Friday, November 7, 2008

The Plus-Sized . . . Hero?

Russell Crowe, Jon Favreau and James Gandolfini - no skinny boys here!
(photos from Internet Movie Database)

Posted by Christina Harlin

Romance novels have come a long way in being willing to portray romantic heroines as imperfect. No longer must your standard romantic heroine be a porcelain-skinned, size two, flawless beauty. She is permitted to have the normal foibles of women everywhere and I’m glad for it. Our heroes have caught a few breaks too: they are not required to be traditionally handsome so long as they are oozing masculinity all over the place.

But I have read a lot of romance novels and cannot recall one in which the hero was less than perfect in his physique—and I am not talking about the size of his, um, muscles, but about his weight. Romantic heroes are never overweight. Okay, it’s a fantasy-world, and six-pack abs probably serve better for fantasy material. I get that. But in my own entry for the Casablanca Series, My Boss is a Serial Killer, which is a romantic suspense comedy, my hero Gus Haglund is the finest hunka man that Carol Frank has ever laid eyes on, and he is, by her description, about ten pounds on the heavy side.

Ten pounds isn’t much, certainly isn’t bordering on the morbidly obese. Still, this minor physical flaw (and I use that term very loosely, cause like Carol, I personally love a man with some meat on his bones) has made me wonder. Just how much imperfection can a romantic hero have before the audience is turned off? Level-headed Carol states that she fully appreciates a man who isn’t obsessed with his looks, and well she should, having been married to, and divorced from, a vain musician who left her for a model. Imagine the most attractive man you’ve ever met—then imagine him ten pounds heavier. Does it matter? Probably not. Now imagine the most romantic hero you’ve ever read about, and do the same . . . does it start to matter then?

There are plenty of male stars who lean toward the pudgy side and have no trouble attracting a female audience, though they aren’t asked to do quite as many shirtless scenes, either. Think James Gandolfini, Russell Crowe, or Jon Favreau. I like to think that we’re all smart enough to know that it’s the mind that counts first, and the body second, but I’d like opinions on this.

Does the adorable detective Gus Haglund get a pass on his penchant for donuts, or does he need to get to a treadmill? (Yeah, doubtful. I’d no sooner put Gus on a diet than I would put Carol at a candle party. And you’ll have to wait until April to find out what that means.)

Still, do we demand perfections from our heroes that we know would be unfair to demand from our heroines? Can a romantic hero be heavy? Be completely bald? Have an enormous nose? Be only five-foot-four? Can a good author create a romantic hero so lovable that what he looks like doesn’t even matter . . . or is that the rule that cannot be broken?

Sound off, readers!


  1. Hi Christina - you cite some good examples of actors, but, for me, I'm reading for the escape, the fantasy - I want a physically hot guy as well as emotionally wonderful for the heroine. But, as you know, this business is totally subjective, so others might feel differently. This is a great post and I'd love to read what other people think.

  2. To me, Russell Crowe is the perfect man. I don't think of him as pudgy, unless he puts on weight for a particular role, as he did in "Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World" or the recent "Body of Lies".

    And there are numerous bald men who are really sexy! Patrick Stewart of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" leaps to mind.

    "Hot" like "beauty" is in the eye of the beholder.

  3. 1. Great post Christina!

    2. Russell Crowe is not the slightest bit attractive to me. In fact, I would avoid a movie he was in because I find him so unattractive.

    3. Ten pounds extra pounds on a romance hero is okay (but no more than 10). Five foot four? Not fine. Bald? Hmm, he'd need many other attributes for me to dig that. Enormous nose? Noooo. A hero's flaws are usually found in his personality, his back story, his inability to commit, his overbearingness, etc. Hardly ever are they physical.

    In romance, the guy must be hot. It's part of the escape as Judi points out.

  4. Hear, hear!
    I wrote about all kinds of guys before I started doing aliens, and they had all kinds of flaws, so I'm okay with extra pounds, five foot four, AND a big nose, as long as he's a lover!
    Romance novels have always bugged me that way: it's as though you have to be beautiful or handsome, rich or talented to find love, and love is so much more universal than that!
    And,BTW, I absolutely LOVE Russell Crowe!!!!

  5. My husband is five foot four, but as I am only five foot one, he always seems tall to me. And he has always been my very sexy hero.
    I tend to think beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
    Many of the world's best actors have been short and they've been powerful and romantic. And there have been some sexy bald ones too, Yul Brynner, Bruce Willis spring to mind. OK so they may not be your particular idea of sexy, but others adored them.
    In The Lady Flees Her Lord, Hugo as his name seems to imply to me, is a "bear of a man" use your imagination how you will.
    I think honestly all of this focus on physical shape for men and women has created unrealistic expectations to the point where the media airbrushes or digitizes people into shapes and forms in adverts that would be impossible for a real human being. And yet we are supposed to aspire to it. I thought the dove video was incredibly revealing.
    There was a comedy movie recently, darn it forget the name, where the hero, (who fathered a child after a one night stand with a glam girl) was on the cuddly side, and not a "buff" male at all, but it ended up being very romantic between the two of them. He was a nice guy.
    Don't get me wrong, I love a man who has a great bod too, but I think I am agreeing with Christine when I say there is room for more than one kind of hero.

