Protagonists Rule!

No matter how compelling the history, no matter how well-constructed your world, if your reader doesn’t fall in love with your protagonists, you risk losing them.

What is it that readers of historical romance look for in a protagonist? To be honest, it’s a delicate balance between hearkening to the past and appealing to a contemporary sensibility. This is particularly true of female protagonists. Navigating the very real social strictures and rules of propriety and still creating an active, appealing female character acceptable to today’s readers is a trick.

This is less of a problem in, say, medieval romance, where women often had to step into their absent men’s shoes, especially during the crusades. It’s also less of a problem if your heroine is of a lower class, where women had to work hard alongside men for the survival of the family. But women were held to a very different social standard in most times past, even in those situations. The economic and political structures in place kept them in a degree of subjugation. Ignoring that, or pretending it’s easy for your heroine to break free of them, is anachronistic in a way that breaks your covenant with the reader.

It’s also hard to avoid a somewhat stereotypical tough-guy image in your hero. But there are certainly romances where it’s entirely appropriate to support such characteristics, and a man coming to the rescue of a woman is a trope not to be lightly put aside. It’s a powerful fantasy. I admit to my own susceptibility to the tall, dark, and handsome hero…

The characteristics of unforgettable protagonists

Reader expectations must be met! But at the same time, readers must constantly be intrigued and surprised. How to do that starts with your protagonists. What follows relates to heterosexual romance, but could easily be adapted to any other kind of historical couple. It goes without saying is that your protagonists need to be true to your period, but also memorable and exceptional in their way. Your reader must desire or empathize with your protagonists, who should come across as real people on the page, well rounded and complex.

Protagonists should be:

  • Imperfect
  • Ready to fall in love—either through life situation, age, or temperament
  • Possibly believe themselves unworthy of love, or beyond the reach of love
  • Possessed of period-appropriate values, but possibly also chafing against something that holds them back

The thing about your protagonists is that they can’t be cardboard cutouts or stereotypes. In fact, the more true-to-life in all their humanity you make them, the better. That’s one of the big challenges of the genre—as well as one of its reasons for being. The goal of any fiction set in a historical period is to bring to the fore not just the differences, the superficial things that make that time feel foreign, but also to illuminate the universals. And what could be more universal than love?

Deeper dive: Imperfect

A classic way to develop an imperfect protagonist is to give them a flaw, something inherent in them that they have to overcome in order to achieve the love relationship, such as:

  • The classic “wound” that gives them some unattractive characteristic or attitude—think the duke in Bridgerton. His wound is part of his backstory (more to come about that).
  • An upbringing that gives them too much arrogance, leading to a comeuppance at the hands of their romantic partner—for Heyer fans, think Sylvester
  • A situation of their own making that renders them seemingly ineligible—petty criminal, gambler, etc.—Faro’s Daughter
  • A physical handicap of some kind, or a peculiarity that makes them odd
  • An unsuitable reputation

The flaw needs to be real, but not insurmountable. Ideally it’s something they can be reclaimed from through love of the right person.

Deeper dive: Ready to fall in love

Whether or not the protagonist is aware of this, they need to be on the brink of falling in love. Here, look to your period for guidance in terms of circumstances.

  • Age appropriate—women were married younger often in the past, but those teen girl/middle-aged man romances sometimes in older Regency novels are a bit risky today.
  • Eligible—single, widowed, possibly divorced, depending on the period. But a married protagonist who has an affair gets more into women’s fiction territory than romance.
  • Susceptible—possessing a temperament that, even if it isn’t immediately apparent to the protagonist themself, gives the reader a sense that they’re ready to succumb to love. This is a common trope in Regency romance, when the female protagonist is in her mid twenties or later and has decided she is on the shelf and not likely to fall in love like a schoolgirl.

