In summary, all male MCs (of the heroic rather than villainous type) can be divided into three categories: the Angst Muffin, the Sandwich and the Tray of Pastries.
1. The Angst Muffin is the hero with a dark past (or possibly a dark present) occupying a large part of his mind. It has changed him and left him tortured. If he loves you, he will open up to you about his secret pain. This may take some time: you should probably get yourself a cup of tea before he really gets into his stride.
The Muffin displays his tortured soul in a variety of ways: sometimes he stands around beautifully in the rain, sometimes he descends into terrifying rages, sometimes he does good works and occasionally delivers a cryptic monologue that hints at to-be-revealed pain. The point of the Muffin is that he is, in a very real way, defined by his pain. He also tends to be the most beautiful of the three Types, often with carved marble features and beautiful eyes, and to love once and for all time. Like actual Muffins, these muffins look good and inspire cravings, but are often a little heavy.
The Muffin is actually my least favourite of the three Types, which has baffled many people who confidently expected me to love several Muffins. No, while I have liked some Muffins, I have never and will never love a Muffin. He is the least humorous of the Types and I urgently require funny in my man. Also, I have a short attention span, and am likely to wander off in the midst of the Muffin’s Endless Pain. This is OK: the Muffin is very popular with other people and does not need me, I will not be adding to his Endless Pain. Well-known and/or recent classic Muffins include: Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Louis in Interview with the Vampire, Alec in Swordspoint, Roiben in Tithe, Edward Cullen in Twilight. (I think many of these are fantastic books, by the way. I just also think the heroes are Angst Muffins.)
I might add that Dream in the Sandman series is a Muffin I like, and I think this is partly because he’s written by a man. I am all for MCs being presented as cute by the author (I like the enthusiasm of an author who knows and wants to display her/his character as attractive on many levels, including the physical) but since a Muffin is not my particular bag, I prefer to see a Muffin without that element and instead being poked fun at by the narrative.
2. The Sandwich. A Sandwich is decent and reliable. A Sandwich is a real regular guy, often known by the heroine or the hero (if he’s a main character and not the hero himself, or if he’s one of two possible heroes in a love triangle). If a book focused on a heroine ends with her and a Sandwich, she often spends her time with Muffins and Pastries and ends up so sick of them that she is dying to just have a tasty, nutritious Sandwich for the rest of time.
If the Sandwich himself is the main focus, he often thinks to himself ‘If only I were a Muffin/Pastry’ while the heroine coughs in the background and says ‘You know, I could really use a SANDWICH right about now.’ Sandwiches are often seen as boring, and sometimes seem to just be grabbed as ‘he’s here, and he’s not a bad choice’ much in the same way as people pick up sandwiches when they’re on the go, but it’s a mistake to think of a Sandwich as boring. Sandwiches have layers. They’re reliable, but they’re not dull.
The Sandwich is the least likely of all the Types to be supernaturally attractive, but is usually quite pleasant to look at. Freckles are sometimes involved. Also, a Sandwich is less likely to inspire instant raving passion than the other two Types, so an author generally has to show much more of a Sandwich’s conversation and in-depth relationships.
A Sandwich done badly can be very bland, but there are some Sandwiches who are really for me. Examples of well-known/recent Sandwiches include: Mr Knightley in Emma, Freddy in Cotillion (one of my all-time favourite Sandwiches), Parker in The Bermudez Triangle.
3. Now a Pastry is the diciest MC to define. It’s like in a cafe, when you ask to see the pastries menu: you could get a selection of very different things. Basically all you know is that there’s going to be a wide range, they’re often going to be surprising, and they will be sweeter than you think.
Generally a Pastry is not going to come onscreen looking good. Whether he comes off as an evil slavering monster, a cold-blooded killer, or simply someone who’s rude at parties, the initial impression will not be favourable. A few scenes in, though, and the sweetness of the Pastry will start to show.
A Pastry has a better chance of being supernaturally gorgeous than a Sandwich, but he also has the problem of sometimes being truly, truly hideous or completely inhuman-looking. This helps with the bad initial impression: a good-looking Pastry should usually try to be caught holding a bloody, dripping knife or at least insulting the heroine’s looks in his first scene.
Pastries can end up being a little irritating – like Lymond in The Lymond Chronicles, where at the start of every one of the six books we’re apparently supposed to forget that we saw the the hero’s sweetness in the last book and have reverted to the bad first impression. (This is not to say I don’t like the Lymond Chronicles, I do, but the hero falls into a Pastry trap.) Pastries are my favourites, but now and then you can get sick of Pastries and want a Sandwich, and now and then a really excellent Sandwich will win my love away from a Pastry, however good said Pastry may be.
Well-known/recent Pastries include: Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, Ravus in Valiant, Nathaniel in the Bartimaeus trilogy, Locke Lamora in the series of same name.
There are, of course, variations and blurred lines all over the shop. Sometimes a Sandwich has delusions of Pastry. Sometimes a Pastry has a distinctly Muffiny edge. But when I’m explaining why I liked one hero and didn’t like another, I find it really helpful to be able to say ‘Well, he’s a total Muffin, don’t you see!’ or ‘It’s hard to resist a Pastry.’
… Well, I find it helpful until the people I’m talking to stare and back away, that is.
So do the Three Types convince you at all? And if so, which is your favourite Type?