Different Strokes: The Princess and the Fallen Commander
In Part Two of the Different Strokes series, Holly March talks about The Fallen Commander and the Princess. Two more archetypes for your arsenal!
Oh boy! Maybe I should have saved this one for last. This is my favourite trope of all time. I frequently tell complete strangers on twitter, and in shops, about how much I love this archetype. He is my Darcy, so to speak. I might need an imaginary cigarette after this one. I have never encountered his trope with a female character, please enlighten me if you have, I would love to read her! The closest is Thursday Next in Jasper Fforde's series of the same name.
The Fallen Commander is a leader, and his troop is always loyal to him. He is strict, even brusque, to outsiders. He may even appear wholly cold. But he has his reasons. He has, in the words of the feather duster from Beauty and the Beast, been “burnt” before.
It is not always that he loved a woman who betrayed him—and sometimes his country/cause. It could be that his brother betrayed him over title-jealousy (Courtney Milan's The Suffragette Scandal). Sometimes there is a commanding officer, or a rapacious sergeant, who broke his honour. In some cases he was tortured by rebelling mages who were possessed by demons, and then a commanding officer used his anger to turn him into a mage-killer, until he finally saw how twisted he had become and turned to the side of good. Seriously. You all need to play Bioware's Dragon Age games.
The Fallen Commander is on hard times, however. He is low on funds, probably because he is supporting his soldiers/dependents/young children, which the heroine assumes are bastards and is horrified, until it turns out they are the spurned children of someone else and oh, isn’t he magnificent?
Be prepared too, for the nightmares, or night terrors. A sound of whimpering in the night, or coming upon him—no pun intended, I promise—late at night with a haunted look in his eyes, and lets the heroine in on his greatest secret. Oh the shame! Oh the wounded male pride!
Perhaps your heroine is even sharing a room, or a tent, or a barn, in a rainstorm and she finds herself holding him until the shaking stops. The terrible things he has done. The terrible things that were done to him. The terrible things that were done because he was not there in time to stop them. They haunt him and return to him in his dreams. This is, of course, the part where he finally admits his past, or at least a part of it. Done right, this is heart-rending and gleefully angsty. He is a broken man; the PTSD is of the romance-novel persuasion though, so love will help him overcome it. Still, do your research into triggers and sensations.
But he also has humour there, beneath the surface. A smile that perhaps his men haven’t seen for a long
time. A teasing tone that makes all the angst worth it. That smug-ass smile after he beats you at chess, seriously, people, Dragon Age.
The humour and the nightmares serve to both soften a character who may have been harsh and abrupt at first, and they garner sympathy, kick in that instinct to protect. Don’t worry, sweetie, I’ll look after you etc. There is nothing, on this earth, as sexy as a strong man weeping. I will say this anytime I have the opportunity. The moment when a man breaks down and lets the heroine under his armour is satisfying every time. It may have been done, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t glorious every time.
This Archetype rarely comes alone. Because he has such Rigid Self Control™ he usually needs a sidekick to pass on information and get the heroine to want to know more. Sometimes it’s the “oh, you thought I was his mistress? Oh no, hahaha, I just owe him everything but we would not suit at all, at all, I am shipping you and him so hard already!” Most likely it’s his second in command, an older soldier from his regiment or the beta male best friend from Uni, College, or Eton.
The Sidekick’s job is to stop the heroine “giving up on him”. If she knew what they knew, she would not leave. He has so many people depending on him, the Sidekick reminds her, and he has to be strong for them.
Be still, my quivering ovaries! Or beating heart. Sorry. I’ll be good!
My favourite examples—outside Cullen Rutherford, seriously, Dragon Age: Inquisition— lie across centuries of romance. Brandon in Sense and Sensibility is one such, though he is more of a risen commander as he is not in straightened circumstances. Lucy Ashford’s The Captain’s Courtesan is one of the most note perfect examples that ticks every box—no pun intended. Trial by Desire by Courtney Milan gives a non-military example of the trope done sublimely. Maisey Yates has done a plethora of them, but I think the most apt example is Wild Ride Cowboy. I have a place in my heart permanently reserved for James Bigglesworth, after reading Affair de Coeur by Capt. W.E. Johns.
