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The Hero’s Agency

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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.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

59 Comments

  1. Laura Vivanco
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 06:18:08

    Re the “idea of personal safety,” agency, and male privilege, I just read an article by Ilsa Evans about violence within Western heterosexual romantic relationships:

    We exist within a culture that “fetishes the family as the ideal unit of human community, the perfect container for our lusts and loves” (Ehrenreich 1994: 62), and the ‘happy ever after’ of the romance formula is, more often than not, supposed to be the family. This situation gives rise to a certain dilemma when an incident of domestic violence must be covered within the press, because it is the very arena of this violence that is elsewhere promoted as the centre of our existence. However, the dilemma can be solved if the abusive incident is discursively positioned within the context of “social constructions and lived realities of women as caretakers, attention-givers, and the ones responsible for keeping relationships going” (Seuffert 1999: 211-240) because then the women can be held accountable for events which transpire after a separation – especially if they have instigated the break-up. Furthermore, women are held responsible for finding a suitable ‘protector’, and, if they fail to do so and/or fail to regulate their behaviour in ways that minimize the possibility of harm or abuse, then they are also ultimately blamed for any injuries they receive (Cahill 2000: 55). (emphasis added)

    The newspaper articles Evans looked at seemed to depict female agency as mostly bad (whether the woman was the victim or the perpetrator of the violence):

    In fact, all of the women in the above articles were presented as somehow derelict in their femininity. The three women who ‘rejected’ their lovers also rejected romance, failed in their ‘duty’ to nurture their relationships and failed to protect themselves, whilst the two female perpetrators were portrayed as lacking in passivity, compassion, obedience, acquiescence – all traits inherent within the idealized feminine role (Cranny-Francis 1992: 134-135). Yet the voices of the women were all but absent within the articles as well, perhaps because “when men’s lives, values and attitudes are taken as the norm, the experiences of women are often defined as inferior, distorted, or are rendered invisible” (Bograd & Yllo 1988: 15). Certainly, of the two cases of female-male violence, one was transformed into a salutary lesson of male heroism and love winning out over the obstacles, whilst the other was utilized as a moral tale of the pathological aggression of predatory females.

    She concludes that there are “underlying assumptions regarding active/passive and dominant/submissive gender roles inherent within notions of romantic love” and that would rather fit in with what you’re saying about the need for romance heroes to have agency and be the providers of protection.
    —–
    Evans, Ilsa. “Picturesque Falsehoods: An examination of Romantic Love, the Press and Domestic Violence.” Outskirts 9 (2002).

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  2. SN
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 06:35:58

    It’s such a weird thing, to want a heroic man, but to also be scared of those same men being abusive or rapists. I have a friend who was raped by one of those “friendly men who wanted to see her safely home” when she was in Africa. Romance books cover short time periods generally, but in real life, I don’t think anybody would be sensible to trust so fast.

    I did everything in reverse – living in a big city on my own, and then learning about the dangers after!
    I don’t like the heroes many readers – especially young, immature readers – obsess over (Twilight, Beautiful Disaster, anything Young Adult that anyone under eighteen goes crazy for) because the heroine immediately hands over her trust and security to the crazy stalker because he’s “hot”. Then you get Edward Cullen spying on you at night without your knowledge for months and disabling your car so you can’t see your friends!

    I’ve lived in a number of countries and completely different cultures, and because men in Australia (where I’m from) basically couldn’t give a damn about women, I’m always shocked by the men overseas who insist on walking me home at night. It is crazy we still have to worry about those things. I cannot see that danger disappearing any time in the near future.

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  3. Kate Sherwood
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 07:01:20

    It’s an interesting topic, and one that’s made more interesting for me by looking at statistics on violence against women vs. violence against men. In general, in most areas I’ve seen numbers for, men are much more likely to be victims of stranger violence than women are (interesting article: http://wcr.sonoma.edu/v4n3/Manuscripts/scott.pdf). But women are much more afraid of violence than men are.

    I have no idea why this is. Well, I have ideas, but no evidence to support them. I wonder about the fact that sexual violence is much more common with female victims, and wonder whether the fear of sexual assault colours women’s perspective on violence in general. And is this because sexual assault is intrinsically more damaging or because it’s a social stigma as well as a physical one? I wonder whether (some) men WANT women to be afraid, because then we need men to protect us. And I wonder whether (some) women WANT to be afraid, because we’ve been socialized to equate protectiveness with love.

    Closer to the topic at hand, I wonder whether Romance novels can be part of the solution to all this. We know we have a largely female audience, and we know the solution will probably be solved by the actions and demands of women, not men. So what can Romance authors do?

    I started my writing with m/m, largely because I got bogged down with sexual politics whenever I tried to write m/f. But maybe that’s the next challenge for me to figure out… how can I make het romance compelling without selling out my feminist ideals? Hmmmm…

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  4. Joanne Renaud
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 07:32:48

    I totally understand this. In my historicals I usually have a hero who’s a Big Man of some variety, I suppose partially just for the sake of convenience.

