Sunday, September 30, 2007

Of Rakes and Heroes

Currently, for my graduate class on the 18th-century novel, I'm slogging my way through Samuel Richardson's Clarissa. For those of you who have not had the pleasure of this pithy little 1,500 page monster, a brief summary: Boy meets girl. Girl's family tries to force her to marry a gross other guy. Boy tricks girl into running away with him to escape said family. Boy rapes girl. Girl dies. Fun times.

Despite its length and verbosity, the novel's actually much more entertaining than that dismissive description would suggest. The "Boy" himself, Lovelace, in particular, is a fascinating portrait of a clever, humorous, charming man with all his wits bent toward some rather unscrupulous ends.

As I'm reading, I find myself marveling at the way Lovelace conforms quite neatly to the image of your typical romance alpha hero. Commanding, brilliant, handsome, rich, titled: how is that not exactly the description of 6/8th of the heroes in historical romance? He feels certain he knows Clarissa's true desires better that she does. He plans to help her unlock the hedonism that surely lies in her seemingly virtuous soul (rape is sort of a last resort, if you will). He vows revenge on her family for attempting to keep them apart. Even contemporary romance makes use of the "lying to her for her own good" trope.

This is not meant as yet another excoriation of the anti-feminist backwardness of romance, by any means. I like a good alpha hero! Done well, they can be sympathetic, appealing, exciting, and sexy as hell. I even like Lovelace, when he's not crowing about how much sweeter the rake's victory feels when he wins it from an unwilling woman. (In this I'm not alone, as Richardson's 18th-century readers were so taken by Lovelace that they begged for him to be reformed by the love of Clarissa, and for the book to end in marriage rather than deaths--yeah, he dies too, in a duel).

I'm just wondering where we draw the line: in the books we read and in our own fiction. What separates the villain from the hero? I think I write pretty "good guy" heroes for the most part, maybe even beta men, and I often feel obligated to make them...a little meaner. As though, if they don't occasionally insult the heroine or go off and fight someone or get drunk, they're not "real" romance heroes.

Readers, please weigh on on where you stand. When does a hero become a villain? When can a villain become a hero? Where's your invisible line between redeemable and wretched?


Kate Diamond said...

I think readers will always be able to tell which character the writer(s) enjoy most. The un-fun, cardboard character becomes the villain and the witty, interesting character becomes the hero. Doesn't matter what was originally intended. That's just how it works in the viewer's/reader's head.

Case in point? Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Riley Finn vs. Spike the vampire. Riley was the worst hero ever. Everyone hated him. And Spike? Yum, yum Guilty Pleasure!

KC said...

I think for me, there are two rules. 1 the hero must never hurt the girl physically and 2 he must never, ever care for another or stop caring for the heroine. Other than that, the bader the better!

Kerry Allen said...

My truly despicable villain in one book is going to be the romantic lead in another. Getting at the motivation for the behavior makes the difference in perception. Behaving badly because he likes hurting people? Not redeemable. Behaving badly because his view of the world has been corrupted by someone far worse than he'll ever be? There's potential for change there, given the proper motivation. Say, the love of a good woman...? He'll still have jerky tendencies (the complete character reversal thing is never believable), but as long as the heroine gets only the best of him, I call that redeemed.

Mel said...

The thin line is when the heroine is making excuses for his behavior. Which is strange to me, because it should just be the hero himself that turns me off. I guess my thinking comes from the hero can change who he is, but if the heroine is ignoring all his horrible faults then it turns me off to the story.

Ciara said...

The biggest line between hero and villain? Rape. I'm appalled at the number of times rape or questionable-consent-sex scenes happen in romance novels, even in these "enlightened" times. A hero would NEVER physically harm the heroine. There is no excuse for and no redeeming a rapist. I like tough-guy, tortured, alpha heroes, but not abusive ones.

Lisa Kleypas is a good example of an author who successfully turn a villain into the sequel's hero: in "Devil in Winter" a major turning point in Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent's redemption is when Evie realizes that he would never have gone through with the rape he threatened Lillian with in "It Happened One Autumn".