The Unsung Archetype: the 99% Hero

Lately there’s been a number of articles online that I’ve read that discuss a hero type that isn’t defined, and isn’t often present in romance novels, though it’s one of my favorites. Maybe it’s because it’s not as dramatic a persona, or maybe because it’s a heroism that’s sometimes quiet, often subtle, and perhaps difficult to render in text, but the hero who defies the archetype. He’s not outsized and XXXL (as Jane wrote recently), superpowered and megaendowed financially or physically. This hero… shows up when it counts. I’m still working on a name for this one: it’s not quite beta, and it’s not rogue, and it’s not alpha, either.

There are a number of different ways to define him, both what he is, and what he’s not. In this recent article that went around Twitter, the hero is the one who holds your purse:

It’s one of the biggest take-home lessons from my years as an oncologist: When you’re a single woman picturing the guy of your dreams, what matters a heck of lot more than how he handles a kayak is how he handles things when you’re sick. And one shining example of this is how a guy deals with your purse.

I became acquainted with what I’ve come to call great “purse partners” at a cancer clinic in Waltham. Every day these husbands drove their wives in for their radiation treatments, and every day these couples sat side by side in the waiting room, without much fuss and without much chitchat. Each wife, when her name was called, would stand, take a breath, and hand her purse over to her husband. Then she’d disappear into the recesses of the radiation room, leaving behind a stony-faced man holding what was typically a white vinyl pocketbook. On his lap. The guy—usually retired from the trades, a grandfather a dozen times over, a Sox fan since date of conception—sat there silently with that purse. He didn’t read, he didn’t talk, he just sat there with the knowledge that 20 feet away technologists were preparing to program an unimaginably complicated X-ray machine and aim it at the mother of his kids.

I’d walk by and catch him staring into space, holding hard onto the pocketbook, his big gnarled knuckles clamped around the clasp, and think, “What a prince.”

When Jane and I wrote about this type of hero in romance at the Borders True Romance Blog, we received a number of truly amazing stories from women who are fortunate to have this type of hero in their lives. Some told of men who treated them as women, not as patients, even while they undergo continual care for difficult and onerous physical conditions. Others talked about men who listened, who were equal partners in marriage and responsibility.


Contrast these men of quiet valor to the “bro culture” discussed at Jezebel in the wake of a new iPhone app from Pepsi that purports to assist men in picking up women by type:

Aspiring Actress
Foreign Exchange Student
Goth Girl
Indie Rock Girl
Military Girl
Out-Of-Your-League Girl
Political Girl…

I’ll stop there, I’m getting nauseated. And of course the app comes with a “brag list” so if you “get lucky” you can remember her name and any pertinent details- and given the tone and lame humor of the app and its description, I’m willing to bet that “Had two tits, a hole, and a heartbeat” is an option.

Hortense has it right when she writes in conclusion to her rant about this spectacular piece of programming poo:

There’s a reason why I go after bro culture as often as I do: things like this, which are completely unacceptable and ridiculously offensive. This is a program sponsored by a major corporation that encourages men to look at women as objects to be won, used, and tossed away after a “victory” is obtained….

I have said it before, and I will say it again: I am just really tired of bros, man. It would be nice to turn on the television one day and not see some dude completely dehumanizing women as a part of some asinine “game” in order to promote deodorant or soda pop or body wash, but I guess there isn’t an app for that yet.

Whether it’s a joke that edged too far into reality (I’ve so met guys who think like that – have you?) or a genuine piece of utter asshattery, the blowhard clueless hero type is much more common in mass media portrayals of men than the real men we know who are actually heroic.

I wish I read more of these heroes in romance.

I’d pick men like LaConnie Taylor Jones’ late husband, who changed her life and left a wonderful legacy of being a true romance hero:

As a romance author, readers often tell me the only place a woman can meet a beautiful, strong Black man is between the cover of a romance novel….

He didn’t drive a luxury vehicle or go head off to work all suited and booted in the latest Dolce and Gabbana collection. He was the father of our four children and the one who occasionally headed out the door sick, but somehow managed to work all day to earn an honest day’s pay in order to support his family. He was the man my children were and still are proud to call “Dad.” He was the one who spoiled me rotten, in spite of my shortcomings. He was the man who honored and respected me with his whole heart and demanded the same from others on my behalf. He was the man who cried with me and for me. He was the man who celebrated my joys and shared my pain. He was the man I entrusted with my darkest secrets and deepest fears, which he safely tucked them away inside his heart and carried to his grave.

