Saturday, May 3, 2008

Ditching the Dysfunctional Duke

I just finished reading a really irritating book - classic naked man-titty cover, wallpaper history, googoo Disney-princess type heroine, and a Duke hero who was totally f****dup because his mother stood by while he and his little brother were exposed to abuse by their creepy uncle. This has given him licence to roar around Europe wasting what little money he has, drowning his sorrows in absinthe and Russian countesses. It was paint-by-numbers dysfunction.

Here are few more of my favourite detestable dysfunctions: the guy who won't trust women because his first wife was a bit free with her favours; the guy who won't trust women because his mother had more lovers than you could shake a stick at; the guy whose daddy thrashed him; the guy whose daddy and mummy ignored him; the guy whose first wife only married him for his money; the guy whose brother was too good and died; the guy whose brother was too bad but he took the rap for it. Oh poor put upon guy, he broods, he sulks, he beds every available (low class) woman who is up for it, and then he meets our heroine and she is soooo sweet and sooooo kind and sooo vulnerable and cuddlesome and wholesome and good that oooo, he is healed, he is now Mr Nice Guy too.

What really gets me is that this kind of hero is so frequent in Romancelandia and the hidden message is not that love conquers all and overcomes childhood trauma to bring in a new and glorious day, but that lazy writers can get away with codswallop.

Now, I'll confess, I am in thrall to a duke of dysfunction - bring on Exhibit A, Francis Crawford, aka Lymond, or Sevigny. At least a count of dysfunction.

But Lymond is complex. He has legitimate and interesting reasons for his sense of guilt, self-loathing and general hunchbackness in the gutter, like the fact that he is responsible for the death of more than one person. He has plausible and interesting side effects like terrible migraines and suicide attempts. He is genuinely tortured and although there are wonderfully funny scenes in the Lymond series, Dunnett does not dress up her hero's dark side with Christmas lights and cod-psychological explanations. As for romance - well, his is fraught with difficulties and conflicts. Love is not a spiritual bandaid for this man or his heroine.

I suppose that's beginning to reach the heart of my plaint against the 'Big Trauma in the Past' explanation of why a hero has licence to behave like an ass. People behave like asses because they are asses, people are mean because they are mean. Mean, selfish, nasty malicious, manipulative people exist. They can change, but I don't believe that love is the big healer - and I don't want my heroines to be matrons supervising the wards of the terminally self-indulgent.

Let's take a big change of heart story - a favourite one: A Christmas Carol. Love is not what makes Scrooge change. The realisation that he has shut love out of life, that love is more enriching than any amount of gold, that he is capable of giving love and that giving is more than enough reward in itself, these are all facets of what make him change. But along with that is a genuine sense of maturity, of emerging from a deliberate disengagement with his fellow-humans that allows Scrooge to discover love. Love is not the agent. Scrooge is the agent of his own change. We love new Scrooge because he offers us all the possibility of redemption through a realisation of one's own humanity.

That's my point - heroes have to be their own agents for change. That is what a true hero is - someone who is a protagonist, a figure who acts and alters and evolves for themselves (inevitably Eugenides, hero of Megan Whalen Turner's Attolia books, comes to mind here). Love as crutch is just not romantic in my book.

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