    But that’s not always the case. In my first novel that’s getting published, the hero is an English teacher. In the stories I write which are set after 1920 or so, I usually prefer to have an Everyman as the hero, whether he’s a journalist, teacher, writer or graphic designer. I don’t really like having super-powerful CEOs as my heroes in more modern-day stories, and I’m personally not that interested in writing about policemen or soldiers. Besides, who’s to say a writer or reporter can’t protect his woman? It might be a struggle for him to do so, but I like the conflict that creates.

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  5. Sunita
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 07:36:57

    @Kate Sherwood: It is not exactly a surprise that environmental variables and past experience with violence predict fear of future violence. I lived in high-crime areas of Chicago and New York through my 20s and 30s and I have been mugged, attacked by a group of men on a well-lit street (luckily a car drove up while they held me down, so all I suffered was a broken hand and some scrapes & bruises), and had my purse snatched several times. Oh, and break-ins. And I have known more than one woman who was raped by a stranger.

    I’ve had to negotiate living alone and moving about at night as a single, smallish woman for the majority of my adult life. I take it as a fact of life. I don’t mean in any way to negate the reality of domestic sexual violence or violence by someone a woman knows, but if you’re an urban woman, stranger danger is an everyday part of your existence, and thinking about it is rational, not fearful.

    Back to the column: I think that agency is a very good way to put it. Very few men have the kind of control over their lives that romance heroes often do, but a man who has *some* control and competence to protect is going to be seen as strong and reliable.

    And I’m not sure why it’s so difficult to show a man who isn’t a Duke or an Alpha pack wolf as having strength and competence. I can think of a few beta-type heroes who are worth of our respect; I just wish we saw more of them.

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  6. Christine
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 08:02:22

    The quote above about male privilege reminded me of a routine that Whoopi Goldberg did around the time of the Lorena Bobbit case (remember that one?) where she said for the first time the average man was scared. Not that it was in any way a good thing, but as she went on to say women deal with a certain level of fear or at least wariness every day. Most men go through their lives never understanding the extra steps women go through just to feel moderately safe. A male friend in law school once teased and laughed at me a bit (good naturedly but still) about checking under the car and the back seat before I got in. The next day he came to me sheepishly and apologized wholeheartedly. He mentioned to his older sister how he had teased me (I had never met the sister by the way) and she SCREAMED at him for teasing me and gave him a very strong lecture about women’s safety. She did her job because he was extremely chastened the next day. As a decent sized guy it was something he never had to think about. As a “petite” female it’s something I think about every single day.

    I think women definitely want to read about a man with “agency”. It’s a comforting thought to have a person who stands between you and the dangers of the world. It’s why we love superheros so much.

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  7. Jill Sorenson
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 08:07:21

    @Kate Sherwood: The article also states that women are “11 times more likely to be forced sexually,” and notes that many women don’t report sexual violence. I’m wondering if the study is saying that men are more likely to be victims of non-sexual violence, or using data that doesn’t include rape, sexual assault, etc.

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  8. Kristi Lea
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 08:23:10

    Its funny, I tend to avoid the plot lines where the hero is the super-alpha male with “agency” and the heroine needs him to feel protected.

    When there is a huge imbalance of power (financial, physical, whatever) then there is always that nagging doubt that the relationship will last. In theory, I know that if an author does her job right, then by the HEA, even the mighty Sheik/CEO/Prince/Vampire King will be so smitten that it is believable that they can stay together forever.

    I just prefer stories where the heroine can stand on her own and be happy and secure (physically, emotionally, financially), but still chooses to share her life with the hero (and vice-versa). I guess I need to be able to picture the HEA from the beginning, not wonder throughout the book what’s going to happen once the honeymoon is over.

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  9. Avery Flynn
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 08:25:27

    @Jane you’ve really nailed it with agency for the hero, but I wonder about agency for the heroine especially within the context of the emergence and dominance in many sub-genres, such as urban fantasy, of the strong kickass heroine types. Thoughts?

    Also, like most women, I’ve walked through too many dark parking lots and empty stairwells with my keys poking between my fingers to count. I hate that, which is probably part of the reason why the stories that grab me are the ones with strong heroines.

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  10. Jill Sorenson
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 08:34:04

    @SN: Australian men don’t give a damn about women?

    @Christine: “As a decent sized guy it was something he never had to think about. As a “petite” female it’s something I think about every single day.” Ditto. Men, especially large men, have to worry a lot less about these things.

    Short story. The other day I was walking my daughters to school, same as always. There’s a busy street on one side and a steep slope on the other. No sidewalk. Kind of dangerous already. So this bulldog comes out of nowhere and starts attacking my daughters! I thought he was biting but apparently he was just grabbing their clothes with his teeth. Anyway, while I was trying to protect them, a big guy in a truck pulled over with his son. They chased the dog back into his yard. It was very heroic!

    So I agree that the ability to provide safety is an important part of a hero’s agency. But for me it’s based on action. A hero can be wealthy or powerful or intimidating, but if he doesn’t take action, those qualities don’t mean anything.

