A while back I talked about attractive villains. Today I want to address a somewhat related subject: the dark hero. You know the ones I’m talking about. The heroic figure that isn’t all sweetness and light, the one that isn’t always comfortable to be around. Sometimes you don’t even know if you should trust him at all.
The mystique of the dark hero goes back at least to the Regency period (Think Mr. Darcy with his taciturn, standoffish ways.) The Victorian Sherlock Holmes with his often abrupt, condescending manner and his seven-percent solution of cocaine definitely fell into the category. During the golden age of radio, listeners thrilled to the exploits of the Shadow, by his very name clearly a dark hero.
Dark heroes abound in speculative fiction, as well. Severus Snape (in my opinion the true hero of the Harry Potter books) has legions of fans. The ever-popular Batman is called the Dark Knight. Even Aragorn, for all his untarnished honor and courage, is arguably a dark hero. In his Strider persona he is so grim and forboding that the hobbits initially wonder if he’s a servant of Sauron.
I’ve heard it argued that the attraction to dark heroes arises from a perhaps unhealthy attraction to difficult men, the urge to be that one person who understands them, that can warm their cold hearts. I have to admit I once bought into this theory, enough that I had a long heart-to-heart with a psychologist/writer who was co-teaching a workshop on character development regarding the relationship between Cass and Raven in Ravensblood, which was then early in the first draft stage. We decided together that no, I wasn’t encouraging unhealthy relationships and yes, it was possible for these two to overcome their past difficulties if they really committed to it. We both had a moment of mutual happiness for the people involved before remembering that they were fictional.
It’s possible that a slightly dysfunctional taste for bad boys could be part of the popularity of the dark hero, but I think it’s a very small part. For one thing, Aragorn and Batman are at least as popular with straight males as they are with women. And there are more and better reasons why people like their heroes with a touch of the shadow side.
Part of the appeal of the dark hero is the character’s complexity. A good guy with no emotional baggage that is kind, cheerful and reliable might make a great boyfriend, but he’s just not going to be as interesting to read about. With the reliable nice guy or the always-good hero, you know what to expect. Predictable is nice in real life, but not so much in fiction. An ambiguous hero keeps readers guessing what’s coming next. (Of course, you can still have a great story with a good-guy hero. But the author needs to find other ways to spice it up.)
Yet another good thing about the dark hero— the reader likes to live vicariously through the characters. While hopefully very few of us aspire to be truly evil, I think a large percentage of us at various times wish we were brave enough to be Not Nice. Wouldn’t you just love sometimes to drawl dark, snarky lines like Snape does?
The dark hero has another advantage. Those moments of grace that readers so love and remember are also heightened when they come from a character not known for sweet charity. There’s a reason that the screen capture of Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes embracing Mrs. Hudson on his return from supposed death circulates so often on Facebook. No matter how many times I see it, it still gets me. The tender gesture means more coming from a character not given to effusive displays.
Then there’s the moment in Pride and Prejudice when Darcy quietly and at great expense ensures that the officer who ran off with Kitty Bennett marries her as promised, all to save the Bennett family, whom he previously scorned, from ruin. Such an unselfish gesture coming from the ridiculously kind Mr. Bingley might have made the reader smile for a moment and move on. When it comes from the cold and haughty Darcy, the reader swoons and remembers forever.
So, go on, love your dark heroes without guilt. And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go watch Pride and Prejudice. Again.