Thursday, 27 February 2014

On rich and poor characters in fiction...

So, do you like the heroes or heroines in the novels you read to be rich or poor? I find poor heroes more appealing, and I suspect most readers agree with me. Though in real life money gives you more options and can indeed make some problems disappear altogether, being rich seems to have a desensitizing effect. Rich people come to believe they deserve their wealth, and that the poor are simply slackers. The knight in the picture looks as if he's being a bit sniffy about the poor man: "Good Lord, man, is this what you call a cloak?"

I'm a fan of Dick Francis's early novels, where the heroes are working hard to achieve their goals but haven't yet made it. As he became a very successful author, understandably his heroes got richer; when the baddies are after them, they hire Mercedes and book into five star hotels. And I find them more difficult to relate to.

Famous poor heroes: Cinderella, Katnis Everdeen, Harry Potter (briefly, till he turned out to have all that gold in Gringotts) Winston Smith, Cassandra in I Capture the Castle, Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennett, David Copperfield, Pip, the March sisters, Sam Spade, Jim Dixon, Han Solo, Rose Tyler, Dave Lister, Madame Bovary, Flora Poste, Gabriel Oak, Becky Sharp, Tess of the d'Urbervilles . . . add your suggestions in the Comments.

Famous rich heroes: Hamlet, Emma, and all those brooding kinky billionaires in that weird new genre, Billionaire Romance, that takes the Jane Eyre meme to ridiculous extremes. Have I missed anyone?

In Disraeli's novel Sybil, published in 1845, a working-class radical, Walter Gerard, describes England as being:

Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.” 

“You speak of — ”said Egremont, hesitantly. 

“The rich and the poor.

And things haven't changed all that much, providing plenty of material for authors to get their teeth into.


  1. I'm always checking into 5-star hotels when people are after me; isn't that what everyone does?

    Great post, Lexi. I agree poor characters are more engaging...

    I would have added Mr Jay Gatsby to the line up of ultra-rich heroes.

    Hope you're well


  2. It's so long since I read the Great Gatsby...could it be classed as a very early example of Billionaire romance?

  3. I think it's the age old thing that we identify with characters who are struggling and if they're poor that's just one more factor in the battle to overcome. Rich characters, by definition, have it a lot easier in many ways and even if those ways are not relevant to the story, perhaps it waters down our sympathy.



  4. Yes - struggle is good, in fiction at any rate. My Russian oligarch in Wolf by the Ears at least had people trying to kill him, to mitigate all that money.

    You could probably get away with a once-rich hero who had lost everything, as in the film Trading Places.

  5. A hero with empty pockets has to be more inventive, more resourceful, and gets into stickier scrapes.
    Don't get me started on Dickens. I got fed up with his novels after a couple as the plots were remarkably similar: poor orphan toils in drudgery until - ping! - up pops a millionaire to rescue them, or they are revealed to be the long-lost child of someone wealthy and bingo! their troubles are over, happy ever after etc.
    It's almost like Dickens got tired writing after 50000 words and just thought, "Y'know, that David Copperfield had an auntie who's just died and left him a goldmine. Fantastic, another serialisation complete, bring on the caviar and playgirls".
    A lot of small-scale problems can be solved or ameliorated by the application of money. Leaky roof? Pay someone to fix it. Children irritating? Send them away to boarding school. House flooded? Walk away from it and buy somewhere in the Bahamas.
    As the saying goes, money doesn't make you happy but at least you can be miserable in comfort.
    One of my heroines has to fit her adventures around a day job in a bicycle repair shop. It would be easier to write if she could just drop a hundred quid on a hire car and hare off to follow the story, but I wouldn't respect her so much...

  6. You're right about Dickens, and I'd never noticed. I'm currently listening to a Dickens spoof on the radio, Bleak Expectations, about Pip Bin and his arch enemy, Mr Gently Benevolent:

    Boarding school is a bit of a ruthless solution to irritating children. Keep them around and they turn into really nice adults who quite like you, with luck.

    If your heroine didn't have to work in a bicycle shop, and her path was eased with cash, your novel might disconcertingly turn into a short story.

