Ah, the hero. Next to the heroine, he is the most important part of a romance novel. He's the lover, the friend, the husband, the rebel, or the lord. He's almost always flawed in matters of the heart – that is, until the heroine comes along and helps him find what he didn't know he was looking for.
Having a memorable hero is one of the best ways to set your romance novel apart from the rest of the pack. And while there certainly are guidelines for the emotional changes your hero must go through in the course of the novel, there are no real requirement for his looks, his past, or his personality. He can be anything you want him to be.
In this article, you will learn what to do to develop the best hero for your novel.
ü What are the two primary types of heroes?
ü What is required of my hero?
ü How do I approach character development?
Historically, there have been two types of heroes in the romance genre: Type A's (alphas) and Type B's (betas).
- The Type A hero is everything that is brooding, dark, and damaged – the alpha male of the pack. He is Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy and Emily Brontë's Heathcliffe. He almost always has a masterful way about him, whether it arises from physical power, great financial wealth, or simply a way with the ladies.
- The Type B hero has a bit more of an emotional side to him, right from the start. He is Peter from Jennifer Weiner's Good in Bed. Often tongue-tied, shy, responsible, and quick to laugh at himself, the beta hero is the guy who plays friend first and lover second.
While these characterizations can be used to sum up about 60 percent of the heroes currently on the bookshelves, some of the best romance novels are those that walk a fine line between the two. The Type A hero, long a favorite and a staple of the "bodice rippers" that flooded the market in the 1970s and 1980s, has since transformed to take on several of the Type B characteristics. A good Type B hero is often the chummiest pal around -- until his back is against a wall. Only then does he turn into the fighting, feral creature willing to do anything for his lady love.
The truth is, you can use either of these stereotypes to build your hero. You can also create a hero who falls somewhere in between the two. He's your creation, and like Dr. Frankenstein, his existence is solely in your hands. The most important thing is to match him to the setting (and to the heroine).
- If you're writing a pulp crime romantic novel: Is your hero the fierce field agent with gunshot scars across his chest (Type A), or the forensic guy in love with the fierce field agent with gunshot scars across her chest (Type B)?
- If you're writing a Medieval historical set in Scotland: Is your hero the rustic Scottish lord who looks great in a kilt (Type A), or the younger brother of the Scottish lord in love with the local healer (Type B)?
No matter what else you do, you have to make your hero believable. While you can break down some barriers by placing your Type B hero in the role of the fierce field agent, you have to make sure he reacts as a man like him would in that situation. Maybe he'll fumble with the physical demands of the job. Maybe he'll flourish in the role, but vomit after his first kill. Rarely will he outperform his superiors and start dazzling the ladies with his near-perfect aim.
Above all else, your hero must be realistic. Even when you're building a world of the future or on another planet, your readers want to be able to watch your hero go through his changes, just like a real person in the real world.
This kind of realism is all a part of character motivation: the emotional drive that pushes your hero through his daily business and into the arms of the woman he loves. This emotional development is really what romance novels are all about.
Consider the hardened rake, a favorite hero of historical novelists. He's spent his entire adulthood chasing anything with a skirt, and marriage is the last thing on his mind. In order to get him to a successful, happy ending, he has to change his mind along the way. This can be done through circumstance (needing for an heir, being forced into marriage) or through personal growth (meeting the right girl, realizing something about himself). It doesn't really matter, as long as he is:
- Believable: A believable hero is one who acts in accordance with his character. Although he may not always do the right thing, he does the thing that is right for him.
- Likable: A likable hero is one who is flawed, but not so much that the reader finds nothing in him to forgive. A too perfect hero sets readers off as unbelievable, and a hero with too sinister of a nature will just make readers angry.
Of course, all this believability and likability has to come from somewhere – and it's usually the hero's past. While the best romance novels are ones that drop the reader right into the middle of the action from the first page (maybe the initial meeting between the hero and heroine, or a near-death experience with the villain), the hero's character will need to be revealed as the story progresses.
Whether you rely on a prologue to tell the hero's story, or uncover it as he discovers his own love for the heroine, the most important thing is that his actions and beliefs are explained somewhere in the novel.
Emotional growth, the essential core of every romance novel, depends on there being a beginning, a middle, and an end to the hero's development. In most cases, the story takes place during the middle and end, so it's up to you to provide a beginning along the way (this is also known as his back story).
Again, believability is key. A Southern schoolteacher with a love of poetry who has to fight his awkward shyness in order to win the girl was probably not the popular jock in high school. And if he was, you need to make sure the reader understands why and how the changes in his personality came about.
Likability is a little bit less important here. Emotional growth implies that there was something wrong with the hero before. For many romance writers, this means the hero was a bit of a jerk before, and he's only now coming to understand how to be happy.
