Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know

28 Jun

By June Hur

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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
  • cynicism
  • 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.

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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.

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16 Responses to “Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know”

  1. Kelly Belly June 28, 2010 at 7:24 AM #

    Very well said, June.

    I’m so awfully tired of reading about “bad boys” in romance novels where writers just slap on tattoos and give him a potty mouth and call him bad. That’s just so… two-dimmensional. It really bothers me when they make the guy seem incorrigible just so the female protagonist can “change them” and thus make him seem more alluring to female readers.

    But at the same time, when the male protagonists are too cruel and have junkyard morals… haha, that can turn me off too. I suppose I’m a bit too difficult to please 😛

    The two aspects you mentioned that you find interesting in a Byronic Hero sounds pretty interesting to me too 😀 I think I’m going to fit some of that into one of my stories in the future.

    ‘Twas a very good read! Thanks!

    • junebugger June 30, 2010 at 10:22 PM #

      Glad we shared the same pet peeves when it comes to the bad boys in romance novels. Some are overdone, and other, underdone. Balance is the key to everything!

  2. Becca June 28, 2010 at 1:09 PM #

    You didn’t mention the cliched writer’s trap that I lamented about falling into with my main characters!: Tragically Dead Mothers. 😛 I have to blame it on my career.

    Great post, June!

    • junebugger June 30, 2010 at 10:23 PM #

      Ah, but some can pull it off well, as I’m sure YOU can!!!

  3. Marina June 28, 2010 at 4:06 PM #

    For some reason it’s not the guy that bothers me the most, it’s usually the girls. They always seem only pretty, intelligent, different, and independent but the moment they fall in love or even come in contact with the bad boy or any boy they suddenly become whinny bitches who are too good for the world.
    I never like a character that’s too bad, more of anti-hero then anything. I think because I keep in mind that if I ever met anyone like that in real life I’d stay away or run for my life, not swoon and drool. I think I ruin it for myself sometimes :/

  4. Victoria Dixon June 28, 2010 at 4:44 PM #

    This is a great post, since I’m a sucker for the Byronic hero. I do intend to keep this on file. However, I’ve been reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which does a great job of lampooning the Byronic hero. It gives a different take on what such a man might be like and I recommend the novel. ;D

    • junebugger June 30, 2010 at 10:24 PM #

      Oh I’ll have to check out this book! Thanks for recommending it.

  5. Jennifer June 28, 2010 at 9:20 PM #

    Does Maxim de Winter count as a Bryonic hero?

    • junebugger June 30, 2010 at 10:25 PM #

      Many have said that he’s very similar to Mr. Rochestor from Jane Eyre. And he is known to be a Byronic hero. So I suppose Maxim would be too… He’s the husband with the dark past in Rebecca, right? if so, yes, I beleive he is a perfect example of one

  6. Lua June 29, 2010 at 2:43 AM #

    Great post June! 🙂
    “Action should accompany description.” This is a major problem with most characters, not just the Byronic ones… Usually, the actions of the character don’t match what the description is telling us; leaving us confused and drawn away from the character.
    That said, when written well, a Byronic hero can make you forget about eating, sleeping, showering 😉

    • junebugger June 30, 2010 at 10:27 PM #

      i think when this inconstancy with description and action occurs, it’s because the writer doesn’t know her character well enough. Sometimes it takes another reader to tell you: hey, this is how your hero is like.

      It took me several such pointers from my critique partner to get a better idea of what my main male character was like.

  7. Rowenna June 29, 2010 at 12:57 PM #

    Love this post, June! The sorts of men we love to read about because actually dating them would be pretty horrible 🙂

    • junebugger June 30, 2010 at 10:28 PM #

      And thus we call romance novels the key to escapism..

  8. Aly June 30, 2010 at 9:44 AM #

    Great topic choice! This is actually something annoyingly tough to balance just right – not too cheesy, not too flawed. I’ll have to watch out for this in my writing!

    P.S. Is it bad that as soon as I read this: ‘A troubled past, a dark secret, and an icy demeanor’ I immediately thought ‘Snape’? 🙂

    • junebugger June 30, 2010 at 10:29 PM #

      LOL Snape… I guess he resembles how a man with “a troubled past, a dark secret, and an icy demeanor’ would look like from the inside.

  9. Vanessa July 1, 2010 at 12:08 AM #

    LOVED this post June! It really is all about balance, especially with those Byronic-hero type males. I find that I keep seeing such two-dimensional characters! This is great advice; people really need to start giving male characters more OOMPH, you know? More substance and depth and not just good looks or a brooding demeanor. Great article!

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