The Romance Hero vs. the 21st Century

By Diana Laurence

Have you noticed how the heroes of your favorite books can seldom be found in real life? Well of course you have, that's the reason why we turn to seek what we cannot find in reality.

But I ask you this: Have you ever noticed how our culture, and even we ourselves, make it more and more impossible for such men to find a place in the real world? Let's think about it.

First of all, consider the sort of men we find compelling in fiction. Most readers go for the traditional "alpha male." He's the kind of guy who takes charge of every situation, who won't be cowed by anyone. He's got a spine of iron, he demands his way, and he will never compromise the man he is.

Many readers go a step further and are attracted to "bad boys." These characters take masculinity to the extreme: they're aggressive, possibly violent, and may even treat women selfishly and cruelly. Within the safe confines of the imagination, many of us get off on these guys, who bring out in us a deeply buried desire to be overpowered by a ruthless male, regardless of the wisdom of it.

Other readers find great interest and satisfaction in reading about dominant/submissive relationships, in which the hero demands obedience and devotion from the heroine, and she in turn is delighted to accept him as lord and master. We prefer these masters to be loving, but we like them dominant just the same.

These are the men of our fantasies, and many a time we lament that we can't seem to find them in real life. I mean, if I review in my mind my various male acquaintances and friends, I'm hard pressed to come up with a single real man I could squeeze into any of the above categories.

Except one.

Yes, I do know one. It surprised me when suddenly I realized this was true about him, because I also realized I have often given him grief for the very characteristics I love to find in fictional heroes. This epiphany made me recognize just how difficult our culture makes it for this rare breed of men. If they make it to adulthood with such a temperament, they are in for a world of frustration. Heaven knows my friend has had a hard time of it.

Let me begin by describing him to you. He's a man of principle, with quite strong views morally and politically. Argue politics or religion with him and you will not win, largely because he simply won't change his mind. To put one way: he's an opinionated bastard who will not be moved. To put it another: he has convictions.

He has some slightly unusual but passionate interests. He doesn't care if anyone shares them or approves of them. He will keep them to himself, but he won't compromise. He doesn't give a rat's ass what your opinion is of him, he's never going to change because being true to himself is one of his greatest drives in life.

He loves to lead and to teach. If you seek his advice it is sincerely given, well considered, and always helpful. When in the role of guide or mentor he thrives. As a follower he often chafes, mostly because he knows a better way things could be done (and is usually right, too). Submit to his lead and it will go well with you; be contrary and you will likewise know his displeasure.

He is maddeningly independent. You can try to make yourself think he needs you, but he pretty much doesn't. He is self-sufficient, self-contained, and perfectly happy with solitude if need be. He trusts himself and that's about it. He will be needy perhaps once every couple of years, and after the fact will regret it and abstain for another couple of years.

He has a temper. Most of the time he is a model of self-control and proper behavior, but beneath the surface he is a man of great passion and under the right conditions will snap. If he was out of line, of course he'll apologize, but if he wasn't, he won't.

This package is wrapped up in winning charm, a fine sense of humor, intelligence, and the capability for great affection and loyalty. That said, for reasons you can guess my friend is not easy to live with.

But impossible to live without.

I have asked myself why that is true, and I think studying the art of romance writing has given me a clue. It may be 2004, but we are still women, are we not? And regardless of what we think we want from the males in our lives, regardless of what society tells us to want, on some deep level we want males who exhibit the traits we look for in our romance heroes. Women have psychological and spiritual needs that transcend society and culture, which only the masculine can fulfill.

Today's women have been well taught to want men who are sensitive, nurturant, and cooperative. There are practical reasons for this: in society today men and women share in each other's traditional roles both at home and in the workplace. These demands have caused us more and more to consider males and females to be peers in every respect. We gain in mutual self-respect and other positives, but we lose in that neither gender is permitted to bring its strongest traits to the table, or allowed to appreciate those traits.

And consequently, both sides feel something is missing. Men will compensate by watching "The Man Show," playing violent computer games, and hanging out with the guys, so that they might unfetter some of the inborn traits our culture forces them to stifle. Women will fantasize about Mafia hitmen, go to vampire movies, and read romances that feature the very sort of men we don't tolerate in real life.

My friend has certainly had a hard time finding that tolerance. In many respects his very existence is, heaven forefend, non-PC. Today's media celebrate gay men but present few traditionally masculine types that they don't lampoon. My friend seldom feels accepted being fully himself (although of course he does it anyway). And his interactions with females often leave him baffled and with the general conclusion that women today don't know what they want.

As for my personal dealings with him, I have given him plenty of reasons to conclude that regarding myself. Sure, I'm self-aware enough to know that his rare traits address some deep need I possess, and clearly I have benefited from them. Nevertheless, I have often accused my friend of insensitivity, misogyny, coldness, and intractability. I love that he is so self-sufficient, I bask in his stoicism and strength, even his temper and contrariness please me in an odd way...but I bristle that he will not be tamed, refuses to compromise, goes his own way.

I've demanded he become more like my other male friends, when I ought to appreciate this unique soul whose influence has been so rewarding. I should recognize as courageous his refusal to compromise the singularly masculine characteristics of his personality, regardless of the influence of our culture as a whole or the pressure of individuals. If he occasionally goes overboard with this, it's probably because he feels himself in the last bastion of traditional males, refusing to say die. And if he ever did give in to my demands (hell would freeze first), I know my life would be the worse for it.

Do I have a point, other than a public mea culpa to my friend? Yes. I'd like to make a quiet plea that we consider having a little more consistency between our fantasy lives and our real lives. Perhaps those of us who appreciate romance heroes should speak out that something is slightly awry with a culture that figuratively drowns such men at birth. At the very least, we should be more appreciative of these traits in our men even when they distress or inconvenience us a little.

That doesn't mean tolerating abuse, becoming simpering Stepford Wives, or giving up the vote. It just means, when the guy shows he has a spine, don't dismiss him for it just because he disagrees with you. You like a man with balls? Then be glad this one had the balls to stand up to you.

My friend is an endangered species. And I hate to think of a world in which his kind can no longer be found anywhere except in books.

Visit Diana's website at for information on her short works from the Love Bites series and the anthology Soulful Sex: Erotic Tales of Fantasy and Romance, published by New Age Dimensions Publishing.

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