Deeper dive: Believing themselves unworthy of love

In the example in the previous lesson, Lord Lynton believes his financial straits make him unworthy of love. But this belief is often the form a classic misbelief takes, and it’s embedded in your protagonist’s backstory. One of the exercises in this lesson is about creating that backstory for your character, but here are a few examples of things that could make a protagonist feel unworthy of love in a way that has them putting up barriers:

  • Wrong age: usually too old
  • Not handsome/beautiful enough—think Jane Eyre. They could be not up to an arbitrary standard of beauty for their time, but in fact be what in the Regency might have been called “taking.”
  • Too many responsibilities/expectations—a woman who feels the burden of caring for younger siblings, for instance, as does Kitty in The Lady’s Guide to Fortune Hunting. She sets out to find a match after her parents die leaving them in debt, single-mindedly pursuing a fortune and discounting the possibility of love, because being so mercenary makes her unworthy.
  • Wrong class or breeding—even someone we’d consider highly suitable today could have been considered beneath a person not just of higher rank or greater fortune, but of a different sphere.
  • Temperamentally unsuited—someone who has buried emotions and thinks they are cold and unfeeling, and would make someone else unhappy.

Deeper dive: Period-appropriate, but also appealing to a contemporary reader

By now you’re well aware that I’m a huge Georgette Heyer fan. However, there are aspects of some of her heroines that drive me nuts. I, personally, become irritated with the ones (even those whom I otherwise love) who have such lady-like scruples that they keep saying “no” when I’m going, “You idiot! Can’t you see it doesn’t matter?” I’ve recently re-read The Nonesuch, and Ancilla’s insistence that her role as governess/companion—even though her birth makes her completely eligible—precludes her from succumbing to Sir Waldo’s advances goes on for far too long, in my opinion.

So how do you manage this delicate balance? Here are a few ideas:

  • Education—a girl who’s had the advantage of an education more suitable to boys could have ideas and ambitions beyond those of other girls her age. It would require having a somewhat unconventional upbringing, or eccentric parent, but there have been plenty of examples in history of this very phenomenon.
  • Financial necessity—The example of Kitty in A Lady’s Guide to Fortune Hunting is one case where this pushes her to be more aggressive and proactive than would have been the norm. And as I said above, in many earlier periods, this would be enough to make a woman quite active in a literary sense.
  • Unusual ability or talent—Horses are very much part of the world in most historical romances, and the cliche of the girl who is horse mad was just as true in times gone by as it is in some places today. Although riding sidesaddle was the norm after the Middle Ages, being an athletically inclined horsewoman can give a heroine more scope for being proactive. And there was always Ada Lovelace—Byron’s mathematical genius daughter…

The true secret sauce

It’s important in any novel to make sure you get the emotion on the page. But when it comes to your protagonists in a romance, that goes double. Readers need to live the attraction, the doubt, the uncertainty, the anguish, the adoration through the protagonists’ eyes. It’s one of the primary reason people read romance, for that vicarious frisson of emotion.

Georgette Heyer is brilliant at doing this. Here is an example from one of her masterpieces, Venetia. Although the rake Damerel has encountered Venetia once before, and now her disabled younger brother has had a riding accident, and Damerel found him and brought him to his house. This is the first time he has truly seen Venetia:

So when Damerel, seeing the approach of a carriage round a bend in the avenue, strolled out to meet his guest it was neither a wrathful goddess nor a young lady on her dignity who sprang down from the vehicle and gave him both her hands, but a beautiful, ingenuous creature with no consciousness in her frank eyes, but only a glow of warm gratitude. She exclaimed, as he took her hands: ‘I am so much obliged to you! I wish I could tell you, but there seems to be nothing to say but thank you.’ She added, shyly smiling: ‘You wrote me such a comfortable letter, too! That was so very kind: did you guess I must be quite sick with apprehension? Oh, pray tell me that it was true, and he didn’t injure himself badly?’

It was several moments before he answered her or released her hands. In a faded old gown, with her hair untidy under a sunbonnet, and her countenance flushed with indignation he had thought her an uncommonly pretty girl; she was dressed now simply but charmingly in jonquil muslin, with a hat of unbleached straw whose high-poke front made a frame for a lovely face that was neither flushed nor indignant, but smiling up at him with unshadowed friendliness, and she took his breath away. Hardly aware that he was still holding her hands, and in far too strong a grasp, he stood staring down at her until Nurse recalled him to his senses by clearing her throat in a marked and an intimidating manner.

