Monday, July 26, 2010

Ugly Guys Need Not Apply

A couple of years ago, I had a WIP with a tall, skinny hero. The heroine, who wasn’t initially taken with him, said he looked like Ichabod Crane. One beta reader reacted very strongly to that. In fact, she told me flat out that she refused to read a book where the hero was ugly, and she was certain most other romance readers felt exactly the same way.

Now I’m pretty sure I could find books that would refute that idea (think of all those “so ugly he’s handsome” heroes, or the ones with the crooked smiles or the slightly scary demeanor), but it did make me think. Do romance heroes have to be built like Ryan Reynolds with faces to match? How much leeway are we willing to give them before they just won’t work for most readers? And are we more flexible with heroines than with heroes?

For example, I’m always hearing readers say they want plus-size heroines, or at least heroines who aren’t model-slim cover girls. But how do we feel about the slightly overweight hero? Will we give guys as much of a break as we give women, or do we expect them to do a better job of keeping in shape?

What about the hero-as-klutz? The klutzy heroine is well-established, but do we feel the same way about the klutzy hero? Can the hero break things and not be able to fix them? If his car gives out on a back road, can he be clueless or is he expected to whip out that mag wrench and get to work?

And then there’s the whole uncomfortable topic of money. Culturally, we expect men to get out there and make a living. So how do we feel about the hero who’s broke? Or the hero who hasn’t been successful in life? Will we give those guys a chance, or do we want the hero to be the requisite billionaire-in-hiding?

Of course, those of us in the business of creating heroes can always fall back on personal tastes. I’m tall myself, so I have a thing for tall heroes (all the Toleffsons are well over six feet). I’m also not averse to chest hair, so I made the Toleffson brothers semi-hairy (although some readers found that sort of icky). But I admit, my heroes will probably stay tall and ripped (although thinning hair might be a possibility). And although I could do klutziness, I probably couldn’t do a guy who was a complete failure professionally. Personally, I find competence really sexy!

Still, I think it might be interesting to explore some of the pathways we sometimes don’t let heroes trod. I remember a chat with some of the Naughty Nine where we were doing a little brainstorming. In the course of the discussion, someone floated the idea that the hero was a whiz at cards. It struck me then that it might be more interesting if he wasn’t. If, for example, the heroine was very good, but the hero just couldn’t get the hang of it. Of course, Preston Sturges already tried that in his movie The Lady Eve—the results were hilarious (“Oh,” Barbara Stanwyck, the card-sharp, trills, “you do card tricks!”), but not very romantic. Still, it might be fun to try.

So what do you think? Can heroes challenge romance conventions? And how much will we put up with before we decide a guy isn’t a hero after all? Can we have ugly heroes or fat heroes or clumsy heroes or failed heroes? Or do they all have to be perfect guys who fall for the sometimes very imperfect heroine?


kelly said...

Ooh, more talk about breaking rules! You ask some really good questions Meg. I think a hero is a hero because of who he is on the inside - sacrifice, loyalty, courage, determination. So I could love a hero who starts out going through a rough time, for example in his career - but he has to have the determination and courage to turn that around. I can love a hero who can't change a tire if he will look after the heroine and protect her in other ways. As for his looks - this is probably the one rule I won't break in my own writing - the hero has to be physically attractive. Love handles? Uh-uh? Skinny with no muscles? No. His face can be one that grows on you, and I have a soft spot for stories that go like that- when hero and heroine at first aren't physically attracted to each other until they get to know each other, but once you've described the hero as skinny and bald, it's going to be hard to accept the heroine being so hot for him she can't keep her hands off him!

Skylar Kade said...

Kelly, I completely agree. And I think one of the reasons we, as (female) readers, allow so much leeway for heroines is because often romances are a chance to live vicariously. If the heroine is imperfect, having a gorgeous, successful, talented hero who loves her gives the imperfect reader the idea that she, too, could have the love of that paragon of perfection one day.

