I like men. I like their rougher voices, muscular bodies, hairy chests, and all the other wonderful differences that make them unlike me. I like how they think, how they act, and how they respond to a woman who catches their eye. I like them for what they are, and how they're just a bit alien--maybe not quite from Mars, but still a shade beyond my full comprehension.
And I realize all this leads to a sticky point for romance authors. Most of us are women, and don't REALLY know what it's like to be a man, think or feel like a man, or act like a man. We're also writing for an audience that is primarily female, so we tend to idealize our heroes, giving them traits we as women find attractive, and thereby creating male characters as we'd like them to be, not necessarily as they always exist in real life. It's a fine balance between fiction and reality, and too much of one or the other can make for a disappointing reading experience.
Yet writers have vast imaginations, and our powers of observation are strong. That's why we can create, and feel passionate about, such a variety of romance heroes: the nice guys who've held an unrequited love for the heroine for years; the arrogant rogues who soon meet their match; the wounded loners who must learn to trust before they can love; and the reluctant lover--the guy who isn't looking for love, doesn't want it, isn't ready for it and, by God, is gonna fight it for all he's worth. Romance heroes can be bigger-than-life, working in dangerous professions, plunging headlong into action, or they can be ordinary guys who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, and must rise to meet the challenges he faces, not the least of which is falling in love.
In my opinion, it's the hero, not the heroine, who can make or break a romance novel, so I pay a lot of attention to my heroes. If you're looking for ways to create a "real" hero--one who has strengths as well as flaws, and yet is ultimately sympathetic and worthy of the heroine's love--then I'd like to share a few points I keep in mind when writing:
1. Men Aren't Women
Yes, I know it's obvious, but sometimes authors forget this basic fact and create heroes who don't sound or act or think like men. In general--and I stress this is a broad generalization--biology has made the human male aggressive and success-oriented, the female nurturing and group-oriented.
Men are reluctant to share their feelings, express emotions, or respond to them. Men are blunt. They are less apt than women to invite the opinions of others. They ask fewer questions. Men speak more concisely than women because men use conversation as a means to obtain or relay information, whereas women use conversation as a basis for sharing information, opinions, and feelings, and to form bonds of support. Research shows that women say nine words for every one a man uses. Men are more impatient, arrogant, aggressive, direct, ruthless and success-driven than women, and these tendencies should be reflected in the speech and thought patterns of the male characters you create. Doing so will give your hero that "edge," and keep him from seeming too feminine.
2. Men Do Stuff
"The language of the male is more in the vocabulary of action--doing things, sharing activities, expressing feelings through inarticulate gifts, favors, and physical courtesies. Holding a door open, or carrying in the groceries is not mere social convention; it is the masculine for 'I care for you.'" (Brain Sex, Moir & Jessel)
In our culture, where love is often seen as something frivolous or even emasculating, guys have a harder time expressing how they feel. Women welcome emotions in all their messy varieties--but for a guy who's been taught that showing too much emotion is just not cool, he expresses his feelings for a woman by doing things. A women will tell a man how she feels, sharing her thoughts. A man will do things like drive the car on trips, pay the bills, take out the garbage, open a door for a woman, wash his wife's car, fix the washing machine, ask her to come bowling with him. Of course, men can also verbalize their feelings and often do--my husband is far "mushier" than I am--but when you're writing a male character, tend toward having him express his feelings more in actions than in words.
3. Intimacy is Scary
"Intimacy takes high-wire courage; it's dangerous. One could be humiliated, lose face, be forced to relive old traumas." (The Natural History of Love, Ackerman)
More marriages succeed than fail, and we've all smiled upon seeing a retired couple strolling down a street holding hands like young lovers. We hope our own partnerships will last as long and be as satisfying, even if we don't expect perfection, or that the heated passion of those early days will remain as intense. Still, at some point in their lives, many men find the notion of marriage a bit unsettling, and who can blame them?
As a rule, men don't like to be taken by surprise, or fail to hold the upper hand. They like to be in control. They like to analyze and solve. None of this helps much where love is concerned. So for them, falling in love is especially unnerving. Love has no rules, no reason, and is unpredictable. Nothing is certain. Love leaves a man absolutely vulnerable, and lets another person closer to him--not just physically, but also emotionally. He does okay with the physical stuff, but he's not as handy with the emotional stuff. A woman will discuss with her friends every little detail of a date or encounter with a lover, but a man generally suffers his insecurities and fears in silence. If he does talk about it, it will be in broad terms, and vocalizing his emotions is more difficult for him.
