What makes a hero heroic in the literary world is certainly debatable.
Darcy’s pride and arrogance in Pride and Prejudice, Heathcliff’s wild rakishness in Wuthering Heights, Rhett Butler’s roguishness in Gone with the Wind... have not been forgotten. In fact, these elusive characters are etched in the romance reader’s memory.
And as the world of romance fiction is more relaxed these days, thanks to the free interaction between the sexes, the brooding, flawed human hero has replaced the man of steel with impeccable looks, manners and bank balance.
So, the diffident chairman is Sayuri’s hero (Memoirs of a Geisha), the mysterious Magus who lets go of his love is the protagonist (Brida), and more recently, the 21st century hero seems to have even taken the form of a dead sexy vampire (Twilight series)!
Romantic heroes have evolved from just being tall, dark, handsome statues to cringing, kind, silly and, sometimes, even victims of circumstances.
Rupa Gulab, author of The Great Depression of the 40s, says, “Our expectations have become reasonable over time. You have the heroes of the Bronte sisters (Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, both published in 1847) — Rochester has an insane, pyromaniac wife and there’s the gypsy Heathcliff and there’s a lot of anguish — way too heavy for the romance genre, which is why Jane Austen’s heroes are more popular. Margaret Mitchell’s Rhett Butler (Gone with the Wind, published in 1936) was a rogue and shockingly we absolutely loved him for it! The tide had begun to turn.”
One can’t leave out the quintessential M&B (Mills and Boon) heroes when dissecting the romantic hero. “Current-day heroes don’t necessarily need to do heroic stuff. They should just have the ability to be heroic. One big heroic act of Mr Darcy saving Elizabeth’s sister Lydia from disgrace at the hands of Wickham turns the story in his favour. Basically, till then he came across as cold and pompous. In my view, current romantic writing tends to veer towards presenting heroes who do not have overriding flaws. Most writing is a reflection of the times you live in. While in the past women may have accepted men even with overriding flaws, today the woman will ultimately have the man on her terms,” says Milan Vohra, the first Indian M&B author, who wrote The Love Asana.
“Concerns have changed, readers will not relate to a man too good to be true. Even the M&B man is not perfect anymore. It’s good to make them flawed because that’s realistic. It’s not just about the man as the caretaker... women are now ambitious and the men’s heroism lie in the way they react to women,” says Aastha Atray, the second Indian M&B author, who wrote The Poor Rich Girl and the Man with the Menacing Grin.
In Indian writing too, men are often blasé and indifferent to the women’s basic expectations, as found in Manju Kapur’s Married Woman and Suchita Malik’s Indian Memsahib, among others.
But, as most writers would have us believe, romantic heroes today are realistic with their imperfection and vulnerability. “He’s not always filthy rich or blue-blooded and finally even M&B heroes and heroines are getting to be social and economic equals. I say thank God for that!” concludes Rupa.