Top 10 unlikely romantic heroes in fiction

From the disgusting appeal of Christian Grey to the neglected charms of Shakespeare’s Don Pedro, Jenny Colgan picks her favourite difficult dreamboats

In my other job as a romantic comedy writer, I like to write attractive heroes, for obvious reasons. But when I write sci-fi (as Jenny T Colgan), the type of chap is very different. Sometimes – when I’m writing for Doctor Who, for instance – there isn’t really a romantic hero at all (or there shouldn’t be, unless you’re still mooning over those old David Tennant episodes).

When I started writing Spandex in the City, I was interested in people who date superheroes. It’s meant to be something you would automatically want to do – look at Batman and the gorgeous Vicki Vale; Spidey and Mary Jane, Supes and Lois. But actually, going out with a superhero would be awful. They work nights, they’re hyper-intense, constantly distracted – oh, and you might get killed. Only Iron Man’s Pepper Potts seems to get the point that it’s a terrible pain in the neck. So for this book I was working within slightly more difficult parameters than, say, a nice country vet called Will.

But I’m not alone. There are plenty of unusual and/or difficult dreamboats in literature, and here are my top 10.

1. Jude in A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
He wouldn’t physically touch you anyway. He is self-harming, unutterably damaged and generally suicidal, as well as the victim of a book that pushes him further and further into a reader-pranking satire of a misery memoir. But his quiet, gentle suffering and the deep protectiveness he inspires in others mean you will stay with him and weep with him, just as his despairing friends do – long past the point where the plot runs out. That’s real love.

2. Zaphod Beeblebrox in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Yeah, yeah, there is the whole two heads thing. Otherwise, he is a combination of blowhard arrogance (“Hey baby, come with me, I’m from another planet”) and absolute insecurity, which makes him very attractive. Excitement, adventure and really wild things await, although quite how much action you’d get after a couple of Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters remains unclear.

3. Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades novels by EL James
He’s a disgusting, stalking maniac who buys you stuff to keep you onside, creepily turns up wherever you’re likely to be, accesses your personal records in secret, force-feeds you and freaks out if you talk to any other men. He ought to be in prison and he pretends he doesn’t like repetitive vanilla sex when that’s basically all he does. One hundred million copies sold. People are weird.

4. Amit Chatterji in A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
Amit shouldn’t be an unusual love interest. He’s a handsome, well-connected lawyer/poet who writes Lata beautiful verses. Lata, on the other hand, disappointed by already losing Kabir, the real love of her life – SPOILER ALERT – unapologetically blows him off for some pushy upstart who wears two-tone shoes. Sigh.

5. Dr Wilbur Larch in The Cider House Rules by John Irving
A man with a devastating romantic past who does nothing but the best for everyone he ever meets. An overlooked, ether-loving angel of Atticus Finch proportions: goodnight, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.

Ether-eal … Michael Caine as Dr Wilbur Larch in the 1999 film version of The Cider House Rules.
Ether-eal … Michael Caine as Dr Wilbur Larch in the 1999 film version of The Cider House Rules. Photograph: Allstar/Miramax

6. Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
Poor Don Pedro. Brother to Don John the bastard, he sets up Beatrice and Benedick – and in return gets absolutely bupkis. Shakespeare, who normally likes to pair everyone off in a comedy, leaves Don Pedro hanging about on his own at the back of the stage during the closing celebrations, despite his being kind, reasonable and hospitable throughout. The fact that Kenneth Branagh cast stone–cold fox Denzel Washington in his film version shows that he 100% agrees with me. And speaking of Kenny …

7. Guy Pringle in The Fortunes of War by Olivia Manning
He’s a non-fighting, affair-having dilettante Marxist drunk and communist spy who neglects his wife and bumbles about wartorn Europe causing havoc for just about everyone. On the other hand, he reads everything, can recite screeds of poetry by heart, is unstintingly generous, fascinated by people and loves everyone – and as such is utterly irresistible to just about everyone (except for Harriet). In real life, Reggie and Olivia Manning remained married their entire lives, despite numerous affairs on both sides.

8. Boris in The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The unsuitable Russian friend of Tartt’s orphaned hero starts off aged 15. He is really, really drunk. He is also off his face on drugs. He is also completely irresistible. I like to think he’d call me Jenchik.

9. Professor Bhaer in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
He has had a tough time of it, with untold millions of young people shouting, “Marry the rich handsome guy you love, who lives next door, you stupid stupid idiot!” at Jo in a way that echoes down the generations. I, on the other hand have a certain fondness for the “ugly”, “poor”, “tatty” prof. (Honestly, given that Louisa May Alcott is Jo, the words she chooses to describe her husband are startlingly harsh.) But his near-saintly patience for children and the annoying March family, as well as his mostly unstinting support of his working wife make him surprisingly decent marriage material.

10. Sirius Black in the Harry Potter novels by JK Rowling
All the nice girls like a bad boy – just ask the stars of Towie. If that bad boy happens to be secretly, heroically, sacrificing his life for his best mate’s kid – well, that just makes him all the hotter. Oh Sirius, you are missed.


Jenny Colgan

The GuardianTramp

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