A few days ago, I heard an interesting comment from another author, which went something like: ‘It’s so hard to find a decent man when you’ve fallen in love with the hero of a romantic novel. Real-life men just always fall short.’
Now while that absolutely isn’t my experience, I did give it some thought, particularly with reference to the male protagonists I write myself. I suppose I wanted to check out their credentials. Are they the sort of men women would fall in love with? If so, what are their qualities?
I have to admit straight away that almost all the central romantic males I create are flawed in some way. They have to be: they are mostly older men who’ve lived a life and therefore have had ups and downs, made mistakes, carry baggage, just as you’d expect. They are often craggy and rugged, although some may defy the heroic norm: their qualities are found in their mischief, their intelligence, their kindness, their skills, sometimes a combination of all.
In my first book, A Grand Old Time, Evie meets Jean-Luc, who is handsome, French, eccentric, but she finds him difficult and distant. She calls him Mr. Grumpy at first, but she doesn’t realise why he is so cantankerous. He turns out to be a guitar-strumming, wine-making hero with a big heart, but not all my stories end in wedding bells…
Many readers tell me who their favourite heroes in my novels are, and one frequent top man is Bisto Mulligan, who is the short, drunken, homeless fool who teases Barbara then falls for her in The Old Girls’ Network. Bisto is warm, funny, kind, wise and bursting with love, but he also has ghosts to lay to rest. He definitely comes in the category of what you see is not what you get…
One of my own favourite lead men is Billy Murphy in Heading over the Hill. He’s the only married hero and the novel deals with his relationship with Dawnie Smith, his wife. Billy is a biker, a big bear of a man and a real star. As the novel unravels, we find out so much about this troubled man with a huge heart.
Another readers’ favourite is Kristof, the Belgian chef in Chasing the Sun. Who can resist a man with such wisdom who serves up plant-based canapés and plays the jazz saxophone?
Not all of my male protagonists are older men; Vicente, the landlord who protests his naked love in The Golden Girls’ Getaway comes to mind, and the wonderful Marcus in The Age of Misadventure. Caden and Ollie in A Year of Mr. Maybes are also young and heroic, bursting with wisdom and mischief. Then, on the other hand, there are Albert and Herman in Lil’s Bus Trip, two octogenarians who compete for Lil’s love.
There are also the male protagonists who are not what they seem to be: Eddie and Alan in Five French Hens are two such examples, as is the unfortunate Ken in Lil’s Bus Trip, who takes on more than he can manage in Sue and Denise…
I have been asked once or twice if I model the male protagonists I write on someone in particular; often I’m asked if these men are literary versions of my own partner, Big G, or other men I know. The answer is no, not really, although I suppose sometimes as writers we inadvertently create character composites. By that I mean that the qualities we admire in our own partner or others we know find themselves written into our heroes. In that case, every time one of my male characters is honest, sweet, funny, kind, adorable, dependable, wise, I suppose I’m falling back on the qualities I think are vital in human relationships.
I think it’s important for characters to be human, a little flawed. It adds to the drama. I’m thinking in particular of several of the books I’ve written recently that aren’t yet published but are in the pipeline, and there are some male protagonists amongst them who would certainly merit the readers’ undying devotion and others who appear magnetic but are best avoided. In their cases, my fellow writer’s comments about heroes the reader can fall in love with are certainly true.
Those books aren’t out yet; however, if you’d like a taster, I’ll mention the sweet, caring Nick and the devoted Ned in The Witch’s Tree, and their counterparts, the bad boys all women should avoid, David and Nathaniel.
So, it’s food for thought. Do we look for the men we love in our romantic literary protagonists, or are they unattainable heroes who stand apart, simply to be adored between the pages of a book?
My favourite romantic literary male is probably Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, so that probably makes me the last person to ask…