Blythe Gifford on Encountering the Unexpected With a Historical Hero

Romance author Blythe Gifford’s medieval heroes are all “born on the wrong side of the royal blanket” but that is just the tip of the iceberg for these heroes who defy readers’ expectations! Now Gifford chats about the comfort that romance fans find in these historical stories and shares how she works to create heroes who a reader would follow anywhere.

Laura Kinsale famously observed that in romance, “it’s the hero who carries the book.”

This, I suggest, is a major challenge facing those who write historicals set in times and places unfamiliar to the audience.

The reader does not know what kind of hero to expect. 

When a reader picks up a book set in Regency England or the Scottish Highlands, the two most popular historical settings, they are getting more than a return to a familiar time and place. They are returning to a particular type of hero.

Regency England means a rakish duke who will be tamed by the heroine, of course, to achieve a “happy ever after” ending.

This archetype matches well with the Cinderella story. Royalty, balls, heroines who marry “up” and snag rich and powerful husbands – these deliciously familiar and well-loved elements can be anticipated in a Regency-set historical.

The Scottish Highlander hero, on the other hand, tends to represent the warrior archetype. Whether he is a leader of men or a loner, he lives in a world of life and death. Loyal and honorable, he will sacrifice anything for his clan/family. Typically, he’s a “wounded hero,” beset by demons, and the heroine helps him heal.

The core story embodied in these books tends to be more of a Beauty and the Beast tale. 

I do NOT contend that every book in these settings is alike, nor do I mean they tell these archetypal stories exactly. But when they don’t, it is still easy for a reader to connect with the hero because the story line can be contrasted with their expectations. (It’s a little like saying “It’s a George Clooney movie, but a drama, not a comedy.” You still know what you are going to be looking at.) 

For example, Courtney Milan’s Proof by Seduction does feature a nobleman (a marquess, not a duke), but he is not a rake. He is rigidly logical, believing, at the outset, only in scientific proof. So he’s similar to the Regency hero we know (a noble), but different because he is the opposite of a rake.

But take a book set in medieval Flanders, as was my June 2008 Harlequin Historical, Innocence Unveiled. Most readers can’t tell you where Flanders is, let alone tell you what kind of hero they would find there. 

How could I create a hero the reader could fall in love with? I connected him with some familiar touchstones.

First, I made him English. 

Second, I made him royal.

Third, I made him a bastard. (Literally. He was born on the wrong side of the royal blanket.) The bastard archetype is also a familiar one that has been used in a variety of settings. 

Finally, I made him a spy. This is another familiar plot element and parallels the internal, as well as external, secrets he must keep from the heroine.

So although the geography was unusual, readers, I hoped, would be willing to follow this hero into the story.

What about you? What kind of hero would draw you to try an unfamiliar setting?

- Blythe Gifford

You can visit the author at her website and check out her latest unusual historical hero in May’s His Border Bride. Keep your eyes open for the author’s next novel which will be set in Scotland!