Saturday, 28 January 2012

Attractive teen heroes

(I am actually on a plane to Denver today so have scheduled this post in advance - on 2nd February Michelle Lovric will be my guest here on the publication day of her Talina in the Tower)

This post is inspired by the publication (2nd February in the UK) of the mass market paperback of my novel, David - only £6.99 full price. It's about the young man who posed for Michelangelo's iconic statue in Florence. Nothing is known about the model, or even if there was one, so I have invented him! Obviously he has to be spectacularly beautiful, so Gabriele is. But he must also appeal to the reader, which got me musing on what teenagers, especially female ones, find appealing in a hero.

I remember my English teacher at school being very fed up with my tutor group because we liked the “wrong” characters in our set books – Hal rather than Hotspur in Henry lV Part One and Edmund in preference to Edgar in King Lear, for example.

We seemed to prefer villains to heroes and shady characters to upright ones. Perhaps we were Emos before our time?

But isn’t that bad boy image what attracted women readers to Heathcliff and Mr Rochester? (It didn’t quite work for me because once I discovered Heathcliff had hanged Isabella’s dog, I went right off him).

I had a couple of older sisters so I was reading their library books when I was still pre-teen – authors no-one reads now, like Mazo de la Roche and Ursula Bloom. But the ones I did pick up and remember were novels by Dorothy Sayers and Georgette Heyer.

Lord Peter Wimsey would surely not appeal to many teenage girls today, with his monocle and his flaxen hair like Andrew Aguecheek’s, all smoothed down – probably with brilliantine – and his vacant aristocratic manner?

But it was all a front, you see for a brilliant mind and when he fell in love with Harriet Vane, he said incredibly sexy-sounding things to her in French, like “tu m’enivres.” (I knew the text of Busman’s Honeymoon by heart I had read it so often).

And in Georgette Heyer’s Devils’ Cub I found the hero of my dreams, the dark and dashing Dominic, Marquis de Vidal. I loved that book so much that as soon as I finished it I had to start reading it all over again, because I could not bear to leave its world.

Later, when I discovered Jane Austen at school I much preferred Mr Knightley to Mr Darcy, Henry Tilney to Edward Ferrars – I liked the men who kept their women from the excesses of their own foolishness, who were strong and kind but capable of issuing a good telling-off.

I suppose if there had been literature aimed at teenage girls in my youth, as there is in abundance today, I might have fallen for the sexy vampires and devoted werewolves, the broken angels and redeemable demons. But I was spared them.

In recent online surveys about crushes in YA fiction, the two Twilight Alpha males, Edward and Jacob, vampire and werewolf respectively come out top but with Peeta from The Hunger Ganes giving them a good run. And there are many fans of the Harry Potter characters, especially the Weasley brothers and even Draco Malfoy (though his father Lucius has almost as many fans). I think these choices must be influenced by casting in the films – those marmalade-cat twins and Jason Isaacs. But I can’t take them seriously as crushes myself.

My teen heroes were all in adult books when I was a teen myself but now that I read and review a lot of Young Adult (YA) Fiction and write it too, I have developed a sophisticated taste in hot young men all over again,

Not for me the ones whose rippling six packs are described in loving detail by their over-heated authors (always female) who are as smitten by their own heroes as ever plain and dumpy Dorothy Sayers was bowled over by her pale blond Lord Peter.

(My own most-admired creation of Lucien/Luciano in Stravaganza is hardly described physically at all. He has dark curly hair and a nice smile; that’s about it. Yet fourteen-year-old girls love him.)

I think I still like them a bit angsty and tortured; I don’t even mind if they look a bit girly, as long as they are strong-minded. (Always preferred Geeks to Jocks).

So here’s my list of the hottest heroes in books read by teens, whether intended for them or not (in no particular order):

1. Howl in Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle. Conceited, petulant, arrogant, immature, Howl nevertheless steals every scene he appears in. It helps that he’s a wizard and that the sorely-missed Diana Wynne Jones was something of a witch, making wickedly funny scenes out of Howl’s many discomfitures at the hands of heroine Sophie.

2. Per Sterkarm in The Sterkarm Handshake by Susan Price. It’s pronounced “stark-arm” and is the name of a family of 16th century border bandits. Per is the only and most beloved son, whose pretty face gets him the nickname of “the May” or maid. But he’s a useful man in a battle, a lusty lover and one who inspires devotion in everyone from his father, to his hounds, to the 21st century time-traveller Andrea.

3. Seth McGregor in Firebrand and its sequels by Gillian Philip. If I  tell you Seth is a fairy, don’t run away with the wrong idea. He is one of the Sithe, both a sixteen-year-old and someone who has lived four or five hundred years. Sexy, violent and devoted to his half-brother, Seth is hero to make the heart beat faster – or to break it.

4. MCC Berkshire is the extraordinary hero of Geraldine McCaughrean’s extraordinary A Pack of Lies. It won the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize over twenty years ago. MCC has a passion for cricket, second-hand books and is a mesmerising storyteller. My kind of guy. He gets under the skin of Ailsa Povey but what happens in the end is much too good to give away.

5. Sorensen Carlisle in The Changeover by Margaret Mahy. One of my all time favourite YA novels, it’s subtitled “a supernatural romance” – and it came out in 1984! Sorensen (Sorry, as the heroine, Laura Chant calls him) is a witch, living with his mother and grandmother. He wears a black caftan at home and antique rings and has silver eyes. Eat your heart out Edward Cullen!

