Some of the male characters in my novels have been described as ‘having a bit of the Heathcliff/Mr Rochester about him’.
It isn’t intentional. It’s just the kind of man I love to write about… and read about. You see, I need to fall in love with my main male characters (and my female ones too of course, though I don’t necessarily want to snog them!). There’s nothing I love more than a dark brooding hero. But they need some substance too. So how do I do this? Below I use some of my favourite literary men to explain…
Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights
‘If he loved with all the powers of his puny being, he couldn’t love as much in eighty years as I could in a day.’
Heathcliff is the ultimate beautiful disaster in literature, a man who loves with a ferocity that tears everything up around him. He is a tornado and I adore him. Dark, intense but most of all, loving. In that he loves Cathy completely and utterly, no questions asked.
Of course, there are readers who question whether he really did love Cathy. But I’m not here to analyse that. I’m here to say ‘phwoar!’. From the moment I read Wuthering Heights when I was about twelve, I was spellbound.
Now this all comes from me as a reader. But as a writer, he’s a difficult character because he can come across as unlikeable. That’s fine, unlikeable characters can be brilliant characters. But as a love interest, it can be risky. The reader needs to understand why a strong woman would fall in love with this man… and ideally, you want the reader to fall in love with him themselves.
I’m not sure I really understood the importance of this at first. My first version of Milo from The Atlas of Us (The Lost Mother in US) was much more intense, even violent, than the final version. Problem is, this made him too unlikeable and that, in turn, made Claire seem weak. Why did she put up with him like this?
So I kept the intensity, the mysterious family past, the dark looks… but I tempered that with a lighter side, a kinder side, a side that makes it clear to the reader why someone as intelligent and worldly as Claire would fall for him. Milo does little things for Claire, surprises and treats. He listens to her, makes her feel able to unburden herself when others can’t.
I added some light with the darkness. But there’s still plenty of darkness…
Oliver Mellors from Lady Chatterley’s Lover
“His body was urgent against her, and she didn’t have the heart anymore to fight…She saw his eyes, tense and brilliant, fierce, not loving. But her will had left her. A strange weight was on her limbs. She was giving way. She was giving up…she had to lie down there under the boughs of the tree, like an animal, while he waited, standing there in his shirt and breeches, watching her with haunted eyes…”
There’s something very appealing about an outdoors man like Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper Lady Chatterley falls for. It’s not just the idea of a man getting all dirty and gorgeous in the mud (ha ha, am I a freak to like this idea?!). But also this feeling he’s apart from the world. As people sit nicely in their warm homes, he is under the stars, alone, completely different.
As a farmer, Milo is like this. There’s nothing he loves more than working outdoors, hands deep in sand or mud, the feel of a sharp breeze or the warm sun on the back of his neck.
I was conscious that I didn’t want to turn him into a stereotype though, a grunting uncivilized outdoor man who’s only redeeming feature is that he’s good in the sack. Of course, Mellors isn’t just this. But he does border on it at times. It was important for me to make Milo charismatic, or else why would Claire fall in love with him? Falling in lust wasn’t enough.
I hope this comes through in his passion for animals, his ambitions to travel, the love and compassion he feels for this family. He’s not just about himself. Nor is he just wrapped up in him and Claire. He tries to make others feel loved too. So while he is insular and apart from society in many ways, he doesn’t forget those around him.
Jewel from Heroes and Villains
“Darkness was made explicit in the altered contours of his face. He was like a work of art, as if created, not begotten, a fantastic dandy of the void whose true nature had been entirely subsumed to the alien and terrible beauty of a rhetorical gesture.”
I talk about Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains a lot. It’s not one of her more revered books, in fact, many hate it. But I adore it. I think it’s because I read it as a teen and it had a real affect on me. It was like nothing I’d read before, a gothic dystopian novel years before they became all the rage.
And then there’s the feral, deeply flawed character of Jewel, a rough tumble of a tribal boy who drags the main character Marianne from her refined world into his mess of a world.
What I find interesting about Jewel is what I hint at above: he brings Marianne into his world and helps to change her perspective. This suggests a form of dominance on his part. But what’s so wonderful about this novel is that despite it being Marianne who’s dragged kicking and screaming into this new world, in the end, it’s she who changes Jewel more then he changes her.
I feel that’s important when writing about love. Both people need to change each other and that change can’t just be ‘I fell in love’. It needs to be more than that. Claire meets Milo at a crucial time in her life. She’s standing on a precipice, about to jump off. And Milo is at a type of crossroads too.
What was important to me was that by meeting and getting to know each other, it sparks an action to move forward in both characters. Are they good for each other? Not all the time. But what’s important is when they’re together, they encourage each other to learn, to change, to try out new versions of the world they’re living in.
And that’s ultimately what a good romantic hero is all about. They need to drive a plot forward, not just as a love interest. This is why in my first sentence above, you’ll notice I don’t refer to Milo as the main love interest. He’s one of the main characters. He doesn’t just change Claire’s life by showing her what it means to truly love. He also changes her as a person, as she changes him too. And yet I hope I don’t sacrifice the romance of what they have too. As one reviewer says: ‘The romance between Claire and Milo with its passion and intensity will sweep you off your feet.’