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  11. Lori
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 08:44:41

    I prefer the strong heroines also. The hero with agency seems to close to the Daddy and I want nothing to do with that.

    I would hope that we’ve evolved enough that women are looking to be their own heroes. A smart woman knows to ask for help when she needs it but a heroine can stand o her own two feet and defeat the bad guy if necessary and win her own agenda.

    As a single woman who has chosen to be single, chosen to raise a child as a single parent, I’m squicked out by the idea that I need a hero. I need a community where I have choices and support and I find that daily. But the idea of the hero with agency just squicks me out because to me, that negates my adulthood.

    I truly love the romances that the heroine could do just fine by herself but finds the man who makes it better shared.

    Crazy For You by Jennifer Crusie is my perfect example. When heroine Quinn chooses her own agency (home, dog, excitement) the ex-boyfriend and much of the town questions her and tries to change her. Ultimately her hero is her best friend and her desires and ability to propel her own life lead her to her HEA.

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  12. Lil
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 08:50:35

    Good point about agency. I think you are quite right. One might add something about size – Romance heroes tend to be large and strong (all those six-pack abs), and I think that is part and parcel of their agency. A skinny little twerp is at a distinct disadvantage in the protection field.

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  13. Tamara Hogan
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 09:06:25

    Slightly OT, but one of the best explanations I’ve seen of male privilege/female safety issues is at the now-defunct Shapely Prose blog, in a guest post called “Schrödinger’s Rapist: or a guy’s guide to approaching strange women without being maced.” It explains the mental risk assessment exercise that many women, including myself, instinctively go through when meeting a strange man in public.

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  14. Fionn J
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 09:19:12

    This is kind of interesting because I’ve…um, I’ve never really been worried about my personal safety. I’m very small, and I thought nothing about walking out in the middle of the night in a neighborhood at 3 in the morning to hit the 24-hour fast food joint. Keep in mind, this was in Seoul, Korea where the night-life culture is very much ingrained in everyday life there. Now that I’m back here in the west suburbs of Chicago, I’m still doing it, although now that I’m reading everyone’s entries, I’m starting to think I’m a little too carefree and should take more care about my personal safety.

    I kind of like to think that a man would think “Hm…small Asian girl walking by herself on a dark street carrying a bag of groceries…something doesn’t smell right” and then proceeds along his way :P

    With that said, I write UF and have never written an overly alpha male. All of my heroines have been self-sufficient and I’m not a big fan of heroines who have to look for help from a man.

    Story of my life, I guess.

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  15. Jane
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 09:31:19

    @Lori My next post will be about women in the genre in response to my thoughts about agency, but I don’t think that a man’s agency needs to result in a less capable heroine. The problem, as I see it, is that women are often less interesting to female writers than men are. There are a certain type of author where I really get the sense that the female character is important to them. Courtney Milan, Loretta Chase, Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran, are a few of these authors. Sarah Mayberry and Karina Bliss and Erin McCarthy in the contemporary realm.

    I think it’s a challenge for authors to write heroine and hero’s with agency and still have conflict so they hero is given agency and the heroine is not.

    But agency = alpha isn’t necessarily equal in my mind. It might be how the majority of heroes are represented, but that comes off as flat and uninteresting to me. It’s almost a shortcut. I.e., describing the hero was tall, strong and wealthy allows the readers to fill in the spaces in between without necessarily requiring the writer to delve into how, why, where, etc. Maybe it is because female authors find it harder to dig deep in the psyche of men whereas they draw from their own wellspring of experience and the conversations they’ve had with women over the years.

    Circling back to the agency=alpha concept. If an author recognizes that agency, a sort of self determinism, drives interest from the readers, non alpha males can be just as appealing. A person who has a ‘beta’ personality (as we are binary, of course, either alpahs or betas) can still have and exert agency. Having agency doesn’t mean that a person is a leader. It merely means that in a theoretical setting, one with agency can make decisions for themselves and have those decisions imposed upon others around them. That is not leadership. But then, alphas as depicted in many romances aren’t real leaders either.

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  16. Kerry
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 09:44:19

    @Kate Sherwood: “I wonder whether (some) men WANT women to be afraid, because then we need men to protect us.”

    I can vouch that (some) men do. I was left by one of them when I got into martial arts because my hypothetical ability to drop a hypothetical attacker “emasculated” (his word) the boyfriend, despite the fact that he had never had occasion to come to my rescue and would have gotten his ass handed to him if he had because he was more Sara Lee than Bruce Lee. (Dear Ex: Now I’m emasculating you.)

    @Kristi Lea: “Its funny, I tend to avoid the plot lines where the hero is the super-alpha male with ‘agency’ and the heroine needs him to feel protected.”

    Me, too, but not because of the guy. A heroine who says “I need a man’s protection” is really saying to me “I’m helpless and unable to do for myself and too lazy to learn how,” and I can’t read five pages of one of those. I don’t want to spend a whole book feeling sorry for the hero that he’s stuck with a useless lump of heroine. With all that’s expected of him, he deserves a woman who does more than cling to him like a 120-pound tick.

