Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Romantic Hero's Purpose

This one goes out to the romance people reading this blog. I've been thinking over Alicia's post on Contrasts and Juxtapositions from earlier this week. It's been a while since I had to quibble with Alicia about one of her points, and as usual, it's sort of a side point and not really her main point. And as usual, I find myself wanting to start by noting where we think in tandem. It's so rare that we disagree that the urge to preface and even conciliate runs strong.

So here's a quick rundown of two places where I nodded in agreement while reading the post.

-- Genre fiction as folk art? Yes. Exactly. Love the point about innovation within a framework, "the same but different" so often referenced by agents and editors, or as Alicia puts it, something new balanced on the familiar and expected.

-- Victoria Dahl is an adept writer with a knack for surprising readers in a delightful way. No argument there. I haven't read Crazy for Love, the new release Alicia cites, but it's only a matter of time. (And nothing in this post should be construed as criticism of a book I haven't read or an author I respect.)

And then the wheels screeched as my ability to agree with Alicia ran off the side of the road.

You see, I don't think it should be at all unexpected for a hero to have the urge to protect the heroine. In fact, I think if he doesn't have that urge, at least by the end of the book, then he can't be a romantic hero. By definition.

In sociobiological terms, human males have two primary roles: to impregnate women and to fight off predators. There are other sub-roles, of course, and the way these roles manifest in modern men is surely different from how they manifested in our ancestors. Nevertheless, this is what the male body was designed to do, and it's what the deepest part of the instinctive brain will urge males to do.

The way these roles translate into romance hero archetypes is probably pretty obvious. The sexual urges, for example, form part of the tension in even the sweetest romances. Ever wonder why babies factor so prominently in sweets? It's because, in part, if we don't get to see the sexual behavior of the male during the course of the story, we need some other signal that he's capable of fathering a child. So we have an epilogue with the happy couple cuddling their infant a year later, and the reader is left to understand this is a coupling that works.

And as to the warrior/protector side of the male, this manifests in dozens of different ways. Some are obvious -- he's a SEAL or a Scottish chieftain or some other battle-hardened sort. Some are less direct -- he's a CEO (conquerer of the boardroom and enemy competitors), or an aristocrat (lord of all he surveys), or some other high-status male type. A big part of the emotional arc in romance is the journey this male must take from independent warrior to the man who will risk injury and even death to save his mate and children.

This is why so many successful romances have elements of danger to the heroines which allow the hero to intervene and prove his worth as a protector.

And this is why, when I read Alicia's description of the hero trying to save the heroine from imaginary sea monsters, I thought, "But that's what he should do."

It may be that this particular scene was set up so deftly as a sex scene that it was surprising to watch it morph into a protection scene. I don't know because I haven't read it. But that's a different kind of surprise from surprise that he's protective at all. And when Alicia describes the protective urge as more individual or more unique to this character, well, that's when I knew I had to write this post. That urge is not unique to any one romance hero. They should all have it. How they express it might be unique, but they should all have it, even if only by growing into it by the end of the book.

(So tempted now to shift into Darcy Discussion Mode now, a nearly perpetual condition for me these days. Instead will assert that it was his rescue of Lydia that allowed Elizabeth to ultimately love him, knowing he would not only protect her but her family as well, and even protect her from her family if need be. Heroic actions from a heroic character. Debate among yourselves if you like.)

As to Alicia's assertion that this could translate into some kind of 3-act structure, I think I will limit myself to this: what she describes is not so much a story structure as one method for creating a reversal, which is a structural device. I might not be parsing that part of the post correctly, but that's how I read it. There are many different ways to leverage the power of the reversal, and that sort of surprise behavior built upon a reader's assumptions or expectations is a good one.



Leona said...

And see? this is why I love this blog. Okay, one of many reasons. Even your disagreements can teach us something.

You used to be editors at the same house. We can appreciate how much personal taste applies to each book. :)

And I am so not touching this disagreement with a ten foot pole. I'm here to learn. I will observe from the sidelines. *finishes putting butter on popcorn*

Riley Murphy said...

Okay, I'll touch it. :)

Gee, that sounds dirty, doesn't it? ;)

I think a fair number of romance readers might be lost on such a premise because the hero’s weakness (which should be heroine exclusive) translates to everyone - even strangers - because of the danger involved to them (no matter who they are) - there is no specialness involved in his decision making process. It’s danger. Period. Not danger to her that he must protect. Danger to everyone - he must protect. And well, that’s just crazy. And, to turn that around eventually? Um, you better hope the reader sticks with you to follow the process. A flawed process, btw, because when you’re busy worrying about one possible threat of danger from one angle - surely there are several others the hero has to overlook at that moment - to see to the one he’s chosen to deal with, right? And, to say, but that’s the point - nothing happened to them? Then what you’re really saying is that the hero was unreliable in the first place.

Murphy (who has openly admitted that she thinks a hero’s only weakness should be his heroine).

Leona said...

Well, Murphy, at least you didn't say you were gonna touch it with a ten foot pole :P

And now my head hurts. And I really want popcorn.

Jami Gold said...

Leona said: And see? this is why I love this blog...Even your disagreements can teach us something.

Right there with you, Leona. *takes a seat next to you on the sofa* Say, do you have any of that caramel powder stuff to put on the popcorn? :)

Edittorrent said...

Heroes foregrounded-

As for structure, well, you know I'm not all that structured. However, those of us who don't plot ahead of time can still use some idea of what to do in the beginning, what to do in the middle, and what to do in the end. Hence, my very basic attempts at 3-act structure. I mean, we can talk about setup, rising action, resolving action, but setting up WHAT?

Well, you can set up the familiar in Act 1. You can rise to reversal in Act 2. You can then resolve the conflict between the familiar and the reversal in Act 3. Voila. 3 acts, each with a purpose. I do that with lots of things, like:
Act 1 presents the thesis.
Act 2 presents the antithesis.
Act 3 presents the synthesis.

Any structure, in my mind, can be helpful even if all it does is make you think you want to do it differently. Pantsers, as we call them, do well with very basic structures for drafting, and can get more complex later in revision, I think. They do have to accept that structure helps!