Monday, February 13, 2012

Heroes in Love

In the film Agora, Orestes of Alexandria loves the mathematician
and philosopher Hypatia.  Orestes is a worthy hero, but he will
not win Hypatia's heart. Nor will he save her life.
This week on Heroines of Fantasy, we’re going to talk about heroes. 

Now, don’t worry – the heroines won’t be left out of this discussion.  They can't be.  After all, in matters of love it takes two to tango.  (Or three, or more, if you and/or your characters are living the Chinese curse of having an interesting life…) So when we talk about how our heroes love, we must at least make reference to the heroines who have captured their hearts.

It’s a common complaint that female characters in fantasy have historically been confined to the role of Romantic Interest for the Hero.  She waits on the sidleines while he proves his worth, and her everlasting love will be his reward when all the manly adventures are over and done.  Scenarios like this one have rankled readers -- especially women readers – because they so often undermine the potential of female characters to reflect the true complexity of real-life women.

I am of a mind that clichés like this not only shortchange our heroines, they also shortchange our heroes.  By giving the heroes of fantasy an inordinately simple path to romantic fulfillment, we impoverish their characters, allowing them to escape the true complexity of real-life men.

Now, maybe this is what many are looking for in fantasy.  There’s probably more than one person out there who has finished that engaging book, or gone home (or to the bar) after that entertaining movie, and thought, “Wow.  If only the rules were that straightforward.  Slay the kraken; win the girl. Now that’s a world I wouldn’t mind living in…”

Whether or not your taste is for uncomplicated love in the context of fantasy, I’m going to ask you to indulge me this week and talk about male characters who experience the reality of love in our fictitious worlds. 

Tyrion Lannister, by Rafal Hrynkiewicz
To get the discussion started, I’ll put someone forward that not everyone would expect to find in the romantic hero pile:  Tyrion Lannister, from George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Tyrion can be devious and cruel.  He is bookish and ugly.  (Ugly in the novels, not in the HBO series.)  No one expects him to ride to the rescue in a suit of shining armor.  Yet he is in his heart of hearts a romantic.  He has a well-hidden soft spot when it comes to women, and a great need to experience love.  We see this in his relationship with Shae; we hear about it in the bitter memories of his ill-fated marriage to Tysha. The discord between Tyrion’s romantic inclinations and the reality in which he lives is a source of constant tension; and it is one of the many threads that makes Westeros feel like a real place in history.

There’s my example.  Now it’s your turn.  Talk to me about heroes in love. Real love, in all its beauty and cruelty, with all its nuances, inconveniences, uncertainties and confusions. Who are these heroes?  How have they loved?  Who have they loved?  Did they get the woman in the end?  (If it was ‘real’, they probably did not.  But I’d like to know…unless, of course, the reveal would involve too many spoilers.) 

And here's something else to think about as the discussion moves along:  As we break boundaries in the ways our female characters live, are we also breaking boundaries in the ways that our male characters love? 

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Posted by Karin Rita Gastreich


Terri-Lynne said...

You certainly were inspired! I love this.

At the risk of tooting my own horn, the first character I thought about was Ethen, from Finder, because that's what I was going for when I wrote him. I didn't want love to conquer all. Life seldom happens that way. And though love didn't conquer all, he never stopped loving--thankfully. Love made him a better man, even if it made him wait for the rewards. And I'll leave it there to avoid spoilers.

Terri-Lynne said...

And your post brought to mind, strangely enough, The Hangover Two, because it plays directly to those who want the "fantasy" of love--specifically, a male fantasy often played up for comic effect.

The Geisha.

Who is the groom in this pic wedding? A beautiful Asian woman who yes dear and no dears him, accepts all his faults and foibles with a smile, doesn't give him shit for his antics, and in the end, stands by his side despite the fact that these antics cost her dearly.

I've heard of this "male fantasy" (please, readers, note the quotation marks! I am not lumping you all together!) of the Geisha right down to her race, but never really thought it was more than a funny trope. That it made its way into this male fantasy movie tells me maybe it has more meat on its bones than I wanted to believe.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hi Terri,

Well, I have to admit, the first male characters that came to mind when I was writing this were yours and Kim's. Ethen, Vic, Breyveran, and...oh goodness, how embarassing. I can't remember the other's name -- you know, that sharp-looking lord from the forest realm? (Sorry Kim!)

They are all great male characters, and good at loving. (As is Akmael, imho; but really, I don't want to engage in too much shameless self-promotion...)

I haven't seen Hangover Two. (Missed the first one as well.) Is 'The Geisha' a scene from that movie, or a separate move?

Anyway. Your reference to the silver screen image of the perfect Asian bride reminds me of a common saying in Costa Rica:

"The man of the house always has the last word. And the last word is, 'Yes, dear.'"

Now that's my idea of a good marriage.

But seriously, folks -- We all have our fantasies of easy love. And once in a while it's nice to have a break from reality and indulge those fantasies.

Still, real love is so much more visceral, and deliciously -- if painfully -- complicated. I think the more I live it, the more I like to see it well represented in the stories I read.

