The Default Hero/ine?

I don’t know if I read the same way other people do. But I’ve been thinking lately about the way I read and what I see and pay attention to in the text of books. (And what I miss.) And I have realised something about myself.  I am still working on the why, but here’s what I’ve got so far.

I think I have a “default hero” and a “default heroine”.  I know that typically, blond heroes on covers do not sell as well as dark haired heroes. Maybe that’s why Mr. Default has dark hair – it’s what I’m most used to seeing.  Or maybe that is my own preference. But Mr. Default is tall (around 6’1″ ish), with broad shoulders, narrow hips and a six pack.  Ms. Default is less defined – in that I find it much easier to change her hair colour (is this the influence of book covers again?) but she, typically is around medium height, edging into tall (maybe 5’7″ish), slim, with a nipped in waist and a nice (but not huge) rack.  If I’m reading a book where the characters aren’t particularly well defined, Mr. and Ms. Default step in.  It’s also true that if I’m reading a book where the hero is described as very short or very tall or otherwise outside my “default”, I tend to morph the hero in my mind. I “see” him in my head as around that 6′ mark unless the text doesn’t allow me to.

MagpieLordFor example, in The Magpie Lord, my inclination was to make Stephen taller.  Unfortunately, the text kept reminding me that he was not tall -

He was incredibly unimpressive. Short, for one thing, barely five feet tall, narrow shouldered, significantly underweight, hollow-cheeked. He had reddish-brown hair cut unfashionably close, possibly against a hint of curls. His worn suit of faded black was obviously cheap and didn’t fit terribly well; bizarrely, he wore cheap cotton gloves. He looked like a clerk, the ten-a-penny kind who drudged in every counting house, except that he had tawny-gold eyes that were vividly glowing in his pale rigid face, and they were staring at Crane with something that looked extraordinarily like hate.

I never felt the text hammered it into my head over and over again. It was not annoying. But, I could not see Stephen as anything other than the short man he was.

TheChangeupMr. Default and Ms. Default (or Mr. and Mr. Default as the case may be) are usually relatively close in age as well.  That’s my default.  So, unless the text convinces me an age difference is important, I’m going to picture the main characters as being similar in age/maturity too.  I read The Changeup by Rhonda Shaw recently.  The hero is 22 and the heroine is 34.  I didn’t actually start off thinking that was a huge deal in terms of age difference (because, fundamentally, I don’t think 34 is old).  But the text convinced me it was a problem.  It also convinced me (and I don’t think it was supposed to) that the hero was actually too immature to be in a relationship with the heroine.

TheGoodBoyI also read The Good Boy by Lisa Henry and JA Rock shortly after.  (I reviewed it at Dear Author.) Derek, the elder hero was 37 and Lane, the younger hero was 20.  For some reason I didn’t feel that the age difference meant anything material to them.  Possibly it was because the authors did a good job of showing that the characters related well to one another and that Lane was a mature 20 year old.  (He was certainly vulnerable but maturity is a different thing I think).  But, what if I merely inserted my default?  Did I round Lane up to 25 and Derek down to 30? I might have. I don’t know.

new lifeI was discussing New Life by Bonnie Dee with a friend the other day.  There, the hero is a man who has suffered a traumatic brain injury.  His speech is slow, he stutters sometimes, he forgets or uses the wrong words sometimes and he swears more.  In the text, in the early part of the book, the slowness of speech and the stuttering are depicted with ellipses and dashes – s-s-s-s-ometimes I speak…. s-s-slowly.  That kind of thing. While I found it somewhat distracting to read, it also kept me in mind that Jason had a disability.  But later in the book, those textual clues were gone and I kept forgetting.  I inserted Mr. Default into his role and I was regularly jarred out of that picture by a textual reminder that Jason was brain-injured.  Was that a failure on my part? On the author’s part?  I don’t know.  But I noticed it.  (In real life, as you become more familiar with someone, such things as disabilities or accents become less of a focus. They are just “part of” that person. I think they become assimilated into the whole of the person one sees. Not unimportant, but not “other” either. They just “are”. But that is not to say that the person no longer speaks with an accent – the accent is still there, I just might notice it less. A person who is blind still cannot see, even if I come to know them well.  Accommodations for that person – perhaps reading a menu aloud to them at a cafe – would become commonplace, unremarkable and made without forethought – but there’s no miracle cure because of the power of love.)

