Literature’s finest brooding men: aloof and mysterious protagonists in fiction

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While the charming and funny male leads with a sparkle in their eye have their appeal, there’s nothing like a dark brooding hero.

It isn't enough for these sultry, elusive protagonists to pound their muscular hairy chests and lament. They need to have some substance.

Here are our personal Byronic best with gravitas - the men who take brooding to a whole new level…

Words: Tracy Buchanan

Tracy Buchanan is the author of The Atlas of Us, a new book about love, loss and family secrets set in Thailand just after the devastating 2004 tsunami

Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Heathcliff by Vestergaard

"If he loved with all the powers of his puny being, he couldn’t love as much in eighty years as I could in a day."

Heathcliff is the ultimate beautiful disaster in literature, a man who loves with a ferocity that tears everything up around him. He is a tornado, dark, intense but most of all, loving. He loves Cathy completely and utterly, no questions asked.

Of course, there are readers who question whether he really did love Cathy. When I first read Wuthering Heights as a teenager, I didn’t care about all that, I was spellbound. It was less about substance, more about 'pwoar!'

But now I’m all grown up and writing my own leading men, I can see what a difficult and complex character Heathcliff is. He’s unlikeable in many ways which is risky for a love interest.

How does his appeal remain? Cathy. If a strong character like Cathy can find the beauty in Heathcliff’s dark character, then so can we.

Oliver Mellors from Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence

From the 2006 film Lady Chatterley

"His body was urgent against her, and she didn’t have the heart anymore to fight…She saw his eyes, tense and brilliant, fierce, not loving. But her will had left her. A strange weight was on her limbs. She was giving way. She was giving up…she had to lie down there under the boughs of the tree, like an animal, while he waited, standing there in his shirt and breeches, watching her with haunted eyes…"

There’s something very appealing about an outdoors man like Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper Lady Chatterley falls for. It’s not just the idea of a man getting all dirty and gorgeous in the mud. But also this feeling he’s apart from the world. As people sit nicely in their warm homes, he is under the stars, alone, completely different.

Mellors’s particular appeal lies in how he can take Lady Chatterley away from her world and into his: quiet and with nature, away from the madness of her everyday life.

Isn't literature about sweeping us away from the reality and monotony of everyday life? If a male lead can do that to the main character too, then he gets bonus points.

Jewel from Heroes and Villains by Angela Carter

"Darkness was made explicit in the altered contours of his face. He was like a work of art, as if created, not begotten, a fantastic dandy of the void whose true nature had been entirely subsumed to the alien and terrible beauty of a rhetorical gesture."

I adore Angela Carter's Heroes and Villains. When I first read it, it was like nothing I’d read before, a gothic dystopian novel years before they became all the rage.

And then there’s the feral, deeply flawed character of Jewel, a rough tumble of a tribal boy who drags the main character Marianne from her refined world into his mess of a world.

What I find interesting about Jewel is what I hint at above: he brings Marianne into his world and helps to change her perspective. This suggests a form of dominance on his part.

But what’s so wonderful about this novel is that despite it being Marianne who’s dragged kicking and screaming into this new world, in the end, it’s she who changes Jewel more then he changes her.

Adam from Killing Me Softly by Nicci French

Joseph Fiennes as Adam Tallis in the 2002 film version of Killing Me Softly

"I took off his jacket. His arms were strong and brown, and there was another long, puckered scar running from the elbow to the wrist I copied him and knelt at this feet to pull off his shoes and socks. On his right foot, he had only three toes, and I bent down and kissed the place where the other two had been."

There’s a scene at that start of this novel, which was adapted into a film starring Joseph Fiennes and Heather Graham, where the two main characters see each other across a busy road. It's one of those "eyes meet across a room" moments that’s simply electrifying.

The chemistry continues as we delve into the brooding, intense world of scarred mountaineer Adam. Not only is he completely commanding but he also has a sexy brooding job: a mountaineer, risking his life as he scales the world’s mountains.

As the novel progresses, we see a much darker side to Adam and his appeal is lost as he gets a bit violent with Alice, the main protagonist. You see, as much as I like a touch of darkness in my brooding men, when they start getting abusive and over-domineering, this is where the appeal ends in my view. They turn from stellar to stalker.

But for those first few pages where all we knew was a passionate mountaineer, Adam deserves a mention.

Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling

Severus Snape by Karla Frazetty at

"But this is touching, Severus," said Dumbledore seriously. "Have you grown to care for the boy, after all?"

"For him?" shouted Snape. "Expecto Patronum!"

From the tip of his wand burst the silver doe. She landed on the office floor, bounded once across the office, and soared out of the window. Dumbledore watched her fly away, and as her silvery glow faded he turned back to Snape, and his eyes were full of tears.

"After all this time?"

"Always," said Snape.

Snape oozes brooding Byronic hero. Dark and deeply flawed, he strides around Hogwarts like a cauldron ready to boil over.

At first, we think it’s down to the fact he never manages to get awarded that much coveted Defence Against the Dark Arts role. But eventually, we see the reason for his brooding ways is his lost love: Harry Potter’s mother, Lily. It is this intense love that has always driven him… and tortured him.

Snape is also mysterious. One minute we think he has good intentions, the next we think he’s genuinely evil. We can’t quite get a fix on him. This is the key to a good brooding character, a sense that we can’t quite figure them out. The ability to turn cardboard into chocolate also helps too…

Louis from Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice

Brad Pitt as Louis in 1994's Interview With A Vampire

"I lived like a man who wanted to die but who had no courage to do it himself. I walked black streets and alleys alone; I passed out in cabarets. I backed out of two duels more from apathy than cowardice and truly wished to be murdered. And then I was attacked. It might have been anyone-and my invitation was open to sailors, thieves, maniacs, anyone. But it was a vampire. He caught me just a few steps from my door one night and left me for dead, or so I thought."

How can I possibly finish my list of brooding literary men without a mention of a vampire? Forget Edward Cullen and even Dracula himself, Louis, played by Brad Pitt in the film adaptation of this classic novel, is full of inner angst.

With his killer instincts at constant odds with his human morals, he’s a seething mess. Able to be charming and beguiling when he needs to, he returns home distraught at his actions.

In Louis we witness the eternal inner battle of the Byronic hero between his dark instincts and his desire to be good for the one he loves.

A bit about the Tracy Buchanan's new book ...

How far would you go for the one you love the most?

A stormy love affair. A secret. A discovery that changes everything…

Louise Fenton flies to a devastated Thailand to search for her mother, missing following the Boxing Day tsunami. The only trace she can find is her mother’s distinctive bag. Inside it is a beautifully crafted atlas belonging to a writer named Claire Shreve. But what is the connection between Claire and Louise’s missing mum, and can the atlas help Louise find her?

As Louise explores the notes and mementoes slipped between the pages of the atlas she learns the story of a life-changing revelation, a tragedy and a passionate love affair. And she uncovers a secret that nearly destroyed Claire and the man she loved – the same secret her mother has been guarding all these years…

The Atlas of Us is available in stores around the UK and as an ebook

Photos: Rex Features

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