Posts Tagged ‘character’

Derek Jacobi as Brother Cadfael

How can an old man and a monk be sexy?  We are talking about the two categories of men that are usually relegated to the opposite side of the word.  This was intriguing to me as I watched the 1994 Mystery series on Netflix.  Because everything I see or hear will eventually end up in a novel, I was curious to deconstruct the character to see what elements were involved that made Cadfael so appealing.

First, I will define sexy.  The simple definition would suggest that something sexy is  someone or something one would want to have sex with.  But inanimate objects are described as “sexy” all the time.  Most notably automobiles…The meaning of the word has achieved some creeping connotations with the success of the advertising industry.  For simplicity I will define “sexy” as “emotionally appealing”.  (That will cover automobiles as well.)

Cadfael is a Benedictine Brother, not a priest, in Shrewsbury (near Wales) in the 12th century and was created in the 1970’s by mystery novelist Ellis Peters. He is an herbalist and healer and finds himself solving murders in a time where justice had a very different meaning than it does today.  This is part of his appeal.

In his youth he was a soldier in the Crusades and was exposed to ideas and cultures of the Middle East when the vast majority of Englishmen rarely traveled ten miles from their place of birth in their entire lives.  This is another part: his great intelligence and worldly experience.

But how can he be so deliciously wonderful?  It is not just me, folks, so let’s get that out of the way.  The series of books was and is very popular and if you have seen the series you can see the enormous expense in filming the thirteen 90 minute episodes.  It is a gorgeous and historically rich production.

So, back to deconstruction.  First, his age.  He is older, yes, though still handsome in a Derek Jacobi way.  He is tall and has broad shoulders, so physically he is imposing and impressive.  Those attributes transcend youth and are always sexy.  He has a limp…he was badly wounded in the Crusades, so this lends an air of vulnerability as well as valor to his character.  Also appealing.

He has retired to peace and quiet, which in the 12th century means a monastery.  He had enough adventure in his youth.  He is not a priest, but has taken vows of obedience and chastity.  This makes him somewhat righteous…and I am thinking of all the youthful “bad boy” motorcycle and vampire characters that are so appealing to young women.  Why? Because bad boys defy authority and act against the social norm. They are courageous in their naughtiness.  Those boys reflect tendencies that are the opposite of a righteous monk.  Cadfael should be boring, un-sexy and dull.  But he is not.

Because Cadfael is a Bad Boy.

Yes.  That is why he is sexy.  Cadfael brings to the stories of murder and mayhem the naughtiness of compassion and intelligence that was sorely lacking in Medieval times.  He insists on finding the truth, wants justice for the dead and the wronged, and will defy the local authority figures to get it.  He does it by outsmarting them.  That is what is appealing to me.  He does not rush in with a sword and kill all the bad guys.  You do not see him walking towards you in slow motion as behind him thatched cottages erupt in righteous and vengeful flames…he outsmarts them…he outsmarts them.


And he lets a confessed murderer go free (In the episode, The Leper of St Giles).  He has a much much deeper understanding of justice than we see today, or for all time.  His compassion is the true compassion of his God, and though the Medieval Church is focused on penitence and punishment, Cadfael (who fought for those ideas in a bloody and senseless Crusade) has transcended those limited beliefs and out-Christians the Christians.  This is delicious too.

And his vows?  The conflict between his great love and compassion for humanity and the necessary renunciation of any kind of physical human contact is painfully evident in the novels and the script.  This aspect makes you want to give him a hug, because he needs a hug many times (he is haunted by the horrors of battle and the loss of his true love)…and yet hugs are not possible.  He flinches from even a touch.  So we have this chasm of compassion for him as well.

Cadfael exists beyond touch, in the pages of a novel and in the light of a screen.  But he touches our hearts.

Cadfael and Beringar discussing murder most foul

Thank you, Ellis Peters.