glitterlandGlitterland by Alexis Hall (one of my favourite books from 2013) has in it a character from Essex. His speech patterns and dialect are consistent throughout the book.  Brie from Romance Around the Corner didn’t like it – she felt it played too much into the Essex boy stereotype and I know there are quite a few people that found the dialect difficult to parse.  It took a little getting used to for me (but not all that much) but I found it helpful to make Darian a distinctive character.  He never fell into Mr. Default territory for me.  There was just no way the text would allow any substitutes. So, for me, the dialect was helpful in establishing his character.  I had a different view from Brie. I felt the text was also overtly challenging my innate snobbery.  (Neither Brie nor I are any more “right” of course.  We just experienced the book differently.)

I don’t know about anyone else but in m/m romance, I sometimes (often?) have difficulty working out which hero is which.  They kind of morph for me.  In an m/f book, one character is clearly female so that is a point of difference in my mental picture but in m/m romance, the main characters are of course, both men. (And let’s not even start on what happens when there are more than two in the relationship.) If “Mr. Default” becomes both main characters, they look the same to me and I can’t tell them apart. Is that what I’m doing? Am I doing it because I just like “Mr. Default” so much?  Or is there a failure on my part or on the part of the text to differentiate the two characters sufficiently?  I don’t know the answer to that either.

I admit Mr. Default and Ms. Default are also white.  Is that because I am white? Is it because the vast majority of romance books I have read and covers I have seen depict white main characters? (I think it’s probably both) Is this bad? Or is it neither good nor bad?

TheDomProjectI read The Dom Project by Heloise Belleau and Solace Ames recently.  The hero is John Sun (almost always referred to in the text only as “John”).  He is an American of Asian heritage.  I never felt his ethnicity was fetishised or overly highlighted in the text, but I also never lost sight of it.  For some reason – I have put it down to solid characterisation – John was always an Asian American in my mental image of him.  He did not become “Mr. Default”.

no souvenirsDr. Jae Sun Kim is one of my favourite heroes, from one of my favourite books (No Souvenirs by KA Mitchell).  He was first introduced though in Collision Course and my mental picture of him was established in that book.  He is an American of Korean heritage and a doctor.  When I was pondering this post, I wondered if I found it so easy to picture a Korean in his role was because I know and have seen many Asian doctors?  (If so, shame on me). Or, like in The Dom Project, was his racial heritage so firmly embedded in his character that I could not see him otherwise?  Or, more prosaically, was it that he was called Kim or Jae Sun and the ethnicity of the name was enough to establish my mental picture?  If the latter, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Or is it neither?   That said, Shane, Kim’s partner in No Souvenirs was always a ginger with a freckled back so maybe it was the characterisation.

bet meI realise all of the examples I’ve given so far are of male characters.  I do the same thing with heroines but I generally find it somewhat easier to fix their details in my mind (I wonder if this goes back to the hair colour thing on book covers?).  Nevertheless, if their body shape is different than Ms. Default, I often have this weird “instant Photoshop” of my mental image of the character – suddenly morphing from a C cup to a DD or an A, or growing taller or shorter.  I do tend to be a hero-centric reader and it is often the heroes that stick in my mind after a book, which is why, I think, when I was thinking of examples, they were the ones I remembered.  But, I think Min in Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me became, to me, more svelte than I think she was supposed to be textually (and I’m aware that there is a debate that she wasn’t very overweight anyway).  And a “plain” heroine will almost always, in my mind, be pretty – before the makeover – and I think this is the same kind of thing happening.

theperfectrakeEven in Anne Gracie’s The Perfect Rake, where Prudence is described as plain and never has a makeover, I think I was more sold on Gideon’s view of her  (part of the charm of the book) – which was as the most beautiful woman in the whole wide world.  (Then again, I always though Lizzie Bennett in the BBC (Colin Firth) version of Pride & Prejudice was the prettier of the sisters, so calling a heroine “plain” and/or “the least attractive of the sisters” (such as in The Perfect Rake) has never really meant anything to me.  Again, is this just my default?  Or is this the culture where all the heroines are attractive having its impact on me.  Did I get my default from the culture? From myself? From my white privilege? Am I making the heroines pretty because it pleases me to see pretty things?  Or is there something more sinister to it?