  6. All very interesting! I think maybe some of it is what is fun to write rather than what the writer thinks the audience will read. If you boil it down to the simplest terms, a good writer should be able to write any kind of hero/heroine that groups of readers will adore. People who want that total escape will prefer their characters to be the fantasy ideal, and that is fine. But if a reader is not so picky, then they will most likely embrace the fella who is beefy or bald! Or the ample bosomed gal. I'm not all that knowledgeable on all the romance that is out there, but I do like it when I see movies with a romantic lead who is not the traditional handsome. I think of not only Russel Crowe (who I think very sexy) but also the more 'cute' like Tom Hanks or Bill Pullman (While You Were Sleeping).

    For me personally, I had Matthew Macfadyen as my original muse for Mr. Darcy and he is FINE in my book! But, for many of my other characters I have steered more toward gentlemanly, decent characteristics with humor as the driving attraction.

    Great post Christina!

  7. I am so glad that someone is thinking along these lines. It's funny, that when I am reading a
    romance novel and they describe a perfect woman, it is always through the eyes of what we think a man would think is attractive. Please don't ask me to ever type that sentence again. It was hard enough the first time. I usually kind of roll my eyes when reading the physical attributes of the hero. I think my husband is totally dreamy, and he is fighting the battle of the bulge also. But, what is sexy in a man, of husband, is the way he looks at me.

  8. Hey, Christina! Excellent, thought-provoking post. I don't think I would ever make one of my heroes plus-sized, partially because of escapism and all that, yes, but mostly because I write guys I myself find sexy, and that's just a personal taste issue. In general, I figure I'm basically just sketching out a hottie hero for my readers, and they can fill in the blank spaces with their own imaginations. Every reader's mental picture of a hero is going to be completely singular...if they have a thing for more bear-ish guys, I suppose their image of heroes they read is going to lean that way no matter the exact description, and I think that works because none of us goes into such detail that we give the hero's measurements anyway. Everyone has a different idea of what's sexy, and I'm not always traditional in my own opinions. I, for instance, like noses. Not gigantic things, but I like a man with a strong nose. Does everyone? Nope. I picture some of my heroes with sharp, strong noses, but I'm sure not all of my readers do. Which is cool. It's like Michele give a description like "a bear of a man," and readers can do with that what they will.

    See how long-winded I get when you make me think in the morning?:-) Excellent post. Oh, and for the record, Russell Crowe is one of those "sometimes" hotties for me. Depends on the role. Loved him in Gladiator, and his voice is very sexy.

  9. Interestingly enough, I was searching the other day for descriptive terms for facial features and stumbled across two different articles on this subject. In essense, they both agreed that when it comes time for an author to describe her character (in the realm of physical features), vague is best. For the simple reason that the reader wants to place his/her imagination into the character. So, anything you write, no matter how specific, will probably be ignored anyway!

  10. Sharon, that actually brings up something I was discussing the other day. A friend of mine asked what was with all the bare-chested guys without faces? I thought about it and have no idea if this is the reason, but I came up with: faces are subjective. What one person finds attractive, i.e. full lips, aquiline nose, others might not. But a hard, chest and defined muscles are pretty universal. So you can slap whatever face on the body, yet the bare chest still gives you the visual to sell the fantasy.

    And I could be totally off-base, but it seemed to go over well.

  11. Judi,
    That's exactly why they leave off the faces--so people can substitute their own idea of what the guy looks like rather than what we tell them he looks like. But while the chests sell well at the bookstores, they keep us out of Target and WalMart. :--(

  12. Ladies, thank you for your variety of interesting comments and opinions. I had a feeling that this topic might create some debate. Among the many double-standards that raise their ugly heads in sex, I've always thought that it was unfair of women to demand to be accepted with all their flaws but to also want, in the same breath, a perfect man. I went through this with a friend who was trying out an online dating service. This wonderful, caring woman whom I had known and adored for years suddenly turned picky and catty about guys who were less than magnificent. I was amazed by this.

    On the other hand, we are dealing with fantasy here, and if you can't have perfection in fantasy, I don't know where you're going to get it. I think I agree that vague is best, so if you're like me and prefer your men with a little meat on their bones, you can just "fill them in" in your imagination. I also think that if the writer loves her hero, it's much easier for the reader to fall in love as well.

    This has been fun! I hope to hear more opinions before the day is over.

  13. Interesting question! I think that there's room for more than one type of hero in romance, but I do think that it really depends on how the writer creates the characters. Just as I don't always want perfect heroines (I want to be able to imagine myself as her--and I know I'm not perfect!), I'm OK with an imperfect hero as long as his character is fabulous--if he's brave, compassionate, smart, funny, generous... I can won over even if he's not the finest specimen of male flesh to grace the planet :) But I do admit that I enjoy those hunky covers... ;)

  14. Here at the end of the day, I'd just like to thank everyone again for the interesting variety of comments! Yes, I have to agree that the cover pictures are good eye candy. I have always felt that variety is what makes us all interesting, and that our flaws make us more beautiful rather than less. Still, one has to make concessions to fantasy. Great input today, which I really appreciate.