Venetia (Regency Romances Book 18) by Georgette Heyer

The beauty of this passage is that much of the work of conveying Damerel’s instant response is accomplished through the description of the scene. We know what she’s wearing, we hear her lovely dialogue, we get a little backstory. But also: Several moments before he answered her…she took his breath away…hardly aware that he was still holding her hands, and in far too strong a grasp… Sigh. I don’t know about you, but I’m in love with Damerel from this moment!

Keeping with this example, at the darkest moment in the book when Venetia is about to be taken away to London with her uncle, having very recently had a moment with Damerel when he seemed about to propose to her. She rides over to Damerel’s house to tell him her uncle wants her to go to London. To her surprise, the meeting does not go as she wished. Set aside some of the outdated style, and enjoy the scene below. This is a long excerpt, if you want to get to the gist of what I’m saying, read the bold passages. But it’s a heart-rending scene, and makes me want to cry every time I read it:

She had begun to wonder whether she had missed Damerel, who might have set out for Undershaw by way of the road instead of taking the shorter way across country, when the door opened, and he came in, demanding: ‘Now, what in thunder has your Empress been doing to drive you from home, Admir’d Venetia?’

He spoke lightly, yet with a hint of roughness in his voice, as though her visit was an unwelcome interruption. She turned, trying to read his face, and said, with a faint smile: ‘Were you busy? You don’t sound as though you were glad to see me!’

‘I’m not glad to see you,’ he replied. ‘You shouldn’t be here, you know.’

‘So Imber seemed to think–but I didn’t care for that.’ She came slowly into the middle of the room, and paused by the table that stood there, drawing off her gloves. ‘I thought it best to come to you, rather than to wait for you to come to me. It might not be easy for us to be private, and I must consult you. Something quite unlooked-for has happened, and I need your advice, my dear friend. My uncle has come.’

‘Your uncle?’ he repeated.

‘My Uncle Hendred–my uncle by marriage, I should say. Damerel, he wishes to take me to London, and at once!’

‘I see,’ he said, after a moment’s silence. ‘Well–thus ends a charming autumn idyll, eh?’

‘Do you think that that is what I came to say to you?’ she asked.

He glanced at her, his eyes a little narrowed. ‘Probably not. It is the truth, however. Unpleasant, I grant, but still the truth.’

She felt as though the blood in her veins was slowly turning to ice. He had turned abruptly away, and walked over to the window; her eyes followed him, but she did not speak. He said harshly: ‘Yes, it’s the end of an idyll. It has been a golden autumn, hasn’t it? In another week there won’t be a leaf left hanging to the trees, though. Your uncle timed his coming well. You don’t think so, do you, my dear? But you will think it, believe me.’

She still said nothing, because she could think of nothing it was possible to say. She found it difficult even to take in the sense of what Damerel, incredibly, had said, or to disentangle the wisps of thought that jostled and contradicted each other in her brain. It was like a bad dream, in which people one knew quite well behaved fantastically, and one was powerless to escape from some dreadful doom. She lifted one hand to rub her eyes, as though she had really been dreaming. In a voice that seemed to her to belong to nightmare, because it was so quiet, and in nightmares when one tried to scream one was never able to speak above a whisper, she said: ‘Why shall I think it?’

He shrugged. ‘I could tell you, but not convince you. You’ll find out for yourself–when you’re less green, my dear, and know a little more of the world than what you have read.’

‘Will you think it?’ she asked. A faint flush rose to her whitened cheeks; she added humbly: ‘I shouldn’t ask you that, perhaps, but I wish to understand, and I suppose I’m too green–unless things are explained to me.’

‘I think it would have been better if we had never met,’ he replied sombrely.

‘For you, or for me?’

‘Oh, for both of us! The end of the idyll was implicit in the beginning: I at least knew that, though you might not. And also that the more enchanted the idyll the greater must be the pain of its ending. That won’t endure. Hearts don’t really break, you know. No, of course you don’t, but accept it as a truth, for I do know!’

‘They can be wounded,’ she said simply.

‘Many times–and be healed again, as I have proved!’

