What do Sydney Carton, Anakin Skywalker, Jean-Valjean, and Edward Cullen have in common? They’re all Byronic heroes. Troubled, brooding, cryptic, and charismatic—Byronic heroes are archetypal characters who possess all of these characteristics, based on the protagonists featured in the poet Lord Byron's works. There’s no middle ground with these guys. We either love them or hate them, form entire fanbases around them, or recoil in disgust. You may wonder, as I did, what’s the appeal? It’s their inherently mysterious, flawed nature, which makes the Byronic hero so memorable. Whether they’ll turn into an insipid trope of angsty, YA literature, or a compelling, intriguing literary device depends on the writer's skill.
Together, we’ll delve a little further into the traits of the Byronic hero and look at some poorly done examples to see where they went wrong. In the second part of the series, we’ll explore some beautifully done examples and what makes then work.
Understanding the life of Lord Byron himself sheds light on his literary icons. Although a great writer, Byron’s moral rectitude was sorely lacking. He became known for his proclivity for passionate love affairs, his handsomeness (despite a deformed foot), his dysfunctional family life, and his reckless moodiness. The Byronic hero exhibits similar traits. He has a sullen, melancholy demeanor, conflicted moral urges, the burden of dark secrets and suffering, and an undefinable, powerful charm despite his flaws. These essential qualities all Byronic heroes share. Additionally, he’s usually, though not required to be, as handsome as Adonis.
The Byronic hero is also a similar yet distinct cousin of the antihero. The antihero is a character who achieves his goals through unconventional, often morally questionable means, but he doesn’t need to be sullen. He may have a tragic flaw—though he doesn’t have to—but in the end, he remains ultimately heroic. The Byronic hero, by definition, is disturbed and generally passionate. He has redeeming or at least relatable qualities, but he could just as easily be descending into infamy as ascending into heroism. The two archetypes of Byronic and antihero overlap, and may even present themselves in the same character, but they aren’t identical.
The likability and enduringness of any character depend significantly on the author's skill, but perhaps even more so for the Byronic hero. Too upbeat and optimistic, and he loses his Byronic hero status. Too emo, and we can't take him seriously. A successful Byronic hero is believable, compelling, and relatable. We can sympathize with him even if we don’t particularly like him. Let’s start by examining some poorly done examples and where they go wrong.
[Warning: spoilers ahead].
Top Worst Picks
1) Kylo Ren
The central antagonist in the newest Star Wars trilogy, Kylo Ren is supposed to be a savage, formidable, albeit somewhat conflicted villain to foil the heroine, Rey. Instead, he acts like a little boy who doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up, so he imitates the school bully to look cool. Now while I don’t blame actor Adam Driver, I do fault the directing and screenwriting. Kylo comes across as cringy and indecisive. One moment he tries to act cold and commanding; the next, he destroys a console of vital equipment in a fit of rage. Think toddler with a lightsaber. The fact he usually hides behind a helmet would seem a lot more intimidating except that a) we already saw something similar with Darth Vader, b) Kylo takes his off about fifteen minutes after his first appearance on screen, robbing us of the suspense leading up to the “big reveal,” and c) as soon as he speaks without the helmet on, we see that it served in part to deepen his voice, making him look like a pubescent teenage dude with self-esteem issues.
Despite acting more whiney than evil, Kylo suddenly kills his father. Although he seemed capable of random explosions of temper, we're shocked because he didn't seem strong or psychopathic enough to murder his own father. However, despite committing cold-blooded patricide, Kylo forgoes the chance to kill his mother.
The problem is, we don’t see any character development to show how he’s suddenly gained a conscience. He shows no remorse. Nor do we learn why he might harbor vestiges of affection for his mother but not his father. Consequently, Kylo’s actions don’t make sense.
