the ugly hero

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.

Comments 14 Responses

  1. JJ Somerville

    You make a good point. I can only think of times whent he hero has been scarred but still has a smokingly hot bod, or beautiful eyes and a lot of the time their scars get “healed” by the love of the heroine.

    Let’s face it;
    “David brushed his thinning blond hair back from his forehead and squinted at Melanie through his glasses. Melanie coouldn’t help but notice the way his pale thin hands held his red pen weilded his red pen with masterful strokes and he corrected her economis essay.”
    Is never going to cut it at M&B.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      Oh my god, this is gold!!!! Yes, there’s my ugly hero!

      Scars are a variety of fetishized imperfection. The sexy ugly. They signify great inner pain and manliness. Which leads me to think Muscles > Pretty Face.

  2. Cheryl Nekvapil

    I reckon the beautiful men are distinguishable by the twinkle in their eye, their listening ear, an engaged smile — muscles and form without those are unreachable, untouchable, alien. Some ordinary shape and features are ignited by them. But that’s reality speaking, not fantasy. I agree with you Annii, somehow the French get it — Gerard Depardieu would never had made it if he was Californian.????

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I love your list of attributes – perfect! And I know what you mean about a form with nothing more to it being somehow alien. I’m sure we’ve all experienced thinking someone beautiful when we first meet them, and then having their physical beauty become meaningless when they don’t engage you as a person.

  3. londonmabel

    I would definitely buy a book with an Average Looking Hero, or balding or paunchy or whatever. I’ve had plenty of crushes on men like that, in real life. I am soooo sick of fantasy heroes. It’s one of the reasons I don’t read so many romance novels, even though I LOVE love stories. I tend to seek them out elsewhere, as part of a mystery or sci fi novel, or in the regular fiction genre.

    My favorite love story the last few years was Major Pettrigrew’s Last Stand, about a man in his 60s whose rather narrow, and learns to expand and grow because of his romance with the Pakistani-British woman who runs a local store.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      My reaction to that film trailer made me realise it’s one of the reasons I read less romance these days, too. Hot Hero Fatigue. It’s like every one that comes after has to outdo the one that came before. Such a wonderful surprise to have the hero be something else entirely!

      Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand sounds great – I’ll have to search it out.

  4. Michael

    Lancelot, in Rosemary Sutcliff’s books, was always referred to as ‘ugly, the type of ugly that women love.’

    PS where’s the new photo taken?

    1. anna cowan Post author

      As a young’n reading RS I never picked up on that description, but it’s perfect. It makes Lancelot so much more interesting to me than any beauty could.

      The picture’s from Tokyo, watching fireworks on the river from the closest vantage point we could reach in the crowds (Tokyo does crowds like nowhere else on earth). We ended up in a dead-end street behind this fence, and the fireworks were so tiny and far off, but all the Japanese people loved them. Fireworks is not something it would ever have occurred to me to feel spoilt about, but we are!

  5. bleuet

    I have thought about this entry a good long while and I feel I might be able to comment now.
    ‘Ugly’ heros are deffinitely worth writing and reading (even though JJ Somerville’s description reminds me eerily of 1984).
    What is a bit strange though, is that we seem to be jumping between two extremes. Beautiful and Ugly. Most people are neither. In fact, I am deeply convinced that there is no such thing as ‘ugly’.
    If you take your time and really look at people there is almost always somethig beautiful about them. If there isn’t you are just not looking hard enough jet! *death glare*
    No, seriously. There is always something beautiful to find. The shape of the eyes, the curl of a smile, the way skin stretches in a particular way, the structure of the bones in the hands or of the face or even the way a body looks just ‘lived in’.
    The problem is that if an author doesn’t particularely write that someone is ‘ugly’, the readers will automatically assume that they are ‘beautiful’. In my opinion this is because even if the author themselves sees someone normal looking in their mind’s eye, they won’t be able to describe all these small flaws that make a person so. Someone can have an eye that is smaller than the other or have uneven skin or, hell, even eyebrows in different hights above the eye – and still be pretty. I think most everyone is pretty. So is that the same as ‘beautiful’?
    Really, I think the problem lies at least partially with the fact that readers take non-description to mean ‘beautiful’. Alternatively there are many books that proclaim: “She had very dark hair and even darker eyes and she was the most beautiful person he had ever seen.” Or somethig along the line. But that doesn’t tell you what ‘she’ looks like. It is an assessmen. But I digress.