Or Elise Logan’s brother, who, as she told me on Twitter, went to high school his sophomore year on National Coming Out Day in a dress in “solidarity.” Or her dad, who, when the principal called to report her brother’s apparel, said “Is it a violation of dress code?” Ms. Logan’s brother and Ms. Jones’ husband are no longer with us – and we’re missing some genuine heroes in these two dudes.

Jessica Scott’s blog entry for today came to me via Laura Kinsale’s Twitter feed as I was writing this entry: Something Neat from a Year in Iraq: “I got my husband back.”

We have a few minutes at lunch and dinner and maybe an hour or two before we go to bed. It’s more than most couples have and less than others, but it works for us. I’ve learned a lot about him this year, both as a husband and as a soldier. I think he’s learned a lot about me and how we’ve both changed over the last half decade. But the best thing is discovering that there’s still a whole lot of love, mixing in with a lot of like and it’s not just the kids holding us together….

It’s been a long known fact in the Army, since the war started, that deployments can make good marriages stronger but it destroys weak ones. This is my husband’s third and my first. I look to him as the voice of experience and he’s talked me through some of my fears. I’m glad I’ve gotten this time with my husband the man, not the daddy and I still love it when he plays with the kids on the webcam.

So getting to be husband’s wife this year, even with everything else that’s gone one, is at least one good thing that’s come out of being in Iraq.

Media, and to a lesser extent, romance, has a very limited set of roles for heroes, particularly those who are husbands or fathers – secret baby notwithstanding. In pop culture portrayals, they can be uber-studs or bumbling dads or quiet geeks or angry rebels – and every now and again you meet a deft mix of one or more, with a touch of something new and realistic.

In romance, the hero isn’t just the Wang of Mighty Lovin but all too often, he is reduced to that stereotype 3/4ths of the way through the book.

It’s not always compelling romance to read of a hero who listens and shows up and steps in and stands up and does all those nameless, subtle things that compile this type of hero. But surely there’s more room for this type of man in romance (and watch – the comments will be full of “Sarah, duh, did you not read…?” Get your bookstore shopping lists ready – there’s no group better at proving me wrong than the Bitchery).

Meanwhile, I’m still trying to think of a name for this real-life hero. Maybe it’s the 99% hero: 99% of life is just showing up, as a fridge magnet tells it, and I bet 99% of women would pick this type of hero over all the others in real life, if not in romantic fantasy. Regardless of what you call him, the “99% hero” is 100% awesome. I love encountering him in different places, even if it’s with the painful knowledge that the gentleman I’m reading about isn’t alive today.

Who’s your favorite 99% hero? Do you disagree that this guy who holds your purse, listens, and does those million little subtle things is absent in romance?

ETA: Polly, in the comments below, nailed it: “Maybe omega? Since he’s the guy you’ll wish you ended up with?” Yes. This is the Omega Hero: the one you end up with, or wish you had. Well said, Polly!



Random Musings

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Polly says:

    I think he is generally pretty absent. Dependable isn’t exactly flashy. Plus, being that guy means having your head screwed on straight (more or less), and romancelandia isn’t overpopulated with men who’ve got their shit together (except for best friends and side-kicks that the heroine never considers).

    The dependable, totally non-flashy guy is what makes Cotillion by Georgette Heyer so great. It’s not the rake, but the purse-holder who gets the girl, and she’s smart enough to realize that he’s the better choice for her.

    Wish I could think of a better name for the hero. Maybe omega? Since he’s the guy you’ll wish you ended up with?

  2. 2
    JJ says:

    I would have to go with Freddie of Heyer’s COTILLION as well. Sarah Rees Brennan has a categorization for this type of hero: The Sandwich. I think Sandwiches turn up in fiction all the time, but they’re not as beloved as the Muffins. (The brooding, preternaturally gorgeous, angsty alpha hero.)