Still I think there is some latitude for acceptability. In Jennifer Crusie's "Charlie All Night", the hero is not all tanned skin and chiseled abs, but he's no less a hero.

Meg Benjamin said...

Interesting. Kelly, I hear you on the "hero is as hero does" part of it. And Skylar, I think you're 100% dead on with vicarious living. Still, it's interesting how heroes of mysteries can often be physically and psychologically flawed. But then, of course, more men write mysteries than romances!

CAB said...

so many young men these days are shaving their heads, perhaps that is sexy to some readers?

PG Forte said...

I think a lot depends on the reader. People have very individual tastes. For example, some people like hair, some don't. Some people like blond heroes, some prefer them dark. Some readers will put up with a lot of crap from their Alpha heroes...some of us want to cut them off at the knees when they start acting like jerks!

But a lot depends on how the hero is portrayed--how he acts, how he thinks, will he be there when things get rough?

One of my favorite newer shows (yeah, surprised me too) is Stargate Universe. It really pisses me off that Chloe can't see what a great guy Eli is--especially after the last episode that aired!

MJFredrick said...

I was probably the one who didn't care for your Ichabod Crane hero (though I love Jeff Goldblum, and he played Ichabod once upon a time). I REALLY didn't like the hero in the second Virgin River book--I just couldn't get past the bald head and beefy stature. Same with Catherine Mann's Hot Shot (I kept picturing Vin Diesel and no. Just no.) And Decker from Suzanne Brockmann's Troubleshooters--not my thing.

Yes, I am a shallow, shallow girl.

MJFredrick said...

AND another thing--I'm actually plotting a series where the hero is struggling financially. I wonder how that will play out.

Meg Benjamin said...

Of course, given HEA, a struggling hero will still come out either solvent or seeing his way out in the end. And no, MJ, you weren't the one who was, shall we say, somewhat pissy about my hero.

Erin Nicholas said...

Great discussion! I agree with what's been said about the fact that we, as readers, want to relate to the heroine and still have the fantasy with the hero.

But I also want to go on record as saying Vin Diesel... yum! *G*

Perfect example of how we each have our own preferences! :)

Kinsey Holley said...

I've wondered about this a lot. In the few books I've read where the hero wasn't handsome, he still had a rocking body, and/or lots of money, and/or he was a badass. I recall one set in Australia where the hero's face was definitely not handsome - and I think he had a scar - but gosh darn it, he was just so male, so charismatic and animal magnetic and buff, yada yada, that it didn't matter. And the truth is, even in real life guys can get away with that.

Guys can be sexy, charismatic, sensual without being handsome, as long as they've got competence or machismo or affluence or artistic talent (look at all the skinny little hipster guys who get laid.) Hell, Malcom Gladwell apparently pulls a LOT of chicks.

I think a hero with money problems, or a hero who's not particularly tough, is a bigger risk than one who isn't good looking. Maybe it's because I prefer big burly alpha guys in real life, but I don't think you see a lot of true beta males in romance.

Unknown said...

I definitely agree with Kinsey, sheer masculinity can overcome... certain physical disadvantages (although, not THOSE physical disadvantages!)

That said, I love a skinny, lanky man in real life, but none of my scrawny men friends have ever really pushed that manly-man button.

It's an interesting thought, what we will allow from our heros and heroines, one I'll keep thinking about, no doubt.

Harlie Williams said...

Interesting topic. I would like a hero that is physical flawed and the heroine falls in love with him anyway. How about an average guy, no six packs, shaves every day, maybe doesn't know how to dress like the typical romance hero in a book. Things of that nature, I see every day. One guy at work is sexy as hell and he wears a uniform and has a little bit of roll around the middle but lord, his shoulders and his eyes get us girls every time we see him. And yes, we are all happily married and so is he........

Beauty and perfection is in the eye of the beholder they say, but I say if we can have physically flawed heroines, than why not heroes?

Again, great post!