(originally published on November 28, 2008)

Last week, I talked to two stunningly attractive men. There I was, happily married and all, just talking to them, and came out with my toes tingling and a broad smile on my face because that’s how hot they were. Because this happened within two days, it got me thinking about what made these men so very attractive. One is a colleague, and admittedly he is tall and dark, but he is definitely balding and deals with this by shaving his head. The Jean-Luc Picard look, if you want. So he is passably good-looking, if you like that style, yet what makes him breathtaking is not his looks, but the way he deals with you. His gift is true attention to people. He enjoys talking to you, and smiling at you, and while he does so his expression tells you he really values and likes you. And it’s not on the surface: He remembers what you spoke about weeks later, and comments on it. He is genuinely interested in people, not afraid of showing it, and shares his own opinions and experiences openly. Talking to him always cheers me up, because he gives me the present of his concentration and approval.

The second man I talked to, a college student, used to be an awkward adolescent, but when I met him last week I could only think how much he’s grown into himself. He is not at all conventionally attractive: He is of middle height, stockily built, just a tad overweight, with features too pronounced to be considered handsome. Yet he stood there, and glowed with energy just beneath the surface, with good humor and with self-confidence. He knows who he is and is happy where he is, and when you see him, you get the impression this energy he has may lead you into a great adventure. (If you wonder about my enthusiasm: My second boyfriend had the same sort of attractiveness, so I know what it feels to be fascinated by a man like that.) Add to that the courtesy and generosity that stems from true self-assurance, and he becomes nigh irresistible.

I am positive these two men get a lot of female attention – I know my colleague does. Yet you won’t find many men like them between the covers of a romance novel. Partly I think this is due to marketing pressures, partly because – pardon me, authors! – they are far more difficult to write. Because it is far easier to insert “tall”, “dark”, “handsome”/”rugged”, “brooding” than actually take the time to develop a character who has the gift of true attentiveness, as my colleague, or that of joyful energy, as the college student.

Thinking about these men (and very pleasant that was!) made me consider romantic movies I’ve watched recently. I haven’t been to the cinema lately, because none of the romantic comedies that were on really attracted my interest. Instead I watched a number of DVDs, often together with my husband. Romantic movies that stuck to my mind are: Sideways, with Paul Giamatti; Garden State, with Zach Braff; Punch-Drunk Love, with Adam Sandler; and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, with Jim Carrey. None of these actors has the kind of looks that are celebrated again and again in romances. None has the kind of (screen) personality, either. Yet I found these films delightfully romantic and loved the male leads, with all their no-more-than-average looks and their foibles and eccentricities. I do not particularly care if an actor is physically perfect to enjoy his performance. I have been known to watch a film just because it stars Mark Ruffalo, whereas I avoid anything with Matthew McConaughey in it. So where are the Zach Braffs and Paul Giamattis in romances? Are there any?

If you are looking for unconventional heroes, AAR offers three Special Title Listings: one about Beta Heroes, one about plain and ugly heroes and heroines (Beauty Is in the Eye …) and one that includes heroes and heroines with a physical defect (Less Than Perfect). On the second list, heroines by far outnumber heroes, whereas on the third, numbers are about equal. So it appears that a physical defect is acceptable in both romance heroes and heroines, whereas plainness or actual ugliness in a hero is not tolerated easily. Even writing a blond or red-haired hero, a short or a stocky hero seems to be a risk not many authors are prepared to take. Are we readers really so single-minded, so bound by convention that we insist on tall, dark & handsome, no matter what?

Getting back to the two men who impress me so much, can I come up with romances that feature heroes with their kind of attractiveness? An attractiveness, which, when I encounter it in real life, makes my toes curl and thus should be equally appealing when I read about it in a romance?

The joie de vivre and energy exuded by the college student are comparatively easy to find, if still rare. Rupert Carsington from Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible comes to mind instantly, as does Tristan, Duke of St. Raven, in Jo Beverley’s St. Raven. Yet these men are still described as extremely handsome, with the usual dark good looks and a tall, muscular physique. Where’s my stocky, medium-sized hero that has the same sort of charm?

I am hard pushed to discover an example of my colleague’s brand of attractiveness in a romance. The one character I can come up with is Gervase, Earl of St. Erth, in Georgette Heyer’s The Quiet Gentleman. He wins over his hostile family by listening to them and by getting to know them, and he is extremely good at paying attention to the heroine’s concerns. And he has this smile. He is as good-looking as most heroes, but at least he’s blond. I’ve liked him a lot since I first read the novel at age fourteen.

So, fellow-readers, what real-life characteristic in a man make your toes curl, and are there romances you can recommend that feature a hero of this kind? Do you know of any other heroes of the sort I describe here? And authors, if you read this blog: Have you written about unconventional heroes, and what have the audience’s reactions been to them? Can we encourage you to write more of these heroes? Please?

-Rike Horstmann

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I enjoy spending as much time as I can between the covers of a book, traveling through time and around the world. When I'm not having adventures with fictional characters, I'm an attorney in Virginia and I love just hanging out with my husband, little man, and the cat who rules our house.