Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Who's YOUR Hero?

(And is he anything like the man (men?) in your life?)

I participated in Jessica's envigorating discussion about Anne Stuart's Black Ice.  Most commenters like or love the book, and many specifically like Bastien, the rather morally dubious hero.  (He's a Jason Bourne type, trained to go undercover, killing as necessary.  He's also got extraordinary control over his physical reactions -- all his physical reactions...!)  There were a few dissenters, and as one of their number, I'd like to think we joined in the exchange with the right spirit of respect and debate.

Something the wonderful Sherry Thomas wrote got me thinking.  She praised the hero in E.M. Hull's classic, The Sheik and said that she (Sherry, this is) would love to shag the Sheik.  Interesting.  I love that book, which I've owned for decades.  I haven't re-read it for a long time, but I know what I loved about it 20 years ago was the despair the heroine experiences when she thinks she will have to spend the rest of her life away from this compelling but difficult man she's fallen in love with.  (According to Wikipedia, Hull may have written the book while her husband was serving in WWI.  I wonder if her fears fueled the feelings in the book.)  Of course, there's an HEA.  That's what makes the despair emotional porn, and not just excruciating.

But would I want to shag the Sheik?  Um, nope.  I pretty sure I wouldn't.  (I'm suspending completely the question of whether the Sheik would want to shag me.  It's safe to say the answer to that question is No.)

So who would I want to shag?  Which is to say, which fictional hero would I want to fall in love with, have a lasting relationship with and, okay, shag -- ?

The Beast.  From almost any of the Beauty and the Beast versions.  (Except for Judith Ivory's version, where it was more a case of disguise than actual disfigurement.)  And most specifically, the Beast of Belleterre, Mary Jo Putney's titular hero from her novella, which I have in A Victorian Christmas. (I think it's been published elsewhere as well.)

The Beast, as a hero, is someone hiding from life, strong and vital but convinced that he's right to keep out of society.  The heroine is thrust into his well-ordered and limited life and changes everything.  The experience is catalytic for both of them: she falls in love at the same time she's struggling with the isolation surrounding her beloved, and he's given his first glimpse of a life with another human being in it -- a vision that is as seductive as it seems impossible.

In the fairy tale, the beast is hideous because of a spell cast by a wicked something or other.  But if you like the Disney animated version, chances are you've thought as I have that the Beast is so much more interesting than the rather bland, generic prince he's restored to at the end.  Okay, so that Beast is perhaps more bestial than one could comfortably accommodate (and it only now occurs to me that Bastian is more than a bit bestial in some portions of Black Ice), but he's charming in his diffidence in ways you just know that Prince Charming isn't.  And he needs Belle -- and isn't that a wonderful feeling, to be needed?

In The Beast of Belleterre, the hero is scarred from a childhood fire.  He's made a life for himself (and some equally scarred animals) but he never expects to marry, have children, or enjoy any companionship beyond that which he's paid for in the past.  He does marry as an act of mercy, but he's convinced himself that he must not let his bride see him as he really is.  (He hides in a voluminous cloak.)  But his bride, while grateful and biddable, isn't as scared of him as he imagines.  Their conflict grows in perhaps too extreme a manner, but it's a fairy tale -- and for emotional porn, I couldn't ask for a better HEA.  I cry every time!

Back to Sherry and her Sheik.  I was thinking about this issue of what sort of hero we're attracted to -- the dark & twisty undercover operative, the dashing & dangerous pirate, the saintly/good/smart guy who turns out to be surprisingly uninhibited in bed, the millionaire needing only the love he can't buy, etc., etc. -- when I realized that there was something significant in my pick as the ONE I would want to love.

Because that's who I married.  Twice!

My first husband, pictured below on the left, had been living a relatively quiet life in Hampstead Heath, part of North London, when I swept back into his life.  We'd known each other for over 25 years (we met as teenagers when I was sent at age 15 to care for an epileptic great aunt in nearby St. John's Wood) and neither of us had married.  I'd fallen in love with him when we were 24 but there was no way either of us could have sustained a relationship back then.  (We both come from a long line of late-bloomers.)  Hub 1.0 was then, and still is, the family of my heart; I love him today precisely the way I loved him on the day we go married, and I probably always will. 

So why two husbands?  Well, that is part of the magic of my first marriage -- it made each of us stronger, better, healthier people.  And Hub 1.0 was ready to lead his own life, make his own choices, etc.  (I like to think I'm not too oppressively dominating a personality, but I'll admit that it was frequently easier for both of us to let me take the lead in life.  Understandable, but not optimal.)  Coincidentally, I was getting friendly with Starman, pictured on the right.

(For newbies to this blog, my husband is easily identified elsewhere, particularly as "Crosswordman," but I started calling him Starman because his pseudonyms for the cryptic crosswords he created were the names of stars, e.g., Arcturus and Mira, and since marriage we've set puzzles together as a twin star, Aldebaran.  Also, we love the Karen Allen/Jeff Bridges movie.  At least one of my friends was convinced she'd have trouble thinking of him as anything but Starman...)

Starman is truly a Beast-style hero.  He lived alone, didn't get out much, and had even retired from the computer consulting work he'd done in London so that he didn't have to mingle with people.  All of a sudden, this American woman was telephoning him, chatting about Woody Allen movies and music.  (I was looking for a best friend -- but that's a very long story for another blog post.)  I suspect some part of me recognized some part of him, and once he'd satisfied himself that I wasn't going to be a stalker/serial killer, he was eager to have someone to talk to.

