Laurie's News & Views

February 26, 1997 - Issue #21

A Different Kind of Hero:

On Aarlist recently, author Deb Stover defined a new hero archetype. She calls him the Gamma hero and says he is:

"One who doesn't fit the image of the macho Alpha male, or the easygoing Beta either. He's a combination--a mutation?--of both types of man, and makes a hero to die for.

"One reader suggested Mel Gibson and Sean Connery as actor examples of the "Gamma" hero. That definitely works for me. I'd also like to suggest Tom Selleck, who comes across as almost Beta at times, though still has enough Alpha to make him appeal to readers who prefer a tougher hero. Also Harrison Ford would fall into this description. He's definitely Gamma material in Star Wars!

"In books? Susan Elizabeth Phillips takes true Alpha males and captures their tenderness, but doesn't quite change them to Gamma heroes. They're still Alpha males. Jill Barnett's heroes are often of the Gamma variety--tough but tender. Mike Faricy in my Some Like it Hotter is my first Gamma hero. My earlier ones have been Beta all the way. I think he's the one who made me coin a new term to describe him. He's gritty--Alpha--but not completely...."

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I love the idea of the gamma male. Many readers, while loving a beta male in real life, find them a bit too wimpy in a romance. And, often alpha heroes are too bitter and mean for readers to fall in love with. Some of the listers tried to describe actors who fall into each category, including Alan Alda and Tom Hanks as beta, Bruce Willis and Steven Segal as alpha, and Mel Gibson and Adrian Paul as gamma.

Some readers would define gamma as Marilyn does: " Men who aren't in touch with their feelings at the beginning of the book, or who have a tortured soul, but who wouldn't intentionally harm their ladies. Or if they do harm them, they regret the action, usually almost immediately. That's the kind I write about. Strong, dominant males (sorry, I know that's not politically correct but I like dominance in my historicals), but men who inevitably soften somewhat by the end of the book, usually because they've finally learned how to love." But that is not precisely how I have interpret Deb's definition.

The mention of Adrian Paul caught my attention in a big way. I've been watching Highlander: The Series for months now, both in re-runs on the USA cable network and first-run in syndication. My definition for a gamma hero, if I ever saw one, is Duncan MacLeod, the character Adrian Paul portrays. Part warrior, part lover, he really does it for me. Apparently he does it for many romance readers and authors, because when I did the Cast Your Book column a few months ago, several authors not only indicated their heroes are based physically on actor Adrian Paul but emotionally, mentally, and morally, on character Duncan MacLeod.

I don't mean to start a Duncan MacLeod fan club, but the creators of this character surely have read a few romances in their time. Occasionally morally ambiguous, but most often doing "the right thing", he is devastatingly handsome, a Scots Highlander from the late medieval period, tough but tender, tortured but not cruel, a lover of women and the finer things in life, as comfortable in jeans as in kilts or silk, physically strong yet emotionally vulnerable . . . . This is a man, an immortal, actually, who can dispatch a villain with his sword in one moment, and in the next, comfort a dying friend. He can cry, he can love, he can kill, he can laugh. . . how am I doing, girls?

We created a Special Heroes listing months ago that was supposed to include un-alpha-like heroes. At the time I thought it was filled with Beta types. But now I realize many of the heroes are really Gammas. I think we are going to have to break that list out into two lists - beta and gamma, but for now, I'd like to hear how you feel about the gamma hero. Has Deb described a new archetype for the genre? Are you comfortable with her description, Marilyn's interpretation, or my interpretation?

Please e-mail me here with your thoughts on this topic. I'd love to hear from you.

BTW, I've been in touch with the production staff for Highlander: The Series. Look for a q&a with the executive story editor shortly.

What About the Second String?

As I read Kat Martin's Innocence Undone recently, I was struck by how powerfully written two of the secondary characters were. They were full-fledged people, not stereotypical good girls or bad guys. They were human, flawed yet redeemable, which is more than you can say for many lead characters, let alone secondary ones.