But there are examples across every medium. As my frequent urgings about a particular video game show, these damaged darlings are not limited to books. From Die Hard to Mythica, we never stop falling for the fallen. There is a sense of honour to him, no matter how much he may wish otherwise. He will always step up, even if he is stepping up from the bottom of the bottle.
He is best sampled with a lover who is smart, has experience of men—brothers or old lovers—and has some specific connection with him. Either they are working together, or they are part of his past, or with the eternal-governess connection, she is looking after his family. However, this guy needs to protect, so a heroine with her own baggage or enemies to be warded off is prime real estate.
This guy will never go out of fashion. I’ll bet when man first discovered fire and gathered around for story time, we were sighing over the story about the hunt-leader with the mammoth scar and the Tragic Backstory ™.
As for the ladies, this month I am going with another tried and tested across media classic: The Princess. I said I had no examples of the Fallen Commander written from the female perspective, but the Princess works for all genders.
From The Breakfast Club to literal fairy tales, the Princess is an intercultural staple of storytelling. While I might joke about paleolithic storytellers talking about our Fallen Commander, the Princess has her mark throughout oral and written traditions. (Gods! Shakespeare only wrote Princesses and Executive Bitches.) From the mysterious quest givers in the Mabinogion and Arthurian Legend, to Rapunzel and Kaguya, there is always something that sets these characters apart from us, and to which we can aspire.
A Princess begins sure of herself, and ends aware of herself.
The aloof attitude is not the vicious bullying of a villainess. Frequently it conceals a Tragic Backstory™ (Christi Caldwell's The Lady Who Loved Him's Leo or To Wed His Christmas Lady's Cara are examples of a man and a woman in the role). They have been abused or neglected by a wealthy family. This has left them leery of trusting anyone, especially the person who shares narration duties in the novel.
The Princess is often brought low and forced to see their own worth in the eyes of others, and to understand empathy and equality. There is such suffering in the world, beyond the comfort of her ivory tower. Fortunately, this lesson no longer comes with the moral of, Man In Authority Knows Best, as is the case in various old Doris Day and Judy Garland romances of the past.
We who read, who devour books, were often bullied by women who acted like Ugly Stepsisters. We know them when we see them: Isabella in Northanger Abbey, Melody in Alyssa Cole's A Hope Divided; these women are toxic, and the Princess can easily teeter in their direction.This is why it is so necessary to create a bridge between aloof princess and oft-bullied reader. The extenuating circumstances must balance what a reader will consider unforgivable. It is too easy to get wrapped up in the angst and forget to bring the reader with you.
So the Princess may be catty, but she is always kind to servants or wait staff, even if she is a tad condescending about it in the first half of the book. Maisey Yates does a fantastic modern spin with Olivia in Smooth Talking Cowboy, using small town Oregon instead of a Season in London to present a woman who sets herself apart almost without intending to in the face of a society rife with gossip. Once again, trauma explains the separation, and love breaks down the boundaries.
A Princess is often lonely, even if the tower and thorns are of her own making.
After all, a governess chose her position, however hard the choice was. A Princess has no choice but to abdicate and fall, thrive in her frivolity and find purpose, or transcend to Queen-hood. Her arc is usually the driving force of the story, and it is her position which seems to define her. She is being kidnapped, or blackmailed, or targeted in some way. She is struggling with being in the wilderness, or a dive bar, or slumming it on the Millennium Falcon (I am, of course, just using that example for the google results. Leia is not so much a Princess as she is a Spymaster.) The Princess' story is a thing of contrasts, so echoing is a useful tool, harking back to the start of the book when attitudes were different on both sides.
The Princess works with pretty much any other archetype. I particularly like Princess/Governess and Princess/Fallen Commander, hence the pairing of this article.
Any time a young person feels as though they are forced into the limelight and judged for their position in society because of wealth, status, or merely good looks, this Archetype can be brought into play. If Romancelandia had a Tarot deck, the Princess would be at the top.
Edit: Note from writer/editor: I should know better and I am trying to learn to adjust my grammar. I've removed some extreme binary bias in this article. While I still use gendered pronouns, I have removed references to there being two genders, which is simply not true. I am so sorry it took months for this to click with me. You deserve better.
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