    My favourite 99% hero is Gilbert Blythe from ANNE OF GREEN GABLES. Scratch that, he’s my favourite romantic lead of all time. But I’ve never been drawn to the hyper-masculine alpha, either in fiction or in real life, so I tend to gravitate toward books with the “99% hero”, who turns up with some regularity in other genres, like YA with romantic storylines. Peeta from THE HUNGER GAMES is my most recent favourite, and so is Sam from SHIVER.

  3. 3

    Re Pepsi, apparently:

    The US drinks giant responded with a tweet apologising for any offence caused. “Our app tried 2 show the humorous lengths guys go 2 pick up women,” Pepsi said. “We apologise if it’s in bad taste & appreciate your feedback.”

    So if they’re only apologising “if it’s in bad taste” does that mean that

    (a) they’re not sure if it’s in bad taste and
    (b) this is therefore not really an apology at all?

  4. 4

    I see the heroes who hold the purses in the waiting room when I go for my annual mammogram.  I’m there by myself, because for me it’s just a routine precautionary procedure.  They’re there because they’re princes, and I’ll never look at them the same way again.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  5. 5
    Hyel says:

    I’m not sure that’s not just the minimum requirement in a life partner, rather than an act of heroism.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think I know what you’re going for. I definitely prefer a person who sticks by in hard times to one who doesn’t, and I do prefer loyalty and love to flexing muscles (boy, do I!), but it’s not ordinary behaviour, only to be expected, for a person to abandon a sick partner.

    We shouldn’t be expecting that to the point if being that impressed by the absence of such piggery.

  6. 6
    Jody W. says:

    I don’t know that the quiet strength of the 99% hero lends itself to the action-sex-action-sex-serial killer-demon-vampire-sex-sex-action-sex-whoopie! pace of a lot of books in the romance genre. It takes too long to peel back the layers of a hero like that, and wordcounts are only going down, not up.

  7. 7
    shaunee says:

    My favorite 99% hero is not really a romance hero:

    Constantine from Robin Mckinley’s “Sunshine.”  He’s an unattractive (with skin the color of “mushrooms that’ve been screwed up in a bag in the back of the fridge for a long time”), scary vampire in a world where vampires are actually predators and not in a good way.  Their behavior in a lot of ways mirrors the instinct of wild animals.  Throw in a bit of sociopathy and you’ve got’em.  Not very alpha, or beta for that matter.

    Yet Constantine is compellingly fair.  He requires Sunshine (the heroine) to be a partner to him, as they escape from certain kidnapping and death, as they—two natural born enemies—make plans to secure their lives.  I’m not talking about a hero who is appreciative of the heroine’s kick-assitude and her hot bod.  I mean a lion who must partner with an impala in order to keep something much worse from destroying them both.  The instinct and fear that gives them agency to flee and fight, apart and together, is so practical it’s refreshing.  I think what makes their relationship so convincing is that it is based on very clearly drawn lines of respect.

  8. 8
    Corrine says:

    I don’t think that it’s not that the heroes in romance novels are purse-holders; I think it’s more that the authors don’t show them in that capacity. I can think of lots of alphas and XXXL heroes who would probably demonstrate this kind of attentiveness and sensitivity without feeling their masculinity is threatened. But if the author doesn’t show it to us, it’s hard to have that “awww” moment.

    In response to the Bro Culture, maybe the best way to fix it would be to fix the women who allow it to go on: the ones who have no self-respect who hook up with these guys and consider themselves lucky to rub genitalia for a few hours with a total loser; the ones who wear the Playboy insignia and purposely dress like $3 hookers; the female chauvinists, in other words. If we could fix their self-esteem, the Bros would have no one to prey on.

  9. 9
    Janet W says:

    @Jody W—you’re right, it took a fair number of words to untangle the different strands and partners in Cotillion.
    @Hyel—my dh would agree with you—isn’t it to be expected? Isn’t it the exception that spouses leave in bad times? At least I still hope so!
    @JJ (thanks, I think, for the Brennan/sandwich link)—a sandwich? Somehow that doesn’t resonate for me … I’ll have to chew on it a bit more :)
    @Polly—as someone who has always adored Freddy (and his counterpart Gil, in Friday’s Child), I think it’s time to give him the Beta Emiritus/99%/Sandwich award—describing him as “dependable and totally non-flashy” just doesn’t, imo, do him justice. Agreed, he’s not the rake that cuz Jack was but his skill-set was considerable [thought of another one, the cousin of the earl in April Lady] … being the oldest son of his witty and terribly intelligent father couldn’t have been easy but Freddy was totally comfortable in his own skin. No one and no situation phased him—he was practical and intensely and sensibly protective of those he loved. [one more: Lord Charlbuy of The Grand Sophy.]

