By June Hur
In real life, there is likely no one woman who will mention on a dating site that the qualities she’s looking for in a man is: A troubled past, a dark secret, and an icy demeanour. And yet why is it that so many women enjoy reading about such Byronic heroes (a.k.a The Bad Boys) in romance novels? I suppose there is something very romantic about reading of how the heroine becomes the sunlight to the hero’s wintry life, and is able to pave the way to his redemption.
While the Byronic hero is a popular characterization, it is by no means an easy figure to create successfully, for some writers go too far with the stereotyping, and some seem to think that all one needs to do is “mention” that their hero broods and is cynical to qualify.
The heroes created by the first category of writers tend to have a tragic past and a dark mentality so melodramatic that it borders into Plain Cheesiness. In this case, moderation and subtlety is the key. The heroes created by the latter category of writers make the character so 2-D, in that he does not fit his character description—being described as a brooder and a cynic, and yet acting more like a charming dandy. Merely branding the man as being restless, moody, and rebellious does not a Byronic hero make. Action should accompany description.
So what exactly makes a Byronic hero? Here are some of the characteristics that such characters exhibit:
- a strong sense of arrogance
- high level of intelligence and perception
- cunning and able to adapt
- suffering from an unnamed crime
- a troubled past
- sophisticated and educated
- self-critical and introspective
- mysterious, magnetic and charismatic
- struggling with integrity
- power of seduction and sexual attraction
- social and sexual dominance
- emotional conflicts, bipolar tendencies, or moodiness
- a distaste for social institutions and norms
- being an exile, an outcast, or an outlaw
- disrespect of rank and privilege
- jaded, world-weary
- self-destructive behaviour
There are two aspects that I find most interesting in a Byronic Hero:
The Dark Past: The male character has a dark past that often gets in the way of his romantic interest. An insight into his past is crucial because it offers a psychological explanation as to why he is so cold. This draws the reader’s sympathy and makes his callousness a bit excusable. And sympathy is the key when it comes to these characters that might be otherwise difficult to like or relate to.
Humbert Humbert (from Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov) offers a perfect example: In the eyes of people who don’t know him, he is a disgusting monster-of-a-pedophile…but for the readers who’ve read his manipulating confession, the monster is humanized into a man trapped in his past for his young love, Annabelle Lee. This notorious literary figure shows us how powerful words could be…so powerful that even our morals can be seduced by a beautiful arrangement of words.
Likewise, you can make the hero as horribly flawed as you want, just as long as you make sure to also give insight into the humanness within him. Because even the most callous of human beings have a heart somewhere deep inside. And once you show us the heart, sympathy usually follows. But, for romance writers, try to stay away from anything taboo. Unless you’re 100% confident of your ability, it’s usually very difficult to get away with it. Like this one romance novel I read, in which the hero was charged (falsely, as it was proved in the end) of molesting his daughter. I found myself uncomfortable throughout the entire novel which I read for escapism.
The Damned: Among the many things Lord Byron rebelled against, religion was one of them. He turned his back on Christianity which was so engraved into his society. And in this manner he held the image of a man who had been damned. Many of the Byronic heroes I’ve read of, mainly in historical romances, believed that their life’s road was headed towards damnation. They lived with one foot in Hades; in other words, they lived a decadant lifestyle and had more flaws than the average man. I’ve always found this aspect so important in such heroes. This way the hero can be the Beast to his Beauty, offering for a greater range of changes to be seen through the influence of the heroine, and in turn, qualifying the heroine all the more as his soulmate.
June Hur is the author of The Runaway Courtesan. She is currently awaiting the response of an agent who requested her full manuscript. When she is not working on her next book, she can usually be found at a book shop, searching for a Great Love Story to read and analyze. You can follow her on Twitter or through her blog.