Do other people have their own default characters?  Might this explain (at least in part) why, when two people read the same book, they might see something completely different in the characters?

Here’s another question: Did I “create” Mr. and Ms. Default in response to a certain… blandness in characterisation in my reading?  In other words, was there a vacuum and Mr/Ms. Default was created by my imagination (aided perhaps, by pop culture) merely to fill it?  Or, do I “force” The Defaults into my reading for some (who knows what) reason?  Are they only not there when I find the text explicitly convinces me otherwise? Is this something I do every time I can “get away with it”?  If so, what does that say about me as a reader?

I’ve come up with a lot of questions but I don’t know that I have (m)any answers. I plan to pay more attention to those questions when I’m reading and see what answers may strike.

18 comments on “The Default Hero/ine?

  1. Ana

    I had a similar experince with both the Dom Project and Glitterland. The characters were clearly drawn so I had solid image of them (John’s Chrysanthemum Tattoo for example) and in Darian’s case his voice that they were not supplanted by Mr. Default.

    I am pretty certain that my Mr. & Ms. Default are my creations representing my preferred look.

    I do think authors often leave room for the default. I recently read and loved Live by Mary Ann Rivers. The heroine is redheaded, slight and freckled. I never lost sight of that. The hero was described as dark haired, strong hands (woodcarver) and a welsh lilt to his voice. He is also of a undefined racial mix (he was adopted out of London and he doesn’t really know what his racial mix is). To me that meant he was probably partly-East Asian or Afro-Caribbean or both or more. But the specifics were not there and I believe left vague because most of all Hefin is welsh. So I have Mr.Default a tan and curl to his hair went with that.

  2. Tam

    I probably do have defaults but I’ve never thought about it too much. For a guy probably similar to what you described if there is no other description. I’m pretty good at taking in the description though and sticking with that through a whole book. There are some m/m though when I just can’t remember which guy is which. Not sure why that happens but I’m always having to back and check which on is John and which one Adam (or whomever). It’s worse if they are both similar heights, coloring, personality. Perhaps that’s why I like couples with contrast either in age or size or one with tattoos and one without, short hair/long hair. Yes, it adds variety to reading but it also helps me “see” them in my head and not confuse them.

  3. Sandra Antonelli

    I tend to forget what the leads look like as I read. I see them at the start, then the images fade away. I think that is my ‘default’ in most everything that I read. It’s like a having a best friend who is a 6′ 4″ African American man and not being aware of his gender, height, or that his skin colour has a hell of a lot more depth than my pasty white. Those were things I noticed when we were first introduced, but now all I ever see my is my best friend and the (no I’m not trying to be funny or make a statement on Martin Luther King weekend in the US) contents of my friend’s character. Perhaps this means I have a ‘default’ best friend. Mostly I think it’s character behaviour, more than the physical attributes, that defines the hero or heroine in my head.

  4. azteclady

    You pose quite the interesting question–and I find I don’t have a ready answer.

    Except, perhaps, that I don’t–or at least, I think I don’t, must think more on it–tend to default to anything other than what the text tells me, with very few exceptions. But then, even with detailed descriptions, I don’t really see characters as images, unless I happen to be familiar with someone (actor, model, person I know) who happens to match or come close to the description (i.e., Roarke = a young Pierce Brosnan). The rest of the time, I can’t see them in my mind’s eye.

  5. Merrian

    I think it is important and useful as you do, to ask the question – what comes from me-the-reader or from genre standards and are either of those things creating or limiting what can be told on the page/how the words on the page are understood? I also think this is an interesting meditation on how we fill in gaps in our reading or filter the story through our own experiences and yes our privilege is part of that. I am also thinking of Sunita’s latest post and her points “We read genre for comfort” and that usually means the familiar. Because of that tendency we may try to force a book into familiar territory in our interaction with it.