    And it was not just Kitty that he thought of—he was the behind-the-scenes fixer for his younger brother, his older sister and on and on. And he did it with such elegance and a blessed lack of drama. Altho he did have a sense of humour … and lastly, he could and did draw on reserves of aristocratic hauteur when it was called for.

  10. 10
    MicheleKS says:

    I think there are more 99% heroes in romance than it appears. The way I interpret these kinds of heroes are the ones who don’t come on so hard, or as I like to think, the old strong, silent type. The hero in the book I’m reading now is a tough big-city cop but he’s treated the heroine with courtesy and respect, and shown great sensitivity to a couple whose child has been kidnapped. It’s the qualities of intelligence and sensitivity that make the hero attractive and are making me seriously love this book.

    To me, a 99% hero is one who doesn’t need to be a loud-mouthed or heavy-breathing Alpha but instead a man who’s strong and steady, but not insensitive or mean.

    And finally, when my mother was first diagnosed with breast cancer one fear she voiced to me was that my father might leave her. He didn’t. He was right with her through the end, and yes, he was a purse-holder more than once for her.

  11. 11
    RStewie says:

    I agree we should be able to expect it from our RL heroes (I know mine wouldn’t leave me to do something like that alone), but I also agree that it’s a rare Romance Hero that is portrayed ONLY as The Sandwich (I love that). 

    But there are plenty of sandwich moments out there:
    Connie Brockway’s historicals are full of them—in particular, I think of A Dangerous Man when it comes out Mercy and Hart had been together. …Or in As You Desire when Harry rides in to save Desi on his mare.  (…I LOVE her old historicals.)
    Also, For My Lady’s Heart when Ruck jumps into the water to save Melanthe’s peregrine…and their dinner.
    There’s others, too, but I can’t remember them…my point is, though, that the vast majority of heros in Romance aren’t ONLY The Sandwich, but ALL The Muffins aspire to be The Sandwich with their heroine.

  12. 12
    Brandi says:

    On another forum, one guy was willing to download the Pepsi thing to his iPhone and document it for the rest of us. There’s definitely a strong vibe of “anybody who takes this seriously deserves to

    have their phone shoved up a bodily orifice sideways

    “—the pickup lines are completely ridiculous—but it seems to be the kind of lame joke that’s just the last in a long series of straws as far as a lot of people are concerned.

  13. 13

    Wish I could think of a better name for the hero. Maybe omega? Since he’s the guy you’ll wish you ended up with?

    I cast my vote with Polly’s for the name ‘Omega Hero’—the man who’ll stand beside you till the end.

    My father’s one, I married one, and they’re the only kind of heroes I can seem to write :-)

  14. 14
    me and not you says:

    I’m not sure that’s not just the minimum requirement in a life partner, rather than an act of heroism.

    I don’t know that it’s necessarily the minimum requirement for a life partner, but it’s definitely the definition of a GOOD life partner.  I was thinking that this is clearly the “good husband” archetype.  For example, my husband who is a good man, is really horrible when I’m sick—suddenly I’m super fragile and he switches between *freaking out* that I’m sick and being superover protective.  (I am vaguly worried that if/when I get some kind of serious/chronic something or other, that he’s going to go off the deep end.)  Drives me nuts, but I think he meets the *minimum* requirements.  Maybe he’s more of a bumbling romantic?  But he is *there* for me, if not always in the most helpful way.  And I think that the key to the 99% hero is knowing what the other partner needs without excessive direction, which comes from being with that person for a long time. …anyway…

    This is a far more *real* type of hero, the kind of guy you’re more likely to meet to in real life, but the quietness of their awesome is so difficult to portray in world where it is by necessity full of tension that I imagine that louder types are easier to write.

  15. 15
    Madd says:

    Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility was definitely that guy. I’ve read a couple of other books, that I can’t for the life of me remember right now, where the quietly dependable guy got the girl.

