Sunday, November 25, 2012

Arrogance is not attractive

There's a pattern we sometimes see in stories, of a girl being attracted to a haughty, arrogant guy. The idea is that the sparks of conflict are really sparks of attraction. But it's a dynamic that has always bothered me, largely because I don't think of arrogance as an attractive quality.

One of the cited prototypes for this is Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, where the male love interest, Darcy, is insufferably haughty to the main character, Elizabeth, when they first meet. And these two end up happily married, so ... insulting behavior must be attractive, right? But when I look at the actual text of Pride and Prejudice, what I find is this:

Darcy insults Elizabeth. She's offended and dislikes him. And she continues to dislike him for about thirty more chapters.

His arrogance doesn't make her weak-kneed nor draw out the flirt in her. It turns her off, and while she is polite to him because they have friends in common, she is not attracted to him ("She liked him too little to care for his approbation"). And it is her self-confidence, her refusal to worry about his opinion of her, in addition to their shared interests in reading and walking, that kindles his respect and eventually his romantic interest in her.

This pattern continues throughout the book. Whenever Darcy is high-handed (as in his first disastrous proposal), Elizabeth reacts with disgust. When Elizabeth believes he has unfairly deprived her friend Wickham of an inheritance, she is angry. When he discourages his friend Bingley from pursuing Elizabeth's sister Jane, Elizabeth thinks this is unforgivable.

The turning point comes when Elizabeth discovers that Darcy is not as awful as he has seemed: That he discouraged Bingley's interest in Jane mostly because he honestly believed Jane did not return the feelings. That Wickham not only squandered an inheritance, but played fast and loose with the affections of Darcy's younger sister. At this point, Elizabeth's feelings soften, though not to the point of love (they are described as a mixture of indignation, compassion, gratitude, and respect). Her heart thaws even further when Darcy's housekeeper praises his fairness, kindness and generosity, and when she herself observes his protective affection for his sister. Darcy's willingness to help Elizabeth's own family out of a disaster (instigated by Wickham, no less) seals the deal for Elizabeth. But in all of these cases, it is when Darcy displays generosity and a lack of hauteur that he is most attractive to Elizabeth.

Some could say that the love interest in my first novel shows signs of arrogance. I would agree, but I always thought that the main character liked her in spite of it rather than because of it; there's a point in which he describes her arrogance as her least attractive quality. He really liked her vulnerability and her ability to poke fun at her own privileged status. I believe the appeal of an arrogant character is not in the overconfident shell, but in whatever qualities lie at the core of the character, beneath that shell.

2 comments:

  1. Interesting idea, Jen. The MC's husband in my last story is quite obnoxious at times... arrogant would be a good description. But later in the story we discover he's had a brain tumor that's responsible for the changes in his personality. It results in a stroke, and he becomes a more sympathetic character from that point on.

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    1. Arrogant characters can be fun to write. What bothers me is when another character seems attracted to the arrogance. Just one of my pet peeves!

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