Thursday, November 19, 2009

The First Hero - Kathleen O'Brien

Even though I lost my father 29 years ago, when he was much, much too young, and so was I, I’ll celebrate his birthday today.

I have silly private rituals that I don’t bore the rest of the world with, but which might, I think, make him smile. He understood that I was emotional, sentimental, a keeper of old flames, slow to relinquish people or feelings or memories. He loved me anyway. Love was his greatest talent, among many.

It’s impossible to do him justice in words, though I try sometimes, especially when I talk to my children about the glamorous grandfather they’ll never know. He looked like a movie star and loved everything about words. He was funny and smart and wrote poetry that could break your heart. He was elegant and wise and imaginative, Gothic and Irish and hopelessly impractical in many ways, like car maintenance or saying no to his daughters. When someone asked him playfully if my sister and I were spoiled, he answered, “If they aren’t, it isn’t my fault.”

He was already gone by the time I sold my first book, so I never talked to him about writing romances. Even so, he taught me most of what I know about heroes. (My husband taught me the rest, but that’s another blog!) When I realized that I’d be posting here on his birthday, I thought maybe I’d look at some of those lessons.

Heroes love smart, determined women. My parents’ relationship had its squalls, and a few hurricane-force winds, but there was never any question he admired her brains and spunk. Whenever I ran to him complaining about her, he’d sternly say, “Kathleen, your mother is a very intelligent woman.” It was his final word, the statement of unyielding solidarity.

Heroes love unconditionally. Whether you’re being a fool, or looking a fright, the real hero thinks you’re wonderful. He encourages you to be your best, but he knows that it’s when you’re at your worst that you need him the most.

Laughter conquers all. My father enjoyed high-brow jokes about Antigone or Hamlet, but he also tossed out idiot puns and limericks. He loved to laugh, and he frequently advised that, when things were bleak, a little “gallows humor” would go a long way.

Brains are attractive. Most of my friends had crushes on my dad, though he was an “old man” compared to the boys they dated. But a knowing spark can make even wrinkled eyes shine. An agile mind is as appealing as a buff body any day.

A real man isn’t afraid to look soft. He’s not afraid to read poetry, or go to the theater, or sit by his sick daughter’s hospital bed all night. He may play tennis or argue court cases aggressively, but his self-esteem is resilient enough to be tender without feeling weak.

Courage is a superpower, and life is going to require it. My father met setbacks with dignity, suffered cruel losses without breaking, and even faced his final, difficult illness without uttering a single complaint. Because no man can promise you a perpetual rose garden, I learned that it’s best to choose one who knows how to handle the thorns with grace.

Are the heroes of our novels perfect? Of course not. And neither was my father. But I’ve never written or fallen in love with a fictional hero who didn’t possess those fundamental qualities. And I’ve fallen in love with many—Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy, Margaret Mitchell’s Rhett Butler, Georgette Heyer’s Duke of Avon and his Devil’s Cub, Dorothy Dunnett’s Francis Crawford, Daphne du Maurier’s Max de Winter. (Well, okay, Max de Winter’s sense of humor wasn’t his strong suit…)

I bet I’m not alone. I’d love to hear about your father, too. What did he teach you about heroes? Post here, or, if you’d like to share it with my eyes only, write me at


Belinda said...

Happy Birthday to Kathleen's dad. The blog post was a sweet tribute to him.
1bmore @ gmail . com

CrystalGB said...

Hi Kathleen. What a great tribute to your dad. My dad taught me that heroes are honest hard working men who put their family first.

Crystal816 at hotmail dot com

Joan said...

Hi Kathleen, my father was in the Army so wasn't around much. I want to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving.

Linda Henderson said...

My father died when I was eight so I don't remember a lot about him.

Maureen said...

My dad taught me that you put your family first. It was a lovely post.
mce1011 AT aol DOT com

Irene L. Pynn said...

My father taught me that love is the most important thing in the world, and that being kind to others is the best accomplishment a person can make. :) Thanks for him!

Happy birthday to Granddaddy. :)

Oh, and /swoon Avon.

Merry said...


Your father sounds like a wonderful man, and by your post, I can see that you inherited a lot of your talent from him. I read all your books, and in each of them, no matter how different the heroes might be from one another, they all have the qualities you've listed in your post. Men like that are hard to find these days. Guess that's why I love your work so much.

Thanks for a beautiful post. And a nice reminder why I read romance in the first place.


Mary Anne Landers said...

Kathleen: Thank you for your touching post.

You were very lucky to have such a father, even if he didn't last long enough. And with a man like him, it's never long enough!

