Sunday, July 31, 2011

Let's Hear it for the Heroine

We’ve talked a bit recently on this blog about the process of writing historical fiction and the importance of getting the facts right. But do we? Take Admiral Lord Nelson, for example. Now there’s a man worthy of the hero accolade in ever I knew of one and yet he was only five foot six tall. That wasn’t considered below average in his day and yet have you ever read a Georgian or Regency romance with a hero that short? Thought not.

How about an ugly hero come to that, or one with a squint, male pattern baldness, missing limbs or bad breath. I’ve yet to read of a hero who’s human enough to possess any such realities of life. I'm sure there are some. Go on them, set me straight. But until you do, I'm sticking my neck out and saying that I’ve seldom encountered a hero who doesn’t top six feet, have a muscular physique, a full head of thick hair and thighs that look damned good in tight breeches.

Why is that, do you suppose?

Personally I reckon us girls ‘invent’ the sort of man we wouldn’t mind bumping into in a dark alley and then just add the features that do it for us. My heroes are always…well, tall dark and handsome. How stereotypical is that? In my own defence, some publishers do kinda insist upon hunky heroes, presumably because romances are predominantly read by woman and they’re supposed to fall in love with the guy.
Which leaves the poor old heroine to take the brunt of any physical shortcomings on offer. I mean, if every single historical romance had a handsome hunk playing the male lead and a drop dead gorgeous female with an hour glass figure sharing the limelight, things would get pretty boring. I’ve read books that feature heroines who are timid, (don’t try that one at home), plain enough to fade into the woodwork, myopic, flat-chested and even disabled. Daphne duMaurier’s wonderful novel The King’s General is a fabulous example of how that can work when handled with skill and sensitivity.

I’ve written a novel featuring a (shock, horror) overweight heroine. It’s a contemporary and tackles the misery of obesity, the scourge of the modern age. I have high hopes of finding a publisher for it but wouldn’t have dreamt of making the male lead a fattie.

See what I mean? It’s still a man’s world.


Erastes said...

You have a very good point. I always smile -particularly in Roman and Greek stories where the hero is six foot tall--and yet the ruins have door that a woman my height (five six) has to stoop to get through. A guide in Rome once said "ah, men were not tall like Anthony quayle, they were little men, like me!"

I have written disfigured and disabled men, but of course, they probably occupy what people might think of the more feminine role in a m/m relationship.

The obsession with telling the reader exactly how tall everyone is actually annoys me hugely. It's not the first thing I see when I look at a person, to be honest, but that's probably just me!

Good post, dear!

Claire Robyns said...

Hmm, I've read a couple of romances where the hero is disabled, disfigured, blind, etc but always handsome... but then, i think the idea is that, no matter what hero really looks like, to the herione he is handsome.
But I must agree, in general, you're spot on with your analysis. But this is fantasy, and in this world we want tall and handsome. Women readers can identify with a less than perfect heroine (as in they themselves are not perect) but the man they fantasize about is.

Great food for thought and I hope you do find a home for your larger heroine. Personally, I enjoy reading books where heroine is on the bigger side. (Liz Fichera's new Carina Press novel - Craving Perfect - features a big heroine obsessed with being overweight.

Natalie J. Damschroder said...

I always take offense when people say romances are fantasy, but really, my issue is with the assertion that people can't fall in love and live mostly happily with that love, not with the trappings.

Because Claire's right on both counts. About the fantasy part (let's make them the kind of attractive we'd love to hook up with) and the perception part. I had a crush on a guy once who was kind of funny-looking when I first met him, and got kind of gorgeous by the time we parted ways. :)

Heroes don't HAVE to be tall. The guy I loved most on LOST was Charlie, and he was very short. And kind of funny-looking. :) But I guess it's part of the whole primal "can he take care of me" aspect of attraction. Heroines--even historical heroines written from a modern point of view--may not NEED to be taken care of, but it's still buried in there somewhere. :)

Wendy Soliman said...