    I was thinking of your example of the disappearing markers of disability and me-being-me would be experiencing that as erasure and constructing a strawman disabled character. What I bring to reading the book is my experience of people seeing the disability together with not seeing the person e.g. the way people with speech difficulties are spoken loudly at or as if they are 3 yrs old or over and around to whoever is their carer. For the markers to disappear arising from my experience isn’t that they are accepted and so elided from consciousness; it could be the love interest’s projecting her default.

    Having a disability shapes every aspect of lived experience and my Self/personhood because we are embodied beings. We wouldn’t be reading that text the same way at all.

    Also I was thinking of how reading about how you/Kaetrin read makes me think about how we hold in mind (or don’t) characters – we have to be able to say that so and so wouldn’t have acted like this because we have in mind the character developed for us by the author and believe in that person. I think when a reader’s default slides into place that is a failure of the writing.

    I don’t think I have default/placeholder heroes and heroines – it is one way of reading. I think I read for the overall sense of believing in these people as people in relationship and the world on the page that will permit and support or create barriers to their happiness. I believe in the characters and their HEA/HFN only when all of it adds up to that possibility.

  6. Kaetrin

    @Ana: I’m not sure there is one answer to the questions I posed. It may depend on the book. There are some books where I think the reader is implicitly invited to use their imagination and fill in the gaps. There are others where I wonder if it’s me being a lazy reader or whether the writing is lazy. And I have a feeling that for some character types (why, I don’t really know), I may try and “force” my default. I’m going to try and pay attention to it and see if that helps.

    @Tam: I’m glad it’s not just me in m/m! When there is a clear distinction between the characters it does make it easier. I have gone back to certain parts of some books to remind myself who is who (and that’s not as easy to do in the digital format).

    @Sandra Antonelli: I almost never have a picture of a character’s face – unless it is one where I think the cover nails it or where there is a line like “he looked like the guy from Justified” or “a cross between Liam and Chris Hemsworth but better looking” both of which I’ve seen fairly recently. I see a glimpse of “startling blue eyes” or a “strong jaw” but I can’t seem to put it together to make a face. In my head, they usually have a kind of fuzzy amorphous blob instead LOL.

    I think the point you’re making about your best friend is more like I was saying in the paragraph re New Life – after a while, in real life, you don’t notice particular features, accents, disabilities etc consciously, or at least not most of the time. All of the parts form part of the whole. I think it’s different in text.

    @azteclady: I actually started thinking about this when I was having a coffee with a friend and we talked about The Good Boy. I wondered why I didn’t particularly notice the age difference, especially because I had in another recent book and the difference here ought to have been more stark – at least I thought it should.

    I don’t think we all read the same. But I like to know how other people read. Also – and I may phrase this badly because it’s more a word picture in my head – sometimes people make assumptions about what other people read – in a book that treats disability poorly for example. Another reader may think “how could anyone think that kind of treatment is okay?” I’m interested in the how of that. Not in a judgey way because I do think people read differently and the lens we use, whether it is a default or some other, or even privilege, is part of that. I like to think about how I read and challenge myself on some of these things too.

  7. Kaetrin

    @Merrian: Thank you for your comment. I’m really interested in what you say about erasure. I’m was talking to Sunita to on Twitter about this kind of thing the other day and her experience of it was different again. I don’t think any of us are *wrong*, but it fascinates me to see the differences. It’s also interesting because in New Life, Ridley (via her review at Love in the Margins) thought the book was very othering and all about his disability and yet I kept forgetting which I found jarring (although, to be fair, I think we were both considering different aspects of the book in this regard).

    Also I was thinking of how reading about how you/Kaetrin read makes me think about how we hold in mind (or don’t) characters – we have to be able to say that so and so wouldn’t have acted like this because we have in mind the character developed for us by the author and believe in that person. I think when a reader’s default slides into place that is a failure of the writing.

    I think that sometimes it is a failure of the writing. But there are other times where I feel like I’m almost trying to force my default and in those situations I think it’s something else. Possibly a failure on my part. Or possibly, it’s about what Sunita was talking about in her most recent post (and as you said at the beginning of you comment) (link: http://vacuousminx.wordpress.com/2014/01/18/reading-beyond-your-comfort-setting/) – trying to make it familiar?

