rulers: Anthony Tremore from Guilty Pleasures by Laura Lee Guhrke; Alan MacGregor from All the Possibilities by Nora Roberts.

Dark Rulers: The Duke of Avon, from These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer; Wulfric Bedwyn from Slightly Dangerous by Mary Balogh

The Soldier

A Soldier shares some of the same traits as a Ruler, but his skills and expertise are all about fighting. He may be sick of battle, but he’s darn good at it. He could be a knight, firefighter, cop, or EMT: anyone who jumps into action in an emergency. He’s extremely capable, and very tough, both mentally and physically. At his best he’s a team-oriented protector; at his worst, he’s a violent thug.

Golden Soldiers: Anthony Selbourne from Golden Girl by Joan Wolf; Joe Catalanotto from Prince Joe by Suzanne Brockman.

Dark Soldiers: Kick Jackson from Shoot to Thrill by Nina Bruhns; Darius Carsington from Miss Wonderful by Loretta Chase.

The Playboy

We’re not talking Heff, here, but this archetype certainly plays the field. He has some sort of status, whether money, fame, or local reknown, that allows him to get away with some potentially iffy behavior. He’s an adventurer with a great deal of charm. At his best the Playboy’s sense of fun encourages repressed heroines to grow. At his worst he’s a cynical user with the emotional maturity of a week-old donut.

Golden Playboys: Jack Travis from Smooth Talking Stranger
by Lisa Kleypas; Calvin Morrisey from Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie

Dark Playboys: Leopold Dautry from A Duke of Her Own by Eloisa James; Blue Reynard from In the Midnight Rain by Ruth Wind.

The Wanderer

A Wanderer could be a returning prodigal or a mysterious stranger, a magician, a bard, a fey innocent. He knows things others don’t, and has a broad perspective gained by years of being an outsider. At his best, he’s a breath of fresh air, opening the whole world for the other characters. At his worst, he destroys existing emotional structures simply to see the flames go up.

Golden Wanderers: Cammon, from Reader and Raelynx by Sharon Shinn; Cam Rohan from Mine Till Midnight by Lisa Kleypas.

Dark Wanderers: Harry Braxton from As You Desire by Connie Brockway; Alex McDowell from Shadow Lover by Anne Stuart.

The Lost

All real characters have hurts in their pasts, but the Lost exemplify the worst kind of damage. These are the amnesiacs, the injured, the wrongfully imprisoned, the exiled, the abused. At their best they illuminate the healing power of love; at their worst they are so emotionally stunted as to be a danger to everyone around them.

Golden Lost: Vince Grasso from The Secret of Everything by Barbara O’Neal; Brandon Feringer from Brandon’s Bride by Alicia Scott.

Dark Lost: Zsadist from Lover Awakened by J.R. Ward. And I’ll stop there, because he’s pretty much the epitome of this archetype, described as being not just broken but ruined.

The Villain

Yes, the even the Villian can be a heroic archetype. These are the kidnappers, the thieves, the assassins. Men who have been pushed too
far, and whom you do NOT want to cross. They’re dangerous and driven, but they usually live by a code of some sort. It may be written in blood, but it’s a code. At their best, they are secretly righting wrongs; at their worst, they’re sociopaths. Which makes them a real challenge for romance writers, lemme tell you.

Golden Villains: Richard Byron fromMadam Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart; Marcus Kincardine from Truelove Bride by Shana Abe

Dark Villain: Edmond Dantes from The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas; Simon Goodnight from Death Angel by Linda Howard.


Chris Szego hates this humidity.  Bleah.


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