Of course he doesn't look like a Beast.  Neither of them do.  But the Beast conflict is all in the head, anyway -- that belief that he's better off keeping himself to himself.  And both my English husbands had that going on.  What I brought to them, other than sufficient smarts to do learn how to do British-style cryptic crosswords, was a loving heart and the ability to show them another way of living.  It doesn't seem to be enough to make either one of them love me, but it clearly worked.  And in the case of Starman, I clearly have the magic woo-woo he was looking for.  Go figure.

So, here are the questions:  If you had to pick a single hero or hero type, who or what would it be?  And is that type anything like the man (men) in your life?


  1. How romantic! It sounds like you could write your own romance novel. :)

    I like a lot of different types of heroes. Usually I'm a big fan of cops, though. My dad worked in law enforcement so that might have something to do with it, even though I rarely trust real cops as far as I can throw them. I can tell you right now I'd have issues with an alpha male, though.

  2. Heidenkind: Thanks! I too have a mixed reaction to cops -- it's a tough job, they're good at it, and it definitely falls into the category of "jobs I'm glad I don't have to do"! But there can be abuses, and when the "blue line" kicks in and suggests that all cops are right all the time, I have some problems with that. Overall, though: Thumbs up.

    (Someday, remind me to tell you about the case my judge had when I was a law clerk: If Erle Stanley Gardner had written it, it would have been titled, "The Case of the Adulterous Police Captains.")

  3. I posted this at the last possible minute before I headed south for an appointment. Starman and I were scheduled to meet for an early dinner before the opera (Met Opera HD repeat of Tosca, which we'd missed the first time round.) When I met him, I said, "Did you read my blog? Did I offend you?"


    "Oh, no. I'm so sorry. What part was it?"

    "You wrote that I didn't love you. And of course I do. That offended me.!

    {stunned silence}

    Me: "Of all the things I worried that you might be upset about, that wasn't even on the list." I mean, I know I pushed the limit on what is okay for me to write about another person. Had there been time, I'd have had him read it first.

    What he was upset about were these sentences: "What I brought to them, other than sufficient smarts to do learn how to do British-style cryptic crosswords, was a loving heart and the ability to show them another way of living. It doesn't seem to be enough to make either one of them love me, but it clearly worked."

    My dad had a rule: if your writing confuses someone, it needs to be edited to remove the confusion. So, allow me to set the record straight: My husband loves me. A lot.

  4. Oh my, how lovely that your Starman had something to say about how he was portrayed.

    The thing is, if one really likes historicals, how do those men match up with real life? Still pondering.

  5. Magdalen: I've known several of those kinds of police captains. More than several. Well, not known known, of course.... ;)

  6. What a wonderful story! I second what Heidenkind said: you could write your own romance.

    Oddly enough, the heroes I like in books are not the type of men I go for in real life. I'm a sucker for a story featuring a reformed rake, or an ex-con made good. In real life, I'd run a mile from those kind of guys. The suspension of disbelief obviously doesn't extend beyond fiction. Of course, I learned this from bitter experience!

    My husband is more beta than alpha and bears little resemblance to my fave romance heroes. He has no criminal record, was never a rake, and is reliable. On how we met...that's probably a tale for another day!

  7. I really enjoyed reading your accounts of the husbands--think I already came here and read one after your "stunned recipient" comment at RRR.

    And I love the BEAST architype--provided they are not too ugly, that is. (My shallowness is famous, sad to say.)

    But now I'm afraid that people will think I approve of the hero in THE SHEIK. :-)

    We have a tortured relationship--he and I. And he holds a strong sexual thrall over me. But 2000 words into an essay on why that book sucks me in as it does, I kept coming up agains the wall of the H/H's initial sexual relationship.

    This is where I pull my hair out about a book not allowing me into the bedroom. Because what happens there is crucial. I need to know what happened--i.e., I need enough plausible deniability that he is not an outright rapist, but just a forceful seducer. And OMG, I don't even deign to read forceful seduction books, what the @#$% is wrong with me!!!

    You see why I abandoned that review and now just live with my unholy fasincation for the character. :-)

  8. @Janet -- Well, obviously I do a fair amount of, uh, extrapolation when I think of my husband as fitting in the Beast archetype. (That's why I included the photo -- I really didn't want anyone to think these guys have excessive chest hair or overly long toenails -- blecch.) But I would guess that almost all (see my comment to Sherry, below) heroes can be interpreted for modern times. Aristocrats become executives, pirates become -- uh, bankers? Okay, so maybe this theory needs some work . . .
    @Sarah -- Interesting point. I wonder if your attraction to stories about reformed rakes and ex-cons making good is because of the transformative power the heroine wields in those stories. It's through the arc of the hero's development that we get a picture of how the heroine affects him. And maybe you've had that effect on your husband . . . :-)
    @Sherry -- Thanks for the comment. Okay, so the issue is the forceful lover vs. the rapist. Obviously, consent (continuous, non-retracted) is critical in real life. Lovers can agree in advance to role-play non-consensual sex and that's okay.
    What makes fiction involving forceful sex so difficult is that if the hero really is a rapist, he's no hero. But he is defined as a hero in the book, so he can't be a rapist, and then any rape-like sex isn't rape. This would NEVER work in real life: all men think of themselves as heroes in their own lives, so we can't let them take that presumption as a license to take something they weren't permitted to take.
    The Sheik is a forceful lover, not a rapist. We know this because of the context of the book, and because they fall in love with each other. The degree of force he used -- well, probably wherever the line is in the reader's mind minus 1, i.e., just this side of each reader's personal definition of what's okay and what's not.
    In real life, what he did is not okay. Never, ever. Have the conversation first -- make sure you and your lover are on the same page. It's just that the conversation isn't fun to read -- we want it to be implied/inferred and get on with the good stuff!