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin, "the Geisha" is a trope I've heard tell about in male-oriented stories. It's just the catch phrase for it.

The Hangover was pretty funny. If you see that, there's really no reason to see the second, because it's the exact same movie, only in the first, it was the hooker with a heart of gold trope, and in the second it's the Geisha.

That being said, I do believe both were done tongue in cheek, and meant to be laughed about.

Patricia J. Esposito said...

I found all the love relationships in The Finder to be real and compelling, side characters too, and it made me care so much more. I remember near the end having my heart pulled, wanting things to work out.

As I've said before, I haven't read enough fantasy to offer up heroes here as examples. But a friend was recently talking about how male roles need to change in suspense as well. How many times can we read about the man whose family is threatened or killed and he's out for vengeance? What else challenges males, scares males?

The shift in female roles will undoubtedly raise those issues too. I think it has begun. Hope men can enjoy a little expansion!

Terri-Lynne said...

Thank you, Patricia! You made the sparkle queen blush. :)

You're right about the tropes in suspense needing a revamp as well. The wronged family man/lover out for vengeance was getting twenty or so years ago with Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson were playing those parts instead of Liam Neesom and Kiefer Sullivan.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Patricia --

If you liked the relationships in 'Finder', you are going to LOVE 'A Time Never Lived'. :)

Very interesting that a similar discussion is happening with respect to suspense. I imagine there are other genres as well that are undergoing parallel changes.

...Though I must admit, I never get tired of seeing Clint Eastwood settle the score. :)

Pongo Pygmaeus said...

I'm not certain myself it's the 'family man avenger' that is the problem per se (if it is a problem), it's the fact that they almost invariably succeed, That said, I'm not certain that in fantasy the family man as avenger is very common. There must be some of course but I can't think of any who spring to mind as readily as Josey Wales does in film for instance (or indeed John Wayne's rather more morally questionable character in The Searchers).

Fear isn't too common a trait in fantasy heros (proper ones not miserbale snivellers like Frodo). I think possibly for reasons related to the fact that almost all heroines are beautiful and heroes handsome (or at least compellingly attractive in some way like Elric and Aragorn). Tyrion is of course the obvious exception but whether womanisers like Conan, Ffard and the Grey Mouser or faithful lovers like Arthur in most of his print forms, they most always get the girl(s) in the end or on the way and either discard or keep them. Occasional rejections are usually turned around by the book's end. Not so many end with hero and heroine going entirely separate ways or have their love fail altogether to overcome.

I do think though there are certain tropes that are tropes because they have a strong appeal. Whilst change is refreshing and something different often admirable, it's not always for the better or necessary.

I'd quite like to see a mainstream fantasy (I know there have been one or two before, but something that really sells) where the hero is homosexual, but the fact of his homosexuality is not some burning issue to be addressed by the novel (leave that to lit fic, I say) but just a fact, a detail of character, no more no less.

Terri-Lynne said...

Not the main protag, mind you, but Dumbledore is/was gay. It was one of those masterful things Rowlings did, and I'm not at all certain it was on purpose! But when it came to light, never a blaring, "I am gay!" statement, but more of a read between the lines sort of thing, most reacted with, "Oh, jeez! Of COURSE he was gay!"

Gads, there is a series, a farily new one, in which the main characters are gay men in a very touching relationship that's simply what IS, not any sort of statement. I'm going to see if I can find the titles and get back to you.

Terri-Lynne said...

Ah! Pongo! I found them. It's the Branion Series by Fiona Patton. The Stone Prince, The Painter Knight, and The Granite Shield.

I do understand that after these three, the series looses some of it's appeal, but that happens often with series that go beyond a trilogy.

Pongo Pygmaeus said...

I'll have a gander.

I've not heard of the series but a lot of US fantasy doesn't seem to feature much in the UK.

Having had a look, to be honest it doesn't seem my cup of tea really (gender 'neutral' titles being a pet hate of mine - I'm very reactionary for a radical...) but it's nice to see someone's made a decent effort at a homosexual hero. Massie did sort of with his version of Arthur (or at least there was homosexual activity as there is in most of his books but it always seems to me to be put there to make a point) though I found the actual book very disappointing.

The other thing fantasy cries out for I think is a cowardly rogue 'hero' of the stature of Flashman. Cugel the Clever was on that road but didn't have the same unabashed immorality.

Terri-Lynne said...

Pongo--for a comedic cowardly rogue of a hero, you can't beat Rincewind from Pratchett's Discworld series. One of my all-time favorite characters.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Once again, you all are stretching my reading list. (And doesn't it feel good to have a decent stretch after a long day?)

'I do think though there are certain tropes that are tropes because they have a strong appeal.'

I would have to agree with that, and also add that we could never create new twists on the old tropes if we didn't have the beloved old tropes in the first place.

Thanks to you & Terri for some suggestions on fantasy with homosexual protags. It seems 'The Stone Prince' turned up on my radar not too long ago; I may have to start with that one.