Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Makings of a Hero

Honestly YA is pleased to welcome Kari Miller, a 2013 Golden Heart® finalist!  She's talking about heroes--flaws and all.  Take it away, Kari!
For the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking in particular about the hero in my Golden Heart entry, Leath’Dhia. In the process of dissecting Henry Fitzalan’s character, I thought it might be helpful to compile a short list of my most memorable romantic heroes in order to identify what makes them so darned special to me. The list was a whole lot shocking and a little embarrassing:
            Erik from Susan Kay’s Phantom
            Tyrion Lannister from JRR Martin’s Game of Thrones
            Mr. Rochester from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre
            Rhett Butler from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind
In full disclosure, I appreciate a gorgeous man as much as the next woman. However, these are the characters that endured in my thoughts long after the book went back on the shelf. Somewhat concerned about this list, I sent several friends two questions: Who do you think are the best/sexiest heroes ever created? Who are the characters you could fall in love with? Here are some of the men that made the list:
Mr. Darcy, Odysseus, Edward Cullen, Atticus, Noah Calhoun, Legolas, Ren and Kishan, James Bond, Beast, Samwise Gamgee, Neville Longbottom, and Luke Brandon.
My first thought was, “Well, there’s no accounting for taste.” Especially my own – three of my heroes are considered ugly by most standards. Tyrion Lannister is a dwarf who loses part of his nose in battle. Erik (aka The Phantom of the Opera) doesn’t even have a nose and lives in the basement. While debating the need for immediate therapy, I decided to get out the scalpel for some serious character dissections. I wanted to know what makes these men special to me when other so-called “heroes” are about as memorable as a warm glass of milk. Or, in other words, what makes some men jump off the page and under my skin, while others stay precisely where they are. During this process, I stumbled on six desirable traits shared by many of these characters, regardless of physical beauty. I call these traits, ‘The Makings of a Hero.’
For my purposes, I have focused primarily on the Phantom, Tyrion Lannister, Mr. Rochester, and the Beast (a favorite of my teenage daughter).
1. Emotional baggage
My hero may not be handsome, but he’s handsomely damaged. The right amount of trauma is, for some reason or another, sublimely attractive. This baggage can be in the form of childhood distress and physical disfigurement (the Phantom and Tyrion), a deep secret (Mr. Rochester), or a single event that irrevocably changed the course of his life (the Beast). It can even be an actual piece of luggage, so long as it’s filled with serious pain and torment.
2. They’re ruthless, yet kind
To achieve their ends, the men on my list are willing to commit all manner of sin. They kidnap, manipulate, steal, lie, cheat and kill. In other characters, the same actions are considered unforgivable. So why do these men get away with it? From what I can figure, it’s all in the intent. They do it for preservation of self and others, for love, and for redemption. Even more, underneath their ruthlessness is a heart of pure gold.
3. They’re so smart it’s annoying
There’s not a dull tool to be found in this shed. Each of my heroes has intelligence and wit aplenty, and for me there’s something uber sexy about a man who utilizes both to either hold up his end of a conversation or win a battle without flexing a muscle. Tyrion’s verbal grace makes it easy to forget that he has to waddle from one place to the next. Mr. Rochester’s extensive travels and quest for knowledge is downright sexy when coupled with his dark moods and brooding silences. The Phantom is so freaking intelligent, he jumps straight to godlike status.
4. They’re built
And by “built,” I mean like a bear, not a birdhouse. Not just because muscle is sexy, but because it represents physical strength, and for me, a hero has to be able to protect himself and those he loves. However, if he lacks physical strength, he can easily compensate (or complement) with:
5. Power
Power comes in many forms. It may be in the form of talent and genius, as with the Phantom. Or it may manifest as family influence, as with Tyrion, whose diminutive size is more than compensated by the number of gold cloaks, wildlings, and sell-swords at the ready. For some, like the Beast, their power is a direct subset of their physical strength, resulting in a dearth of bear-men to compete for the title of “Belle’s Most Powerful Suitor.”
6. Are hopelessly devoted to that one special girl
By far, the perfect hero’s most attractive quality is his devotion to his lady. Why? Because we’re ladies. And we like men who like us back. These men may be villains, outcasts, and emotionally damaged, but more than anything, they desperately want to love, and be loved in return. 
So that’s my list, the six qualities that compel me to champion the underdog, whether he’s four feet tall, horribly deformed, or a literal dog. It is also these qualities that make me wonder if I have relied too much on my own hero’s physical beauty as a character shortcut. For a worthwhile experiment, try peeling the ‘skin’ from your hero. Has his character been hobbled, or is there enough left for him to stand on?
In truth, as a writer of YA and NA, it did strike me as odd that all of my characters and most of those passed along by others belonged to the adult category. For this reason, I wonder if beauty is more necessary for younger readers than adults. I mean, even my teenage daughters willingly dismiss Henry’s flaws because “OMG MOM, he’s, like, so sexy.” 
What do you think?  


Marni Bates said...

Yes, please! Send a hero with the following qualifications my way! :D

Kimberly said...

I love your characteristics for a hero. I think it's important for them to have emotional baggage, but I hate when they're so ensconced in it that they can't wade through it. Sure, guys can be lovable at first with the baggage, but after a while you're like, "Get over it!" And then you wonder after you put the book down if all that baggage that you think was handled comes back down the road to cause problems. I know I do.
Of course, Rhett Butler can have an 18-wheeler filled with baggage, and I'd still take him on. Any day of the week. :-)
Great post! Thanks for joining us at Honestly YA!
And congrats on your GH final!

Kimberly said...

Wish I could have a buck for how many times I just wrote BAGGAGE.

Pintip said...

