Mr Darcy versus Mr Bingley

I’ve recently been reading Jessica Morrell’s Bullies, Bastards and Bitches, which is, ostensibly, about writing villains, but also discusses heroes, unsympathetic protagonists, dark heroes and bad boys. It’s a fantastic book, nicely set out, with some very interesting observations about characterisation, and I would highly recommend it to any aspiring (or, indeed, professional) writer. At one point it talks about alpha males and beta males and uses Mr Darcy as an example of the former, and Mr Bingley as an example of the latter. Morrell suggests that women want to marry a Mr Bingley but want to read, and fantasise about, Mr Darcy. It’s an interesting and, I think, accurate suggestion.

Mr Darcy – and most of the romantic male leads in the Madeleine Brent books – are, in some ways, anachronistic. Women do not depend on men in the same sort of way in the modern world, and marriage is not a woman’s sole preoccupation. When I studied A Level Sociology, we looked at articles from the 1950’s giving advice to wives and I remember being particularly horrified by a passage suggesting women take a nap shortly before their husbands were due to arrive home so that they would be suitably refreshed to receive him. They were then to change their dress, put a new ribbon in her hair, and greet the husband at the door with his slippers. In addition, they should not be the ones to instigate conversation because the husband has had a long day and might be tired etc. That being the case, the last thing he wants is a chattering wife bleating dull, domestic trivialities in his ear. Garghh! It’s just too awful! And only fifty years ago!

So, this is a problem with some male romantic leads like Mr Darcy. It might have been fine back then, but modern women do not want such over-bearing coddling. The feminist in me revolts against this character type.

And yet . . .

Who can deny that there is an appeal in spite of all this? I have recently watched the excellent Lost in Austen and am now re-watching the definitive Pride and Prejudice (of Mr Colin Firth renown), and I will admit that I am as much enamoured with Mr Darcy as the rest of the female audience/readership. I will also admit that I am an avid reader of the Madeleine Brent books, even though I feel they are something of a guilty pleasure. I feel I ought not to like them – being modern and all – but I am hooked regardless.

But much as I enjoy Darcy’s character in the book and TV adaptations, a real life version is really the very last thing I would want. And that is because, for me, a Darcy ceases to be interesting as soon as he professes his love. As soon as he does that, he is no longer cold and immovable but just another silly sap mooning after a woman. The book has to end with the marriage because nothing would be interesting after that. You want the characters to get to that point but have no interest in reading beyond it. Nobody likes gooey love, after all.

This is why I think that Jessica Morrell’s suggestion above is an accurate one. Marriage to Darcy may sound great on the face of it, but in reality? Surely one of the most important aspects of a relationship is that you are able to have fun with your partner. For example, I’m not sure that I could have a long-lasting relationship with a guy who refused to wear a silly hat at a Christmas party. There is always one whose vanity forbids it. And there is always one who collects the spare hats, and ends up wearing two, or even three silly hats all at the same time. The cold aloof Darcy routine is fine for creating mystique etc, but it might start to wear a little thin once you were actually married.

So although at first it seems quite odd to suggest that women might prefer one kind of man in dreams, and another in real life, I think there is definitely some truth to this. I don’t know if the same thing applies to male readers having an ideal female character in film/literature but quite a different ideal woman in real life. Presumably the same principle might apply, although I haven’t seen as much evidence of it.

I suppose the point is that characters like Mr Darcy drive the story more, so they are far more exciting and entertaining to read about. Characters like Mr Bingley (or, say, John-Boy Walton, or George Bailey), whilst being ideal husband material, are not exciting, so they do not get to take on the smouldering romantic roles in a book (or film). Perhaps the difference is that real life cannot be exciting all the time – and who would want it to be? As Morrell points out, alpha males are not going to be the types to stumble out of bed to see to the baby in the middle of the night, or clean out the cat tray – or, indeed, take great delight in wearing lots of silly hats at a party. And, much as I love Mr Darcy in the context of his own little fantasy world, in real life I would always rather be with the guy wearing three hats rather than the guy who is too far above himself to even pull a cracker with someone, let alone wear the paper hat inside it.

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Call Me Phileas Fogg

Thanks to the insatiable appetite my parents have always had for travelling, I have been well-travelled since about the age of six. By that time I had been trudging fairly extensively around the Far East as well as the usual places like Europe and America. And I have been thinking recently about how travelling has helped me as a writer. It might sound clichéd, but travelling really does broaden your horizons, and if you can do it from a young age, I think it’s even more useful.

