Not all heroes wear capes, it’s true. Some do, in romance fiction, be those capes historical outerwear, futuristic garb, a costume for an actor’s role, to name a few reasons for cape-donning, but the bevy of heroes available to the modern reader of romantic fiction may as easily be seen wearing broken-in jeans, a sharp business suit, a suit of armor, a military, police or fire uniform, lab coat, flannel shirt, set of scrubs, leather jacket, and, apart from most sweet and/or inspirational and some YA titles, at some point, nothing at all. So, if clothes don’t make the man, even in romance fiction, what does? Glad you asked. Let’s bat around some possibilities.
What makes a hero? Technically, being one of the romantic leads, and male, should cover the bare essentials. Apart from f/f romance, most romance novels have at least one gent in a leading role, and, in m/m romance, there are two. The popularity of the male torso cover, usually sans shirt, or at least with open shirt, reaching across sub-grenres as different as historical, contemporary and paranormal, is proof that the female gaze has power. This sort of cover lets us know a few more things besides the presence of a hefty dose of androgen between the covers. Sure, a set of pecs on the cover is probably a hint that this will not be a sweet story, but we all know what they say about judging a book by its cover.
With romance novels, as with the men themselves, it’s important to look past the outward appearance, and focus on the heart of the matter. Whether alpha or beta, or the elusive gamma, who combines the best qualities of both, romance heroes are a special breed. One size absolutely does not fit all, nor are they all coins stamped from the same press. It’s true that heroes often travel in packs, as borne out by the series centered around brothers, or brothers-in-arms, but, even en masse, each man has to stand on his own, apart from all the rest.
Does that sound like a tall order? It can be. Creating one hero, whom readers want for themselves, or want to be, depending upon one’s inclination, already takes skill, but to create three, five, twelve, or more, all of whom hang around each other for most of their collective books? That takes something else, and it’s a testament to the many things that can make a man unforgettable. Looks are certainly a factor, and many readers have favorite types. Dark hair and blue eyes, athletic build, even for a nineteenth century nobleman? Blond Viking or the modern equivalent, in business suit rather than leather and furs? Scruff and a Stetson? Strategically placed tattoos? Deep amber eyes and smooth dark skin? Something else? Open the topic of favorite physical types among romance readers, and get ready for a long and detailed discussion. Fantasy casting, or picking an actor, model, or other celebrity, to represent a favorite hero, or favorite her typ0e, is popular among authors and readers alike,. When two readers have different visions of the same character, watch out, because things can get animated, and we’re not talking cartoons.
Lovely as the package may be, any romance reader worth her (or his; dudes read romance, too) salt knows that the real present is what’s inside. No matter where the romance hero starts out the book, be he a roving bachelor, grief-stricken widower, stoic single dad, happy go lucky boy next door, by the end of the book, he’s fully committed to his love interest, and a changed man because of them. It’s not that the hero’s love interest makes him into an entirely different person -we love him for who he is, after all- but inspires him to become more himself.
That’s one of the best part about watching each individual hero’s journey. What did he want at the beginning of the book, but believed he couldn’t ever have? Through the growth of the love relationship, he sees the man he wants to be, the man he wasn’t sure he could be, but comes to terms with who he’s really been, all along. He’s grown enough that he can see what he was missing; not only his love interest’s presence in his life, but the missing piece within himself.
A romance hero is strong enough to admit when he’s not able to handle a challenge on his own, and to recognize the strengths and value of the one he loves. How he gets from where he is, to where he wants to be? Ah, that’s the story, and it’s different every time.
So, dear readers, I turn it now over to you. What defines a romance hero for you? Do you have a specific physical type that catches your fancy every time? Do you prefer alpha or beta heroes? Is your preference different for different subgenres, say alpha paranormal heroes, but betas for contemporaries? Do you have a favorite romance hero, overall? Pull up a chair in the comment section and tell us about him. Not sure what sort of hero tickles your fancy? We want to hear about that, too. There’s room for everybody at this table.