    What I like to do is using contrasts of description. Describe something that would be perceived as beautiful in such a way it seems undesirable or describe something people generally think of as ugly so that it seems to truly enhance a person, and I don’t mean only mentally and emotionally!
    Alternatively it seems to be a good trick to give a minimum description of someone – hair and eye colour – and then describe their movements and their attitude, rather than their actual looks. The prerequisite being that both negative and positive attributes are used to do so!

    1. bleuet

      Ooops- some typos there!

      Anyway, choosing the last technique also means that no other character is ever allowed to evaluate them in a way that would play into the beautiful – ugly schemata.

    2. anna cowan Post author

      all excellent points! “Ugly” is a loaded word to have used, and my point is certainly made moot by the fact that love makes everyone beautiful, and romance deals in love (duh). Isobel Carr responded to this and other posts that have appeared in the last couple of days by defending the “beautiful” hero here: I think the reason I used “ugly” is because even in her two examples the men are still muscular, etc. I wanted to talk about men who are fat and balding etc.

      I love your method of pairing beautiful/off-putting and ugly/attractive.

  6. Jen

    My comment will probably echo a few others. It might also be all over the place.
    I’ve been voraciously reading a lot of romance lately and I think I’m getting burnt out on the whole Me Tarzan, You (plain) Jane thing. He’s got the swagger, the muscles, the large bulge in his jeans and violet, sparkling eyes only for the heroine, natch. What annoys me is when it’s not merely enough that the heroine is dazzled, EVERYONE is affected by his swagger, and muscles, the large bulge in his jeans and his crazy colored eyes. Why do ALL the panties have to drop, is my question. And then I can’t help but wonder why the heroine’s panties are the most important, you know? Out of all the ladies in all of the land, he chooses hers? That’s when it’s most apparent to me that I’m reading fantasy and I prefer being in denial.
    When the hero’s perfection is mentioned every time he enters a room/scene then that’s lazy writing in my opinion. And of course, what might be attractive to the author might be a total deal breaker for me (rippling muscles are gross and earrings must come in pairs. No mustaches, thanks!) and that’s really the whole point I think. Sell me on what makes the hero attractive to the HEROINE (and vice versa) and you’re solid.
    P.S. I once met a guy that I dismissed as “ugly” and two or three hours later I found him utterly adorable. We had the same sense of humor and he had a beautiful singing voice and a really nice hands.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      Jen, this made me laugh out loud (and read bits to my bemused husband). “Why her panties?” – I think this will become my new standard for romance: if I can’t answer that question, something’s not working!

      The hero of my book started life as “the most beautiful man on the planet”, three years ago when it was my first attempt at a romance. He’s stayed that way because for a long time it was an important aspect of him. I recently thought about making him more plain, but that would take another massive overhaul for something that doesn’t materially affect the story either way. And the great thing is – it just gave me this huge challenge. Could I make what’s inside the Most Beautiful Man On The Planet more attractive than his outsides? I feel like I’ve come at least some way to achieving it, so that – as you say – it’s not his beauty that matters when he steps into a room, it’s the wary sense of, “What’s he going to say now?”

      I loved your last point, too. In a probably too-honest, un-PC admission: I find people who don’t seem to understand their “natural” social status entirely fascinating. Like your boy with the nice hands. You know when you meet someone who some subconscious part of you grades as lower than you on the social scale – but then you notice their indifference to this fact, their self-possession and the way others interact with them, and suddenly you’re reevaluating their attractiveness, and it’s all based on charisma, intelligence, personality – but it’s not less attractive for that. (Woh, massive sentence!) In fact, it’s often more attractive because it bugs at you – it’s something you’re continuously trying to solve. Or maybe that’s just me 🙂

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