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30 April 2012

When Is a Hero not like Hugh Jackman?

There’s been a lot of talk around the blogosphere and on Twitter lately about romance’s perfect hero “problem”. About how they’re all TALL, and MUSCULAR, and HOT (essentially, Hugh Jackman, Hugh Jackman in a wig, Hugh Jackman with a shaved head, you get the picture). And I thought, well of course they are, because we see him through the heroine’s eyes. And SHE thinks he’s hot. Right?

Let me go to the personal side for a few examples. My best friend and I are very similar (arty, educated history geeks, close to 6’ tall, with quirky senses of humor that owe a little too much to Joss Whedon), but we couldn’t have more different taste in men. She likes BIG men. BEEFY men. Thick, solid, hard bodied, bullnecked MEN. Hugh Jackman at his biggest is just barely within her scale of manly. When I look at her current boyfriend, I see a husky, wide, unattractive Neanderthal.

She refers to the men I like to date as Great Danes. They tend to be tall, thin, more elf than dwarf if you know what I mean. I use descriptions like swimmer’s body, whipcord, lean. My BFF on the other hand has been known to describe them much as Guy Richie did Madonna (gristle and bone). She does not find my type attractive in the slightest. Hugh Jackman, at his slimmest is pushing maximum density for me.

So, it’s not that every hero in Romancelandia is the hottest guy on the planet, it’s that for the heroine of THAT story, he’s the hottest guy on the planet. And I think that rose-colored-glasses kind of thing is part of falling in love (or it always has been for me). The other women passing him on the street may well be thinking “That guy needs to lose a few pounds” or “Dude, drink a milkshake.”

The other issue that limits the normalization of heroes is that when in their POV, writers don’t tend to show them obsessing about their bodies or looks. He can be self-deprecating about his looks, or apologetic if he’s “rugged”, but he can’t worry his jeans make his ass look flat the way a heroine can.

So I find myself in disagreement with those advocating for more normal or realistic heroes (or heroines for that matter). Because I don’t think that our heroes are examples of impossible standards, I think they’re expressions of how every woman looks at her man when they’re falling in love.

9 Comments:

Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

You may be right, but where does that leave the so-called ban on blonde or red-headed heroes? Or heroes who aren't 6', tan, and muscular (of which the middle attribute is an anachronism in historicals)? Even the "bookish" heroes are more Clark Kent than Flynn Carsen (Noah Wylie in the Librarian series). In my mind, there's a difference between viewing the hero through the heroine's POV, and just regurgitating stock character descriptions (and the character "attributes" that go with them).

8:14 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

There are some scientific studies which say pair bonds can't be formed unless accompanied by lust in the beginning. So I tend to consider attractive physical characteristics (whatever they are) as the current expression of the heroine's lust triggers. No matter how realistic they may or may not be.

Then there's whatever the publisher's marketing departing chooses to put on the cover, to trigger lust in the target audience for this book. There are studies which say that certain hair colors sell better, or tattoos sell better in certain genres, etc. At any rate, whatever goes on the Books's cover may have nothing to do with The heroine's lust triggers (although the author prays it works for the book buying public).

And then there are the more cerebral assets that a hero may have, such as his career. For example, There's a Roberta Gellis reprint coming out whose hero is a mercenary. Yum. Most other authors - including myself - that profession wouldn't trigger lust. But her? It's unusual and I'm intrigued.

8:31 PM  
OpenID angelaquarles.com said...

@Evangeline--There's a ban on blonds and redheads? I've definitely read romances, and not just a smidgeon, that had blond or red hair.... I've also read them where they weren't over 6' etc.

I think you hit it Isobel, it's the heroine who makes him hot. I read something recently about heroine's POV and it said how vital it is to making the reader fall in love with the hero. A reader might never have liked cowboys before, for instance, but once reading about this particular cowboy from this heroine's POV, they now like this cowboy.

FWIW, I like em on your end of the spectrum too. I don't like em all huge...

6:32 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

@Evangeline: I’m not sure where I called for “regurgitating stock character descriptions”, and I’m unaware of any ban on blond heroes (though they often leave them off the cover because the numbers show they don’t sell as well as dark haired heroes). Sadly, there does seem to be a STRONG prejudice against redheaded heroes. So many of us have been asked to change that detail, or to tone down references to it. And not just by editors. My friend Sara Ramsey reported that 2/3 of her beta readers also were not in favor of her hero being a redhead, so clearly the editors know what they’re talking about.

I’ve seen a lot of different types of heroes out there, and I especially love finding a good nerdy professor. Personally, I think Flynn Carsen/Noah Wylie would be a great model for a hero (thin but athletic, bookish, great nose). I could totally write that. Mostly, with each hero I simply try to find one thing that the heroine really notices about him that will echo through the book, and then I leave the reader to fill in the rest.

