The Hero’s Agency
During a past discussion about the lack of representation of non nobles in historical romance, there was one comment that by Darlynne that stuck with me.
Maybe it says readers want people of power in their romance novels. You don’t have to worry about the hero being ground under someone’s heel or treated badly, not when he’s the most powerful SOB in the area. If someone else has the power to destroy the hero, if the world is skewed so far in favor of a ruling class, how can he keep the heroine safe?
As I thought about it more, I realized that what readers in the romance want is a hero with agency not necessarily one with wealth.
Romance readers seek certainty. An author can do all kinds of terrible things to her characters including beatings, sexual assaults, near death, actual death, and everything in between and it is all excused if the main protagonists achieve a state of cojoined happiness. It is the certainty of the ending that makes it safe for the reader to embark on the journey. Safety is another part of the happy ever after. In fact, I believe that part of the popularity of military individuals is this idea of personal safety.
In the article I linked to earlier last week, a professor recounted this:
At one point during class I was talking about male privilege, and one student asked me to explain. He noted that he is a man and he doesn’t feel particularly privileged. In response, I noted my own privilege: “When I leave the building late at night, I don’t give a second thought to my safety as I walk to my car. If it’s ten at night, if it’s dark, I just assume that I’ll be fine. But for many women, there is a constant thought process: Do I find someone to walk me to my car? Is it safe at this hour? What are my options?” And then I asked, “who has gone through that train of thought recently?,” and every woman in the class raised her hand. And then they told stories: About avoiding parts of town; about setting their schedule in certain ways; about making sure that they had someone to walk them out; about being on their guard, all the time. The need to guard against the possibility of sexual assault is simply not part of most men’s everyday thought process, while it is a major part of many women’s everyday lived experience.
It’s not that I think that women walk around full of fear for their safety but I do think that a woman alone can have qualms. I get nervous in elevators when there is only myself and a male I don’t know, particularly if the male tries to talk to me, particularly if he mentions something about my perfume or my shoes or my hair (all things that have happened). I keep one hand on my cell phone and keep thinking to myself, “don’t talk to me, don’t talk to me.”
Yet, the hero of a romance story can only provide safety, security and certainty if he has agency. Agency means the hero has the freedom to make decisions and affect the outcome of his life regardless of those who might have power above him.
Individuals with agency include small business owners, law enforcement individuals, paramilitary individuals, rich men. This concept of agency works well with cowboys because the land is so wide open (purportedly) that there are no laws but those that they make. If the hero’s will is being challenged, the hero moves outside the societal paradigm to gain agency such as “going rogue”. Sometimes, the hero’s journey is gaining agency perhaps through clearing his name or getting the bad guy.
This agency can be imposed upon by “feelings” such as familial obligations, revenge, the hero’s sense of morality or even in deference to the heroine, but it is the hero’s agency that allows him the luxury of choice. Concomitant with the hero’s choice is the ability to impose his decisions on those around him. In this fantasy representation, heroes are not controlled by downturns in the economy or irrational bosses. Their criminal activities are offset by the immorality by those in power, more Robin Hood than Robber Baron (and even the latter are present on the hero side). Their positions are either unassailable or forgiveable. It is why the hero is always an alpha in a pack of werewolves (even if he isn’t the top alpha which, of course, makes no sense but he cedes power to the other alpha by choice, not because it is required of him). Thus is the power of agency.
I submit that the most important trait of the hero is to have agency, whether he steers his own ship through self employment at a small scale such as a tavern owner or the billionaire, whether he carries an official badge or works black ops, whether he is a duke or a pirate king, so long as he is the one who determines his own outcome. Over to you, commenters.