Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Holdin' out for a hero

Some time ago, I blogged about writing patterns, and how we tend to write stories with common elements. Having watched a bit of Daisy Thingummy's Reader, I Married Him on TV, I've been wondering if patterns don't just apply to one writer, but to the whole genre of romance. You know, those archetypes that are supposed to be typified by the Star Wars characters? Since a) I never took the Media Studies class where this was explained and b) I never watched Star Wars (so sue me. Watch Firefly, it's way better), I'm a little shaky on them, but it's along the lines of Hero, Mentor, Ally, etc. You know the score. If you've ever read a romance, you can probably identify the character types in it.

Anyway. Apparently the next episode of Reader... is about heroes (it's already played, but I haven't seen it yet, stupid programming clashes, wait until the repeat on Sunday) and what elements can be found in them. But my spies tell me that dear Daisy focuses mostly on Misters Darcy and Rochester, Heathcliff and Rhett Butler (and only the film version of Rhett, anyway). What do these have in common? Well, the youungest of them is Rhett, who was published seventy years ago. Pride and Prejudice, I think was written in the 1790s. They're not what you might call the most modern of heroes.

And yet they're enduring. Why? Why do romantic novelists still continue to write haughty millionaires, or brooding liars, or snarling beasts, or charming snakes? What's attractive about any of those? I'll confess to not having read Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights (I watched about twenty minutes of a film of WH and loathed every gloomy second of it), but I'm familiar with P&P and GWTW. Read it about four times a year when I was a teenager.

If a man said you were 'not handsome enough to tempt [him]' and listed the reasons why you weren't good enough for him, would you give him the time of day? Well, no, and you'd be right not to. As was Lizzie in P&P--she continued to dislike Darcy until he both explained and redeemed himself. I can't imagine that Christmas Dinner would be all that much fun in the Bennet household--Mrs B chattering on incessantly, Lydia flaunting her idiocy at every second, Darcy suffering it all in silence and trying to be civil to, or ignore, Wickham. In fact, I'd imagine he'd stick to Bingham and Jane and Lizzie and try to block out the rest. Ahhh, domestic harmony. But anyway, Darcy did prove to be a more worthy man, warm and caring towards his sister, an entertaining host to Lizzie's aunt and uncle, and doggedly rescuing Lizzie's most silly sister, when really she didn't deserve it. So Lizzie realises, as we do, that Darcy's worthy of her admiration, friendship, and love.

Rhett's an entirely different animal. Charming, outgoing, adventurous and not above a little lawlessness, he's the complete opposite of Darcy. He doesn't win Scarlett's affection by sticking to protocol, and neither does he try to redeem himself for her. In fact, the harder Rhett tries to redeem himself, the less interested Scarlett is in him. It's only when he sticks two fingers up at her that she remembers why she liked him in the first place. Rhett's a bad boy--and if you stuck him down in the middle of P&P, he'd have entertained Mr and Mrs B, charmed the sisters to within an inch of their lives, and beaten Wickham to within an inch of his. He'd also have laughed until he cried at Darcy's stiff upper lip.

That's why I like Rhett so much more than Darcy...but why has Darcy remained the more enduring hero template? Why are romances full of misunderstandings, misrepresentations, haughty men and proud women? Why doesn't anyone just say what they feel, like Rhett? Is it because of the unhappy ending in GWTW? Well, I don't think so. What's the last thing Scarlett says? "Tomorrow is another day." Now she's finally realised she doesn't want silly Ashley, she wants Rhett--and she sees that all this time, Rhett's been there for her. Who cheered her up when she discovered Ashley was marrying Melly? Who danced with her at the fund-raising ball? Who took care of Melly and rescued them from Atlanta? Who married her when she was poor and miserable--and gave her everything she wanted? Rhett loves her. He never gives up on her. He sees her silliness, her immaturity, her selfishness--but he also sees her strength, her determination, her passion, and he loves all those qualities the same.

It's not over between Rhett and Scarlett when GWTW ends. He's mad with her, and she's upset with him; but she's not the sort of girl to sit down and cry when she loses what she wants, and he's not the sort of man to give up when someone says 'no'.

Just like Darcy wasn't the sort of man to give up on Lizzie when she shot him down in flames. He was an ass, and she called him on it. Just like Scarlett tells Rhett about all his faults. Repeatedly. So Darcy, chagrined, displays his dependability and loyalty to Lizzie by going after silly Lydia. Rhett, for all his catting about, also comes through for Scarlett when she needs him, finding the means to rescue not only her from the wreck of Atlanta, but her very fragile friend who's just given birth. Believing Lizzie can't stand him, Darcy still never gives up his feelings for her--and neither does Rhett.

I'd call that a pattern, wouldn't you? Maybe a gunrunner and a haughty aristocrat don't have much relevancy in modern romance--but the way they behave towards their heroines does. So we continue to read and write about loveable rogues and arrogant millionaires. Just flicking through my mental Rolodex, I can tell you that I've written a couple of Darcys (Tadgh in Baby Sham Faery Love for one, Dark in Almost Human for another), and plenty of Rhetts (most notably Ceyx in Playing with Matches, and Striker in Almost Human). From that, you can probably infer that I prefer the Rhetts of this world--or maybe, out of this world...

Who can tell me other Rhetts and Darcys in modern fiction? Which do you prefer?

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