@Diane: Is mercenary really all that unusual? Depending on the time period, that “job” would be quite common (many of the knights and warriors in Medievals are essentially mercenaries, even if not so described, and in Romantic Suspense I think we get a lot of ex-agent mercenary types, don’t we?).

@Angela: I get caught up in writing tall men because I also mostly write tall women (being tall myself, I find writing Lilliputians daunting). In my Kalen Hughes series I had set up a future short hero, but obviously never got to write his book. And again, it’s all in perspective. When you’re 5’10”, a man who’s 6’ really isn’t all that tall. You can’t even wear real heels!

7:39 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Tall, dark, and hunky does seem to be the fallback position for heroes of Romancelandia. In my (and Amanda and Juliet's) historical fiction the heroes are based on actual personages, so I can get away with war-wounded heroes (including the 5'6" Admiral Nelson who was missing an arm and couldn't see out of one eye -- he never wore an eyepatch: that's pure Laurence Olivier -- and the battle-scarred Banastre Tarleton, who, aside from getting a few fingers shot off during the American Revolution, otherwise fits the tall, dark and hunky. For some reason I have never gravitated toward blond men (my childhood crush on Robert Redford being an exception). But I think dark haired men appear to have more definition in their face and their eyes, those windows to the soul, appear more dramatic with darker coloring off-setting them. And even though I am a redhead, I'm not fond of redheaded men either, so I would fall into Sara Ramsey's focus group.

I'd be interested to know how many heroes are silver foxes with salt & pepper hair. The older I become, the less interested I am in a hero who looks young enough to be my son. I'm about as far from cougardom as you can get. Give me a worldly guy who looks like he's been around the block a few times and could help me navigate the territory, too.

One thing I learned about book covers though, even when you're writing about real people, is that publishers will NOT put a heavyset man on the cover. Note Juliet's cover for DAYS OF SPLENDOR, DAYS OF SORROW. Is that slender Ken doll on the cover meant to be Louis XVI? Hardly, in my view, but the publishers adamantly refused to put a model on the cover who resembled the actual king of France, even when he was in his early 20s. And if the "Ken doll" is, in the publishers' minds, supposed to be Axel von Fersen ... okayyyyy. Axel WAS actually, and famously described as looking like the hero of a novel -- but not a French novel because their heroes were too fey. The real Axel von Fersen had light brown hair (no he was not blond, even though he was Swedish), and eyes of a changeable, indeterminate color, which likely means they could have been hazel. Juliet's characterization of Axel has his eyes reflect whatever color he may be wearing and that makes them appear more blue or greenish some days, or even hazel.

11:28 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

My last book had a prematurely silver-haired hero. Based his looks on a friend’s ex who I always thought was HOT. And I’ve heard Liz Hoyt did one as well (which left me a bit chagrinned, as I thought mine was original, LOL).

2:22 PM  
OpenID annacowan.com said...

As we were discussing on Twitter - the "ugly" hero becomes kind of redundant in romance anyway, because Love makes everyone beautiful. However - both of your Hugh Jackman extremes are still Hugh Jackman. There's still an athletic, muscled body in there, even if those muscles are more of the whipcoard variety. I'm interested in the kind of scale that includes balding and fat. The reason I'm interested is even writing those words was difficult and cringy, because my brain is flashing *not hero material* at me. The heroine would still come to see the "ugly" hero as beautiful, but I wonder whether that would be more about characteristics (intelligence, kindness etc) than physicality. Though for a romance, you'd have to be able to make the physicality work too, obviously. It's a knotty problem that I can barely even see my way through which is, perversely, why it interests me so much.

@Diane - the idea of lust as a bonding agent is excellent. I think when it comes to "ugly" heroes, what would interest me is exploring a complete change of perception. How interesting, how incredible would someone have to be, to make that spark light up, despite the fact that you didn't even see them the first time you met them?

4:37 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

@Anna, well, they've successfully made RomComs with Jack Black as the hero, so anything's possible, but I think once you start describing the hero in patently unflattering terms, you'll have a hard time getting the reader on board. I know tons of people who DNF’s Hoyt’s The Raven Prince when they got to the pot marked description of the hero. If twitter had been around when that book came out, there would have been lots of discussions about it, I’m sure. An ugly hero simply wasn’t romantic to them, it ruined the fantasy element they were seeking. I do think it might be possible to write a book like Molly and Mike, or like the adorable romance between Sookie and Jackson on Gilmore Girls, but I think it would be very hard to convey the personal charm and charisma of the actors, which is why those stories work.

7:29 AM  
Blogger Chris Holly said...

I am sorry but all I really want this man to keep taking his shirt off. Whatever you all think is great as long as he keeps that shirt off!!

10:49 PM  

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