If you binge-read series like I do, you may have noticed a trend that I like to call the Vanilla First Syndrome. Let’s assume that men are like ice cream and we readers enjoy different flavors. Let’s further assume that our authors want us to have a chance to experience their particular brand’s texture, quality, serving size… Okay the metaphor breaks down there. Here’s my hypothesis: if heroes are like ice cream and authors are brands of ice cream, they frequently choose to offer us a Vanilla hero before serving up the Salted Chocolate Bacon Pecan. (Please someone, sell that ice cream and I will buy the hell out of it.)
I was curious why this trend is so common and whether it was intentional, so I’ve done some “research.” (By research, I mean reading a lot.) I’ve been on a Historical kick lately, binging on Lisa Kleypas, Maya Rodale, and Sarah MacLean, so I’ll be using them as examples. I promise you, the trend isn’t limited to Historicals.
The Accessible Hero
When I say Vanilla, I don’t mean boring. A boring hero is nothing to write or read about. A Vanilla hero is one who doesn’t push the commonly accepted boundaries of attraction or plausibility.
He is probably wealthy, handsome, and broody. He is Angel, not Spike. He has at least two of the trifecta: wealth, sex appeal, initial impression. Spike really has only one, and one might argue that the sex appeal is negated by the constant attempts to kill Buffy in the first few seasons.
Whatever his attributes, he’s accessible. We know the type. We understand and accept that we should (or the heroine should) be interested in him. By the end of the book, he’s proven us right and the Big Misunderstanding or the Tragic Event has been resolved and all is well.
Common Tropes Can Lead to Accessibility
Not wealthy? Not broody? That’s okay. Maybe he’s like Simon Hunt in the first of Lisa Kleypas’s Wallflower series. He’s pretty much THE male archetype: a self-made, incredibly well-built man, painfully in love with our heroine but held back by society’s rules and Annabelle’s self-imposed restrictions. The reader might even hate the heroine a bit because Hunt is so damn perfect and she’s an idiot for refusing him for so long.
Point being – this is a common trope, which makes the hero accessible. Man and woman should be together but society doesn’t approve because he’s poor.
Sequel-bait and the Redeemed Hero
Sarah MacLean’s Rules of Scoundrels series fits this pattern perfectly.
Disclaimer: I adored this series and it’s become part of my romance conversion kit.
First we have Bourne, who is dark, broody, lost his inheritance at a young age and will do anything to get it back. Without getting into spoilers, let’s just say he does a sort of old-school thing to force the heroine’s hand and set up the conflict for the book. There isn’t really a point in the book when you doubt that our lovely heroine will be able to redeem him.
In the first book, we are introduced to Bourne’s partners: erudite Cross, pugilist Temple, and mysterious (and meddling) Chase. Cross is not only pitched as a ginger accountant, but also possibly shy. Temple is on the gruff, terrifying side and has a murder rap. And who the hell is Chase? I don’t know about you, but murderers and accountants don’t usually do it for me. I might not have picked up those books if MacLean hadn’t hooked me with Bourne’s story.
Half of you are probably reading this and thinking “Devil in Winter.” That is the obvious choice here, after all. St. Vincent is the ultimate redeemed hero. He makes some truly awful choices in the first two books of Lisa Kleypas’ Wallflower series and one might even say he’s painted as the villain in the second novel. Which leads me to my next point.
A Conscious Decision?
St. Vincent’s story is so much better for how much we hate him in earlier books. We travel along with the heroine as she starts to warm to him. We discover his motivations and his redeeming characteristics. Sebastian St. Vincent starts this book with only one of the trifecta – he’s handsome. He’s otherwise awful and penniless. Lisa Kleypas has spoken of the challenge she gave herself in redeeming him.
The rest of my hypothesis is this: authors write the accessible hero first so that we can sink into the world they’ve created. Meet the secondary characters, figure out the time period and location, learn the writer’s unique style and rhythm. And it works! If I enjoy the first in a series, I will almost always finish it, regardless of the plot of the next books.
What Are the Possible Drawbacks?
But therein also lies the risk. What if the first book is… boring? What if we don’t love the hero? I’ll admit that I thought the first book in Tessa Dare’s Spindle Cove series was rather bland. I was wishing it over at around 60% which is just never a good feeling to have while reading. My trust in Dare’s skill from reading some of her other novels pushed me to finish, but if that had been my first, I don’t think I would have. The next two in the series hooked me far faster. Perhaps Bram was too handsome and honorable for me.
I’m a fan of series in which everyone is paired off. I find them to be similar to the fantasy series I cut my teeth on – you do the work figuring out the world in the first book, then sit back and have fun for the rest. So I’ll keep reading and testing my hypothesis.
Ice cream is delicious, after all.
Learn more about or order a copy of the books mentioned in this post:
|Secrets of a Summer Night by Lisa Kleypas|
|A Rogue by Any Other Name by Sarah MacLean|
|Chasing Lady Amelia by Maya Rodale|
|A Night to Surrender by Tessa Dare|