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  17. Isobel Carr
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 10:06:09

    This is really interesting. I hadn’t quite thought about it in these exact terms, but yes, this is what I’m after when I envision my heroes (whether they’re dukes or the younger sons I’m writing now). I had been thinking of it as a search for autonomy, but “agency” is also part of what they’re struggling to find as they strike out from their family and establish themselves.

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  18. Janine
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 10:10:38

    Terrific post. I especially liked these thoughts:

    Concomitant with the hero’s choice is the ability to impose his decisions on those around him.

    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.

    So true (I would add the historical dukes to the list). One of the most interesting things about romance (to me, anyway) is the way it takes these strong, powerful men and makes them feel helpless in the face of their love for the heroine. The hero may have power over others, but ultimately, he can’t force the heroine to marry him, and is at the mercy of her choice.

    So while outside the relationship the hero usually has at least as much or more agency than the heroine, within it, the heroine has plenty of agency, and that gives her power over a powerful man, and indirectly, more agency of her own than she had before and thus more safety.

    It’s not exactly a feminist fantasy (since some of the heroine’s safety and agency comes through the hero), but it can be extremely satisfying at times, or it wouldn’t be so popular.

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  19. dick
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 10:12:56

    Your explanation is right on the money when it comes to matters of the relative safety of the genders. But I think romance fiction usually challenges the “agency” of the hero doesn’t it? Indeed, in some romances, such as Chase’s “Lord of Scoundrels,” the heroine uses the hero’s agency to make herself the person of agency. In nearly all romance fiction, the hero’s “agency” provides a service allowing the heroine to achieve the greater agency rather than less, for the decision bringing on the HEA essentially belongs to her.

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  20. dick
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 10:15:55

    Sorry about the echo Janine. You evidently posted while I was typing.

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  21. Jane
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 10:23:56

    @dick This is the point at which I struggle. I dislike the idea that it is through the hero’s agency that the heroine achieves “greater agency.” I don’t disagree that it is better for the heroine to achieve greater agency than less through the hero’s agency, but that the hero is the vehicle through which heroine gains agency.

    It’s actually the precise issue I struggled with in Courtney Milan’s last book. The heroine gains self respect and agency through the hero. This is not to say that the opposite doesn’t occur within romance fiction but rather that the example you put forth, dick, is the norm.

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  22. Jennifer
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 10:26:49

    I’m glad you’ve mentioned Sarah Mayberry here, Jane. I discovered her through one of your reviews and absolutely love that she frequently writes her heroines as larger women who are attractive to heroes I would classify in many ways as alpha. It’s been my observation the physical description of a heroine can extend the notion of male agency you’ve brought up even further. From my point of view heroines like what I’ve seen from Mayberry – and Jennifer Crusie – are so unusual, books with physically larger heroines take on something of an element of being on the fringe, like women who, according to statistics that show the majority of women are closer to 5’7″ and a size 12 or 14 (which is considered plus size in fashion) aren’t as desirable or feminine as their petite sisters. I’m not sure how to elaborate further, and am basing my comment purely on reaction to what I’ve seen as a reader, but I do think it’s something to consider as we discuss the concept of male agency and the responses on the issues of protection and independence. I hope you have space to touch on the issue of the heroine’s size in your next post.

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  23. Annette
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 10:27:05

    Janine explained it perfectly!

    I think an argument can be made in many instances that the agency is not there to attract the reader, as much as a means for the heroine to be attracted to/fall in love with/want/need the hero, and of course to help the author write a story where the characters are active and make their own story, rather than being simply passive recipients of fate.

    Certainly in my own experience, it’s not the wealth or power of the hero that makes me fall for him as a reader, it’s the glimpses of vulnerability and need and pain that only the heroine can soothe. And in the context of the relationship, that gives the heroine power.

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  24. Darlynne
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 10:36:11

    I submit that the most important trait of the hero is to have agency …

    I think you’re right, Jane. It doesn’t matter what the hero does for a living, how he looks or dresses, how much money he has or whether a title precedes his name.

    I like “agency” because of its basis, assuming I understand the concept, in knowledge, skill, self-determination and the confidence to take action as needed. “Power” carries too much baggage and frequently is unbalanced, although it fit the discussion where I made that comment originally.

    Safety comes about because of agency, and women are capable of creating their own in all arenas: financially, physically, emotionally. I look forward to that discussion when it comes up.

    So while I enjoy the fantasy of escaping to a place where money is no object, at the end of the day, I want the guy who remembers to put windshield washer solvent in my car because he knows I never do. I want to read romance novels about men who understand this: “The future belongs to the few of us still willing to get our hands dirty.”

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  25. DM
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 11:02:02

    “I realized that what readers in the romance want is a hero with agency not necessarily one with wealth.”

    @Jane

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here. And touched on a larger disconnect, between what readers want, and what authors and editors think they want. You can see how the misunderstanding unfolds. Authors and editors see that books featuring aristocratic and wealthy heroes sell, so they generate more of these, without understanding the underlying reason those dukes and tycoons are so appealing.