Reading that book got me thinking about other books with strong secondary characters. Captive by Joan Johnston came to mind. Thoughts about well-written secondaries naturally began thoughts of poorly written ones, and of secondary characters who were better written than the lead characters in certain books.

Well-written secondary characters run the gamut of funny side-kicks, there for comic relief, to those characters so filled with tragedy they add texture and depth to "lighter" lead characters. In other instances, they provide friendship and guidance, showing the way toward love for our heroes and heroines. Others secondary characters "round out" lead characters or provide them with family to prevent isolation.

Poorly written, secondary characters are like cartoons. There might be the bitchy ex-girlfriend, the evil ex-boyfriend, the nasty mother or mother-in-law, the dastardly villain. Now, don't get me wrong - I have read many books where stereotypical characters such as these were well done and added to the book. But if such characters are obvious or overshadow the leads, they are not well drawn.

It seems to me that series of related books often run into the problem of secondary characters overshadowing the lead characters. In the recent Johanna Lindsey release, Say You Love Me, for instance, which was the fifth in the successful Malory series, the hero seemed utterly bland and boring to me in comparison to several of the other characters in the book. And, it almost seemed purposeful - many of the scenes seemed written to "catch" us up on the Malory family as opposed to advancing the story-line of the hero involved in the book.

So, how important do you believe secondary characters to be? Which have been your favorites? Are you a sucker for the funny ones, like Ferik in Jane Ashford's The Marriage Wager? Are you a reader who gloms onto authors like Mary Jo Putney in order to read the stories of secondary characters who get their own stories? Which authors are successful in this arena? Which are not? Have you read romances where the secondaries overshadowed the lead characters? Please e-mail me here with your thoughts on this topic, and/or titles and/or authors who come to mind. I'd love to hear from you.

Authors & Hopeful Authors are from Venus, Readers are from Mars:

A few days ago, someone posted to Aarlist a comment that a book she had attempted to read was a wall-banger. Now, one of the reasons I so wanted to administer this list when Prodigy offered me the opportunity was to have a truly open and honest forum primarily for readers that I felt was unavailable on the other romance listservs. So I watched this post with interest to see what followed.

Over the next day or so, about thirty posts on that thread were made, by about 25 or so of the 175 list subscribers. First and foremost, I was pleased and proud of the list - no flame wars were started, no one yelled or had a tantrum. But something quite extraordinary did occur. Just the thought of a book being called a wall-banger created two fairly distinct camps with two fairly distinct ideas.

On the one "side" were the readers, who, plain and simple, think it is possible to not finish a book and still call it a wall-banger. This group, of which I am a member, did not buy into the "other side's" argument that all books, no matter how "bad" we might think they are, still have something good. One soon-to-be-published author mentioned slogging through a third of the lengthy Diana Gabaldon book Outlander before she started to enjoy it. She still values the experience, although she has no plans to read further into that series. I countered with an Outlander story of my own; I slogged through two-thirds of the book before I began to enjoy it. However, I didn't really value the experience and wonder if I missed out on three good books in the time it took me to read Outlander.

The back and forths on this topic were fascinating, so fascinating that I created a page for most of the posts. Please click here if you would like to read through the thread. There is a link directly back to this column once you are finished.

As I was creating the page, I was struck by the fact that the readers on the one hand and the authors and hopeful authors on the other seemed to be talking past each other. What seemed obvious to one side seemed absurd or mean-spirited by the other. For instance, those of us on the "reader side" feel that not finishing a book is no different than walking out on a movie or channel-flipping. Those on the "author side" didn't seem to see it that way.

Because I truly fall into one camp, it is hard for me to remove myself and see things from the other perspective. Several authors, however, did make some fascinating points, especially Douglas Clegg. I'd love for each of you to visit the Wall-Bangers Page and see if you are on either of the particular sides, or, if it is possible to straddle the fence. Finally, I was also struck when reading through this thread how the discussion of reader comments swiftly turned into a discussion of reviews, and, for some posters, the reviews as written by The Romance Reader.