  8. Brie

    Interesting, thought-provoking post, Kaetrin!

    Here are my two half-baked cents:

    I think our defaults also speak of our privilege. I mean, switching to our default is easy when we’re white, because there are a lot of white characters, so chances are that our idea will match the actual description. But what happens when you’re a person of color? When you don’t look at all like what society says is the norm, you’re constantly confronted with your otherness, which must affect the default. Also, you mention the two Asian heroes as having such great characterization that it was impossible for you to replace them with your default; does that mean that we need constant reminders of what makes those characters “different” for us to stop whitewashing them by default? Let’s think about people’s extreme reaction to the casting of a black actress to play Rue in The Hunger Games movie, even though in the text she was described as having dark skin. It was perhaps a vague description (it’s been years since I read the book, so I don’t remember), but it was there. Was the text at fault for not being clearer? I don’t think so.

    You have given me much to think about. I hope I made sense!

  9. Kaetrin

    @Brie: I’m certain privilege plays a part. I don’t know that I can do more than try and become more aware of it because it’s not going to go away.

    As to your question – it might be more: “Does Kaetrin need constant reminders of what makes those characters “different”? LOL Although, in neither of those books mentioned did I feel that it was constantly mentioned so that might blow that out of the water. IDK, maybe the characters are easier to hold in my mind because they’re not my default?

    I haven’t read The Hunger Games so I didn’t have any pre-conceived notions about Rue or any other character in the movie.

    I’ve read a few posts about the importance of having dolls which match the child’s ethnicity and I can glimpse what it must be like but I am from the dominant culture. I feel “other” all the time, but it’s mostly never because of the colour of my skin. I realise I tick almost all of the privilege boxes and I’ve probably really only started on the journey to realising just how privileged I really am and embedding it into my consciousness.

  10. Brie

    @Kaetrin: Actually, I meant all of us who enjoy white privilege. My default is also white, and if the text doesn’t make it clear that the character isn’t, I’ll fill in the blank with white. Being aware of our privilege and acting accordingly is a process, and we’re bound to make mistakes, but awareness is our responsibility and no one else’s.

  11. Jill Sorenson

    This is all very interesting. Audra North posted a short excerpt on her blog a few weeks ago and did a poll asking what ethnicity we thought the characters were. Most chose white. Another author reportedly said she never mentioned the characters’ ethnic backgrounds in her book, but the cover image showed them as white. I immediately assumed that there were other cues in the text about ethnicity, whether the author intended them or not. So I skimmed the pages and found a few (pale skin, pink blush, green eyes). And I thought…really? This green eyed pale skinned man is supposed to be ambiguous? Maybe she meant the heroine. Either way, I think there are so many other things, beyond physical description, that can reveal a character’s upbringing and ethnicity. Culture is not just skin deep.

    I had another recent experience reading a book with a biracial hero. He’s described as “dark” (that’s it) and the cover image does look like a non-white person. I kept waiting for some mention of his ethnicity. At one point he’s hopping over his neighbor’s fences, but not worried that his neighbors will think he’s a burglar. This was a “nice” neighborhood (white?). Later in the story there is one mention of race, and a few small indications, like the way he refers to his mother “my mama.” The heroine was Latina, I believe, and I don’t recall any indication of that beyond her name.

    I’m wondering if there’s something wrong with ME for expecting a non-white character’s thoughts/actions to be different than a white character’s. In my books they are, a little bit. Because I think ethnicity shapes who we are and how we interact.

    I don’t think I have a default hero/heroine image, but maybe I used to. I still find it jarring to see J. Lawrence as Katniss. I’d pictured a completely different, darker skinned girl.

  12. Kaetrin

    @Jill Sorenson: I suppose I focused a lot on physical appearance in my post but it’s truly more amorphous than that. It’s a kind of mental “image” for want of a better word. But it’s not a picture as such. It’s not like I actually see it. When I think of my husband for example, I don’t usually “see” him in my mind. It’s a collection of impressions and emotions and knowledge about him that just makes up my mental construct of “him”. I guess that’s the kind of thing I’m getting at in my post. There are times when my construct is, I think, a substitute for what is not there in the text, there are times when my construct is challenged by the text and there are times when I *think* I may force/try to force the construct into place against the tide of the text (and sometimes I can’t do it even when I realise I have been trying).