    Hyel … Some men aren’t good at being there in the tough times and sometimes you don’t know it until you’re there and suddenly he’s not. There might be small signs here and there that you miss because they’re small things and he’s a great guy in general. There just comes a point where this guy either just can’t deal with what’s happening anymore or is too afraid of something to be there. They might literally take off or they might let you down emotionally. My father was one of these guys. Everyone said how great he was, great dad, great husband, great friend. Then my sister was born, money got tight, he had to pick up odd gigs to supplement income and he wasn’t happy about it, which caused friction between he and my mom. Then one day he was just gone. He came back a year later full of contrition, but my mom wasn’t willing to have him back knowing that she couldn’t count on him. Haven’t seen the man since.

  16. 16
    Stacey P. says:

    The first character that popped into my head while reading this was Ethan from Nora Robert’s Quinn Brothers trilogy (Rising Tides, specifically)—still my favorite of her heroes, although I have a couple of others who come close, :)

  17. 17
    Rene says:

    I just read Mindy Klasky’s How Not to Make a Wish, and the hero is 100% an Omega Hero, and he is great.  Really fun book, in which Kira, a theater manager in a dinner theater, finds a genie lamp in the costumes, and none of her wishes have quite the effect she had in mind.

  18. 18
    Janet W says:

    @Stacey P, deep down, don’t you think all of Nora’s heroes have an Omega streak a mile wide in them? Think of how motherly Roarke can be? Declan Fitzgerald actually “becoming” the haunted, murdered, pregnant wife in his story … or Brad, in Key of Valor, taking off his Armani jacket to give Zoe’s son a bath. Very few of her heroes don’t show that dependable, kind, thoughtful trait … at least eventually!

    p.s. That was (above) and sorry for all my misspellings, Lord Charlbury. And how does the word “mensch” fit into this discussion? Is that word OK to use? Is it complimentary? Just wondering!

  19. 19
    Sarah W says:

    That app makes my optimism hurt, so II’m fighting it with an excellent quote from Kate Harding (over at Shapely Prose):

    “If women’s worth is only in f**kability, then men are just dumb f**kers. We think better of men. Do you?”

  20. 20

    Are Suzanne Brockmann’s heroes like Max Bhagat and Tom Paoletti disqualified because in addition to being intensely loyal and devoted, they also spend time saving the day?

    And I think a lot of Nora’s heroes might be considered Omegas—she writes that kind of man so compellingly, I wonder if it’s part of what makes her able to connect with so many readers.

  21. 21
    Polly says:

    @JanetW: Absolutely. I love Cotillion. I love Freddy. Of course “dependable and non-flashy” doesn’t do him justice, but it’s his “type” in less than five words. He’s not the wittiest guy in the room, but he’s there, he sensible where it counts, and he’s got quiet (and well-hidden) unsuspected depths. Flashy he ain’t. Like Gil in Friday’s Child (who I always kind of wished had ended up with Hero, without loving Sherry’s transformation any the less—can we have two Heros maybe?)

    That’s the difficulty with these guys; they don’t sparkle, even if they are the staff of life. I would love to see more romances with that guy as the hero, but I wonder if they’d have to of necessity be somewhat quieter romances. That guy, after all, is hardly playing pirate, being a ruthless spy, or leading a pack of werewolves.

  22. 22
    Laurel says:

    This gal’s husband is that hero. He married a beauty pageant winner, model, actress. Three years later, when she was twenty six and they had a six month old baby boy, she suffered a horrific stroke that should have killed her. Half her face is paralyzed, she’s still in a wheelchair, she was on a feeding tube for eight months or better, talking is a challenge for her. But her intellect is fine. He is her primary caregiver, her cheerleader, her baby’s daddy, everything she needs.

    Here is what her mother has to say about him:

    It’s a long post but be sure to read through to the end.

  23. 23
    Carrie Lofty says:

    Maybe Omega Heroes are what romance heroes become after the last page. Think of your favorite romances: can you really imagine the hero abandoning the heroine had she needed a traumatic health procedure? Any hero worth his salt would not. He’d be there for his wife, his kids, his community. Perhaps if you can’t imagine that for a hero, then the author hasn’t done a good enough job of establishing a happy ending, in that we can’t trust his long-term worth as a dependable partner. Hints of that in among the danger and intrigue are what make us believers.

