Back in the day, many romances were very much focused on the heroine,and the hero was a somewhat nebulous, possibly menacing figure whose motivations weren't known, and whose actions were often only excused by the fact that the back cover copy proclaimed him the hero. Actions frequently included ravishing, bodice ripping, and generally being a rapetastic assclown.
Then, things began to change. We readers were treated to more and more of the hero's point of view: what he was thinking. Scenes, whole chapters, even wherein the hero's motivations, thoughts and emotions (and changing emotions) toward the heroine were known to the reader because we'd hang out in his head for awhile.
This put the reader in a unique space: she knew the heroine, and she knew the hero, and she knew enough of both to (a) even more readily — one hopes — forgive any asshattery on the part of either character and (b) understand why and how and possibly when the two would finally get together. Readers were the witness in the middle, privy to both characters' points of view.
This has become almost standard, particularly in some sub-genres. More often than not, in many of the romances I've read lately, the heroine and the hero's point of view share nearly equal time. We see things from his perspective, from hers – sometimes from additional characters, too.
In a March 2012 podcast about the romance canon, I posited that Nora Roberts was among the first to represent the hero's viewpoint consistently in romance, and that her influence is felt in the books which portray the perspective of sympathetic heroes. I think that's become a standard, the hero's point of view in the narrative.
Picture a line from left to right. Like this:
(heroine) <——-O——-> (hero)
On the right is the hero, and on the left is the heroine. The location of the 0 is the amount of knowledge the reader has about either character, their motivations, their point of view, their emotions, and their purpose. If the reader is right in the middle – and I think we've been there for awhile now – the reader learns about the heroine AND the hero in equal measure. We learn about what her problems are, what drives him, why they're attracted to each other, how each person perceives a scene or conversation, and we learn, most of all, what the conflicts are internally and externally for each person. We the readers are nearly equally balanced in the amount of information we have about each character.
We know why the hero is the way he is, where he comes from, what shame he has, and why he is conflicted by his attraction to the heroine. We know the heroine, why she is the way she is, what she wants and what she thinks of the hero. We know a lot about both, and as readers we've been between the hero and heroine for awhile. The location of the reader's knowledge shifted from old skool, where the heroine knew little, to the current model, which is to share the perspective of both characters.
Now picture that line with the reader's knowledge (the 0) farther toward the heroine:
(heroine) <–0——.———> (hero)
If the 0 is near the heroine, the amount of information the reader has shifts in her favor. We know more about the heroine and her thoughts, and see the hero through a filter heavily influenced by what we know about her, not him. This is especially true for first person narratives, but can happen with third person as well. We see the hero through scenes from her perspective, told with her filters, judgments and motivations in place, and it's up to the reader to either take the heroine's word for it (“Oh, he hates me and is always grumpy”) or read the hero's character on our own while putting aside or including the heroine's prejudices (“Wait, he's kept that ribbon from her hair in his pocket for a month?”).
As I also look at recent successful books – Twilight, published fanfics like 50 Shades of Grey, and other books, for example – one thing I've noticed is that the hero is more secret from the reader. We don't get scenes from his perspective (unless they're leaked and the author gets pissed off). We don't see the heroine from his viewpoint, we don't listen to his thoughts or gain insight to his character from watching him interact with other people. We only see the hero in limited pieces, through the eyes of the heroine and through her own experiences with him, and if there are scenes with the hero, they might conceal and hint more than they reveal.
But while I was reading A Hidden Fire, I started thinking about how much I knew about heroes in the books I've read recently. In A Hidden Fire, the hero has his own scenes. Things happen that are apart from and unknown by heroine. But in the beginning of the novel, these scenes caused more questions than answers, and by the time the answers were given to the heroine, I had many of the same questions she did. Why does he drive in some scenes but in others can't touch the car with his hands? Why do some people remember him clearly and others don't recall him being near them? The tiny portions of information about the hero contrasted with the deeper self-reflection of the heroine made me question whether a shift in dominant point of view and in the reader's knowledge during the course of the narrative is occurring.
I think one of the reasons books with the hidden or scarcely revealed hero are so popular is that the mystery about the hero keeps readers engaged. It's uncertain, sometimes scary, and possibly perilous. We are as clueless and curious about him as the heroine, and even if the book isn't told from the first person, we must rely on the heroine's conclusions and our own conclusions about the hero – because he isn't volunteering any information about himself.
I think this trend in narrative structure is a return to some elements of the older style of romance, which we've called “old skool.” The recurring elements I've seen more recently include:
- focus on the heroine, one that is young, innocent, new, or in some way a novice.
In A Hidden Fire, Beatrice is human, and knows nothing at all about Giovanni's world or his existence within hers. The same is true of Bella and Anna from Twilight and 50 Shades respectively, though the unknown mystery varies between vampirism or a predilection for very mild kink. She is the reader's surrogate, introducing them both into the world of the hero, one she knows very little if anything about. This is a common motif, obviously, but when paired with the other elements below it creates a different narrative.
- a limited amount of information about the hero, drawing either from limited scenes, only interactions with the heroine, or both.
For example: Christian Grey spoke to the heroine, spoke through his email messages (because he had a LOT of time for email, go figure) but didn't speak to the reader directly. Edward, Christian's cousin of sorts, also avoided communicating directly with the reader, and all we learned of him was through Bella's perspective. And of course both books were told via first person narrative from the heroine's point of view, thus limiting the hero's ability to speak for himself.