Great post, Kari! What a great list of characteristics and such an interesting soul-searching experiment. I think this would be a useful exercise for all of us to do, to find out what we value in a hero and to see if we're including the same qualities in our written heroes. I suspect that many of my qualities would overlap with yours!
Congrats on your final, and thanks for joining us here at Honestly YA!

Melissa Landers said...

Kindly ignore Marni and send this hero MY way. Maybe I can talk Mr. Landers into a having brother-husband. ;)

Darcy said...

What a fabulous list, Kari, and I absolutely agree! There is just something about those heroes and the chinks in their armor that turn us to mushy piles of goo! :)

Congrats again on all the exciting stuff happening in your world, and can't wait to raise my glass to you...OMG, in a few short weeks?!

Amy said...

Hi Kari! I think you just explained the bad-boy phenomenon in one post. It seems another factor in explaining the attractiveness of a hero with baggage is that they "need" a special heroine, where a so-called better man would be fine with any woman. I enjoyed it-- and I'm off to list some personal faves and find out just how weird my own list is! :) See you soon.

Miranda Liasson said...

Hi Kari!

I don't write YA but I found your list to be very compelling! I'm going to be sure my current hero meets the checklist! Thanks for a great post.

Nan Dixon said...

Great list Kari!
Thought provoking because I tend to write the physically beautiful with a wound that keeps them from fully committing to a relationship. Of course, I'm shocked that Sam Starret (Suzanne Brockmann) isn't on the list. Navy Seal, foul-mouthed, hard-assed (both mentally and physically) honorable, loyal, willing to die for the people he loves and throws up when he sees dead bodies. How could we not love him?
Congratulations on your final!!

Sonya said...

LOL-built like a bear and not a birdhouse...too funny! It's the emotional baggage, IMO, that makes a lot of readers connect with a hero because even if we haven't walked the same road, we all understand heartache.

Kari Edgren Miller said...

Marni and Melissa -- Thanks for visiting! My husband is totally okay that I find Tyrion hot. Maybe because it shows I'm more into personality than looks. Or maybe because he's only four feet tall. Truth be told, my husband likes him, too!

Kari Edgren Miller said...

Great comment, Kim! And I totally agree that there can be too much baggage. For me, it also depends on how the character deals with said baggage -- is he a whiner or sit around being angry and blaming everyone else? Then I don't want him! Also for me, there needs to resolution by the end of the book. I like closure and knowing that the hero has been fully redeemed. Perhaps this is another part of the hero's strength, the ability to heal and move on. That is my one complaint with GWTW. Rhett is not fully healed, unless you count getting rid of Scarlet as part of his healing process. If only Margaret Mitchell had been able to write the sequel!

Sheri Adkins said...

Great post, Kari... I agree that the flawed hero actually ends up being perfect in so many ways. I love your assessment and dissection. Something about that tall, dark, muscular, yet misunderstood guy... *swoon*

Sheri Adkins

Bonnie Staring said...

Fantabulous post, Kari! You had me at "handsomely damaged". ;) Seriously, though, this list of heroic qualities is a keeper. I love how you've presented them with such awesome, swoon-worthy examples!

Can't wait to meet you in Atlanta!

Kari Edgren Miller said...

Nan: I admit my sample pool was very limited (6 women). Sam Starret sounds like he would definitely make the cut!

Kari Edgren Miller said...

Pintip: This exercise shocked me since I assumed my list would be filled with physically beautiful men. And once it was done, I even considered switching blog topics, because, well, who wants to admit that they find a dwarf with mismatched eyes, scraggly beard, and only part of a nose sexy. Fortunately, one of my friends admitted to the hobbit, so that helped somewhat with my embarrassment. I do still wonder what it would take to sell an ugly hero to a teenage girl!

Stephsco said...

The emotional baggage is mostly necessary, but I think in YA we should watch out for the love interest trying to change someone to fit their idea of love/a relationship. This comes to mind more so with bad boy heroes, who maybe are being reformed by the heroine, and you have to wonder what type of message that's sending to a young woman. It can be done, but I've seen books where it was all "he's so sexy!" and the heroine literally felt unsafe with him and yet, they end up together and she's trying to change him. Supernatural powers shouldn't be an exception to a guy who's an ass and then *suddenly* changes later.

To the writers who do this well, I commend them!

Unknown said...

Awesome post!!! I had about a billion thoughts running through my head as I read your points-- most of them along the lines of, "Oh. My. Gosh. That's why I like so-and-so!" Great articulation of what makes us tick as it relates to literary heroes. I was honestly caught off guard by how many of the traits were not related to physical beauty (although this is NEVER a bad thing ;-)) and how much we are willing to overlook in characters with the right combination of characteristics. Great post!!!

Kari Edgren Miller said...

Excellent point, Stephsco. I think the key word is 'change.' Part of a hero's strength is to be able to change himself -- to overcome the baggage and become a better person. Of course, this journey is rarely ever done alone. Others are needed to offer love, acceptance, understanding and healing. What the hero does with this is then their choice, but that is part of my definition of a hero -- someone who ultimately prevails for good in the end! And I'm with you on supernatural powers not being a 'get out of jail free card', and am also very suspicious of sudden change, in real life and in fiction. I really appreciate the thought provoking comment.

Kari Edgren Miller said...

Carrie: I was totally caught off guard, too! I'll be honest, I completely expected physical beauty to be one of the top reasons that I was drawn to certain male characters and not to others. And it didn't even make the top six! Does this mean I've matured? Been around the block enough times to know what really matters? Who knows, but I wasn't disappointed with the results. Now if only this could be successfully translated into YA fiction.

Tennery said...

Yes, Rochester and Rhett. Why is inner turmoil so compelling?