    The appeal IS agency–but if an author or an editor doesn’t understand that–then you can easily end up with an aristocratic or wealthy hero who has no agency. High birth and wealth do not actually create instant agency. The hero must be a character who uses his power (character=action) on stage in the course of the story for him to have agency. I’ve read plenty of Dukes who have wealth and station but no agency. It’s an easy trap to fall into with a character who inherits his wealth and station–but if you don’t demonstrate the hero’s agency in some way all you have is a hero who was born lucky.

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  26. Janine
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 11:32:49

    @dick: No worries, I’m glad you posted.

    @Jane: Yes, it is troubling to me as well, even though I enjoy some of those books immensely. I think that as long as men have more agency than women in the real world, this fantasy will persist. I can think of many books, even among the most beloved in the genre (such as Dick’s example of Lord of Scoundrels) that fit that pattern and of very few that don’t.

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  27. Jane
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 11:35:11

    @Janine: I actually disagree with dick’s assessment of Jessica in Lord of Scoundrels gaining agency through Dain. while Jessica’s family was without great funds, Jessica was a self sufficient individual. She was making choices for her own life, rather than depending on circumstances dictating the outcome.

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  28. becca
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 11:42:05

    maybe this is one of the reasons that Nora Roberts (and JD Robb) and Jayne Ann Krentz are some of my favorite authors, and favorite comfort reads: the heroine almost always has her own agency that is equal to (although it may be different than) the hero’s agency. Some of my favorite scenes in the In Death books are when Roarke backs down, let’s Eve take control, not because he’s “allowing” it but because she’s right.

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  29. Jane
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 11:47:35

    @becca if Eve had true agency (and I agree that she does), wouldn’t she exercise her control on her own, not because Roarke backed down and allowed Eve to take control? Backing down and letting Eve take control seems to suggest that Roarke’s agency is superior to Eve’s.

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  30. Janine
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 11:49:46

    @Annette: Hmm. I think it’s the combination of both strength and vulnerability that make the hero appealing. IMO contrast between two opposing traits (of any kind) is one of the ways to make a character compelling. If the hero was purely vulnerable and had no agency, he would not be any more interesting than a hero who was all agency and absolutely no vulnerability.

    @DM: This is speculation on my part, but I think what may be at issue here is that putting the word “Duke” on the cover of a book instantly communicates to the reader that the hero is in a position of power. And hence, there may be a perception by bookstore buyers and marketing departments that those books jump off the bookstore shelves and into readers’ hands, whereas with other books, the idea of agency in a character who isn’t wealthy or aristocratic is harder to communicate with one word.

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  31. Janine
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 11:53:24

    @Jane: I don’t remember Lord of Scoundrels in that much detail since I only read it once, so I’ll let you and Dick duke it out over that one. I vaguely recall Jessica getting more bossy and managing over the course of the book, although I could be wrong. But I can think of so many books where the hero protects the heroine, or confers an aristocratic title on her, and almost none where the hero gains agency through the heroine (Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm comes to mind, and even there, he was a duke, albeit one trapped in a lunatic asylum).

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  32. GrowlyCub
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 12:09:44

    I feel very lucky to have made it to 40 and being able to say that I do not consider my safety every moment of the day, or even most or some of the time. I can remember a few instances where I thought about my environment in those 40 years, but probably fewer than a handful all in all.

    But then I also walked through Harlem in the early evening because I had taken the wrong bus and ended up north of Central Park, which was the one thing I was told to avoid at all costs… that was one of those times when I was aware of my surroundings due to the warnings given to me by my New Yorker friends. It was clear a lot of people wondered what I was doing there, but I was not approached or threatened in any way.

    Does that make me automatically have male privilege, because I’m not afraid for my safety all the time?

    One thing I’ve long wondered about is that I know (of) many American women who have been victims of rape, but I could not name one German/European friend that happened to. I can’t tell if there is more of culture of silence in Europe or if there are fewer violent acts against women being perpetrated or whether there is less awareness/teaching girls to be afraid, but I have never felt like Jane or others have described in this thread and I hope, even though I live in the US now, that I never will.

    It makes me consider the question whether European societies do not rely as much on the ‘agency/protector’ male in raising girls or what could explain this (perceived?) difference.

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  33. Lil
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 12:10:23

    @Jane
    I don’t see that Roarke’s backing down shows that he is “allowing” Eve’s agency. Isn’t he simply recognizing that she is right?

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  34. CourtneyLee
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 12:21:12

    I love this post and all the comments. I agree that heroes with agency are much more preferable to heroes without agency. I’d love to see more heroines with agency equal to ther heroes’.

    About the Eve vs Roarke thing, one of my favorite moments in that series is when they go head to head on almost this exact issue. I can’t remember which book it was, but Eve makes a move to shift the killer’s attention to her from Roarke. Roarke gets his panties in a wad about it and tells Eve that she can’t/shouldn’t do that because he’s the protector and Eve’s response is “Why, because you have a penis?” That shuts him up, after which he admits that she’s right and that her protecting him is as just legitimate as him protecting her. That’s one of the many reasons I love those two and now I have a cool word for it: they each have agency not only before they got together, but after.