Creating the Hero
Before you start writing your romance novel, create a character spreadsheet that allows you to outline your characters and what makes them tick. This is especially important for the main characters (the hero and heroine), since they are the most important components of the book.
On this spreadsheet, you will want to write out the hero's:
- Physical characteristics
- Family background
- Past relationships
- Barriers to future relationships
- Motivations (what drives him to act; his core belief system)
- Projected path toward love
- Dialect/dialogue (words he often uses; favored phrases)
- Mannerisms (common actions; what he does when he's tense, or angry, or happy)
The approach to take for writing the heroine of a romance novel is much like the approach to writing the hero: She is a flawed human being with a past. The reader has to fall in love with her and root for her success, without ever feeling like she is nauseatingly perfect or unworthy of love. The heroine is the character the majority of your readers will identify with, so it's important to create one that has the flexibility to reach different types of people.
The heroine has come a long way in recent times. A few decades ago, she was almost always a simpering little mess in need of a man to get her life back on track. Fortunately, that's all changed. Today, she is can be strong, willful, sexual, predatory, or any combination that makes her feel right to you.
In this section, you will learn what to do to develop the best heroine for your novel.
ü What are the primary types of romance heroines?
ü What is required of my heroine?
ü How can I develop her sexuality in a realistic way?
ü How do I approach character development?
Unlike the two primary hero archetypes, heroines are given a much larger range of personality. This isn't to say that heroes are flat and dull, while heroines sparkle with possibility; it just means more study has been devoted to the development of the female character than it has to the male one. This most likely arises from the main audience and authorship of romance novels: women.
Women need to identify with the heroine – even if it's in something small, like the way the heroine handles being passed over for a promotion. This means that heroines have developed into incredibly complex and realistic characters with as many personality types as a real group of women would have.
While the possibilities for heroine development are only limited by your imagination, there are a few stock types you can use as the basis for her character. These include:
The nurturer is often a mother, an older sister, or a woman saddled with a lot of responsibility from a young age. Her primary concern is taking care of others, both physically and emotionally, often at the expense of her own well-being. She cares much and cares deeply, often seeing the good in people when no one else can.
She is often pitted against a hero with a chip on his shoulder or a shady past; she is able to help him heal and develop into the type of man who makes an admirable husband.
Although not required, the nurturer is also often less sexually experienced than other heroine types. If not a virgin, then she still requires the deep emotional connection of a man she loves before having sex.
The Amazon is tough. Although she isn't required to be big in terms of size, she's big in terms of fierce personality. She often works in a male-dominated field (law enforcement, politics, the computer industry), where she plays a leadership role. She doesn't take direction well from others, and she's self-reliant to the point of obsession.
The Amazon also typically has some sort of past hurt. She hides it well, but it is the driving force behind her need to succeed and prove herself. She may have buried it deep down, where she can't access it emotionally. Like her male counterpart (the Type A alpha), she has to address her emotional traumas before moving forward into love.
The innocent is the typical romance heroine of the 1970s and 80s. She's usually lived a sheltered life, whether by circumstances, or through her own control of the environment. Strait-laced, dedicated to her job (or family), and seductive without being overtly sexual, she's almost always a free spirit just waiting to be released.
It usually takes outside circumstances to break an innocent out of her shell. Most of the time, she has the emotional depth to pull off a relationship, but not the worldly know-how. Whether she's dropped in the middle of an intergalactic war, or forced into a situation with a man she can't help but disapprove of, she's forced to drop some of her innocent exterior and get a lesson in the ways of the world.
The innocent is usually a virgin before she meets her man. She often has a very prim and proper exterior that drops away only to release a wildcat in the bedroom.
The seductress is a femme fatale in the romance world. She is almost always physically attractive in an overt way, and she uses her sexuality as a way to get ahead in the world. She manipulates others – especially men – and often turns that into a way to further her own goals.
The seductress usually has to come face-to-face with herself in order to evolve as a character. Like the Amazon, she may be hiding something in her past that caused her to become the way she is. Though more like a Type A alpha hero herself, she stands up well against a Type B beta hero – someone who can teach her to reach the softer, more emotional side she's hiding.
The seductress is a way for romance writers to have the most fun with sex scenes. If you're looking at writing erotica or want to play with male-female stereotypes, the seductress is a good way to get there.
The Feisty Girl
Almost everyone likes the feisty girl. Often hailed as the girl next door, she's an average Jane many readers can identify with. But the feisty girl isn't content just to blend in with the crowd: She's got opinions, and she's not afraid to show them. Her conflicts are often external, and she is typically more emotionally stable than other types of heroines.
