by Mary Jo
Today's Ask A Wench blog comes from a question by Jeannette Halpin in Virginia, who asks:
"I have always thought it interesting that in almost all of the books I have read (about 200? maybe?) almost all of the heroes/protagonists are BIG men, over 6 feet, massive shoulders, huge biceps. etc etc. And I wonder why. Have you all done your own research as to what the readers of your stories prefer? "
The only "normal" sized guy I can think of without too much effort is in Mary Jo Putney: Richard Dalton who first appears in The Bargain, then comes into his own in The Diabolical Baron and makes an appearance in The Rake. I find Richard Dalton/Davenport very attractive, and he is much more like my imaginary "friend" in the ongoing novel I will never write!
MJP: Thanks, Jeannette! Since who doesn't like talking about heroes, here are some Wenchly responses:
I've sometimes wondered if the inspiration for the big, brawny hero (especially of a Scottish persuasion) comes from this advertising for Scotts Porage Oats. He certainly has massive shoulders and bulging biceps! I have the impression that the muscle-bound hero with the six pack is pretty popular, but I can't say that I have researched whether this is actually true. I guess everyone has their own idea of what a perfect hero looks like.
My heroes tend to be tall, but not excessively so, and not necessarily brawny. I do confess to liking a corded muscular forearm - or preferably two, but other than that I prefer men who are solid and strong rather than very beefy. Lean and rangy works for me too. In The Lady and the Laird the heroine, Lucy, comments that the hero, Robert, is too big and muscular but then she is tiny. It's all relative. I think I write the type of hero that I find attractive, but a hero is very much the sum of all his qualities, including physical appearance, a confident demeanour, and a strong personality. For me a man could be very good looking but if he doesn't have a great sense of humour and other appealing qualities then the looks alone are not enough. That said, if he brings a bowl of porage oats with him I might be persuaded to change my mind!
While big hunky Highland heroes have often appeared on my romance book covers, the heroes aren't always big, muscle-bound alpha dudes inside those covers. The stepback for Raven's Moon, years back, featured a handsome, shirtless former Mr. Universe--who looked a far cry from my long, lanky, sexy Scottish lawyer hero. The apparent proliferation of hunky heroes in romance is due in part to decisions made at the publishing level about what they believe sells and appeals. The rest is up to the author.
I don't prefer a towering, dominant muscled-up guy in my stories or in reality, so I don't usually write them. Though I'm used to being around tall, big guys--as a small woman married to a tall guy and surrounded by tall sons--and so I'm used to looking way up at them and used to the sheer physical space they can occupy (as in, please move those enormous feet, I'm trying to cook in this kitchen!). Yes, I'm partial to taller heroes, and I usually give them some height in relation to the heroine. In my books, if the heroine is on the tall side, her hero is usually just a smidge taller; and a smaller heroine in my books may get an average size hero.
No matter their size, it's the compelling physical presence and the charisma of the hero that counts. I don't exaggerate them physically--there's no need. I'm more interested in creating romance heroes who are attractively strong, lean, fit and tallish, but natural with it. A beefed-up, souped-up guy doesn't seem natural (or attractive), since my heroes are not alpha and animalistic--they are warrior poets. Strong and capable, with a deep soul and a hidden poetic mind--wisdom and substance enhancing and elevating just the right amount of brawn.
I will say that I've written a couple of big, brawny, beefy heroes very purposefully. I wanted their physicality to contrast their inner nature--they were quiet, deep, kind, interesting guys in some state of emotional recovery (cue the heroine). The unexpected play and tension of physical brawn vs. mental agility and sensitivity is very interesting, and can add a nice richness and complexity to the character. They're sexy not because of their beefcakiness, but beyond it, with depth and value within--truly gems in the rough, as it were.
Ah, the question of what a perfect hero looks like is such an interesting one! Brawny men with bulging biceps do appear often in romance novels, but I must say, I’ve not pictured my heroes as such . . . probably because I tend to create the type of man I find attractive in my books. (Hey, I have to spend a lot of time with them, so I want to enjoy it.) Personality aside—that’s a whole other blog!—I like lean, lithe men—strong, yes (and they do tend to be tall) but in a more subtle, whipcord way than possessing big, beefy muscles. So that’s the type of hero I like to write. And their attraction comes not just from their physical looks, but also from the way they carry themselves, and the attitude they project. A man who radiates a sense of calm, strength and a sense of being comfortable in his own skin is, to me, infinitely more alluring to me than a lunk who’s got nothing but outward good looks. Sexy is very cerebral as well as physical!