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What makes a man appealing?  I am sure this question has many different answers, but in Western Culture there are a few qualities that stand out as givens.  While looking at my website statistics, I discovered one lonely search term for Baron Montrose.  All the other terms are for my name or Nadira’s.  Someone somewhere remembered Montrose and was looking for my website with his name.  He must have touched them.

I thought about how I created his character so many years ago.  I started with an idea.  I wanted an interesting man.  A sexy man.  Of course I did.  All novelists do.

Extreme self-confidence is the most sexy trait there is.

I am reminded of this while listening to the radio in the car yesterday.  The new holiday Dos Equis commercial played, you know the one…with “the most interesting man in the world”…and I laughed so hard I almost missed a traffic light.  A dangerous commercial, indeed.

This is the line that got me: “He is the reason the Nine Ladies are Dancing.”

I think the success of the Dos Equis media campaign is due to inspiration by the many amusing Chuck Norris jokes.  He is another man who is neither young nor handsome, and yet he is admired for his fictitious super-powers:  “His tears could cure cancer…but he never cries” etc.

When I create a character I want readers to admire I remember all the characters I have admired over the years, real people and imaginary ones.  When I wanted Nadira to have a counterpoint in this story, I needed to create a person who was opposite her in thinking and behavior, yet had a hidden core I planned to reveal slowly over several books.

I first went to Mr Darcy (of course…the most interesting man in literature…) but he was too dignified.  I then thought of Rochester…but he was too cruel.  I imagined Aragorn…but he was too…ok folks, admit it.  He is not the sharpest tack…right?  And who can forget Heathcliff?  The King of Angst.  The beauty of being a novelist is the ability to create a character by borrowing traits from everywhere.

I imagined a man strong and capable, with a fierce sense of self…who harbored secret doubts about what he had been taught as a child, what his father had taught him about what it means to be a fine man.  But admiration changes based on who is doing the admiring.  Is the admirable man a chameleon?  Does he change to suit his environment and his purpose?  How can one be admired by all unless this is done?

If so, then who are you?  You would have to define yourself by how others see you.  You would be relying on their admiration to determine your own self worth.

This is my hero’s journey.  He was told that he needed to be strong, to be stoic, to be skilled.  He was punished for showing any signs of weakness or emotion.  His duties were set before him, and failure was not tolerated.  When a child is given these directives, what kind of man is produced?

My hero, Montrose, must struggle with opposing forces between the contents of his own heart and mind and the directives of his society.  Long-held beliefs are not easily jettisoned.  Yet extraordinary circumstances can often be the catalyst for amazing self-discovery.  Amazing to Montrose, that is.  The adventure I have created forces the characters to examine everything they have known to be true…and realize how wrong they have been.  This is a difficult process for anyone.  No one likes to admit they are wrong.

But such an admission is admirable in every case.  Mr. Darcy realizes he has been wound a bit too tightly.  Do you remember his smile at the end of the BBC production (the one with Colin Firth)?  Do you realize that for 5 hours you had not seen him smile?  Not once.  What a shock that was, what an emotional release!  And Rochester…his novelist treated him with the most cruelty of all.  I would not have punished him so, but perhaps Bronte felt his cruelty needed to be met with equal retribution to bring him to his knees.  How your heart breaks, seeing this proud man humbled.  And Aragorn…thank goodness for Arwen.  She will keep him in line if he just lets her run the kingdom.

Which brings me back to The Most Interesting Man In the World.  He is many men, and one man.  We know him when we meet him.  The combination of confidence and vulnerability is his strength.  He has the courage to root out his own flaws and amend them.  He may want to be admired by other men for his abilities, but more importantly, he wants to be worthy of his woman’s love.  He wants her admiration more than anyone else’s and will strive for it, overcome all obstacles for it, go to the ends of the earth for it.  Darcy does it, Rochester does it, Aragorn finally picks up that heavy sword.  The hero will persevere until he achieves his goal.  Montrose does it.

He is the reason his lady is dancing.

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