The feisty girl can reach out to heroes who are shut off from the world very effectively. She's good at breaking down emotional barriers, because she refuses to be placed in a mold or transform to the expectations of others. She helps others to laugh and love again, and can be a great way to write romantic comedy.
The feisty girl can go in almost any direction, sexually speaking. Sometimes, her joking exterior is hiding a few insecurities; other times, it's just part and parcel of the playful approach she takes to bed.
Of course, while sticking to these archetypes is perfectly fine, you can also play with them to develop a heroine best suited for you. In fact, in the writing process, many authors choose their heroine first, building her up from a vague idea and creating a personality all her own. Only then do they start to build a plot, based mostly around "what-ifs" directly related to her. What if Heroine X gets pregnant from a one-night stand? What if Heroine Y gets an inheritance? What if Heroine Z loses her inheritance?
Because romance is such a female-dominated genre (in that the primary authors and readers are female), a heroine can be the most difficult character to write. That's because readers tend to be more picky about making sure the female characters act according to the right motivations.
For example, female readers know that a young lady moving to the American frontier is likely to cry when she arrives to find her entire family killed by bandits. It may not align with your vision of a kick-ass heroine who seeks vengeance, but it's an issue that needs to be addressed – either why she cried or why she didn't. And if she doesn't break down in tears at all the deaths, but she does later on when she sees her first Arizona sunset, it needs to be convincing. She needs to have reached an emotional breaking point that allows for that reaction.
The best way to ensure you're being faithful to your heroine's motivations is to allow her to make decisions that are logical for her life. Before she makes any decision (whether it's moving to Georgia or jumping into bed with the billionaire playboy on the first date), ask yourself:
- What is her gut reaction to this situation?
- Are her decisions usually based on these gut reactions, or does she normally analyze everything first?
- Is she making choices that align with her life goals?
- Is this the first time she'll ever do something like this? Why or why not?
- What are her feelings associated with this choice?
- Why is she doing this?
- What are the most likely repercussions of her decision?
- Is she prepared to face these repercussions?
Only by fully examining your heroine's motives will you be able to remain true to her. Allow her to make mistakes, but choose realistic mistakes. This the best way to avoid trapping her into a flat, uninteresting character or an annoying know-it-all whose only mistake in life leads her to the man.
Remember, even though your character isn't a real person, she is based on one. Make her do what a real person would do in any given situation – even if the situation does occur on the glamorous unlikelihood of a billionaire's yacht.
Heroines and Sex
In addition to needing a strong element of believability in their heroines, female readers also have expectations when it comes to sex and sexuality.
Whether you agree with the idea or not, sex is a bit of a double standard in romantic fiction. Many readers want their heroines to be a virgin for the hero, but they also feel it's better if the hero has a good idea of what he's doing in bed – thanks to a lifetime of promiscuity. And when a heroine is sexually active, she has to reach some sort of new height with the hero that she never experienced before. (Though, to be fair, most heroes also undergo this sort of transformation.)
Giving your heroine just the right amount of sexuality is based in the same thing that the rest of her character development is: believability. A young lady who went to public high school in Southern California is probably not going to be a sexual innocent – unless you define her character by being that way. A young lady who grew up under the careful watch of her mama in 1820s England is probably not going to be wise to the ways of men – again, unless she was the sort of girl who slipped out at night to visit Covent Gardens.
While the hero and heroine are the undeniable center of the story, there are going to be other players in your novel. These characters run the gamut of friends, family members, villains, and stock characters. Some romance writers like to throw in a secondary love story, while others simply use additional characters as a way to move the plot. Still others like to hint at burgeoning romances between secondary characters in hopes of writing a spin-off or series.
All too often, new writers like to pare down the number of additional characters to just a select few. After all, it's easier to focus on a dinner between the hero and heroine; if you throw in two grandmothers, an awkward younger brother, and the neighborhood gossip, you suddenly have to juggle quite a bit of dialogue and interaction.
Above all else, don't let these additional characters scare you. Yes, they take time to develop. Yes, they can get in the way of the good, steamy writing you really want to do. But in the end, they add color, interest, and depth to your story.
In this article, you will learn what is expected of secondary and additional characters in a romance.
ü How can you effectively incorporate parents and friends into the story?
ü What is a secondary love plot, and how is it used?
ü Is it acceptable to plan a second novel while writing the first?
ü How do I work with flat and round characters?
The Supporting Cast
Throwing your hero and heroine on a desert island or trapping them in a haunted mansion with only each other for support might seem like a good idea. After all, it will allow you to really focus on their emotional and physical relationship. That's the good stuff, right?
Unfortunately, these kinds of stories tend to grow stale after awhile, and they can rarely be sustained for the full length of even a series title. Any realistic hero or heroine needs to have friends and family members. These other characters are what make them who they are – even if the characters are werewolves who only come out twice a month, or nagging mothers who only want to marry off their daughters so they can go on a grand African adventure.
