Romantic Anti-Heroes

This morning, I rented a car to drive up to New Hampshire. And this afternoon, I’ll drive up and meet the Odyssey students. I can’t wait!

So I’m writing my blog post for the day this morning instead of this afternoon.

What inspired me today was Alexa Duncan’s blog post on her “Love Interest Handicap.”

Alexa writes,

“Anyway, I thought I’d use my updates to talk about what I’m discovering about myself as a writer during this process. There are some things all writers have in common, but we also have our weird quirks and hangups. What works for one person doesn’t always work for another. Part of becoming a writer is figuring out how you operate, what motivates you, and what will stop you cold, staring at a blinking cursor.”

Which I think is very smart. We do all have our own individual quirks, and I find that my problems with writing a love interest are quite different from hers. She goes on,

“Earlier this week, I ran into the Romantic Interest wall. The main character of my novel is a girl (hey, write what you know, right?), and while it isn’t the entire point of the story, she’s going to have a romantic interest mixed into her adventures. I reached the point in the story where she meets him for the very first time and . . . stopped. This guy was a blank spot in my head. I kind of knew what I wanted him to BE like, but I had not idea how I wanted him to look. Here is the point where I confess that most of the men in my stories are based on my husband to some degree or another. Sure, he may have a different haircut, or maybe some tattoos, but there’s always some aspect of him in there.”

So I started wondering, how do I write love interests? I actually wrote a love story recently – the Secret Project is a love story. And my love interest in that story is at least somewhat like the love interests I usually write. They are based not so much on real people as on a particular type. (Although I have dated real people who fit that particular type.) I would call it brooding, dark, and damaged. It’s the type of the Byronic hero, which is really an anti-hero, isn’t it? (I think my attraction to that particular literary figure was influenced both by my reading and my actual experiences.)

So when I think of the love interests I write, I think of certain touchstones. Heathcliff, of course. Here he is, played by Tom Hardy, who was the best Heathcliff I’ve ever seen. (And his Cathy was thoroughly satisfying, as Cathy rarely is in film or television versions.)

Yes, I know exactly what you’re going to say. Heathcliff could never been in a good, sane, healthy relationship. To which I answer, what does literature have to do with good, sane, healthy relationships? (I’m not sure life has much to do with them either, to be honest. I mean, all the good relationships I know have been negotiated over the years and look nothing like the television versions of good relationships. They are highly individual and idiosyncratic. Perhaps because people can’t actually live in clichés.)

Anyway, Heathcliff gets the best declaration of love in all of literature, when Cathy says,

“My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees – my love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath – a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff – he’s always, always in my mind – not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself – but as my own being – so, don’t talk of our separation again – it is impracticable.”

My next touchstone is Mr. Rochester. (You saw that coming, didn’t you?) Here he is, played by Toby Richards, who is my favorite Mr. Rochester of them all.

I’m not sure the next one is fair, because I’ve only seen the BBC version, not read the novel. But it’s Steerpike from Gormenghast. (Talk about brooding, dark, and deeply, deeply damaged.)  Here he is, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

And finally, Severus Snape. I thought the Harry Potter books were generally engaging. I read most of them when I was sick, because they were books I could read when I couldn’t focus on much else. But the only part of the books that actually stayed with me, that I continued to care about, was the character of Snape. Of course, it helped that Snape was played by Alan Rickman in the movie versions.

What do these characters have in common? Well, hairstyle, for one. But more importantly, none of them love sensibly. None of them think, is this a good, sane, healthy relationship? Will she be supportive of my aspirations and goals? How will we share the housework? They love intensely, completely, passionately. And I think that’s what we want in a love story. (In real life? Well, that’s up to the individual, isn’t it? Personally, I would take Heathcliff over Mr. Darcy any day.)

My own romantic leads tend to be more realistic. But you can see the Heathcliff in them. In The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, I’m not going to focus on romance, except to the extent that Mary already has a crush on Sherlock Holmes. (My Holmes will be more Heathcliffian than the original.) But I hope there will be more novels about these characters, and then they will need to find love interests. I don’t know who they will be yet, what they will look like. I have so many late nineteenth-century characters to play with. But I do know those relationships will be troubled, intense, passionate. Because that’s the way I write them. What that says about me, I don’t know. (Except, perhaps, that I never worry about who’s going to do the housework. Which may be a failing of mine, but then, I’m a writer. )

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10 Responses to Romantic Anti-Heroes

  1. Alex Wells says:

    Great list of male romantic interests!
    I haven’t seen the BBC version, but I read the Gormenghast trilogy as a girl and was obsessed with both Steerpike and Fuschia – he doesn’t come off quite so romantic in the book as that picture appears to show, but he’s terribly clever and calculating and interested in people. I still remember the passage where he is locked in a room and doesn’t bother to even try turning the handle of the door, because he already knows it’s locked. How many of us could resist trying the door handle? I guess that means I have a weakness for clever men, even when they’re bastards.
    This is making me think more about the characterizations in my book, which has two girls who are best friends. I want to extend this to them – they aren’t friends because of shared interests, they love each other with great passion, the way that two girls can, who have grown up together. I want to put more of that feeling in the story.

  2. Alexa Duncan says:

    I’m definitely more of a Darcy girl, but I’ll agree with you 100% about Severus Snape, especially as portrayed by Alan Rickman. Although I love the Harry Potter books, a lot of the characters in them are ultimately stock characters (Brainy Girl, Doofy Best Friend, Kindly Mentor). Snape has nuance and mystery. And a sexy glower.

  3. sarah says:

    I so agree with you about all this. But funny, I came over from my reader to tell you the opposite to Alex – I found Steerpike in the books to be more romantic, insofar as he is so clever, so wicked – much more so than in the BBC production – but still a small part of him falls in love with Fuschia, and that makes it more potent to me. But it’s love affair with Gormenghast itself that is the most compelling. If you can get time to read the books, I think you will be enthralled by their intelligence and the amazing unique quality of the writing.

    I especially agree with you about Heathcliff over Darcy.

  4. Alex Wells says:

    Sarah – I’ll have to watch the BBC version! Also, did you know that there is now a fourth book coming out? Apparently the family found extensive notes for a fourth manuscript and his daughter(?) has written it from the notes. I agree about falling in love with Gormenghast itself – the owl-filled tower, the white horse swimming in a lake on a far castle roof, the women living in the giant painted tree. These are the details I remember from my childhood. And my most favorite character – Fuschia’s petulant, tiny nanny.

  5. sarah says:

    So many characters to love! The nanny, yes. The countess. The only one I didn’t like was Titus himself. I’ve always had a thing for Steerpike, and I thought Jonathon Rhys Meyers played him to perfection – of course that was way back before he become a sex symbol. I have heard of the fourth book. I wonder if anyone else could really capture Peake’s genius. Several have tried – Moorcock, Mievelle, even Patricia McKillip had a bit of a go, but there’s no one quite like him.

    (Sorry to get into a conversation in your combox, Theodora.)

  6. Marigold says:

    I adore Steerpike. I like him better than any of the others. Frankly, he’s the kind of anti-hero the world needs. :>

  7. Alex Wells says:

    I had no idea so many others had tried their hand at Peake. I agree – I doubt it will be as good – even if they have a complete skeleton of a book, isn’t the devil in the details?

  8. Marisa says:

    I just read “Pug” and found this page, and wanted to tell you that I very much enjoyed the story and look forward to reading your blog (I realize that sounds a little stalkerly! 😉

  9. sarah says:

    Not Peake himself, Alex, but the Gormenghastian.

  10. Sian says:

    Rochester is played by Toby Stephens, not Toby Richards.

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