It’s a standing joke in our house that, when Darling Husband does something I’m not happy about, I will say to him, “Eliot would never do that.” Who is Eliot? Eliot Harland is the hero of my third novel, This Other Eden. He’s a sheep farmer in Yorkshire and he’s the strong, silent type, who just happens to look an awful lot like Aidan Turner. Not surprisingly, I fell hopelessly in love with him. I have written other books and other heroes, and I love them all, but Eliot stands out somehow. He may just be my favourite—although, please don’t tell the others!
Some may say, how can you fall in love with a fictional hero? As a writer, I think it’s essential that I love my heroes. If I don’t fall for them, why would my heroine? I think most writers of romance would agree that it’s very easy to love the men they create.
But it’s not just my own fictional heroes I fall in love with. I’m known for it. My own author bio cheerfully admits that I’m “shamefully prone to crushes on fictional heroes”. I simply can’t help it, and I don’t think I’m the only one, judging by the many gushing and lovelorn posts on social media, proclaiming passion for the latest book, film, or television heartthrob.
Women have been swooning over fictional heroes since at least the days of Mr Darcy. The question is, why?
I think, with a fictional hero, the romance never dies. Let’s face it, you may have the most hunky and adorable man in the world in real life, but there’s still going to come a point when you have to pick up his dirty socks from the bedroom floor, or he says something so mind-numbingly dull that you wonder who on earth he really is, or he gets stroppy and annoys you so much you’d like to pour a jug of custard over his head—except that would be a terrible waste of custard.
Fictional heroes would never leave their socks on the floor. They never let their woman down, never hurt her, never lie to her or cheat on her. They think the world of the object of their affections and always put her first. They don’t make a mess in the kitchen or clog up the washing machine or forget to clean the bath after themselves. They just want to make their woman happy. Sigh.
And that’s what women want—isn’t it?
It’s easy to think that what appeals to women is the alpha male. Leaders of men exude power and strength and confidence. Take, for example, Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, Jamie Fraser in Outlander, Ross Poldark, and all four of The Musketeers. All that testosterone flying about! Wow! But there’s clearly so much more to it than that.
Jon Snow is brought up under the cloud of being the bastard son of Ned Stark. His true parentage is unknown to him, but he believes himself less than his “siblings” because of his father’s dalliance. Jon has no interest in being a leader. Nevertheless, he finds himself as “King of the North” with thousands looking to him to save them from the dreaded White Walkers. Jon is a man of peace, despite his capacity with a sword, and tries to find a better way to solve problems. He has no interest in being King of the Seven Kingdoms. He sees the bigger picture. It’s not just Jon’s ability on the battlefield, nor his status as leader that makes him so attractive. It’s his innate decency, his kindness, and his humble inability to see himself as potential king that appeals.
Jamie Fraser may be an amazing fighter, too, but he’s another man who has had leadership thrust upon him. Jamie has endured the most horrific ordeals, and it’s his refusal to give up, his vulnerability, his fierce protection of Claire, and his willingness to sacrifice himself over and over again, to keep her safe, that makes him worthy of our affections. Of course, that red hair, soft Scottish burr and the kilt help, too…
The Musketeers are sex on legs. Four gorgeous men with swords, dressed in leather. What’s not to love? But they have troubled pasts, and their love for the women in their lives has caused them much heartache and difficulties. They are men’s men, through and through, yet the women they love can get through to them and reveal a vulnerable and gentle side that no one else sees. That’s appealing!
Ross Poldark is the flawed hero. Torn between his love for wife Demelza and his passion for lost love Elizabeth, Ross broke Demelza’s heart and incurred the wrath of women around Britain when he betrayed her, then let Elizabeth down, too. Ross is deeply passionate about trying to improve the lives of the poor Cornish folk. Even so, he fails to recognise that stepping up to a position of political power would help them even more than the odd skirmish or row with George. In that sense, he lets the people down as well as his wife. He tries to do the right thing, but fails spectacularly at times. He’s not perfect, yet women adore him. Is it because we can see that he really wants to be good? Because we know he has a good heart, and wants to make everyone happy, but goes about things in the wrong way? Is that why we can feel compassion for him, and a desire for him to succeed, rather than a frustration at his failings?
Because heroes don’t always have to succeed to win our hearts.
Atticus Finch and George Bailey: both honest, decent family men who care about their children and try to do the right thing, however much it costs them. Atticus, hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, risks a great deal to defend Tom Robinson on a charge of rape. Yet, in the end, he fails. Does that make Atticus less of a hero? Far from it. George Bailey, hero of It’s a Wonderful Life, never achieves his ambition of travelling the world and leaving Bedford Falls behind. Yet he succeeds in winning us over because, like Atticus, he does the right thing. He puts other people first. He tries his best. Kindness, unselfishness and compassion are very sexy qualities.
There are some unlikely heroes, of course. Tyrion Lannister, for one. Decent, smart, funny and loyal, he has a kind heart (in spite of killing his father on the toilet!) and is probably the most enthralling character in Game of Thrones. Then there’s the BBC television version of Sherlock. Sherlock has so many women fans, yet he is offhand, distant and doesn’t seem to even notice women, except as clues or possible murderers. What is it about Sherlock that appeals? The wounded hero? Clearly, Sherlock has issues with relationships—not just romantic relationships, but with people in general. He struggles to socialize. He’s rude and abrupt. Yet, the moment when he gave a speech at John’s wedding and, confused by the tears the guests were shedding over his beautiful words, asked, “Did I do it wrong?” just about melted Twitter.
So, it seems, what women want is a man who’s loyal, kind, fierce, funny, super-intelligent, vulnerable, strong, proud, humble, brave, flawed, perfect, rich, poor, well-travelled, happy to stay at home, professionally-successful, high-achieving, family-loving, emotional, offhand, romantic, humorous, popular, faithful, masculine, gentle, and completely devoted to her.
There you go, fellas. Not much to ask for, is it?
Sharon wrote her first book when she was still at primary school. It was about a boarding school that specialized in ballet, and, given that she’d never been to boarding school and hadn’t a clue about ballet, it’s probably a good thing that no copy of this masterpiece survives. She is the author of seven novels, and has also written for The People’s Friend. Sharon lives in East Yorkshire, with her husband and their dog. She is one tenth of The Write Romantics, and a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association. She has a love/hate relationship with chocolate, is a devoted Whovian, and is shamefully prone to all-consuming crushes on fictional heroes.