- Give your hero and/or heroine at least one living parent. Many writers like to work with orphans – especially in historicals. It's much easier for a heroine to fall into disrepute if she doesn't have a father to look out for her, and it's much easier for a hero to give into his libertine ways if he's been in possession of an inheritance for years. But killing off the parents gets rid of great opportunities to develop the characters of the hero and heroine. It shows great depth to have a heroine whose mother swears like a sailor or a hero who always calls his mother on Sundays.
- Have some sort of villain. While you don't have to have a sinister madman whose primary goal in life is to kidnap the heroine and install her in a castle in Transylvania, it does help to have someone who can throw obstacles in the path from time to time. Let the villain be the bad guy the female cop and the male psychic have teamed up to find. Let the villain be a really nice friend who's been in love with the heroine for years, even though she's not interested. Let the villain be the hero's teenage daughter, who will do anything to stop her father from remarrying. Conflict is an integral part of a romance novel, and it doesn't all have to come from within the hero and heroine.
- Give them a unique voice. In real life, not everyone talks the same. Some people have accents, some people like to use four-syllable words, and some people speak as succinctly as possible. Let your characters reflect this kind of diversity. If every character's dialogue starts to sound the same, it can be difficult for readers to feel really engaged in the text. The best novels are ones in which dialogue tags (he said, she gurgled, Jeremy asked) aren't really all that necessary because your readers can tell who is speaking by the voice and context.
- Make the characters relevant to the story. Your description of Aunt Augusta's dentures being eaten by the dog and surgically removed only to find their way back into her mouth before dinner might be an amusing tale, but unless it contributes to the story (maybe the heroine was the vet who did the surgery; maybe the hero tells tall tales to woo his lady love), it might be a bit much. Pare down the characters so that their actions and contributions move the story along, not provide detours that lead to dead ends.
- Let the supporting characters steal the show. Even if you are planning on writing a second novel using the hero's quiet, intellectual brother, don't forget who's really important right now. Use the supporting characters as a frame for showcasing the hero and heroine – their feelings, their actions, and their burgeoning love.
- Rely solely on flat characters (or stock characters). Flat characters are defined as having stereotyped characteristics and almost no depth to their personalities. For example, the butler is almost always depicted as a thin, older man who is regal in his bearing and unbending in his duty. The vampire from the 17th century is an urbane intellectual who looks deep into the human psyche and practices great restrain in not devouring everyone he sees. The Southern cafeteria lady is a large woman with a hairnet and arms like a T. Rex. While there's nothing wrong with adding these caricatures for effect, not every supporting character is going to fit the mold. Provide them with a few surprises; turn them into round characters with motivations and pasts of their own. Your hero and heroine are likely to be surprised by them, too. (Which is great for building tension or moving the plot along.)
- Use the same letters for names. If you have a Betty, a Barbara, and a Beyonce in your novel, chances are pretty good that your readers are going to start getting confused. You know your characters intimately – their looks and life stories. Your readers aren't quite there yet, and most of them aren't going to be able to differentiate between what Betty said or Barbara did. This is especially true when you're working with twins or siblings. Yes, Paul and Perry are cute names for your hero and his brother, but try to restrain yourself. Your readers will appreciate you for it.
- Have too many additional characters. Just as you can have too few characters, you can have too many. Too much going on all at once can get overwhelming for both the writer and the reader. It's also important to remember that not every character needs a life story. If you've got an entire high school reunion's worth of characters trying to land the heroine, don't feel the need to describe and give a speaking part to each one. Focus on the ones who are the most relevant to the story.
Secondary Love Plots
Secondary love plots can go a long way in helping your story reach a satisfactory conclusion. For example, if a heroine is being pursued by two men, it's usually kinder to give the losing contender someone else to woo than to leave him alone to lick his wounds. A man who makes a pact with his best friend to never get married might be a bit closer to succumbing to the heroine's wiles if his friend falls for someone else, too.
Think about the dual romance of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Bingley and Jane Bennett in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. The story is undoubtedly about Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth, but few can forget that the romance of Mr. Bingley and Jane came first. In fact, it's the whole reason Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy got thrown together in the first place.
These kinds of additional love stories can also help fill out your novel. If you've got a great emotional buildup between your hero and heroine, but you simply haven't hit the right word count, a little side courtship can add just the right amount of interest without stealing the show.
However, avoid using secondary love plots as a crutch. If you don't have enough plot to carry the novel all on its own, another love story is a bit like putting a band-aid on a multiple stabbing victim. It might make it look better, but it's not going to change the fact that the victim isn't going to make it through the night. Your hero and heroine need to be able to sustain interest in themselves.
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