Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
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Holly Lisle's Vision

Romance

Characters Romance Readers Love #1

We Need A Hero!

By Gena Hale

© 2002, Gena Hale

Everyone wants to know the secret to writing a great romance.  Well, here's one of them – romance readers love heroes. 

By genre definition, a hero is the nifty guy who gets the girl at the end of the story, so it should be simple to write about one.  You just create a big hunky muscular genius international playboy billionaire, stick him in an Armani suit, have him growl out some two-word sentences, flex as he walks across the room, and chase a breathless, virginal heroine around for three hundred pages.  If FlexBoy catches AsthmaGirl now and then, let him teach her all about mind-blowing sex while he whispers to her in incomprehensible French/Greek/Gaelic.  You'll have to beat the readers away from the shelves with a stick, right?

Time to Stop Living in the Eighties

If you write a hero modeled after FlexBoy, and if you somehow manage to get your novel published, today's romance readers will probably come after you with pitchforks and torches.  So just toss that beefcake out the window right now.

Let's start with the basics:  today's heroes are men.  Real men come in all shapes, colors, and sizes, and very few of them own Armani suits or work on their abs eight hours a day.  Most men don't have an IQ of 200, aren't gorgeous, or billionaires, or master the Karma Sutra.  Men have real emotions, and they are capable of saying more than “Shut up” and “Kiss me.” 

Bottom line:  Men are not perfect.  Neither is today's hero.

There was a time when you could get away with having a mega-alpha male hero like FlexBoy – the romance genre was practically bursting at the seams with them back in the seventies and eighties.  Some series lines, like Harlequin Presents, still like their heroes to be 75% alpha male.  But something interesting has been happening over the last thirty years – romance readers have been gravitating slowly toward heroes who are more realistic.  In other words, heroes who are more like real men.

You Mean, I Have to Make Him A Couch Potato?

No.  You start by giving your hero his fair share of assets and flaws.  However, there are some flaws that are not considered acceptable in the romance genre, so let's eliminate those right away.  A romance hero is never: homosexual (past or present), a pedophile (no exceptions), a serial killer (rare exceptions include assassins and mercenaries who kill, or anyone who has some official sanction), a rapist (once okay, as long as he was raping the heroine, but now a very big no-no), a serious substance abuser/addict (recovering or past is okay), a wife beater or abuser (past has been done, rarely, but has been poorly received by readers), obese (a little overweight is okay), or a coward (feeling fear is okay, cringing and/or retreating isn't).

And I would personally like to meet a writer who successfully sells a novel featuring a couch potato hero so I can shake his or her hand.

As a writer, you need to find the middle ground – say, someone who falls squarely in the middle of the FlexBoy to Couch Potato range.  You can attack this three ways by finding that balance in the body, personality, and lifestyle of your hero. 

The Body

Today's romance readers still want attractive heroes, so your character should have some physical characteristics that appeal to women – just not every single thing listed in the “What Makes a Hunk” handbook.  At the same time, you shouldn't present your hero as someone who would make the Elephant Man look like Brad Pitt.  Again, think balance.  If you look at any gorgeous guy closely, you'd see obvious flaws.  George Clooney has a wrinkled forehead.  Russell Crowe has that monster mole.  Even Brad Pitt always looks like he hasn't washed his hair for a week. 

So add a little scruff to the buff – give your hero some lines and gray hair and battle scars.  On the latter, try to do something other than the standard, strategically-placed facial dueling scar (unless you're writing historical romance, and even there we already have an over-abundance of ScarFace heroes).

Sometimes a painfully not-handsome hero can shine in other ways.  Sharpen your focus on one or two appealing assets; for example, an otherwise unattractive man can have great eyes, or gentle hands, or a wonderfully deep, soothing voice.  Draw your reader's attention to the little details, and they'll forgive him for not looking like Brad.

The Personality

A hero should be heroic, which means he can have no serious deviant behavior.  However, here's where you can really work more of those flaws – no one lives a charmed life, so let your hero carry some emotional baggage.  What haunts him?  What makes him vulnerable, or angry, or sad?  On the flip side, what makes him funny, or cheerful, or the life of the party? 

Remember that your readers are very interested in the emotional aspects of your hero, so give them what they want – and don't make it two dimensional by having him be a complete angel or a total demon.  Men can be just as emotionally complicated as women, and just as sensitive to life.  Let your hero find his balance by showing both the light and dark sides of his personality.

The Lifestyle

Heroes don't have to be billionaire playboys anymore, but they should have some solid foundation in their lives.  This can be a job or a cause they are dedicated to, or a goal they intend to reach.  The more interesting this foundation is, the more likely it will appeal to the reader, so do your research, and don't make him a sanitation worker.  Another trade secret:  if your hero's work, cause, or goals contrast in some way with those of your heroine, you've got automatic conflict.

Friends and family can be another type of foundation, and today's heroes are usually have at least one other person in their life.  Heroes with extended families are generally well-received (with the added bonus of having a stock of cross-over characters for future novels).  If your hero's a loner or an orphan, give him someone – or something – to care about.       

The Best Kind of Hero

Heroes are great guys.  They go through a lot for our heroines, so they have to be.  Yet how do you if the hero you've created is the best one for your novel?

I ask myself this question every time I sit down to write a romance, and I answer it the same way:  would I let my daughter, or my sister, or my best friend marry him?  If the answer is yes, then I know I've got the right man.