She knit her brows. ‘Why do you say that? It is as if you wished to hurt me, but that can’t be so. I don’t feel that it can be!’

‘No, I don’t wish to hurt you. I never wished to hurt you. The devil of it was, my dear delight, that you were too sweet, too adorable, and what should have been the lightest and gayest of flirtations turned to something more serious than I intended–or foresaw–or even desired! We allowed ourselves to be too much carried away, Venetia. Did you never feel you were living in a dream?’

‘Not then. Now I do. This doesn’t seem real to me.’

‘You are too romantic! We have been dwelling in Arcadia, my green girl: the rest of the world is not so golden as this retired spot! Only in fantasy does every circumstance conspire to make it inevitable that two people should fall in love! We should hardly have been more isolated had we been cast on a desert island together. Nothing happened to disturb our idyll, no person intruded on us: for one magical month we forgot–or I forgot–every worldly consideration, even that there are other things in real life than being sunk in love!’

‘But it was real, for it happened, Damerel.’

‘Yes, it happened. Let us agree that it was a lovely interlude! It could never be more than that, you know: we must have come to earth–we might even have grown a little weary of each other. That’s why I say that your uncle’s arrival is well-timed; parting is such sweet sorrow–but to fall out of love–oh, no, what a drab and bitter ending that would be to our autumn idyll! We must be able to look back smilingly, my dear delight, not shuddering!’

‘Tell me one thing!’ she begged. ‘When you talk of worldly considerations are you thinking of your past life?’

‘Why, yes–but of other considerations too! I don’t think I should make a good husband, my dear, and nothing else is possible. To be frank with you, providence, in Aubrey’s shape, intervened yesterday just in time to save us both from disaster.’

She raised her eyes to his face. ‘You told me yesterday that you loved me–to the edge of madness, you said. Was that what you meant? that it was not real, and couldn’t endure?’

‘Yes, that’s what I meant,’ he said brusquely. He came back to her, and grasped her wrists. ‘I told you also that we would talk of it when we were cooler: well, my love, the night brings counsel! And the day has brought your uncle–and there let us leave it, and say nothing more than since there’s no help, come let us kiss, and part!’

She lifted her face in mute invitation; he kissed her, swiftly and roughly, and almost flung her away. ‘There! Now go, before I take still worse advantage of your innocence!’ He strode over to the door, and wrenched it open, shouting to Imber to send a message to Nidd to bring Miss Lanyon’s mare up to the house. He turned, and she saw the ugly, mocking sneer on his face, and involuntarily looked away from him. He gave a jeering little laugh, and said: ‘Don’t look so tragic, my dear! I assure you it won’t be very long before you will be thanking God to be well out of the devil’s own scrape. You won’t fall into another, so don’t hate me: be grateful to me for opening your beautiful eyes a little! So very beautiful they are–and about the eyelids much sweetness! You’ll make a hit in London: the young eagles will say you are something like–a diamond of the first water–and so you are, my lovely one!’

The sense of struggling through the thickets of a nightmare again swept over her. There was a way out, so her heart’s voice cried to her, and could she find it she would find also Damerel, her dear friend. But time was slipping away; in another minute it would be too late; and urgency acted not as a spur but as a creeping paralysis which clogged the mind, and weighted the tongue, and imposed on desperation a blanket of numb stupidity.

Venetia (Regency Romances Book 18) by Georgette Heyer

In addition to revealing the devastation in Venetia’s heart, the scene also makes Damerel’s conflicted feelings abundantly clear. His seemingly inconsiderate dialogue is easily read as a deliberate attempt to make himself believe what he’s saying. Note the overabundance of exclamation marks in his utterances, giving a sense of almost manic fervor. Venetia’s words are mostly still and quiet.

And this entire novel is 100% period-appropriate, while still providing protagonists who break their molds in many ways. We admire Venetia’s spirit and insistence that many of the strictures of propriety are nonsensical. Unlike most young women of her time, she has the entire management of her family estate while her older brother is on the continent as a soldier. And Damerel is so flawed and yet beautifully sensitive and intelligent, overcoming his own baser instincts to fall deeply in love.

All of this makes it easy for readers to fall deeply in love, too.