Love is a huge risk--and once you're on your way down that path, there's no turning back. One way or another, you have to ride the thing to the end, for better or for worse. And, of course, falling in love often takes us by surprise, coming along when we least expect it or want it, upsetting all our routines, our plans, our expectations, making us act like fools. Is it any wonder that our hero--faced with being unable to control or define or solve what is happening to him--reacts to all this upheaval with frustration or anger?
4. Men Are Visual
Women often complain that men are shallow--they're only interested in a woman's looks, not her 'inner qualities.' There is some truth to this. Research shows that men are aroused by visual stimulation far more easily than women, which is why skin magazines and strip clubs for men have enjoyed a greater and wider success than those for women. It's not that women don't appreciate a good-looking man, but looks aren't as important. Of course men are capable of deep emotional connections, but in those first, early encounters, your hero will be intensely interested in, and aroused by, your heroine's feminine curves, the possibilities of her touch, and the allure of her scent. And for a man, the arousal is fast, and he finds that his body has an instant response that can be a little inconvenient, not to mention difficult to hide. In the early stages of physical attraction, he's interested in getting to bare skin as fast as possible to look everything over; she's shyer, wanting to hide, to go slower, to talk, to share intimacy first.
Don't hesitate to let your hero appreciate your heroine's breasts, hips, bottom, or legs. He's not being a shallow pig, he's being a man responding to a woman's physical attractions. Nothing wrong with that! He may be a little rough about it, or he may be suave--he's your character, you decide--but he's going to notice her breasts before he notices her brains.
5. The Power Game
"The bias of the adult male brain expresses itself in high motivation, competition, single-mindedness, risk-taking, aggression, preoccupation with dominance, hierarchy, and the politics of power, the constant measurement and comparison of success itself, the paramountcy of winning." (Brain Sex, Moir & Jessel)
In fiction, your hero and heroine are often at odds. They may want the same thing, but his reason for wanting it, and how he'll go about getting it, is likely to be quite different than hers. This shared want can be something related to the plot--to hold onto a prime piece of castle real estate in medieval England--or to their relationship. They may both want sexual intimacy, but they're going after it for different reasons and by different means.
All this aggression and dominance stuff doesn't mean the hero has to act like a jerk. It just means he's driven to succeed, and he's trying to do it the only way he knows how. That way may not work, or he may need to compromise with the heroine, or his way may fail. A man will react differently to failure than a woman. Success and failure has a greater impact on a man's sense of self-worth. A man often prefers to act alone, while a woman prefers to share in group activities. Don't be afraid to explore the politics of male and female power--including sexual power--with your characters.
6. Men Use Love to Get Sex, Women Use Sex to Get Love
And, in the end, everybody is happy because the successful couple gets both sex and love.
In our culture, even in these more sexually liberated days, women are aware of the old saying that men won't buy something they can get for free. This "holding back" on the woman's part is the whole point behind the courtship ritual, and romance novels are, by and large, focused on that emotionally charged courtship phase of a relationship. During that courtship phase, emotions, needs, expectations, and desires are more intense, more urgent. The man pursues the woman, but ultimately it's the woman who decides if she'll have an intimate relationship with the man. Of course, that doesn't mean he won't use every trick in the book--be aggressively seductive, whisper sweet nothings in her ear, shower her with presents or chocolate or flowers--to persuade her to say yes.
Sexual tension in a romance is all about the push-pull of the wanting and the resistance, the "no-maybe-yes" of courtship, and the excitement and the fear of emotional intimacy. Don't be afraid to let your characters explore that push-pull of wanting and resistance. After all your hero's hard work to win the heroine's trust, and after the heroine finally says yes to sexual intimacy, the reader wants to see how they will resolve their differences, both in bed and out of it.
7. Anger: A One-Size-Fits-All Emotion
Blame it on testosterone, but guys get angry a lot more than women. In our culture, anger is an acceptable way for a man to express emotion, whether that emotion is fear, frustration, sadness, pain, or humiliation. Crying isn't as acceptable, because that indicates a supposed weakness, and most men are loathe to display any weakness, especially in front of other men.
A hero who hasn't had sex in a long time is going to be morose and irritable. A hero who's just had his life turned upside down by the heroine is going to be frustrated. A hero who thinks he's lost the heroine is going to be frightened. A hero who loses the upper hand in a power game is going to be humiliated. A hero who's been injured while saving the heroine's life is going to be in pain. More than likely, the outward emotional response to any of these emotions will be some form of anger.