    All this has served to remind me once again why I now prefer MM romance: different gender politics. It’s a refreshing change.

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  35. becca
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 12:23:33

    @Jane and @Lil (and how does one make those interactive links to people’s names?)

    I’m thinking of the scenes when Eve feels Roarke has compromised her authority with her team, reams him out for it, and he apologizes. Or times when he could take control, but chooses not to because he recognizes that that position is rightfully Eve’s.

    But on a broader canvas, most of Nora’s heroines either claim their own agency, or find it during the course of the book. Isn’t Angels Fall all about a heroine claiming her own agency in the face of everyone telling her she’s wrong?

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  36. Carolyn Jewel
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 12:24:23

    @Lori:

    I don’t think the article meant to suggest that a hero with agency requires a heroine without any. There are certainly many such examples, of course, particularly with some of the older romances, but also newer stories. I completely agree that such a heroine is problematic for many, many readers.

    A heroine with agency paired with a hero with agency would make quite a wonderful pairing and, indeed, there are also many examples of such stories.

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  37. Christine M.
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 13:04:00

    @becca:

    Just put your mouse on the comment you want to reply to and the word ‘reply’ should appear at the bottom right of the comment. Then you can click on it and the link will automatically be created in the Comment box at the bottom of the post.

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  38. Lori
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 13:19:49

    I think I’m having difficulty separating the idea of agency from the idea of power. And since I despise powerlessness in my heroines, I’m having some difficulty with the concept.

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  39. Christine
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 14:06:09

    @dick- I don’t agree that Jessica gained agency through Dain if we are going by the definition above that

    “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.”

    Jessica clearly had agency before she met Dain, it was one of the things that seemingly attracted and irritated him about her. From the scene in the pawnshop/antique shop we (and he sees) that she is unshockable and used to making decisions on her own. Jessica not only controls her own life but wants to reign her brother in as well. Dain and she are clearly both people with agency struggling to see who maintains dominance over the brother and eventually each other.

    The only way Dain could really aid Jessica in agency is with money and the freedom that comes with being a married woman but as Jessica did exactly as she pleased when single (to a large degree)these factors did not matter so much.

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  40. becca
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 14:43:08

    @Christine M.: I never noticed that – thanks!

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  41. sarah mayberry
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 14:56:35

    The strong, rich, arrogant alpha male is a staple of romance, and I don’t mind him when he’s paired with an equally strong woman. But when he’s with a woman who is literally bullied and overpowered by his commanding ways – whether because he has her in his power financially (a common trope), or through some other means – I find myself grinding my teeth. I have often wondered at the continuing appeal of this dynamic given the gains of feminism, but it occurred to me recently that it’s actually a very powerful female fantasy, because these alphaholes (thanks, Karina Bliss!) are always brought low by the women by the end of the book. The alpha hero might have all the external world agency (power, money, influence, physical strength) but he is brought to their knees by his love for and desire of the heroine. Female emotional agency, if you will, trumping external world agency. So she might be weaker and poorer and less successful than him, but in the end she will tame him through love and sex. Hope some of this makes sense…

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  42. Tamara
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 15:02:47

    In the novel I’m currently reading, A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant, the hero is possessed of some shallow agency (which he is at a loss of how to turn to his true benefit) but he gains a more substantial, meaningful, and fulfilling agency through the help of the (very strong) heroine. It’s quite interesting.

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  43. Junne
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 15:30:41

    To me the hero with agency is something hard to change in romance, and it’s probably the reason why there are no fat heroes, even though those abs of steel are often paired with fat heroines.
    You have to be strong physically and socially to protect your woman. That’s kinda sad, when you think about it, but it feeds the fantasy of the white knight/damsel in distress.

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  44. Sherry Thomas
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 15:35:24

    @Jane: Great post.

    I’ve always done my best to write heroines w/ agency. They can’t always impose their will on the world around them, but usually they can get by just fine on their own. (Nothing against heroines needing help/rescue. Some of my favorite books have revolved around that theme, along with one of my own. But it always makes me kind of nervous wondering somewhere in the back of my head what would have happened if he hadn’t shown up when he needed to.)

    @Janine: So well said.

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  45. Angela
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 15:40:40

    Can’t wait for the post on heroines, Jane.

    This is thought-provoking. One of the reasons I love reading this blog so much is that it makes me think about, not only why I enjoy what I do, but life in general.

    I love a hero with agency. Someone that doesn’t seem in control of their own environment and self doesn’t interest me much.

    This isn’t to say that I want the heroine to be weak, or without agency. I want her to be in control of her self and environment as well.

    I do think agency can be articulated in ways that don’t translate to uber-rich, strong, powerful, leader-of-the-world type ways. There are different kinds of strength, different kinds of courage and ability. Each of them has the ability to have agency – at least to some degree – in my opinion.

