The Byronic, the Tragic, and the Anti: Looking for a Hero – Part I

I wonder sometimes if being attracted to a certain type of person informs the decisions I make when being attracted to a certain type of character. I knew before Graves even tipped his eyes up to the sun who he’d be in blueprint form, before he ever uttered those first damning words in chapter one, and before he ever relayed his first preoccupied insights about my protagonist. I knew he was going to fit someplace between antihero and Byronic hero, but at the time I didn’t understand what either of these terms meant, or that there were criteria associated with the character type. I just knew that the boy was dark and broken, and he dragged complications behind him like a mantle, and that by coming into contact with Eden, the protagonist of Wake the Dead, he was going to inflict a considerable amount of damage without even trying.

The Byronic, the Tragic, and the Anti: Looking for a Hero

Fantasy Casting: Douglas Booth as Graves

Fantasy Casting: Douglas Booth as Graves

My supporting character is a complicated mess with a lot of sordid backstory, and I love him. A lot. So much that I think after the first draft of Wake is finished, I might explore his origin story to iron out some details for the sheer joy of getting to know how he came to be the person he is when the story actually starts. (I’m really enchanted with the idea of giving away stuff for free as a serial: a chapter a week for however many weeks it takes. A subscription maybe — delivered by email — or opening a privatized members-only section of the site where the only requirement is that you submit your email to get updates. No cash. Just fiction in format that you can share as you like once you’ve subscribed.) I’m not sure what the legal ramifications might be if I elect to submit Wake for query, or if in distributing any story associated with the universe might deter a publisher from acquiring the book, but I have this hankering to tinker and an even greater desire to frolic through the gore a bit more before I move on to something else. Serializing a prequel to Wake would be a great way to dabble, I think. (Footwork first. Right now these are just contemplations of an over-enthusiastic mind.)

Back to the point:

A ways back I latched onto a very firm takeaway from the writing course I’d enrolled in, delivered by Anosh Irani, whose written several works in magical reality (which to my coarse little brain were difficult and dark little books, but interesting just the same. Check out The Cripple and His Talismans, if you’re interested.) He gave me this little kernel of wisdom:

The story is not limited to the pages of the book. It extends before and after the novel ever starts.

All I knew when I started writing Graves was that everything that happened before shaped him into who he became as of page one. And I wanted to know why he fit into a particular framework, and how that would inform an outcome for his character arc.

We hear again and again that a character’s wants drive them forwards and that interest is generated when they don’t get their heart’s desire, and sometimes that desire changes as they begin to evolve. Graves’ process of “becoming” situated himself historically in a period that influenced how he behaved; colouring his decisions (poor choices, most of them). The results of these decisions, if my logic holds, influenced his immediate desires when Wake starts: Revenge. Redemption. Revenge. More revenge.

So I started doing my homework.

The Byronic Hero

I latched onto the Byronic archetype first, simply for the namesake. I’m not sure what it is about the Romantic period that attracts me, but the overall attitude towards death and mourning culture in Victorian England is so over-the-top extravagant that it’s hard to quash my fascination. (I’m going to talk about it a little more in depth this week at The Midnight Society, so I’ll spare you the details for the moment.)

The bottom line is that the Byronic hero is an archetype that’s become very familiar in teen fiction, and its a character that is often recognized as a “bad boy.” A little bit of a dissenter, very much an upsetter, and carting along a bunch of baggage that lends him a darker edge than the plain cake, straight forward heroes who are out with the explicit intention of doing good. He’s not the Harry Potter of the world; he’s the Severus Snape who holes himself away in his dungeon. A bleak figure with a sordid past who often has a heart of gold. (Always.)

The Byronic hero “is moody by nature or passionate about a particular issue. He also has emotional and intellectual capacities, which are superior to the average man. These heightened abilities force the Byronic hero to be arrogant, confident, abnormally sensitive, and extremely conscious of himself. Sometimes, this is to the point of nihilism resulting in his rebellion against life itself. In one form or another, he rejects the values and moral codes of society and because of this he is often unrepentant by society’s standards. Often the Byronic hero is characterized by a guilty memory of some unnamed sexual crime. Due to these characteristics, the Byronic hero is often a figure of repulsion, as well as fascination.(1)

Some Characteristic of the Byronic Hero(2, 3):

  • An exile, an outcast, or an outlaw. Isolated either emotionally or physically.
  • Arrogant
  • Cunning and ability to adapt, street-smart, educated
  • Cynical and sometimes sarcastic
  • “Dark” attributes not normally associated with a hero
  • Disrespectful of rank and privilege, a disregard for classicism
  • Emotionally conflicted, bipolar, moody, or tortured
  • High level of intelligence and perception
  • Mysterious, magnetic, and charismatic
  • Self-critical and introspective
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Social and sexual dominance, seductive
  • Sophisticated and well-educated
  • Struggles with integrity
  • Troubled past
  • Presents obsessive tendencies; focused and constant
  • Beyond the rules of society; distaste for social institutions
  • Jaded, gets easily bored
  • Self-destructive
  • Sympathetic despite his rejection of virtue
  • Capable of being redeemed
  • Capable of heroic behaviour

A Few Examples of Byronic Heroes in Fiction(4):

  • Dorian Gray, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  • Edward Cullen, Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
  • Eric Northman, The Southern Vampire Series by Charlaine Harris
  • Erik/The Phantom, The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
  • Heathcliff, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  • Jace Wayland, The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare
  • Lestat, Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice
  • Lucifer/Satan, Paradise Lost by John Milton
  • Mr. Rochester, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  • Severus Snape, Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling
  • Tyler Durden/Narrator, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
  • Wolverine, X-Men comic books by various writers

I think a good takeaway when it comes to the Byronic archetype is that he represents something antithetical to normal expectations. He’s not an ideal figure, not someone you’d want to emulate, and he makes a difficult case to befriend him or pity him. (In most of the aforementioned examples, these characters don’t want your pity, though it happens that some of their circumstances prescribe it.) In the end, though, as much as he is painted tragic or unlikeable, there’s a little kernel of empathy for these forlorn, sinister types.

I always want them to prevail; to staunch their suffering a little. The Byronic hero makes a fine case of tugging at the heart strings even if they’re not immediately presented as a sympathetic character. A lack of traditionalism and firmly rooted social mores spins their path in a different direction that often dips into villainy, and yet, we want to see these figures redeemed, even and especially when we lose our faith in them.

Isn’t that the point, I ask? Isn’t it that thing called hope that keeps us engaged?

Head’s up for next time: A follow-up exploration of the Tragic Hero, and what makes him different from the Byronic.


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The Ides of MarchLooking for a Hero - Part II
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