Think about the romantic heroes you love. The ones from your childhood, the ones who formed your idea about what romance looks like. Now think about what you like today – how far have they changed? Shows and films and books and tropes get tweaked, but I believe that, at heart, what we look for in romantic heroes has remained much the same.
The first romances in Western literature were those that stemmed from the chivalric adventure tradition, but began to focus on courtly love and devotion from the 14th Century. Familiar characters might include Sir Lancelot, whose love for Guinevere is legendary, and the tragedy of Tristan and Isolde. From the late 18th century the romance had moved from the gothic adventure to a story with a female protagonist focusing on the development of a courtship. The proliferation of the novel and the lending library and serialisation is likely to have had a big impact on the shifting nature of the romance. The heroes of these works exemplified the traits valued by the age they were in, but the fact that they still resonate with us says much.
The first character I remember thinking was the perfect man was Han Solo. I was about 9, I think, and I thought he was The Best. I’m not sure if I wanted him to be my best friend or wanted to be him, but I loved the fact that the outlaw loved the princess. Even at that tender age I could recognise a good trope when I saw it.
There are a lot of not-really-bad bad boys falling in love with the princess out there. One of the reasons I like it in Star Wars is that Han might be a smuggler (he’s certainly the anti-hero) but he has honour and courage. He is loyal. That’s not the stereotypical teen sulky bad boy who just needs the love of a good woman to change; Han doesn’t change who he is to win Leia, but loving her brings out different aspects of him.
(I can’t talk about how their relationship changes in the recent films yet because I’m not over what happened to Han, and Carrie Fisher’s death is too sad *cries inside for a week*.)
I’ve always loved a bit of humour and sarcasm in my romantic heroes. It wasn’t Shakespeare’s Romeo, with his willingness to die for love, who touched my heart; it was Benedick the bachelor. Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing was the perfect movie for me in my early 20s. Emma Thompson was glorious and the banter between this goddess and the highly comic Branagh was delectable. Other humorous romantic heroes I adore include Harry from When Harry met Sally, and a multitude of Georgette Heyer’s witty and clever men.
But humour only gets you so far. At some point the hero has to step up and show his love. When Benedick took Beatrice’s hand and said: “I do love nothing in the world so well as you. Is not that strange?”, I was smitten. Heartfelt declarations are timeless. We all want them. Jerry Maguire and his ‘You complete me’ speech caught me right in the heart. I might not be a fan of Mr Cruise, but in that moment I fell for Mr Maguire. Interestingly, Drew Barrymore’s Josie Geller in Never Been Kissed turns this public declaration trope upside down – she is the one who issues the public apology and the public statement of love, it is she who is most vulnerable.
Speaking of Much Ado, it has a perfect example of a romantic hero that we don’t see much anymore – which is a good thing. Claudio falls for the beautiful Hero, cousin to Beatrice. He asks of Hero “could the world buy such a jewel?”. He doesn’t actually have a one on one conversation with her onstage and much of his attraction to her appears to be solely based on her appearance. He “liked her ‘ere I went to war” and now he has returned he falls for her. When Claudio is deceived by Don John into believing that Hero is a ‘wanton’, he publicly shames her on their wedding day. He still gets to marry her later, regretting his actions only because she is proved to still be a maiden. This connection of love to virtue, and the romantic hero repudiating a virtuous woman by mistake, was exemplified in a series of terrible books I read in my late teens in the late 1990s. I ended up despising these books as much for their historical inaccuracy as their highly problematic heroes. They were regency romances and most of them had, at some point, the virgin heroine being swept up into passionate embraces with the experienced hero, who was happy enough with her passion when he believed he was the first one to experience it but who coldly rejected her (often, disturbingly, after a rape scene) when he was deceived into thinking her a fallen woman. It was even worse that he then only felt remorse because he’d assaulted a virtuous woman. I haven’t seen this type of romantic hero in some time and I say good riddance.
That said, I might have just developed more discriminating taste in books. Entirely possible.
Another popular romantic hero is the brooding type, who is usually masking inner demons and nobly sacrifices all for his beloved. He’s often closely linked to the bad boy but his anti-social tendencies are excused because of aforesaid inner demons. This is the vampire lover a la Angel in Buffy or Edward in Twilight. This kind of hero can also be called the Byronic Hero after Lord Byron. Sometimes the broodingness hides self loathing and at other times the brooding romantic appears to be a manipulative narcissist. I admit to a hankering for a brooding type at one point, but I’m much more inclined to the anti-hero, who has the same flaws but a lot more humour and self-deprecation.
The romantic type I have been immersed in reading most recently is the Alpha male. Paranormal romance, particularly that involving werewolves or changelings of some sort, allows for overt discussion of the role of the protector, the alpha. Strength and dominance has always been a constant in the romantic hero repertoire. Georgette Heyer had two main romantic hero types – she called them Mark I and Mark II. Mark I was the Corinthian, the powerfully built sportsman who dressed impeccably, was extremely wealthy, and was often a skilled boxer. He was also, this being Heyer, possessed of a sly sense of humour. In an age where the Alpha Male might seem an anachronism, a relic of a bygone time, authors like Patricia Briggs and Nalini Singh showcase not only their hero’s strength, and his dominance, but his nurturing care. The role of the protector is highlighted. What both authors also do is have heroines who don’t always relish the protection and who push against it.
Singh, by virtue of having a large ensemble of characters in her Psy-Changling novels, is able to explore different aspects of the alpha protector through the different heroes. One of my favourites is Drew Kincaid in Play of Passion – a dominant werewolf, his major strength is his kindness. He is funny, playful, and loving. He is strong, but that isn’t the basis of his romance with Indigo.
The alpha male can also be seen in a different format – the romantic hero who is good at something. They are the best pilot in the galaxy, the most skilled swordsman, the best dancer (Fred Astaire anyone?), or the smartest computer geek (David Levinson in Independence Day). We admire people who are good at what they do.
Another constant is the man who ignores all other women until you come along. Romeo forgets poor Rosaline when he first lays eyes on Juliet. Alex Hitchins in Hitch happily avoids relationships until he falls for Sara. And, of course, the king of this romantic type – Mr Darcy. We love Darcy not just because he falls for Elizabeth’s wit as much as her ‘very fine eyes’, but because he is noted for not cultivating the attentions of women until, very much against his will and through no machinations of hers, he falls for Elizabeth.
Also, just a thought, when Darcy finds out about Lydia running off with Wickham, he stands by Elizabeth and her family, despite Elizabeth’s fears that she ‘will never see him again’. This is a stark contrast to Claudio.
The paranormal changeling romances also allow for another romantic hero we like – the monogamous man who, once he gives his heart, is yours forever. Changelings have mates with whom they bond for life. This is the ‘happy ever after’ that you see at the end of Jane Austen’s novels with the marriage scenes. We like to know that they aren’t just ‘happy for now’ but ‘happy for good’.
As I came to end this post, I realised there are still likely to be many more romantic hero types that I have missed. I choose to see this as a positive reflection of the wide range of characters that are written and performed – well rounded characters reflect the diversity of our lives and the fact that we all love different kinds of people. If I’ve left off one of your favourites, or there’s one you think I should have covered but didn’t, let me know in the comments!