Perhaps you won't find the posts as interesting as I did; you are welcome to skim. You don't have to read the whole page. But I'd love to hear from you on what you did find illuminating, so please e-mail me here with your comments.

Isn't Reading a Good Thing?

Every few months or so, on some BB, newsgroup, or listserv, someone asks how old someone should be before they read a romance. I was a very early and precocious reader, and was reading my mom's best-sellers by a fairly early age. I was into the "hard" stuff - the Jacqueline Susann's, the Harold Robbins, the Mario Puzo's, by the time I was thirteen or fourteen.

I am of the mind that reading should be encouraged. Any reading. Period. I am also of a mind that perhaps it is better for a young woman to read about love than to "learn it on the streets". The hormones are there anyway; to pretend the feelings will go away if we don't talk about them or read about them is misguided. This is not to say that we should let our daughters loose in the "adult" section of the neighborhood news stand. And I would steer my daughter, when she's old enough (she's only five now), away from Bertrice Small and toward Lorraine Heath, but if she had her heart set on Julie Garwood and was thirteen, well. . . what would you do?

I recently received an e-mail from reader Donna, whose first romance read back in 1975 was Woodiwiss' The Wolf & the Dove. She said that, as she has grown older, she has probably grown more prudish. She added that, "I definitely don't want my daughters reading some of the novels I've read until they are much older and out of their teens. I still enjoy steamy novels like Beatrice Small's The Hellion but they are definitely too old for teens."

What have those of you who have faced this situation done? That goes for librarians as well as bookstore owners/managers as well as parents. When is a young woman/girl old enough for an "R"-rated book (or movie for that matter)? When I think of how "old" I was at age 13, I was fairly mature. Girls seem even more mature these days. When is someone ready for Julie Garwood? For Christina Skye? For, heaven forbid, Bertrice Small?

I am hoping this discussion will prove a lively one. Please e-mail me here with your comments.

Speaking of Bertrice Small. . .

In an earlier issue of this column), Bertrice Small was dissed (yet again). Bertrice Small fan Terry wrote me in response, and I encouraged her to put her thoughts together. Here is her counterpoint:

I'm a little bit of a history buff, which is why historical romances appeal to me. Knowing this, my good friend & neighbor, Beth, recommended the Skye O'Malley series she'd read a few years ago. (We both admire Queen Elizabeth I) Well, after I finished the first one, I found myself intensely thoughtful. Skye O'Malley was, indeed, filled with history, plot twists and strong sex (including multiple partners, a manage a trois, and in further sequels - vivid descriptions of anal sex); and was a rather long story, as well. I loved the history and thought the novel was well-researched. The plot twists kept me turning the pages for more, while the strong sex made my heart race.

I'm a realist - even if I do read romances. I know that the multiple partners, abuse & sexual deviation occur in real life; and while I don't accept that it should continue into the 21st century, I do accept that a woman was powerless to prevent such things in the 16th century. The whole idea, to my way of thinking, of the historical romance is to take us back to a time when things were different. Perhaps even to help us realize how much life has changed for women. We may not like the attitude that virginity of a woman was demanded; that men owned women; that women were captured, sold, beaten & abused - but it happened. If those ideas are enfolded within a love story, then you have historical romance. We can't apply today's mores and freedoms to a historical romance and have it coming out as a realistic novel. At least, for me, it loses its credibility, and my interest.

Whether or not the variant sex and abuse belong in a romance novel is a matter of preference. I prefer a little bit more racey novel, and I think my husband wears a perpetual inner smile, thinking of the results of my reading. (In no way am I saying that we're kinky - just active!) It seems to me that each time the heroine was used, abused and/or thrust into a new relationship, it was a device to help the reader accept the next downfall (such as the death of a husband, or the command of a queen). Skye O'Malley took me through an emotional gamut, and when I finished reading this book I felt so emotionally drained that I felt the need to read a "light" romance. . . something short, sweet & emotionally uplifting. I don't remember exactly which book that would've been - possibly one by Teresa Medeiros.