  7. I am rather partial to Regency romance novels which are filled with dukes, earls and duchesses and involve the antics of the ton. The hero is often a second son (so doesn't inherit) who may get badly wounded in the Napoleonic wars. The heroine may also have an idiot father who has gambled away her dowry. So the action takes place against a backdrop of obscene wealth and involves surmounting barriers to achieving the HEA, not necessarily being poor.

    I especially like the scenario where the heroine tries to make her way as a scholar or other professional in a man's world. For example Connie Brockway in 'No Place for a Dame' has the heroine as an amateur astronomer who discovers a comet, struggling for recognition. Amanda Quick also has an amateur geologist in the same predicament.

    I guess I'm almost agreeing! LOL

  8. I like your standard Regency Romance plot summary, Q.

    (Am I right in thinking 'the ton' is a made up expression only ever used in modern Regency Romances? It doesn't crop up in Jane Austen.)

  9. Lexi, I had to consult wikipedia (I'm no etymologist!)
    The ton is a term commonly used to refer to Britain's high society during the Georgian era, especially the Regency and reign of George IV. It comes from the French word meaning "taste" or "everything that is fashionable". The full phrase is le bon ton, meaning good manners or "in the fashionable mode" – characteristics held as ideal by the British ton.

    I first encountered the term in books by Georgette Heyer, but I think it is now a standard term used by modern authors.

  10. *narrows eyes*

    And which French word would that be, Q? I think Georgette Heyer made it up.

  11. Origin of TON
    French, literally, tone, from Old French, from Latin tonus
    First Known Use: 1756

    So Jane Austen could have been aware of its use? LOL

  12. Hmm...that's an American dictionary. The online Oxford Dictionary has it, but its unattributed quotes seem to come from Regency romances. That meaning for 'ton' does not appear in the Cambridge dictionary:

    So I'm still betting the expression was not in use in Jane Austen's day, and never has been outside Regency romances.

  13. Lexi, when looking for obscure words I go to an ancient Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary ,1959.

    Lo and behold:

    ton: fashion; people of fashion
    tonnish: modish; having ton

    That's good enough for me!

    Maybe the online dictionaries you searched are curtailed in some way. LOL

  14. 1859, or better still, 1800, and I'd be convinced :o)

  15. Slightly off topic but thought you might be interested to see that Teresa Medeiros, a well known romance author, is going indie and setting up her own publishing house.

    As Bob Dillan might say:
    For the times they are a-changin'. LOL

  16. Very interesting, Q. And what a tactful woman Teresa Medeiros is - not a bad word to say about trad pub, even though she's now totally indie.

    Changing times indeed.

  17. Lexi, I now have an erudite answer to the use of the term 'Ton'

    Dixie Lee said in reply to Quantum...

    From the OED vol XVIII - just a precis because it's too long to type the whole here -

    a. fashion, style, vogue, mode see also bon-ton 1769, Lloyd's Evening Post, 1770, Sheridan, The Rivals, 1778 Miss Burney, Evelina...

    b. People of fashion; fashionable society, the fashionable world 1770 - Venus Unmasked deVries and Fryer Miss "P.D. will only take engagements from billiard table gentlemen, gentlemen of the ton, and young shop men."
    1815 Sporting Mag, 1854 J.S.C. Abbot, Napoleon

    Quantum said in reply to Dixie...
    Thanks For the info Dixie!

    Case b seems closest to modern usage in romance novels
    People of fashion; fashionable society, the fashionable world

    Not sure that Jane Austen would have read the DeVries and Freyer book about prostitution, with her father being a rector, so maybe she was unaware of the term! LOL

    I guess it was Georgette Heyer who really established use of the term 'the ton' in the romance novel to indicate English high society.

  18. That's interesting, Q.

    I looked up The Rivals' quote: "None of the London whips of any degree of ton wear wigs now."

    And Evelina: "it must, however, be owned, that uncertainty is not the ton among our ladies at present," and "O fie, Mr. Lovel! how can you talk so? – don't we all know that you lead the ton in the beau monde?"

    Fanny Burney surprised me. I'd have guessed the snippet I read to be from a modern Regency romance. So you are quite right.

    Perhaps Jane Austen disliked the word, and thought it common, like 'beau'.