- aspects of the hero's behavior – something dangerous, menacing, or not quite heroic – that cause the reader and the heroine to question whether he's a hero
The heroes in these books are sometimes menacing or mysterious, and inspire some fear or caution. At the same time they fascinate the heroine, who still serves as the reader surrogate. The unknown is dangerous, and it's dangerous for her to be so fascinated and drawn to someone who is so largely unknown.
There are also sometimes behaviors that cause some alarm – stalking, for instance, or, if you don't want to call it that, being present when least expected, appearing in her periphery in increasing amounts, or hints of violence or barely-restrained temper. He might become increasingly possessive of her while she's not sure if she's interested in him, for example.
- keeping the heroine and thus the reader in the dark about his true motivations as long as possible
The hero might not answer her questions directly, or (and this drives me nuts) treat her as if he knows best for her, including keeping her in a state of confusion or ignorance about threats to her safety or matters that pertain to her.
- showing hints at the hero's deeper feelings in dangerous moments.
Since we're not included in the hero's ruminations, we see uneven actions and moments of tension and drama and are left, with the heroine, to conclude what they mean. This could be a surprising, sometimes violent punishing kiss (ow), unwilling and unexpected admissions as to how she matters, or angry responses when he's not in control of himself that might reveal more than he wants to disclose.
His loss of control is compelling for the heroine (and, I presume, the reader). She is irritating him, throwing him off his routine and causing him emotional discomfort, and his response to that discomfort can be scary and enticing. His actions when he's not quite in control of himself can possibly be interpreted as caring, but there's no certainty to the heroine/reader's conclusions.
But the increasing knowledge that she has some power over him, or power to affect him, can also be alluring. (Unfortunately, this imbalance or shift of power can also lead to another of my least favorite tropes, “I act this way because of YOU. YOU are responsible for my actions, not me.” No, dude. Just no.)
- reluctant inclusion of the heroine in the hero's world, one she does not understand and one he doesn't necessarily want her to be within.
Whether it's vampirism, BDSM, or a secret habit of collecting low fat Twinkies, he will not be enthusiastic about including or introducing the heroine to his secret world, and his reluctance yields more uncertainty for the heroine and the reader.
The compulsion and repulsion of “what is he hiding/ do I even want to know?” evolves into a source of tension that lasts so long as the hero keeps his secrets. That lack of knowledge creates tension and a mystery to be solved. It takes a particularly skilled writer to pull off the bit-by-bit revelation of the hero's full spectrum of feelings about the heroine, and to cause the reader to believe in both his mental stability and his ability to sustain a healthy – or mostly healthy – relationship. Combining fear, possible menace, ignorance, and attraction, creates a push/pull for the heroine and the reader. That mysterious and possibly nefarious aspect to the hero keeps the heroine and the reader guessing – and is part of what makes the narrative so compelling for some.
I'm looking at a limited selection of books, obviously, trying to identify why these books seemed similar to one another. The obscured hero, and the inscrutable motivations and thoughts of that hero, seemed to be one thing they all had most in common. I don't think the inscrutable hero is the only factor that contributes to the popularity of these books – there can be any number of sources of tension, such as the power imbalance between hero and heroine, large amounts of sexual tension and/or sexual content, a plot that keeps challenging them both, and many other features that contribute to reader fascination. It's not just a case of throwing a obfuscation cloak over the hero and selling umptyzillion copies of a book. It's certainly not just the partially obscured hero that make a book so alluring to readers. But sometimes characters, obscured or not, have to overcome bad editing or uneven writing to grab reader attention.
The degree to which reader reviews for these books indicate a compelling fascination with hero and the story makes me wonder if this is a signal of a new trend or change in characterization: more about the heroine, and less about the hero. Moving the point of information from equally placed between both characters to firmly on the heroine's side, leaving the reader with less information about the hero, may be part of what makes these books so compelling – and why similar books succeed. The more precarious the possibility of the happy ending, the more enticed we are to see how it will happen. Moreover, the climax includes full disclosure of the hero, not just gratification or dissolution of sexual and emotional tension. Too often for me, once I know as the reader that the hero feels the same way about the heroine that she does about him, there isn't much of a mystery for me any more, and I didn't feel the need to continue.
If the hero is being revealed bit by bit, moments that may not be significant to the heroine become more significant to the reader as the reader realizes the depths of the hero's attraction/motivation/pain/whatever. We see signs of his attraction or regard sometimes before the heroine does, but we don't know with certainty that we've identified the hero's motivations because we aren't made aware of his point of view nor his thoughts.
When the reader is kept in the uncertain and lately unfamiliar position of knowing much more about the heroine than the hero, that mystery, mystique and uncertainty becomes thrilling. Simply put, we haven't been confronted to obscure heroes in awhile, and many of us seem to like the dangerous mystery.
This secret hero seems to appear in paranormal romances mostly. I'm struggling to think of a contemporary romance with a menacing hero that wasn't also a suspense novel – and the secrecy of the hero also fits into my earlier theory as to why paranormal romance fans are much more interactive and active than, say, contemporary fans (short version: there's almost always a secret, a focus on a quest, and enticement to demonstrate loyalty).
Have you noticed an increase in the number of books you've read with a distant, obfuscated or secretive hero? Have you seen fewer books with point-of-view ruminations of the hero, or have you not noticed a difference?