    Watching two people, that could live fulfilling lives separately, come together – that is a romance I will always go for.

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  46. Cecilia Grant
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 16:35:32

    @Tamara:

    Kismet! I was just getting ready to post about your own book, The Only Gold, as an example of a hero who lacks agency. (Apologies if it’s a different Tamara!)

    The book opens with the hero losing a promotion he’d counted on to an outsider, from whom he now has to take orders. He starts out with less power than any hero I can remember reading in a long time, and he also engages my sympathies – immediately – more than any hero I can remember reading in a long time.

    Maybe it comes down to whether reading romance is a sympathetic exercise or not? For me it is. I’m always uncomfortable when I sense that the hero’s been set up as a sort of Mount Everest for the heroine – and me, vicariously – to conquer. I’d rather read about a guy I can root for and relate to, and lord knows I can relate to the sense of lacking agency.

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  47. kzoet
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 16:44:36

    @Junne: There are fat heroines? And so many that they’re often paired with ab-tacular heroes? Really?

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  48. P. Kirby
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 17:07:57

    @Jill Sorenson:
    Short story. The other day I was walking my daughters to school, same as always. There’s a busy street on one side and a steep slope on the other. No sidewalk. Kind of dangerous already. So this bulldog comes out of nowhere and starts attacking my daughters! I thought he was biting but apparently he was just grabbing their clothes with his teeth. Anyway, while I was trying to protect them, a big guy in a truck pulled over with his son. They chased the dog back into his yard. It was very heroic!

    I’m surprised you weren’t next accosted by the dog’s owner, who was shocked–shocked, I tell you–to find that someone had attacked his/her sweet little huggle-muffins.

    Along those lines…I’m a very small female, and while I’m always aware of my surroundings, I don’t live in fear. But I am wary of strange men.

    I walk my dog every day along a irrigation ditch bank. Sometimes, I’m the only one out; sometimes there are other dog walkers. In general, I’m always leary of any new people, especially if their dog is off the leash. The question is, will he/she leash the dog when they get close to me? (There is a leash law.) My unease is complicated a bit more if the person is male.

    The worst run-ins I’ve had were with men who refused to leash their dogs and got abusive when I complained. The latest, an older man, got nasty when I had to drive his dog away from mine, and put himself right in my face, inches away. Naturally, I shoved him. He then claimed I’d assaulted him, to which I noted that he, with his proximity, assaulted me first.

    Now, even though I consider myself a feminist, even though I’m proud of my ability to stand up for myself, I really would’ve appreciated some backup, particularly from someone large and male. (At this point, I’m going to call animal control next time I see this asshat.)

    My point being, that the idea of a male with agency, who will stand up for you, definitely has its appeal. Does this person have to be a superhero? No. Heck, even a brave accountant will do.

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  49. Jenny Schwartz
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 18:18:30

    Interesting discussion. I’ve always used the word “competent” to describe the defining feature of a romance hero for me. But “agency” is much better. Thanks, Jane :)

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  50. LVLMLeah
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 19:42:33

    I’m a woman who from the age of 18 traveled around the world by myself. I traveled in countries in the Middle East by myself and I constantly had to be vigilant about my safety. I also grew up in a fairly urban area and as a woman felt I had to always be aware of my surroundings. The thing is, my fear of sexual assault or attack never deterred me from doing anything I wanted to do, including traveling where I wanted even if unsafe for women.

    In doing so, I have been attacked on a few occasions and I was sexually harassed in some countries. I wasn’t naive and I always managed to get out of dicey situations. However, I never, ever bitched if I could get a male travel partner for the safety factor. Traveling with a man in male dominated countries was so much easier. Sometimes it was nice to just be able to relax and enjoy without having to be constantly on guard.

    This is what I like to read about in romances. I like when the heroine is strong, has her own agency but can also allow herself to rely on the hero’s agency when needed and for a break. Maybe I’m wrong for that.

    By the way, age has a lot to do with what I feel now. I’m an older woman and therefore the harassment I used to get as a younger woman is not there. So I’m a lot less concerned about my safety now than when I was younger. Although I sill stay aware of my surroundings if it’s dark and I’m alone.

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  51. Hydecat
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 20:52:30

    I also like the word “agency” because it does give non-wealthy men the chance to be heroes. For me to really enjoy a book, though, I need a balance of agency between the hero and the heroine. For example, I usually enjoy Lisa Kleypas’s work, but in Mine Till Midnight I got more and more annoyed at Cam, the hero, because he kept undermining the heroine’s agency. He’s a good example of a non-traditional hero with lots of agency, but he mostly exercised it in taking responsibility away from the heroine and fixing things in her life. I think I was supposed to see him as tenderly lifting her burdens, but it came off to me like he thought she was incompetent and didn’t know best. That said, I think it’s hard sometimes to walk the line between seizing someone’s agency and lending a helping hand, and it will depend a lot on the reader’s own perspective.

