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?