Yes, heroes can talk things through with the heroine and even cry--but probably not before he's fallen in love with the heroine and begins to trust her. Early in the relationship, unless the hero and heroine have had a previous friendship or intimacy, he's not going to trust her enough to let her inside his heart or his head. This of course frustrates the heroine, and she'll try to get him to open up and talk to her. The more she nags and talks, the more mulish and silent he gets.
In real life, a lack of effective communication is often the root of the problem in many troubled relationships. In romance, these failures to communicate are usually lumped under "The Big Misunderstanding" label, which isn't always fair or accurate. If this problem is part of the character's personality and history--and the reason for not talking isn't stupidly putting one character at risk of death or injury--then I find it a valid means of conflict in a story.
Men can hold back out of stubbornness or pride. Women can hold back out of pique or vindictiveness. This may not be admirable, but it's human.
For example, in my book ALL NIGHT LONG, Annie Beckett shows up without warning at the hero's house. He's told her not to come, and she ignores him. So, during her early encounters with Rik Magnusson, he's not nice, warm, or welcoming. He's pissed-off, rude, and blunt. But underneath all that growling thick-headed pride is a decent guy--he's just reacting to the surprise and loss of control in a typically male fashion: with outward anger.
Does this make him instantly sweet, likeable, and cuddly? Well, no--but I feel it makes him react in a realistic way, and in a way that is consistent with the personality and background I created for him. Don't be afraid to take chances with emotions and reactions for a character, even if it means having him act in ways YOU would not. This story isn't about YOU, it's about a character you've created, with his own history, his own personality traits.
We've all read romances we'd describe as good--well-written, nicely characterized, and competently plotted--yet somehow lacking a spark of life, of energy. It's as if the author feared to push her characters too far, worried about evoking too strong an emotional response in the reader--in other words, the author decided to "play it safe." So she ended up not with hot or cold, but with tepid and comfortable. Which is okay for washing dishes, but not so great for telling a memorable story.
As authors, I think we do ourselves--and our readers--a disservice if we allow critics or politically correct censors to sit on our shoulders and whisper to us what we should or should not create. I'm not saying to disregard reader's sentiments, or the criticisms of reviewers, or to ever stop learning your craft. But let your characters be real, let them be strong as well as flawed, right as well as wrong, let them be who they should be, even when you know some readers or critics will not like an aspect of the character. In the long run, I believe your stories will be more memorable because you stayed true to yourself and your story.
One more thing to remember when talking about creating realistic heroes: your characters not only act in accordance to the history and traits you've given them, but they also have to fit into the time periods and situations you place them. Before Freud, Oprah, and self-help books, men were men, women were women, and life was too hard and unpredictable to spend a lot of time thinking about why things were the way they were. While history is full of exceptional men and women who dared to flout convention, making your characters too modern for the sake of soothing modern sensibilities can be problematic. In contemporary settings, with Freud, Oprah, and self-help books, men and women have a clearer understanding of gender differences and psychological behaviors. That means your heroine should have a clue why the hero doesn't rush to share his feelings with her, and your hero should respect the heroine enough that he will sit down and talk to her when he needs to. Naivete in a contemporary setting is a lot harder to pull off convincingly.
Last, but not least, never forget you're writing a romance, and that romance is about intimacy, love, and trust--it is an adventure along the terrain of the emotional. Remember that while love is universal, it's experienced differently by each couple--as individual as fingerprints. Continually creating realistic and fully-fleshed characters will bring a uniqueness to each and every love story you write.
Natural History of Love, Diane Ackerman, Vintage Books (Random House), 1994
How to Read A Person Like A Book, Gerald I. Nierenberg & Henry H. Calero, Pocket Books, 1973
Brain Sex: The Real Difference Between Men & Women, Anne Moir & David Jessel, Delta Books (Dell Publishing), 1989
Men Are From Mars, Women From Venus, John Gray, HarperCollins, 1992
He Says, She Says: Closing the Communication Gap Between the Sexes, Lillian Glass, Perigree Books (Berkley Publishing), 1992
About the Author
Michele Albert/Michelle Jerott books: Hide In Plain Sight (05/06), One Way Out (03/05), Off Limits (10/03), Getting Her Man (10/02), Her Bodyguard (10/01), A Great Catch (9/00), All Night Long (10/99), Absolute Trouble (9/98). She is currently working on next book. Visit Michele at: http://www.inkalicious.com
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