I was a little kid when I went to Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, and so it didn’t occur to me to think: these people look different, this food tastes different, the air smells different, am I happy about this? In many of the photos from these holidays I’m either sat on a filthy pavement cuddling a stray cat or sat on a filthy pavement reading a book. But I put the cats and books down for the sightseeing, obviously, even if I sometimes had to be forced to do so. I have seen the Great Wall of China, and the hieroglyphics in the tombs at the Valley of the Kings, and climbed the ruins in Chichen Itza. I’ve ridden on elephants and camels (although not at the same time, obviously); sat in a sled pulled by huskies (and even runaway huskies on one memorable occasion), and swam with dolphins. I’ve held giant snakes, fed giant tortoises, and had my sandwiches snatched away by monkeys (all right, so maybe I gave the monkey my sandwich because it tasted horrible and I didn’t wish to eat it). In the Far East I’ve been caught in a sudden downpouring of rain so heavy that you’re soaked within seconds, and I’ve walked out of air conditioning into heat so intense it feels like you’ve been smacked over the head with it. We have been swindled, robbed and tricked during our travels – which perhaps is no great surprise given the kinds of back street places we have been known to wander into. My parents are such seasoned travellers that they can now spot a scam a mile off. Not me, though. I’ll fall for any con going. In addition to this, I’ve seen the most beautiful crystal waters on beaches in the Caribbean, and soon got used to the jellyfish bobbing around in the sea on beaches in the United Arab Emirates.

From a very young age, my brother and I did everything on holiday that my parents did. There was none of this going to bed early crap; there was certainly none of this being carried or pushed in pushchairs nonsense (we knew we would have been laughed at if we had even suggested such a thing); and there were absolutely no Kidz Clubz (shudder), which I absolutely loathed, possibly because they did not allow me to sit quietly in a corner and read my book, but instead insisted that I participate in group games with the other children (although I do still have the cap I won in the coca cola drinking contest). I ended up in such a club just once in Jamaica only because my brother was so keen to go. There was a bit of an incident when I ran away at the first opportunity and, I’m happy to say, I’ve never seen the inside of one of these clubs since.

I have used locations from my holidays in both my Gollancz books, and I have drawn on my experiences from them for the Lex Trent books, even if only indirectly (although the midnight markets are created straight out of the night markets I visited in Hong Kong and China). I don’t ever remember a time when I was not well travelled, and I am extremely grateful to my parents for taking us to those places and giving us those experiences rather than molly-coddling us in some English-only hotel year after year. You don’t get a feel for the country if you never leave the private beach, after all. Better to intrepidly venture forth in search of adventure and new experiences and glory! Even if this does mean that somewhere along the line you may get scammed, or robbed; or find yourself horribly lost; or stranded in the middle of nowhere with a flat tyre; or bitten by a really huge bug; or, as in my brother’s case, have copious amounts of blood gushing out of your head on at least two occasions that I can think of. But that, perhaps, makes my parents sound a little more happy-go-lucky than they actually are. They did mop up the blood, after all, and they were only accidents. But, yeah, travelling is great, and all writers or aspiring writers should do it. Just try to avoid the blunt trauma to the head thing – especially when out on safari in the African wilderness surrounded by wild lions, because blood is much more difficult to clean up under those circumstances. And the lions dislike the screaming.

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Paper versus PC

Something I get asked about a lot is whether I write on paper or on the computer. The answer is that I write on the computer, partly because I’m lazy (and so have no wish to spend time typing up handwritten stuff later), and partly because that just works better for me. I wish that I could write on paper. Somehow it seems more writerly to be sat there with a pen and notebook. Very Austen-ish and Bronte-ish and Poe-ish. But, quite aside from the fact that my handwriting is almost illegible, even to me, and that I would almost certainly lose the notebook eventually, the main problem I have with writing on paper is that it’s too difficult to move paragraphs around or rephrase sentences. You end up with a lot of messy crossings out and scribblings. I can make notes on paper happily enough, but actually writing part of a novel directly onto paper is something I find quite trying.

Recently, though, I’ve been forcing myself to write on paper sometimes for the simple reason that I can then go out to the garden. This is nice because it means that Moose can run around and release some pent up energy. It’s also good because I can be working whilst at the same time eating ice cream and drinking beer. Or wine. But not too much beer or wine, obviously, because writing when you’re drunk doesn’t tend to yield particularly good results. Ahem.

Anyway, the point is that working in the garden with sun and ice cream and beer, at hours that suit me, is one of the great things about being an author. I cringed recently when I heard of a company that insists their employees raise their hands and ask permission to go to the toilet in order that the time they’re away from their desks can be timed. Eh? What? Seriously?

I still prefer writing on the computer because I hate having to waste time typing up stuff later. But I’ve found that I can write on paper if I have to, as long as I have a really pretty, girly notebook, and a funky pen. Thankfully, having been to America recently, I am well stocked up on funky pens, including some particularly cool ones from the Rainforest Cafe. 

On a related note, I can’t write if there’s music on, and I certainly couldn’t write in a coffee shop as I know some other writers do. I need quiet because I need to be able to think, and I generally can’t do that if there’s too much going on around me.

Lex Trent is the exception to the above. I’ve written scenes for Lex whilst on a packed train, on holiday, and various other noisy, public places. This is not something I would ever usually be able to do but Lex comes to me so easily that I believe I could write a Lex Trent book on the walls of a cave using nothing but a stick of charcoal. He takes over my head so completely that I’m simply not aware of anything else that may be going on around me. Lex aside, though, much as I have enjoyed being all Austen and stuff, writing in a notebook underneath the pear tree in the garden whilst the dogs enjoy a rare bit of sunshine, and the tortoises walk mashed up bits of food around their pen, I still would take the PC over the paper every time.

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