Jun 16 2016 8:30am

Is the First Hero the Most Accessible?: How The introduction to a Series Can Make a Difference

Secrets of a Summer Night by Lisa Kleypas

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.

SEE ALSO: Inspired by Downton Abbey’s Matthew Crawley: Literally Damaged Heroes

Sequel-bait and the Redeemed Hero

A Rogue by Any Other Name by Sarah MacLean

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.

SEE ALSO: Legion of Alpha Jerks: Can Every Hero Be Redeemed?

What Are the Possible Drawbacks?

A Night to Surrender by Tessa Dare

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  






When not reading All of the Things, Suzanne is raising two small valkyries and trying to open a bookstore. Book, comic, and assorted other tweets at @suzannekrohn. 


Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
1. DanaSherwood
Yeah, it's a tough thing. The first hero has to be intriguing enough that the reader wants to buy the whole series, but his issues have to be fixable in 350-400 pages. Some heroes take longer for the reader to get to know, so to do them justice, you sow little seeds about them throughout the earlier books.

I think Sarah MacLean hit the right balance with Bourne. I'd never call him bland, that's for sure. :-)
2. Kareni
I'm trying to decide if Ian MacKenzie (The Madness of Lord Ian MacKenzie) and Dragos (Dragon Bound) could possibly be described as vanilla or
3. Cerestheories
I haven't read either of those, but I do think it's all relative. I love Kresley Cole's Immortals After Dark series and I would never think to say that Nikolai Wroth is vanilla, but when compared to the others in the series... he becomes much more accessible. Paranormal may be a different ballgame altogether as we're already accepting that the Hero is probably a vampire/demon/viking angel/whathaveyou.
Book Monster
4. Book Monster
This is an interesting theory, but one that does not apply to me. I don't tend to read series books in order, and I often skip the first book, lol!
I always go by what I'm in the mood to read, and which book sounds more appealing. If book three of a five book series sounds more interesting than the first book, I will go straight to book three. Sometimes I go back and catch up, but not always. :)
Jennifer Proffitt
5. JenniferProffitt
@Cerestheories, actually if you read IAD in the published order, it's A Hunger Like No Other that was the first. Interested to hear your thoughts!
6. Cerestheories
Really? I thought Warlord Wants Forever was first!
In that case, I think having the leads be from three of the 5 major factions (vamp, were, and valkyrie) fits the intro bill pretty well. But yeah, the hero isn't exactly "vanilla." My husband recently read part of the book and gave it a big ole' DNF because of lots of consent and trust issues, so I think my opinion on it has been tainted. (I did a lot of "but the GROVEL" and "but she is really strong and kicks ass eventually!" and he was like "if teenage boys read this and think that this behavior is okay...") I might have to give it a re-read before I could give real feedback on Lachlan.
Book Monster
7. AlisonR
I have a gut feeling that in PNR and (what I call) military romances it is often that the first male is the biggest and baddest (Dragos is a good example), the Alpha, the leader. After that it's just his team pairing off.

Whether that makes him more accessible is a moot point. I think 'he' often comes across as more inherently unlikeable - it's as if only after he falls can his men follow suit.

Sorry, I'm at work and can't really think of any concrete examples to support my feelings.
8. Cerestheories
One PNR series I can think of that fits is Larissa Ione's Daemonica series. I think the first guy is definitely most accessible. He's the "good" demon brother and in charge of the hospital. The other two brothers (particularly the third) have some crazy stuff going on.

But yeah, sounds like maybe there are two ways to go about it: go big/bad first or build up to it. Could be the way that the military and PNR groups have a hierarchical power structure?
Jennifer Proffitt
9. JenniferProffitt
@Cerestheories, Warlord Wants Forever was retroactively made first, but was actually published later, so if you're looking at the CURRENT reading order, then yes, it's first, but if you were reading them as they were published, no.

I support a re-read, what I think might be...not "more accurate" but... is that the first book either the hero is more accessible OR the book itself is higher concept/tropier so that readers can access that way.
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