So far we all agree that the man rules. Hopefully someone will come up with evidence to the contrary.

Susanna Fraser said...

I swear I don't TRY to be the contrary one on this blog...but the heroes of both my published books break at least one of your rules. James in A Marriage of Inconvenience is short. I don't think I ever explicitly state his height in the text, but I pictured him around 5'6". He's still taller than the heroine, and he's extremely handsome and well-built, but he's explicitly described as short on more than one occasion. Will in The Sergeant's Lady doesn't meet all the stereotypes of perfect physical specimen, either, though going into details would be spoilery. And one of these days I'm going to write a bald hero. I'm the wife, daughter, and sister of bald men, after all, and *I* think they're perfectly handsome.

Elyse Mady said...

I recently read Carla Kelly's "The Admiral's Penniless Bride". It's a Regency and the hero is a retired naval officer who's lost a hand and is in his mid 40s. He's not a hunk and they marry for no other reason than that they both like each other and think they would suit. Kelly doesn't shy away from talking about the injury or about the hook he wears. It's really nicely done - I've also read a couple of others (titles completely escaping me tho) where the hero is seriously scarred or blind and they added an interesting aspect to the story.


Cindy Spencer Pape said...

I agree, for the most part my heroes are tall and nearly physically perfect, but when I do go outside the lines, I do it in a big way. In Djinni and the Geek, the guy who was the comic relief in an earlier book, 5'7", scruffy, wears combat boots and rude T-shirts, demanded his own story. And he's still one of my favorite heroes to date. And his heroine, being a djinni, is physically perfect, if a little full figured by modern standards. In Eagle's Redemption, the hero has been scarred by fire, and his hair doesn't grow in on the scarred side of his head so he shaves the whole thing. So a scarred AND bald hero. That one won an award. And I have a liberal scattering of limps and such--I love writing wounded heroes. You're right, though, most of them ARE pretty perfect, at least to their heroine.

Wendy Soliman said...

I knew some of you would come up with less than physically perfect heroes. Good on you! And my husband is folically challenged too but I think he's just perfect!

Natalie J. Damschroder said...

Roxanne St. Claire's recent trilogy had a hero with major facial scars, too. But they don't make him ugly.

I think one of the driving factors is that the readers are mainly supposed to identify with the heroine, and when we live in our own skin, we see flaws that others might not ever notice. Even when the hero has a POV in the book, we don't identify with him, so we're still seeing him only from the heroine's perspective. We COULD write the heroes worrying about their own physical flaws, because I'm sure guys fret about size and potbellies and flat butts and lack of muscle tone as much as we fret about similar things, but honestly, who wants to read that? LOL

Wendy Soliman said...

Sport on, Natalie. I think you've nailed it.

Taryn Kincaid said...

It IS all about the hero.

Romances are still primarily written by and for women and they are fantasies. (Take me away, Calgon Bouquet.)

I have read and loved romances with disfigured and scarred heroes. Laura Kinsale's hero in Flowers of the Storm was a stroke victim, unable to speak, formulate coherent thoughts. And then there are all those vamps and weres and demons and such. But still.
HE is the love interest, the unattainable, the goal. SHE is Everywoman. You know, one of US.

The message is love conquers all and even the clumsy heroine who walks into walls, is blind as a bat, is plump enough that dampening the muslin is out of the question, or has been on the shelf a Season or two too long, can get the guy that has eluded all other women his entire rakish long as she has fine gray eyes, an endearing quirk, is kind to animals, has a knack with plants, treats the servants well, has a quick, bright wit, a lethal tongue and a heart of purest gold.
Oh, and when she sleeps on a pea, we feel it with her.

Wendy Soliman said...

You make your point so well, Taryn, and I can't disagree with anything you say. Damn, people were supposed to shoot me down in flames. I thought I was being provocative. Oh well, back to the drawing board. Next time perhaps.