I’m not sure when exactly the trend tipped, but at some point in the past couple of decades, romance heroines started to become more…normal looking. More like the kinds of ugly ducklings most of us are: we’re not gonna turn into a swan or anything (that would just be weird), but we will become more interesting, more self-possessed, more sexy and intelligent.
The traditional “ugly” heroine in Romancelandia has – gasp! – red hair and freckles, or a too wide, too generous mouth, or luscious, sexy lips that she hates because she doesn’t have the fragile beauty that’s so in right now. You know, beautiful ugly.
But now there’s room for heroines female readers could recognise themselves in. Not ugly, but not front-page material. Plump heroines, short heroines, big noses, flat chests. I’ve yet to see anyone attempt the monobrow, which Georgette Heyer pulled off so flawlessly in The Convenient Marriage.
One thing, however, remains constant. The heroes are, to a man, gorgeous. They may be nondescript at first sight – but trust me, there are a nice set of muscles lurking beneath that shirt!
It makes sense, of course. Romance novels are a variety of female fantasy, and a fantasy doesn’t get much more basic than this: I would never make the cover of a magazine, but a hot, wonderful man will see that I am more than my looks and love me. And did I mention how hot he is?
As Loretta Chase put it: If you have the power to make all your heroes tall and gorgeous, why on earth wouldn’t you?
Being the perverse creature that I am, once I realised this, my first thought was writing an “ugly” hero. Someone with a bit of flab around the middle, or less height than is to be desired, or no bum to speak of. But every time I pick the idea up, I discard it again. I can’t think how to make the reader fall in love with that kind of hero.
It’s shallow – so shallow, now that I’m typing it out – but that’s my reaction.
And then, ladies and gentlemen, I watched this movie trailer and thought – Oh the French are so cool:
Not only is it just stupendously brave to pair Audrey Tatou with a bald, weird-looking, pudgy hero, it works. The first love interest is young, gorgeous, cheeky. They obviously have something great. So when she looks up, and the cheesy voiceover has made it clear she’s about to meet her second chance at love, I was thinking, “Okay, so this guy’s going to have to be even more gorgeous and charming,” and I already had charm fatigue. I didn’t care. I felt the kind of despair that comes from consuming Hollywood fairytales (and I love me a Hollywood fairytale).
So when the man stepped into frame I was first surprised – and then delighted, and shocked, and intrigued. I sat up and paid attention. I could see, just from the preview, what this man might have to offer her that other men wouldn’t, and I wanted to see more.
So if the hero is a product of female fantasy, here are some things to consider: In this one life, as me, I’d rather be surprised and challenged and admired than have something pretty to look at. If I truly believe that, then it’s worth writing. It certainly wouldn’t be easy, but I think it would make a stupendous love story.