May I speak frankly? I wasn't as lucky as you in this department. My old man was no hero. He plays no role in my creative imagination or the resulting stories, not even as a villain.

However, I have plenty of other inspirations for my heroes. There's always someone to take up the slack.

I wish more romance-fiction heroes would live up to the qualities you listed and described. Too many display the very opposite characteristics. Their creators must focus on their heroes' bad sides because otherwise, there's no conflict; and if there's no conflict, there's no plot.

But I'm no fan of this approach to romance fiction. Sure, such stories are easy to write; but they're hard to read, at least for this reader.

I prefer romantic heroes who are truly heroic and worthy of love; those who embody the qualities you describe. They represent men at their finest, fulfilling a need for so many women---those of us who lack such men in our real lives, and feel the sting of loneliness.

But how can such heroes exist in a genre that centers on interpersonal conflict? I know, it's a challenge for those who create romance fiction.

But as a reader, I keep searching for this kind of hero. As an aspiring writer, I take up the challenge and work hard at creating them. It's great to know I'm not alone in these endeavours.

Keep up the good work!

Caroline Storer said...

What a lovely tribute. Hero's are everywhere. Those fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, my grandfather who fought in WWI, my dad who was in the RAF, my darling DH, my grandson - the list goes on and on. Everyone of them is a hero in their won right. Take care. Caroline x

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Belinda and Crystal, thanks so much for the kind words. It's great to be able to talk about my dad on this day, and I appreciate your stopping by to share it with me.

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Joan, it must have been difficult doing without your dad...but he was obviously out being a true hero. You must have been so proud! Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, as well! Thanks so much for coming by to celebrate with me!

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Linda H, losing your dad so very young must have been very difficult. I was in my twenties, which is a wealth of years compared to what you were granted. I hope at least someone in your family is able to fill in some of the blanks for you. Thank you so much for coming by to share my post about my dad. I hope you have a lovely Thanksgiving!

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Maureen, thanks so much! It's a real joy to be able to share my memories with others today. And your father's lesson..."Family First" the most beautiful one of all! If they don't understand that, the rest isn't worth much, is it? Thanks for coming by, and have a beautiful Thanksgiving!

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Irene, I hope wherever Granddaddy is, he knows what wonderful grandchildren he has. Thanks for coming and sharing your "lessons" from your own daddy, who I just happen to think is pretty awesome, too! :) xoox

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Merry, what can I say? You're far too generous. I do try to incorporate those qualities, but the best-laid plans... :)

Thank you so much for the support. I hope you continue to love romances and the heroes in them for a long, happy time!

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Mary Anne, what a wonderful, thoughtful post. It is so true that it's hard to write a compelling book without conflict, and it's hard for our heroes (or heroines, for that matter) to show their sterling qualities while they're in turmoil. As you pointed out, quite a dilemma.

But for me, what makes a romance worth reading is seeing people struggle past their weaknesses and flaws to let their best characteristics shine through. No one is perfect, but the sincere effort to grow and change and improve, to subdue the bad and nurture the good, is what makes a story capture my heart.

And, of course, the promise that the struggle will not be in vain is what makes romances so rewarding!

I can see that you're wise and analytical about your writing, and I wish you the very, very best of success.

Thanks so much for sharing this day with me.

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Caroline, such a lovely sentiment. It's so true. The war heroes are the ones who take our breath away. That kind of courage is awe-inspiring. Please thank all the heroes in your amazing family for me!:)

Pat Cochran said...

My parents had a rather chaotic marriage. Yet they were together
for 35 years, until the day he
died on the operating table.
Daddy (I'm a grandmother, yet I
still think of him as Daddy)taught
us that despite the problems in a
marriage, a man stayed with his
family and provided for them to
the very end.

Pat Cochran

Mary said...

What a lovely post to your father. My father taught me that sometimes you just have to say no, and be ok with that.

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Pat, that kind of grit and loyalty really speak volumes, doesn't it? Your father must have loved his family very much, in spite of the chaos. What a marvelous lesson to learn--that some things, once started, must be seen through. Congratulations on having such a father!

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Mary, that's such a tough lesson to learn, isn't it? By demonstrating that kind of calm conviction, your father really gave you a gift. Thanks for stopping by to share that--it's really worth remembering in all our lives!

Kathleen O'Brien said...

Belinda, Crystal, Joan, Linda and Maureen, if you'll email me at, I can send your books out to you! Thanks to everyone who came by to help me celebrate this special day!

Linda Henderson said...

Thank you very much.

one6ylady said...

What a wonderful blog entry. Your Dad would be SOOO proud!