"Have you all done your own research as to what the readers of your stories prefer?"
My market research consists of reading every book I can fit into my schedule. I’ve done this since before I started selling books, because I like to analyze what makes things tick. Very early on I discovered that romance bestsellers almost entirely include physically large heroes, at least, until an author reaches automatic bestseller stage.
But I fear my contrarian ways tend to ignore my own research. I write heroes the size they need to be. If I have a petite heroine, I generally do not have a giant hero because the combination doesn’t fit well in my head. In Sweet Home Carolina, my hero overcompensates for his not-large size through marksmanship, but he’s wealthy enough to get what he wants otherwise.
So I vote that every hero ought to be his own man, and size of character counts.
Anne Gracie here:
It's an interesting question. In reality I think most women care far more about personality than size, but romance novels are a kind of fantasy, so we're writing to a perceived ideal, physically speaking. I don't find muscle-bound big men attractive, so I don't write them. Tall, yes, and strong, definitely, but with the kind of pumped-up, gym-honed, muscular types that so many publishers put on the covers of romance? Not for me. (Not that I get men on my covers for some reason.) I prefer the kind of physique that Australian Rules footballers tend to have -- tall, lean, hard-muscled and fast. Click here to see what I mean.
That said, my secondary romances tend not to follow this pattern. I wrote a medium-sized, slightly plump duke in The Perfect Rake — Edward — he was a sweetie. And Giles Bemerton, the hero's best friend in The Perfect Waltz was fairly short, though handsome and charming. I have fun with my secondary romances, playing outside the "lines."
My heroes ... Well, all of them are strong. All muscular. Beyond that, I've consciously tried to pick different 'physical types' for my heroes. I don't know that it's so much I'm trying to match hero to reader taste. It's more that I just want to write about different kinds of men.
So I got me a big, hulking fellow -- Doyle. He's a great, lumbering bear of a man, perhaps the closest to the ideal of a 'hunk'. Doyle is one of those ancient warriors born out of his time, a throwback to an earlier, simpler society where men ruled by sheer stature and physical strength. If you wanted something heavy moved, you'd pick him.
And if the world were falling apart around you, you could hold onto such a man and be safe.
Another character, Grey, is a military man. He's tall enough that he'd see over a crowd; he's well-muscled in an understated way; but dress him in fawn breeches and a well-cut coat and he'd fit nicely into any ballroom. You'd might maybe notice he carried himself, with a military straight back. You might see a gravitas in his posture and movement that comes from commanding men. Not so much a man of muscle as a man of controlled and disciplined power.
And if the heroine's task is to oppose all that self-disciplined drive ...
And there's nothing of the hunk about my dandy-ish Hawker. He has 'the body of an acrobat, one of those slight, tightly-constructed people'. His body almost never entirely relaxes. Always there's a little thrum of vigilance running through him. He's of less than average height, but more than average deadliness, so that works out well for him.
I think a reader would find herself staring eye-to-eye with Adrian. That's almost a challenge in itself, for both the man and the woman, meeting a Romantic interest on terms of absolute equality.
I think we Wenches have a fondness for the sleekly muscled male rather than the heavily built ones, and so do I. I'm not sure why this should be as clearly some women really go for bulging muscles. I wonder if our tastes don't have something to do with the periods in which we choose to write.
I don't do heavily muscled Georgian and Regency heroes because they don't get my heart pounding, but also because it would spoil the lie of the clothes! You don't see many hefty guys in period portraits, though there are plenty of fat ones.
On the other hand, I do enjoy writing medievals and there's more likelihood of big muscles there. If you grow up training and fighting in chain mail or plate armor and becoming dextrous with a large sword and shield, you have to develop some bulk. I'm always a bit bemused by the slender warriors we see in later medieval illustrations. Artistic license, or am I wrong about them needing bulk?
It sure doesn't sound as if there's much Word Wench support for muscle bound men! Physical build is clearly situational. In Nowhere Near Respectable, my hero is a big broad guy--who faints at the sight of blood. (I liked the contrast. <G>) I've had heroes like Richard Davenport or Lord Robert Andreville, who were average height at best, while others are tall and lean. I do like a good set of shoulders, but not overall bulky.
So Jeannette, for offering a question that's used here, you get to choose a copy of one of my books, so you can pick the physical type you like best!
What about you? What physical type do you like to read about? What would you like to see more of? Or less of?!!