Let’s Blame Byron

George Gordon, Lord Byron, to be precise

(Big thanks to one of my favorite authors, Alma T. C. Boykin for sending this to me. If you haven’t read her Familiar Tales, you’re missing out. Check out her Amazon author page here.–ASG)

Apparently, the ability to work magic in an urban fantasy setting, if you are male, requires having dark hair. At least, that’s what all the cover art that I paged through depicts. Dark of hair, dark of eyes, brooding of mien, wearing dark clothing (leather jacket not strictly necessary, but encouraged), I found all of two exceptions, one blond, one possibly red headed. It was just as bad when I read cover copy, except now all the paranormal romance heroes are brooding in mysterious, isolated castles, cursed into a gloomy existence until a Strong Woman™ arrives and true lust will save them.

Arrrrrrrrrr [gasp] rrrrrrrrrrgh!!!!!!!

Someone save me from Byronic heroes, please. And from Strong Women™, but that’s a rant for a different time. I know, Byron himself would have erudite, scathing, and probably exceedingly pointed words for the plethora of protagonists modeled on his reputed nature. “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” is how he was described during his life, and the last one does seem true. He, Shelly, and others came to bad or at least short ends. Byron (1788-1824) was foremost a poet, not a novelist, unless you count epic poems as a sort of novel. However, with his dark hair, physical deformity, somewhat grim personality, eccentric behavior, questionable morals (or at least appearance of questionable morals), and tendency to party far too hard, Lord Byron became the model for a certain sort of protagonist. I think the first “classic” Byronic hero is Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre, the heroine’s employer. He lives in a mildly creepy manor house and comes with a secret or two. He’s also the model for lots and lots of Gothic romance heroes as well, and it is a short jump from Gothic romances (Mary Stewart-type) to Paranormal Romances [PNR].

Since two of the characters in one of my current series could easily fit the stereotype of the Byronic hero if they tried a little harder, I probably should not be casting either aspersions or stones. But I will anyway, because ye gads! Can we please have a non-dark, non-brooding, urban or rural were-creature or magic user main character, please? Or if we have to have a vampire, with a castle, how about one who has sort of worked out how to keep his sanity and doesn’t see all women aside from the Strong Woman™ as toys? There’s a reason Count Taka is a delightful romp of a send-up. C. Chancy does a good job with a vampire who commercializes commercialized folklore for profit and self-defense. I played with the trope in Wolf of the World with a werewolf who hates vampires and is a staunch Hungarian Calvinist Christian. The female lead really is a strong woman, a former Division One college softball player with a mean throwing arm and more common sense than an entire wall of PNR heroines combined. OK, so Gregor does have dark hair and broods. Sorry about that.

Byronic heroes seem to live with a black cloud hanging over them. Mr. Rochester certainly had his moments. Others, as seen from third-omniscient point-of-view, mope about the lack of females of their kind, that women don’t live long enough and so are just play-things, that women are weak and vapid so why bother, that the male’s passion overwhelms women physically. . . Sorry, that was one where I laughed so hard that I didn’t bother finishing the sample. You’d think that after hundreds of years, a vampire or other super-long-lived creature would learn some emotional coping skills. But the trope is “the Strong Woman™ who truly loves him/is his fated lover will save him,” so brooding and morose it is. Yawn.

Rants aside, the romance genre is one where trope and reader-cookies dominate. Romance readers tend to be super-readers, and they know what they want. So any writer worth his or her salt who tinkers with genre tropes needs to do it carefully and for good reasons. Other genres are more forgiving, or so it seems, than romance. This extends to PNR, but . . . things can go too far. The over-abundance of Byronic bad-boys makes me go “blargh.” The character is easy to write, if you are in a hurry. Taciturn, in a remote and exotic location (or concealed in a not-so-exotic location), good looking in a dark-haired way, has a reputation for danger or rouses the heroine’s suspicions, these are all shorthand for a Byronic protagonist. Mafia romances are new Byronic option. Dark haired, morose (for Italian versions of quietly gloomy), often competing with someone else for the girl’s attention, the Mafia Junior-don fills the same niche, without the magic. Although I suspect there’s a Mafia-PNR cross over romance out there, somewhere.

