Literary Blueprints: The Byronic Hero
Follow this new blog series in 2015, where we’ll delve into the background of character archetypes–the Mad Woman, the Detective, and the Wise Fool, to name a few. In this first installment, we take a look at the Byronic Hero.
Origin Story: In literature, the Byronic Hero’s first embodiment is Childe Harold, protagonist of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. As the name implies, the Byronic Hero was created by British Romantic poet Lord Byron, who himself is often viewed as the living, breathing incarnation of the character type’s namesake. Some critics believe that Byron was simply bored with the Romantic Hero archetype, twisting the ideal to fit his own personal tastes. He also may have been inspired by Hamlet, but that’s just literati gossip.
Characteristics: Like the Romantic Hero, the Byronic Hero is a complex individual who often works against the grain of societal norms. More so than the traditional Romantic Hero, the Byronic Hero is psychologically damaged in some way. Even when he acts in a benevolent manner, it is often tainted by his brooding, dark nature. Essentially, he’s a tortured soul whose turmoil makes him the center of his own world–his emotional (and sometimes physical) scars are too profound for normal people to fully understand him. Naturally, women love him.
This appeal to the ladies is not just rooted in his bruised psyche: the Byronic Hero is often handsome, although there are variations to how that attractiveness is defined. Whether or not he meets the traditional standards of beauty, the Byronic Hero is ripe with sexual charisma. A hapless female may describe being drawn to him for reasons she cannot fully understand, particularly because he is fickle and often downright cruel to her.
Don’t be fooled by his sensuality and wounded soul–the Byronic Hero is a dangerous man to love. He is highly intelligent, cunning, and manipulative, wearing his arrogance like a fine suit. Modern critics sometimes throw around the psychological term “bipolar” because the Byronic hero exists in states of extreme emotions, including anger, which sometimes leads to violent outbursts. Passionate, yes, but also dangerous, especially to those who love him.
That passion also fuels the Byronic Hero’s need for justice. Moral right supersedes societal norms and laws, so this character functions on the fringe. His world is defined in shades of gray, making him appealing to both the females and the reader as his personal code pushes him to defend, avenge, and rescue even when the law (and the odds) are against him. This particular aspect of the Byronic Hero feeds the modern cowboy character and many Gothic heroes.
Famous Faces: Probably the most notorious members of the Byronic Hero role call come from the Bronte sisters: Rochester from Jane Eyre and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights. Lord Byron naturally added a few with works like The Corsair, Manfred, and Don Juan. Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby), Hemingway’s Jake Barnes (The Sun Also Rises), and even Rowling’s Severus Snape (Harry Potter) fall into this category. Modern pop culture is peppered with Byronic Heroes dressed up as doctors, lawyers, and other detectives. It seems we just can’t get enough of this flawed hero, even if loving him is just a little bit dangerous.