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  52. dick
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 21:31:51

    If most romances exist for the HEA, and the only way to get the HEA is for the heroine to say “yes,” then it seems to me the heroine also has agency. Without her, the hero’s agency would be relatively worthless, for only she calls it forth. Within romance fiction, the entire question soons become the chicken and egg dilemma.

    @Jane: I think Jessica in Lord of Scoundrels, effectively robs Sebastian of all agency except perhaps for the greater wealth and the protection he provides. In every other way, she controls through manipulation, which certainly gives her a lot of “agency.” She “mothers” him in the worst possible way.

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  53. Kaetrin
    Nov 15, 2011 @ 21:58:30

    Great post Jane. I will have to ponder some more to have a chance to come up with anything articulate which has not already been said.

    @SN. There are assholes in every country I fear but maybe you’ve been hanging out with the wrong Australians? I know plenty of Aussie guys who do actually care about my safety and offer help freely.

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  54. Marguerite Kaye
    Nov 16, 2011 @ 11:19:26

    I’m not sure I’m getting this right, I’m a bit brain dead and obssessed with my current WIP. My hero is a black freed slave in 1816. He has agency in that he’s created his own life for himself, but as a black man living in a white world, he doesn’t have agency in terms of his social environment. My heroine is white and aristocratic, so my hero has no agency in her world. So they go it alone together, if you know what I mean, and live their own lives in a sort of independent world where they both have agency. Did I get the concept right there?

    The big problem in historicals with agency for men IMO is that without status then they can’t have influence. And for women it’s even more difficult because women hardly had any sphere of influence, which is why in historicals you have to do a lot of twisting and turning to get a heroine who doesn’t rely on her hero for strength. I think one of the reasons that aristocracy are so populare is that it’s just an easy short-hand and frankly, in the early 19th century, living conditions if you were dirty poor were – welly, dirty. There’s a reason why oral sex of any sort was pretty rare back then!

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  55. Maili
    Nov 16, 2011 @ 11:49:46

    @Marguerite Kaye:

    frankly, in the early 19th century, living conditions if you were dirty poor were – welly, dirty. There’s a reason why oral sex of any sort was pretty rare back then!

    I really hope you had tongue firmly in cheek when you wrote that. :D

    But that’s a very good point about agency and minorities, especially in historical romances.

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  56. cleo
    Nov 16, 2011 @ 13:48:08

    @Hydecat: I had the exact same problem with Mine before Midnight and Cam. Glad to know that I’m not the only one.

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  57. Karina Bliss
    Nov 16, 2011 @ 17:16:24

    @sarah mayberry. “Female emotional agency…trumping external world agency.”
    I relate to this idea. In great romances you often see alpha males bested by heroines of great emotional power – honesty, willingness to be emotionally vulnerable without regarding it a weakness. The hero has to humble himself to learn relationship skills.

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  58. Marguerite Kaye
    Nov 17, 2011 @ 00:31:51

    @Maili: Tongue in cheek and foot in mouth – I meant well and not welly, though maybe welly was more appropriate!

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  59. Anne
    Dec 12, 2011 @ 07:11:24

    Reading all this is giving me the willies, very seriously, and it explains why I dislike quite a few romances.

    I’m barely 5’2″, petite, and have lived long stretches of time on my own in large (European) cities. I never once considered myself more at risk than the next guy. I don’t look under my car, or behind the seats, I have no trouble going to the deli in the middle of the night, in fact I repeatedly lived close to red light areas in various large towns and never thought twice walking right through those in the middle of the night. I’m used to being able to deal with life and where I live. I don’t need a man for that and I don’t expect a man to do it for me.

    What really drives me to distraction is all this alpha male fuss. The typical real life alpha male is something I despise, because most times he is either an egotistic sociopath with an overblown sense of self or a slick liar and politician. Neither of these types has any truly redeeming qualities. None. They all are self-serving egomaniacs, whether the high school jock, the smalltown mayor or some billionaire like Carlos Slim.

    It is particularly funny that female readers love to read about this sort of man, yet do not connect him and his behaviour with exactly those fears they have of males raping and assaulting them. Because it’s more often than not their overblown status of self-worth which means they take, even if the female in question says no. It is this culture of considering an alpha male a positive thing which enables the rape cultures in quite a few countries, including the USA.

    So, why any woman would prefer an alpha male over a normal, well-adjusted and humane man is beyond me. I find such stories hard to take, and alpha male types usually not worthy a second glance in real life. In fact, I have trouble considering that these rankings exist anywhere but in the minds of exactly these warped personalities (and the females liking them obviously). I really prefer getting mates outside of a chicken coop. And I’d also really prefer reading about normal people.

    As to “agency,” it’s the same in other terms. We live in a world where no one is an island. Someone who lords it over the rest of the people isn’t exactly a nice thing and almost the same side of the coin.

    Like a few others I prefer women I read to be capable of taking care of themselves, or at least having an equal balance of give or take with their mate.

    What I also find extremely funny is that many m/m romance and slash readers have claimed recently that they prefer m/m over m/f because of the equality of the characters.

    Goes to tell.

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