Exeter, Devon UK • Apr 18, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home Screen Tropes: The Bryonic Hero

Tropes: The Bryonic Hero

Sam Bovey discusses the iconic trope of the Byronic Hero, assessing whether it is a positive representation for audiences.
5 mins read
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Image: Pixabay

The Byronic Hero, sometimes referred to as the anti-hero, is perhaps one of the most influential, yet problematic character tropes for books, films and TV. The first thing which comes to mind is a brooding, dark-haired, charismatic male character, stood on a cliff, or riding alone on horseback. There’s a strange magnetism here – you know you shouldn’t like them, but you can’t help rooting for them. But why do people gravitate towards someone like Thomas Shelby if he’s shooting someone in the head? 

To find answers we have to briefly look at the first examples of the Byronic Hero, with Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812 – 1818), in which the protagonist exhibits eerily similar qualities to Byron himself. Childe Harold is dark, brooding yet capable of deep emotion, which he locks up in the vault of his soul (sorry I couldn’t help being dramatic!) This captured the imagination of many writers, leading to a myriad of other iterations of the Byronic Hero, such as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1847), and Count Dracula in Dracula (1897) (which owed a lot to Polidori’s sadly overlooked The Vampyre (1819)). This morally vague and complex trope became entrenched in the minds of many readers and writers, and it was not about to fade over the subsequent decades… 

The rising role of cinema in the 20th century led to the Byronic Hero assuming a different guise, with the same core elements but a different name: ‘cowboy’. Clint Eastwood’s ‘Blondie’ (aka ‘The Man With No Name’) in Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) epitomizes this famous yet morally problematic figure. He was a ‘strong’ silent type, internally conflicted by sometimes unmentioned past traumas, yet driven by his strong emotions, and often gaining respect from those he encounters, due to his brooding charisma. 

Han Solo, Michael Corleone, Wolverine and Thomas Shelby are indeed mysterious, emotionally complex, witty and sometimes isolated from their fellow characters.

Since the popularity of cowboy films has waned, there have been many other versions of the Byronic Hero. Despite their names being different the Byronic Heroes in these films still rely on the same basic character traits. Han Solo, Michael Corleone, Wolverine and Thomas Shelby are indeed mysterious, emotionally complex, witty and sometimes isolated from their fellow characters. In these films the viewer is captivated by their morally grey nature: you’re never quite sure what will push Wolverine or Michael Corleone over the edge. Sometimes they are more reserved, yet their inner suffering and volatility is still visible in their faces (Han Solo and Thomas Shelby). Of course, vampires remain popular as well, from John Mitchell in Being Human (2008 – 2013), to the nauseating Edward Cullen in the Twilight film series (2008 – 2012). Also, the Byronic Hero sometimes takes a secondary role in a series, such as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter film series (2001 – 2011). Apart from looking like a vampire his infatuation with Lily was arguably Heathcliff level – he really needed to lighten up!

…this archetype sadly relies on a set of negative, masculine stereotypes, such as men being ‘silent’, bottling their emotions and being defined by events which happened to them years ago.

It seems pretty obvious now the Byronic Hero is still immensely popular and has branched into various genres, however, there are serious flaws with this archetype that I have to address. Whilst it is entertaining and captivating to watch Thomas Shelby wandering around Birmingham in slow motion, this archetype sadly relies on a set of negative, masculine stereotypes, such as men being ‘silent’, bottling their emotions and being defined by events which happened to them years ago. Luckily, more is being done to combat this, with female representations of the Byronic Hero often delving into the psychological implications of being female and Byronic – for example Griselda Blanco in Griselda (2024). In addition to this screenwriters are implicitly warning male viewers who might seek to immolate the Byronic Hero trope, with a counteracting, psychological exploration into Thomas Shelby’s PTSD. This ensures a balanced representation occurs to reflect how antiquated tropes can be repurposed to benefit young men’s mental health, and to ensure fairer female representation. 

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