Eventually, I decided I liked Skye O'Malley so much that I bought the sequels. It became a pattern with me to read a book by Bertrice Small, and then a "light" romance. Why do I put myself though all that? I very much admire historical word-painting, author intelligence (including - especially - correct spelling, punctuation and word flow), and an understanding of human nature. All humans make mistakes; smart humans figure out a way to learn from, & deal with their mistakes. Small's characters make possibly more mistakes than the average human; however, she doesn't just insert the hero to come and save the day. The hero and heroine go through hellfire to get out of their predicaments, which makes the reunion so much more precious. In the books, whatever Fate dealt Skye O'Malley, she made the best of the situation & generally turned it to her advantage. She was such a strong character (running a shipping business, confronting her queen, getting through an abduction, confronting her desire for sex with a good man - even after having been sexually abused, as well as marriage to several men & birth of several children, and a stay in the Tower of London) that the first sequel was also devoted to her life, and she continued to appear in the rest of the sequels. She taught her daughters to become independent, strong women and her sons to respect females.

As for the "silly sex", I can only imagine being a writer and trying to come up with enough descriptions of the various sex acts that doesn't portray it as boring, or to have it continually coming out sounding just like every other author. Personally, I'd rather read something like "He stroked her silken mons", than "He rubbed her wirey pubis". It also lacks something to read that "She wasn't too impressed with the size of his erect penis", rather than "She exclaimed at his turgid length of manhood." OK, so we know what real life is like, but isn't that why we read fiction? To get a taste of what it could be, without actually going out and trying to find something we don't have? I know this has been a long letter and I hope that you can use it - just don't chew me up and spit me out for my beliefs. There's something for everyone in books, and that's the best part of reading - the variety.

Thank you ,Terry, for taking the time to write such a thoughtful treatise in defense of one of your favorite authors. You haven't changed my mind, but you have defended your position impressively.

Since Bertrice Small is such a lightning rod for controversy, I welcome further responses, from both camps, but especially from those readers that agree with Terry. Why? We've come down pretty hard on Bertrice in this column and there may be readers out there who have felt ridiculed. You may not change anyone's mind, but I want you to feel comfortable here. Please e-mail me here with your comments.

Readers: Still Ranting & Raving:

Readers have continued to rant about sexuality, rant some more about sexuality, and rave about their libraries. The most vociferous ranting has been on orgasms and condoms.

Some readers don't have a problem with simultaneous orgasms. Others do. Along those same lines, Cathy is annoyed when she reads historicals where in one moment the heroines who have just lost their virginity are in abject pain, "but in the next second, they are having multiple orgasms. Get real." She's also bothered by the mating dance or rythm "as old as time", but that's for another column.

As for condoms, both sides are passionate in what they want in a romance. One side believes that condoms are not romantic and that there is enough of reality in real life without injecting it into love scenes. Others believe condoms are very romantic; they can be written playfully into love scenes, and heroes who care enough about their heroines to protect them from STD's are very sexy and romantic.

Where readers' libraries are concerned, many have systems as elaborate if not more so than mine. While some have taken to the computer age in terms of being on-line, they stick to their card catalogs and notebooks. Seems old-fashioned to me, but when one reader shared that her husband erased her computerized system to make room for some of his stuff, I was as glad as she that she had her hard copy as back-up.

Feel free to add your rant and/or rave on these subjects by e-mailing me here. Your comments will be added to the appropriate pages at The Archives of Laurie Likes Books.

Until We Meet Again:

That's all for this time, my friends. I'm working on some very exciting things right now, like the q&a regarding Highlander: The Series. But look for some wonderful Topics of Discussion shortly, including a look at team writing by Sharon & Tom Curtis. I am also trying to arrange an interview with Susan Elizabeth Phillips, keep your fingers crossed for me!

 

Until next time, TTFN, Laurie Likes Books

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