Ultimately, his character is redeemed, and he certainly fits the moody and—from the opinion of fangirls—handsome criteria of the Byronic hero. Nonetheless, he's not particularly compelling. You feel more like grounding him in his room or paddling him than rooting for his downfall or hoping he becomes a good guy. At best, you feel bad for him because he’s so insecure. But while successful Byronic heroes wrestle with internal conflict, they’re never wishy-washy.
2) Edward Cullen
No list would be complete without the Young Adult genre’s most infamous sparkly vampire. After falling for the clumsy, introverted human girl, Bella, Edward does everything he can to protect her. He must reign in his animalistic thirst for blood—especially hers. Morose, flawlessly gorgeous, torn between his innate need to drink blood and his sense of justice and regard for human life, Edward admittedly fits the Byronic image. In fact, he’s more like a Byronic caricature. And to be fair, he’s certainly no wimp.
Unfortunately, he’s still by no means a captivating, relatable character. The culprit is his self-demeaning, fatalistic brooding. One can only listen to so many impassioned speeches and long inner monologues of Edward denouncing himself as a monster, declaring he has no reason to live (except for Bella), bemoaning the constant temptation to drink human blood, professing his undying love for Bella and his unworthiness even to touch the ground she walks on, discussing the woes of relieving high school for the umpteenth time, groaning how no one understands him (except, of course, for Bella), etc. You get the picture. Edward sounds like a guy who needs a few anger management and self-esteem classes, along with some dating advice that includes not stalking your girlfriend.
Readers can indeed find it cathartic to see a character struggling with their flaws. Characters who indulge in self-pity, however, quickly grow stale. They come across more as emo and melodramatic rather than someone with whom the readers want to sympathize. A good Byronic hero does not wallow in self-pity.
3) Ruby Daly
In most cases, the Byronic hero is a male, but Ruby from the YA trilogy, The Darkest Minds, does display several Byronic tendencies. After a disease wipes out most of the world’s children and leaves the rest with superpowers, Ruby develops the ability to control minds. To her horror, she inadvertently erases her parents’ memories. They promptly ship her off to a concentration-style camp where she spends a miserable six years before escaping and befriending three other uncanny kids on the run. Although they, too, have superpowers, Ruby keeps her own abilities a secret, worrying the other children will recoil from her in fear. She also avoids touching them since she dreads erasing the memories of her only friends. It’s an understandable dilemma.
We readers really want to feel sorry for Ruby, too. We can’t seem to warm up to her, though. Like Edward, she spends much of the book calling herself a monster. Her feelings stay at maximum power for nearly the whole book as she bounces from rage to terror to elation to loathing to terror again. In reality, our emotions ebb and flow within a certain range. Yes, Ruby’s situation and her abilities are frightening. But instead of grappling with the moral issues associated with her mind control abilities, she lets loose whenever she becomes angry and then bemoans her hastiness afterward. She’s not really funny or interesting or kind or anything. For all her self-hating talk about the monster she’s become, we don’t see her make a particular effort to be either heroic or evil. We want to see her learn to cope with her powers. Instead, she just complains and puts herself down. What’s a shame about Ruby is that she’s got so much potential: the author could still revive her, but instead, Ruby ends up stagnating. We don’t see her develop much. But a strong Byronic hero should grow.
The characters discussed here are only a few from the type-cast, overly used Bad Boy (or girl) model. The list goes on and on. Yet these three characters adequately embody the three central faults of the trite, unconvincing Byronic hero: indecisiveness, self-pity, and stagnation. What could be an effective literary device has become an eye-roll-inducing trope. The characters are more likely to shine as fodder for memes, brunts of jokes, and cautionary tales against stalking and gothic make-up. (Yes, here’s looking at you again, Cullen). By contrast, a well-written Byronic hero is unique and enduring, while still retaining the quintessential somber charm and mystery. Writing him takes real skill. Even as we look at the mediocre for an example of what not to do, let's not forget to uphold the stellar.
Note: I do not own any of the headshots from the Princess Bride movie. All rights belong to the film-makers.