6. Aragorn in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Long before Viggo Mortensen did his turn for Peter Jackson as the stubbly ranger who was a king in waiting, he was my hero. He had all those names, for one thing – Strider, Elessar Elfstone and so on. It was a bit of a shock to discover he was eighty-six; I don’t think my teenage crush quite recovered from that. But there was always Legolas (though he was seven thousand years old) and Elrond in the elf department and lovely Faramir, the human hero.

7. Icarus Ocean Tompkins in Annie Dalton’s Out of the Ordinary. A flute-playing busker with a beautiful but “unreliable” smile. He got his names from his parents in their hippy phase. We don’t meet him till about 80 pages in but from then on he helps Molly Gurney save her mute foster brother from an evil Magus.

8. Fox (David Stone) in Exodus, Zenith and Aurora by Julie Bertagna. In a drowned world of the future, Fox is the rebel grandson of the man who has founded the city of New Mungo. We don’t know a great deal about what he looks like but he’s the Han Solo and Luke Skywalker of his world rolled into one and his love story with the heroine Mara Bell, is more than poignant.

9. Leonidas in Halo by Zizou Corder. OK, he’s a Spartan at the time of Pericles, so not the most up to date of heroes and he practises the cruel military arts he’s been taught in the Spartan army. But he keeps saving Halo’s life and eventually she saves his. What could be more romantic?

10. Alistair Windlass in Castle of Shadows and City of Thieves by Ellen Renner. This one shouldn’t be an attractive hero at all. For a start, he’s not a teenager but one of the adults – he is Prime Minister even! And morally, he’s as suspect as Zaphod Beeblebrox, calculating and sinister. BUT there is something very beguiling about him.

So how about you? Tell me your favourite YA attractive heroes and maybe we'll get enough suggestions for a poll!


Susan Price said...

Mary, I’m thrilled to bits that Per has reached No 2, beating even Gillian’s Seth – now there is a sexy, angst-ridden bad-boy!
I agree about Howl – but then, Diana Wynne Jones was a genius.
My biggest book-crush, I think, was Hephaiston in Mary Renault’s books about Alexander – sorry if I’ve misspelt the name. Not Alexander, note, but H – because he was so steadfast and loyal and – as you say of Mr. Knightley – was a steadying influence on Alexander. I’m not alone, because Oliver Stone’s film of the books has resulted in loads of fan re-mixes all over YouTube, and for many of them it’s plainly H who floats their boat. (Partly due to the very pretty actor in the part – too pretty for my own idea of H.)
For myself, I’ve been astonished at the number of grown women who’ve sidled up to me at book-bashes, and confided that they lust after Per Sterkarm. One said it was because he was ‘a real man and didn’t smell like a whore’s handbag.’ (!) Do you get this with your David?
I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote Per. I wasn’t trying to make him into a pin-up. And personally, I’d go for his foster-father, Sweet Milk, because Sweet Milk is big and calm, says little but notices a lot, and he’d always stand by you.
Anybody who’s interested can find Per Sterkarm here:
And in an extract from the third book in rough draft here -

Stroppy Author said...

Sir Gawain - he's always been my hero. I was even invited to write about my passion for him on the British Library website!

I'm sure Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a YA title of its day...

Gillian Philip said...

Aw thank you Mary! Seth will be even more insufferable now! (I think he's jolly lucky to be in the same company as Per!) And I too am crazy about Alistair Windlass - there's something just so hypnotically charming and attractive about him...

I love Hephaistion too Susan - though I also have a REALLY soft spot for Alexander. My own crush is Uhtred Ragnarsson/Uhtred of Bebbanburg in Bernard Cornwell's Alfred series. He's another one who does dreadful things but is so vulnerable and conflicted I just have to forgive him. And Hal in HM Castor's VIII is like that too. *sigh...*

JuHirvi said...

Margaret Mahy, one of my favorite authors, has several memorable male protagonists who could qualify. Like the teenage actor Ellis in Twentyfour Hours. Or step dancer Jonny in Memory. And of course Ged, the haunted wizard of Earthsea.

Juliet said...

Ooh yes, Ged. I loved Aquila from The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff when I was a teen - tortured, brooding, strong, beaky nose...
(I'd second votes for Per and Seth!)

Katherine Langrish said...

Seth meets Per Sterkarm - ooh, there's a thought! Brilliant list, Mary! Your point about Aragorn being 80 years old made me laugh. I could never fancy him once he stopped being Strider and morphed into Aragorn with lots of poetic inversions (the "Long have I yearned for this or that" sort of thing.)

adele said...

Pennington in KM Peyton's Pennington's 17th Summer. Lovely post.

Susan Price said...

Per Sterkarm vs Seth McGregor, eh? Per would win - because while Seth was angsting and feeling conflicted and guilty, Per would just get on with it. And Per would also be backed by about 200 cousins, Uncles and other assorted family. And would lay an ambush. The Sterkarms don't fight fair.

Susan Price said...

And, while I'm here, Hotspur is way better than Hal V, because he's a fond husband and has a cynical sense of humour. When Glyndower says he can call demons from the vasty deep, Hotspur drawls, 'Why so can I, and so can any man. But will they come when you do call for them?'

Gillian Philip said...

In that case I think Per and Seth should just go out for a drink instead. Much more civilised...