The great challenge or the serious writer is to characterise proper heroes and heroines without resorting to stereotype. Characters in the Cinderella/Portia/ Becky Sharp/Elizabeth Bennett & Bridget Jones tradition can easily sink into stereotype: (We may look to Molly Bloom for more complexity).
Equally for heroes we have fore-runners such as Henry V/ Achilles/ Tom Jones/ Mr Darcy/ Geronimo & Blade to fall back on. (We look to John Rebus for more complexity)
One might argue that we all make use of them, whether we know it or not, because such characterisation is built into our collective subconscious One might also argue that the most popular novels find favour with the general public for that reason, as they share this collective subconscious.
This is why good popular fiction crosses national and international boundaries with ease. It accounts for universality of appeal from Pat Parker to Catherine Cookson.
In the rigorous editing of two of my own recent novels I have become more aware of the way my own subconscious interprets these heroic traditions.
For instance in my historic novel Lines of Desire I note (to my surprise) that sometimes I show heroism in action:
“…Kynan drove his horse forward in pursuit, followed in a second by Magnus. The boar lumbered into a narrow clearing and hesitated, swishing backwards and forwards between the trees. That was when, spear in hand, Kynan let go of his reins and stood up in his saddle, manoeuvring his horse with his calves. Closer to the boar he balanced his spear and launched it hard, so it embedded itself, quivering, in the creature’s neck, making it lurch to one side, squealing. In a second Kynan drew his second spear and aimed that very close to the other one. Blood spurted upwards in a scarlet fountain that reached the branches of the nearest tree and started to drip down, back onto the squirming beast, which now whimpered and gurgled. But still it twitched with desperate life.
Kynan leapt lightly rom his horse and stood before his prey. He looked up at Magnus. ‘Your honour?’
Magnus shook his head. ‘Finish your task, Master Kynan. The kill is yours.’…”
Here, Kynan, brother of my heroine Elen is shown in violent action following the traditonal the role of action hero. But in the last line Magnus – Macsen Wledig – the true hero of the novel – shows heroism in his mannerly and politically acute restraint.
In writing for a wide public I have found that I seem to have realised that the modern reader needs to see their heroes and heroines. (Once one has seen the film of Pride and Prejudice it is impossible to read about him in the book without the image of Mr Darcy emerging from the water, his shirt clinging like a second skin. (So far, so not Jane Austen…)
And we see Macsen first through the eyes of Helen, the central character of the novel. (This piece of prose works in two ways: we see Macsen; we also hear Elen’s voice):
…Now the man comes into the light. My honeycomb head notices everything about him in a
I focus on a clean-shaven, wind-bronzed face under thick black hair threaded through with silver. He’s quite old, perhaps as much as thirty-five years. Even more. He’s as tall as Kynan but more thickset. He wears his hair forward in that foreign way, held in place by the thinnest of golden bands. His thick black brows almost meet over a thin, finely arched nose. Beneath them his eyes, bright and blue as cornflowers, examine me.
I put my hand on Snow’s neck to quiet him but I too smell danger. Rape and violent attack is always a risk in this situation - not just with Caesar’s men but with our own men too. A lone woman is easy game for hunters. My cloak of invisibility can’t be relied on in situations like this…’
And we first see Elen herself through the eyes of Macsen’s best friend Quintanius, not Macsen himself:
“…There at the edge of the clearing I blinked very hard. This girl was as beautiful as the morning and fashioned from light and air; her face was white as ivory, her gleaming fox-coloured hair was caught in a long loose plait. I know now that she was seventeen years old, but that morning, as we looked at her, she could have been just thirteen or fourteen, so young and fair was she.
My own heart lurched, but I know now that Magnus too was touched by the sight of her. His face – normally so sharp and alert – softened. A smile played around his tight lips. We pulled up our horses behind the broad trunk of an oak tree and he jumped down, landing lightly, without a sound. He looked up at me, winked, and handed me the reins.
Of course that was before we saw her walk on fire and before she gathered her hosts to take on Rome. We will get to all that but first here is Elen to tell you her own story of how she came to be there on that day, fateful for Rome and for Britain too...”
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NEXT - Heroes and Heroines in
Gabriel Marchant: How I Became a Painter.