A couple of weeks ago, I taught Writing Romantic Fiction at one of the Writing Weekends run by the Relax and Write organisers. One of the - for me – most important sessions starts with one simple question thatusually leads to an animated, lively and often fascinating discussion.
What is a hero?
(I do a session on what is a heroine too)
I ask the group to shout out the things they believe are important in a good hero – good in this case, meaning one who is interesting, convincing, and appealing as the hero of a romantic fiction. It’s usually a topic that gets people interested and involved very fast. But often the results can surprise people.
After all, anyone who has read a lot of romances will come up with what they think are the ‘obvious’ details – ‘ tall, dark handsome’. I know that it can seem as if there are no other physical descriptions of heroes - but the truth is, that as with all things in writing romance – even this basic, clichéd description comes with a ‘it depends’ tag along with it. Or, as the editor’s will say It’s All In The Execution. Because that tall dark and handsome thing comes from seeing the hero through the eyes of the heroine. Tall can mean – well, anything really. It means he looks tall to the heroine. But if your heroine is 4 ft 11 or so then a tall man to her will be very different from a leggy model who is six feet tall herself. And believe me when I run these discussion groups there are always plenty of people who will put forward the claim for a gorgeous blond hero – or even a male equivalent of the French ‘Jolie laide (English translation: "Ugly beautiful") the expression used to describe someone who is unconventionally beautiful.
As I write for Harlequin Presents, most people will expect me to want a hero who is rich – the ‘comfortably off’ man I wrote about in my first books then had to become wealthy, then a millionaire, now a billionaire . . . But that’s part of the Modern/Presents fantasy – it’s not what motivates me to write a particular man as a hero. I’m interested in and care about my hero as a man first and foremost and then the wealth, the cars, the houses etc are really the trappings that come along with him. His story is the story of a man dealing with the types of emotional problems, the emotional difficulties between him and his heroine that can come into the lives of any man, no matter what his position in life.
I remember once at a meeting of romantic novelists we one had a fascinating discussion about the type of hero we could or could not make sexy and appealing to the reader. I forget the stumbling blocks we came up with (though I think a heavy body odour was one of them!) but no one blinked at the thought of a bald hero, a hero wearing spectacles, an older hero, perhaps carrying a few pounds weight too many. Though perhaps a truly fat man might be difficult.
So the topics that come up in my discussion class also cover age, experience (or lack of it) Success – but personal and financial success – aren’t necessarily the same. Sexy. Passionate. Interesting . . . Again, these can all be defined by the ‘It’s All In The Execution.’
But there’s one thing that comes up so often and that no one seems to be prepared to compromise on. One thing that I’m not prepared to compromise on either. A hero must have a sense of honour.
For me, a hero must always have the vital integrity that he doesn’t compromise. This doesn’t mean that he can’t come up against or create problems that disturb his heroine, make him judge her wrongly, or that send him after her believing that what he needs is revenge. In fact in a well-written book, it’s that vital integrity that creates the conflict where such things happen or he’s made to believe in them. But for me a hero can never truly be a hero without a basic, deep down strongly felt sense of personal integrity and honour. A line he will never cross, no matter what.
To quote Anne McAllister:
A real hero can be strong and macho and all the things readers are looking for without resorting to being a tyrant. . . The challenge to the writer is to take the best man and give him weaknesses that do not undermine his masculinity, but somehow have him behaving honorably in a way that ends up getting him into trouble -- and then he has to behave even MORE HONORABLY to get out of it.
All these thoughts and ideas were what was in my mind when I had the idea that grew into my latest book, A Question of Honour (or Honor depending on where you live).
I started with the memory of a romantic story in my family – my mother’s ancestry - about a loyal supporter of the Stuart king James II and his son. In exile in France, the King arranged a marriage for his son with a Polish princess and sent Charles Wogan – my great –great-great (etc) grandfather to fetch the princess safely to marry her prince. There’s a story that on the journey they fell in love but because he was so loyal to the king, he had to give her up to marry her prince at the end of the journey. I wanted to write this story with a happier ending.
And I wanted to make sure that my hero – Karim - kept that all important sense of hojnour, no matter how much temptation was thrown at him.
To judge by a lot of the reviews, it seems I succeeded:
Forbidden love stories are a favorite of mine. Especially those stories—the ones that have couples who aren’t supposed to be together but defy the expectations or restrictions put on them—that leave you with hope that love does defy all odds and is to be placed above familial duties and all other complications. Though, ultimately, it was Ms. Walker’s skill as an author that had me in awe yet again. She gave Karim’s character a true hero’s demeanor. She filled his backstory so that it only added to the heart wrenching way he denied himself the pleasure of the woman he desperately needed. (Larissa M on WeRead Romance.)
What about you? What are the essentials that make up a hero for you? What comes under the heading of ‘non-essential’? And what characteristic are totally non-negotiable for you?
A Question of Honour - or A Question of Honor depending on whether you're reading the Mills & Boon Modern edition or the Harlequin Presents one is outnow .
You can find out more about Kate Walker and her books - and the writing courses she runs - over on her web site
And there is all the up to date news on her blog or Facebook page