Sunday, March 27, 2011

What Makes a Hero?

This week we welcome one of our favorite authors, Mary Blayney, to talk about one of her favorite subjects: Heroes.
What fun to be asked to spend the day with the Rockville8. Not long ago I spent a weekend with most of them at a writers’ retreat that I hope is well on its way to becoming a tradition. In the course of our free-wheeling, food and drink aided discussions, I brought up the subject of heroes. I am going to enlarge on it here because it’s a favorite theme of mine. Thanks to the 8 for giving me a chance to share it with a wider audience.

First one very important caveat: for this exercise I use hero as a gender neutral term, with thanks to Keely for reminding me of that.

For romance writers heroes are our stock in trade. Because the happy ending, or at the least an uplifting one, is an essential element of our stories, the hero triumphs, almost always on more than one level.

Due to early exposure to Joseph Campbell’s HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES I’ve been thinking about my definition of a hero for years. After writing more than fifteen books and novella I’ve got it! What fun to open it up for further discussion here.

For me and my characters a hero has honor at the core of his being and is willing to give more than he can afford to give.

Every hero I have written accepts the burden of those two qualities. With gender neutrality in mind, I would say that Charlotte Parnell in TRAITOR’S KISS is the ultimate expression of those elements. Charlotte lost and then rediscovered her honor in a hard school. By the time we meet her Charlotte is willing to give up everything, including her identity, to right wrongs of which she has been a part. Her behavior in living her concept of honor does not ring true with her nineteenth century peers, but it is there as deep and sure as it is in the more conventional hero, Michael Garrett in LOVER’S KISS.

As disappointing as it is, I know not everyone has read my regency set romances published by Bantam or the novellas Berkley publishes. (But, hey, you can always check out the title at

With that in mind, let me give you some more widely known heroes in literature. Atticus Finch in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD ranks high as does Sidney Carton in TALE OF TWO CITIES. My favorites are lesser known but worth the effort if their names do not ring a bell: Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia Naismith from the book CORDELIA’S HONOR by Lois McMaster Bujold.

Aral and Cordelia meet when they are on the opposite sides of a war set some time in the future. Their journey to a much challenged happily-ever-after is the epitome of honor and willingness to sacrifice. Indeed, it’s hard to decide whose sacrifice is greater. In fact Aral does sacrifice his honor for a greater good, but then Cordelia is willing to jeopardize hers to spend her life with the man she loves. Cordelia’s success at maintaining her honor is the theme of the second half of CORDELIA’S HONOR.

Cordelia and Aral’s journey brings them together for a lifetime that we, as readers, share through the journey of their son, Miles Naismith Vorkosigan. In the rest of the books in this series Miles struggles constantly with the same questions.

I would love to know what your definition of a hero is and if you have any suggestions for my list. How about someone loved by readers who does not exhibit those qualities? Both Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara come to mind. Is that why their love story fails? I think that’s the subject for another blog. If I’m invited again.

You can find Mary's latest Novella, "The Other Side of the Coin" in the anthology The Other Side, out now.


  1. Wow! This is the place to be because Mary Blayney is in the house!

    Welcome, Mary, and thanks for joining the Rockville 8 this week.

    Thanks also for reminding us that "hero" is, in essence, a gender neutral term. For me, a hero also changes, and in the end, becomes more than what she was before. In William Gibson's PATTERN RECOGNITION, Cayce Pollard gives up what she holds most dear, and in the end, when the dust settles, she's a better person for it. Honor drove her, sacrifice made her, and now she's capable of more love, more patience, more everything than she ever dreamed possible. As such, she gives readers hope. What an amazing thing for a novel's hero to do!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Nicole. And thanks for naming a book I want to read. Looks that could be an unanticipated fringe benefit of this post.

    You said "A hero changes, and in the end, becomies more than what she was before" Absolutely. Growth is an essential part of the hero's journey (thanks to Jospeh Campbell for that iconic phrase)

    I wonder if growth, in it's best outcome, would be possible without honor and willingness. How many heors are forced into giving more than they can afford to give? I guess that's yet another subject for discussion.

  3. Mary ~ Love your post. I'm working my way through Cordelia's Honor. So I can't comment on the full scope of the sacrifice and honor those two heroes embody. Yet.

    I certainly like the idea that a hero possesses honor at the core of her being and sacrifices more than she can afford. If I look at my own writing, I see evidence of the sacrifice--each certainly gives more than they can afford to give.

    And yet because I'm fond of writing the bad boy redeemed story, my male leads are often not as honorable on the surface as they could be. Does that make sense? They're forced to dig deep and find the honor that's either hidden or a bit tarnished. They don't always know at the outset that it's there. An inner strength and honor do exist. And they always have their own code under which they operate. Even if it doesn't look exactly like everyone else's code of honor.

    Great topic. Love thinking about heroes and their journey. And the journey we lay out for them as we tell their tales.

  4. A hero finding his honor is the best kind of hero journey. The thing is, that it's alwsys been there, in hiding and it takes someone (in romance usually the heroine or her need) to bring it out.

    I think Roarke in JD Robb's In Death series is a good example of a man who, as a boy, had to live hard to survive but as he grew and, cetainly, when he fell in love he found that honor was as important to him as the money he'd amassed.

    Granted Roarke's honor is pretty close to the surface. I'm sure there are deeper, darker hero examples and I will think about it today and come back with a couple. So keep on writing those heroes who are redeemed by honor they might not have realized they had. They're the best!

  5. This comes as no surprise to my critique group, but the heroes who are redeemed by honor they didn't realize they had are my very favorites! LOL. S.T. from "Prince of Midnight" by Laura Kinsale. Or Sheridan from "Seize the Fire." Or--from the TV series "Justified"--Boyd, who is still in process. Still very much a bad guy, with that tantalizing streak of something good in there. That personal moral code.

  6. Yes Yvonne! Boyd is an amazing character. Trying so hard and undermined at every turn. One of the all time great lines was his -- after his followers were so brutally murdered -- "Have I just been talking to myself this whole time" -- his version of "where is God when you need him." That line just made my heart ache for him.

    If Boyd has honor at his core it's not cause of the way he was raised that's for sure. The intriguing character study at the heart of JUSTIFIED is the story of two men raised in the same place and in similar environments t(that is by awful fathers) and one became a US Marshall and the other....didn't.

    Both have honor that is tested -- Raylan by that snot nosed ex-wife of his and Boyd by almost eveyone in his world except Raylan and Ava.

  7. It is fascinating to watch Raylan and Boyd. As someone in the most recent episode said, "Sounds like a love story."

    On another note, and back to your blog, I am reading Cordelia's Honor and I just got to the part where she finds out he saved her clothes.

    All that action, everything that came before it, and that's the part that gets me.

  8. Aral saving her clothes is a fab example of showing and not telling, eh?

  9. Mary,
    Thank you so much for your post. I've been thinking about it this week, in terms of the book I am reading (Carla Kelly's Reforming Lord Ragsdale) and books I've read. One that comes to mind is Loretta Chase's, Lord of Scoundrels.

    What I love is when the hero discovers what his core actually is made of, that he actually is an honorable man (or woman).

    It is one thing to know it in your knower, so to speak, but when Ragsdale finally confronts his belief that he has no honor, only to learn that he actually had become a better man than his father ever tried to be was powerful. And it made the story.

    Same with how Dain had to confront his internal belief and see a better person - and don't get me wrong. Both of these heroes were not good! They had to be redeemed not for the heroine, but for themselves.