    I did read a book recently where the hero was described as having “dark brown skin” but that was the only descriptor which indicated he may not have been caucasian. I still don’t know what his ethnicity was. It wasn’t that it didn’t matter – it was that it wasn’t there to matter one way or another for me. In my “mental construct” he was white with a tan (but so is my “default”).

  13. KJ Charles

    This is a really interesting topic. As a writer, I find myself overdescribing my protagonists, if anything, and the editor takes it out – but I need a solid physical sense of the character to be able to write them. And, as per the comment above about a dark-skinned character running through backyards, people’s behaviour and reactions and life success are informed by their appearances. (I think I’m right in saying, in every US presidential race since the rise of mass media, the taller guy has won.)

    That said, I used to work at a big romance publisher, where I edited an author who was coming to the end of a long career, had a big octogenarian fanbase and didn’t need any whippersnapper editors telling her what to do. She always wrote 3rd person tight POV on the heroine, who was never described – not even hair colour, height, age, anything – and she refused point blank to have characters on the covers, on the grounds that photos fix the character’s appearance and get in the way of the reader’s imagination. In other words, she was actively keen for readers to use their default, because she felt they’d have a better experience of the romance that way.

  14. Kaetrin

    @KJ Charles: Sometimes I think it is a deliberate choice on the part of the author and there are other ways text can require us to engage/use our imaginations. For me, too much of the “default” becomes boring so I *think* I am more actively seeking out those books where the characters are more detailed/individual – and only a little of that is about physical appearance. I think I (wrongly) focused too much on the physical in my post – Mr. and Mrs. Default have certain characteristics and styles and personalities too. And I do think a lack of personality is most likely to be on the writer’s part – although even that may be up for debate. Each reader approaches text so differently and what one reader will think is bland will not be so for another.

  15. Mandi

    I do default characters too – at least to start the book. When I’m not quite into it yet because I don’t have the rhythm down, I go to default mr. short dark hair. And then I’m always taken aback when I realize he is short or has curly hair or something else. So I adjust. But then I think by the time I’m half through, I forget it all and just read.

  16. Jill Sorenson

    @Kaetrin: I don’t think you focused too much on appearance. Part of your point (which I agree with) was that well-drawn characters are consistent in thoughts and actions. The author doesn’t need to hammer home the physical details if the characterization is solid. If it’s not, or we just don’t connect for one reason or another, maybe default comes in. I think it’s pretty rare for authors to not give any physical description. In that instance, I would probably default white, and not just because most romance authors and characters are white. There is a white way of thinking, or not-thinking, about race. White people can go about their daily business without being judged by skin color, so authors rarely include white characters thinking of themselves as white. This is what white default means to me. Authors don’t have to spell it out, because privilege is unspoken, invisible, imbedded in that group. But it’s *there*. This is the way it’s perpetuated also; we don’t even have to acknowledge it!

    About the dark brown hero. I don’t think I’d be able to imagine a darkly tanned white man there, and I would want to know what his ethnic background was. I’d consider it a major fail not to see some other info. But is that my failing? I can probably accept a vaguely drawn white person with few or no background details. It reminds me of a conversation I had with Alisha Rai, ages ago. White people often ask her “what are you?” Why do we have to know?

    Great post and convo! I appreciate you delving into the subject.

  17. Kaetrin

    @Mandi: it is jarring isn’t it? LOL Sometimes I’m all “oops!” and others I’m thinking, “wait, was any of that in the book before?” :)

    @Jill Sorenson: thx Jill. I appreciate your comments. Privilege is something I’ve started coming to grips with but truthfully, it’s only in the last couple years I even heard the term in this context – which probably says something about how great my privilege is. You’re right. I don’t think about being white.

    I can’t even remember now which book I was reading. But it was just one line about 2/3 into the story. It wasn’t mentioned before (that I noticed) or after and there was nothing else about his ethnicity.

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