I have two, possibly a third, Byronic characters in the Familiars world. Arthur Saldovado is the obvious one, although he doesn’t brood that much. If he did, he’d have succumbed to depression or some other mental problem decades ago. Arthur has dark hair, dark eyes, is a Goth, wears dark colors or black, seeks remote places for solitude, and has a mysterious past. He can radiate “dangerous man” without trying too hard. André Lestrang, although blond, broods, is a Goth, wears black, tends to be restrained and distant, and lived in exotic locations (when sent there by the US military). The third character would be the Lone Hunter, although I don’t know enough about him to be certain yet. Granted, I write stories where romance is an element, but they are not Romances. That would be Wolf of the World, almost. I didn’t follow all the needed beats, so it is more of an adventure with a very strong romance element in it, if you go by the formal requirements of most romance sub-genres. The romance doesn’t drive the plot.

Too many writers are leaning on the Byronic hero, in my opinion, and based on what I’ve read, not doing it well. I realize that a lot of readers disagree, if you trust the ratings on the ad copy and the sales numbers on the ad copy. At this point, I’m about ready to track down George Gordon Lord Byron, wherever he is, and pelt him with remaindered PNR and Mafia romance novels until he repents and promises to go back and un-write Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and a few other things. “The Destruction of Sennacherib” can stay, though.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/lord-byron

Featured Image by Ivilin Stoyanov from Pixabay

32 comments

  1. Chelsea Quinn Yarbrough’s St. Germain is short, dark, strong, and while he isn’t a fount of good cheer he does know how to make a woman happy in bed. I knew he wasn’t your normal vampire when he held up the holy water to drive back a group of Satanists.
    In “Children of the Night,” Mercedes Lackey had a blond, Catholic vampire.
    Of course, writing against type takes work…

  2. OK, so Gregor does have dark hair and broods

    Well, Gregor has valid reasons to brood. 😉

  3. *G* Thanks for the shout-out! One of my goals is to get perked up enough to write a sequel; I have to skewer werewolves, too, it’s only fair. 😉

    Currently editing the draft of Oni the Lonely, which has a distinctly not Byronic hero. Kyosai’s a painter, but a fairly happy one, even if he’s Sworn Off Romance! because of a bad breakup.

    Definitely let’s have less brooding, and more practical heroes who still believe the world is a good place and worth fighting for. 🙂

  4. Byron was also a brave man who fought on the side of liberty. Not so bad for our romantic heroes to emulate that part.

    “For a man to become a poet he must be in love, or miserable.”
    — George Gordon, Lord Byron

  5. I always swore to avoid the “wind-swept moor” Byronic character if I could…

    …and, now I have to blame Great Aunt Sarah for the idea of a Fae lover for Jane Austin and she faked her death in 1817 to live with him, that is every ideal of the Byronic character that she would satirize.

    1. So do I – honestly, I read Jane Eyre at an impressionable age, and everything gothy with a brooding hero after that seemed like a pale copy. Fan-fickish, even.

    2. Well, Jane Austin did satirize Gothic novels (such as The Mysteries of Udolfo) in Northanger Abbey, but IIRC, there wasn’t a Byronic character

    3. Humor and Byronic characters don’t mix well. Look at the Byronic hero with a humorous gaze, and he’s a buffoon. Have him look at the world with humorous eyes, and he stops being so Byronic, on account of having a coping mechanism.

      1. I can see that. Ed shrinking of anti-byronic characters, and was reminded of Captain Chalcus from Drake’s Lord of the Isles books.

        He fits the parties hard and dangerous to know mold. And heaven knows Ilna is no wilting flower. But Chalcus, even with his likely history, have a dark and vigorous sense of humor to him and lives with this incredible zeal for it. The only way I could picture him “brooding” is if he’s calculating the blood price and how to double it.

        He as much knocks the sharp edges off of her and she, somewhat, civilizes him.

      2. I can see him being both, with the right sense of humor and a massively dry wit. If we’re talking classic Victorian-era character, he was married, he loved his wife, his wife died from some nasty disease, and everybody is trying to set him up. With women that have one-tenth the brains and wisdom of his dead wife, and think that simping behavior is “charming.” So, the wit grows even more sarcastic as time goes by.

  6. Brooding kinda works in the super hero genre. For the right types of super hero protagonist.

    Being very angry at impropriety is perhaps something with a lot of resonance now. Issue is, I don’t understand how to implement such an archetype as a Romance hero, without either killing the archetype or killing the Romance plot.