    Madd mentioned Col. Brandon, who is a great example of an Omega, but could Austen have sustained the narrative tension in S&S with just the story of his love for Marianne? Probably not. He’s very direct in his love, his goodness, and his intentions. We as readers and authors need Willoughby in order to have a meaty story!

    I don’t find many Omegas in reading, but I certainly love being married to one. He’s taking our daughters to a reading party tonight at their school. Makes me melt.

  24. 24
    Polly says:

    On the other hand, y’all are right about Roarke being kinda maternal. So maybe the guy can be a tycoon (or a pirate, spy, or werewolf alpha).

  25. 25
    Laurel says:

    And this is what Katherine wrote about her hero yesterday.

  26. 26
    hapax says:

    Okay, one I just have to toss in, even though I know I push this series a lot—Er Thom from Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s LOCAL CUSTOM, whom my daughter & I recently agreed is the Hero We Would Most Like To Know In Real Life.

  27. 27

    In romance, we read about the dashing, masterful hero, but think about it in real life – how many of those make good husbands?
    But there is that difference between fantasy and reality. Reality doesn’t always make good fiction. Horrible nest of worms to delve into, but you know what I mean, I’m sure.
    I keep saying I write omega heroes, because they are unclassifiable, I hope. I do love real strong men, who don’t feel the need to prove their strength by dominating everyone around them and kicking the ass of all the other pack leaders. My heroes are the ones that avoid the violence (not just the ones I write about, either – I married into an army family, my father was in Bomber Command in WWII, my fil was in Africa, Korea and helped to liberate a concentration camp, my bil’s were navy men and none of these real heroes felt the need to prove it all the time).
    Tom Paoletti, yes, definitely. A source of quiet strength and more like the real life military hero.
    And a little tribute to my real life hero who spends his days teaching PMLD blind kids. He makes their lives better and I’m so proud of him.

  28. 28
    Nifty says:

    The 99% hero is one of the reasons I still love Nora Roberts’ books.  Readers complain that her stories are repetitive or formulaic.  If they are, I don’t care.  I read her stories because Roberts’ heroes are the type of guy I want to read about…the type of guy I want to know in real life.  Dependable, sexy, funny, friendly, decent, mature, competent—they’re totally the “purse holder” type.

  29. 29
    dangrgirl says:

    There are so many great points here and I’m glad to see this kind of hero is getting more attention. We can call him whatever you want, but I’ve thought for a long time that a true “Alpha” hero is a man who doesn’t boast or maltreat anyone. No matter how he’s physically built, he’s just basically confident and not easily intimidated by anything—whether it be fighting off an evil demon or holding your purse.

    He’s not outsized and XXXL (as Jane wrote recently), superpowered and megaendowed financially or physically.

    The Borders blog post more directly referred to JR Ward’s heroes: (Think JR Ward heroes who all have to wear XXXXL clothes).

    I like the idea that Carrie Lofty said about heroes reaching this “Omega” stage after the last page and the book is about their journey to that. In this case, I think some of JR Ward’s heroes are getting a bum rap and their physicality is overwhelming their personalities. Seems like Ward’s vampires are totally devoted to their women. For instance, I can easily see Z holding Bella’s purse, likewise for Tohr. I think Rhage demonstrated that he would indeed hold Mary Luce’s purse if her cancer returned.

    Corrine said:
    In response to the Bro Culture, maybe the best way to fix it would be to fix the women who allow it to go on…

    While I definitely agree that there are women who could make better choices, we shouldn’t blame these women for “bros’ ” behavior. These immature men need to step up and grow up. The only people who can change their behavior are the men themselves.

  30. 30
    JJ says:

    @Carrie Lofty:

    Madd mentioned Col. Brandon, who is a great example of an Omega, but could Austen have sustained the narrative tension in S&S with just the story of his love for Marianne? Probably not. He’s very direct in his love, his goodness, and his intentions. We as readers and authors need Willoughby in order to have a meaty story!

    Ah, but Marianne’s isn’t the only romance in S&S. Edward Ferrars is your quiet and dependable type as well and there’s no rakish hero to contrast him in Elinor’s romance. (Also, I find Elinor the more compelling of the sisters and there was plenty of narrative tension in her story!)

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