    My most recent deranged musing was importing a late 19th/early 20th century style plucky orphaned missonaries’ daughter into a more modern setting, loosely inspired by the modern stories I have been into. May be part of an incoherent mess that I haven’t sorted out. Anyway, the plucky orphan romance (?) has a hero who doesn’t fit Byron. But, one ‘modern characters, etc., are not necessarily an improvement’ in a vaguely super hero setting might be improved by a second romance plot saying similar things.

  7. “Let’s blame Byron”, you scared me for a minute, I thought my past had caught up with me…

  8. Well . . . hmm, yeah when you want the grim dangerous type the dark hair does come naturally to mind (looks over shoulder at thin air. Hear that Ra’d? You’re a stereotype!) I have trouble with blond bad boys sliding into the Nazi stereotype on me.

  9. Not just Mafia romances. There’s also the ‘My Russian Mobster Lover’ subgenre and Motorcycle Club (wherein our tortured heroine ensnares the menacing biker because only she’s strong enough).

    I recently attended Rebels & Readers in Hershey because I wanted to see why an author would fly out from Seattle (!) to Hershey and spend $$$ including $200 for a table. The show was packed with romance heroes who were dark, brooding, Byronic, and were the type of man in real life you’d only see in a police line-up. Or you’d get a restraining order against them, change your name, and move far away. The books ranged from a few outliers (who wrote books the local library festival would accept) to, to, to.

    Well. Brain bleach would be required to describe some of them. I was not surprised the authors had to sell direct to the public. Bill and I discussed the show for days afterward and worked out why they had not advertised: they couldn’t! They didn’t want to have any kind of reader but their own come out to the show.

    By the way, apparently all the authors at Rebels & Readers were pleased with sales and turnout.

    1. Just going by the shelves at the regional B&N, it’s a very popular set of genre tropes, even in the milder forms. And yes, the far-end of the genre is like some other sub-cultures. They really don’t want people who don’t know what they are getting into to accidentally wander in and start shrieking, either literally or metaphorically.

      1. Boy howdie are you correct. Not being very bright, it took awhile to figure out why Rebels & Readers didn’t advertise. They didn’t even have a placard in the Hershey Lodge’s lobby to direct fans to the correct ballroom! We had to hunt them down.

    1. Of course not. Male stoicism is part of toxic masculinity these days, haven’t you heard?

      (One of the reasons I am unable to take current feminism seriously is its tendency to declare things that keep negative traits under control as part of the problem.)

      1. Indeed. The teenagers I’m around have an excuse. The purportedly adults? No. Guys are supposed to deal with the problem, then have their nerves or whatever off-stage. Sort of like how the headmaster dealt with in-school wildlife recently.

  10. Mafia romances… Russian Mafiya romances…. What’s next, romances where our innocent ingenue falls for a serial killer and save him from his wicked ways? Or do the vampire romances already cover that?

  11. Well, if you’re looking for a shifter that’s not the dark and broody type: Might I suggest John Fisher and the John Fisher Chronicles; Harvest of Evil, Keeping the Faith and the soon-to-be-released Shadow War, by William Lehman.

  12. The first Byronic heroes were in Byron’s works. (Not all of his heroes fit the mold, to be sure.)

  13. How has the discussion gone this long without a reference to Tim Powers’ The Stress of Her Regard?
    (Where Byron himself is a Byronic hero. Although Shelley and Keats kind of fit the mold as well. As does Mary, in a distaff version. Evidently, having a vampiric spirit as your muse contributes to brooding.)
    Good book, BTW.

    Or for that matter, how has nobody invoked the song “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”?
    Lyric excerpt:
    Way back in history three thousand years
    Back ever since the world began
    There’s been a whole lot of good women shedding tears
    For a brown eyed handsome man
    A lot of trouble was a brown eyed handsome man

  14. It was just as bad when I read cover copy, except now all the paranormal romance heroes are brooding in mysterious, isolated castles, cursed into a gloomy existence until a Strong Woman™ arrives and true lust will save them.

    K, now I’m getting the giggles.

    Because I am hearing Spike’s voice-over of Angel saving a gal.
    Spike : [as Rachel] How can I thank you, you mysterious black-clad hunk of a night thing?

    …. paranormal romance is going to be much more amusing if I start picturing the guy going to buy Nancyboy Hair Gel ™.

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