Thu
Mar 31 2011 6:00pm

Ladies Do Not Prefer Blonds (as Romance Heroes)

Unclaimed by Courtney MilanThere aren’t many blond romance heroes. Of course, blond is a rare hair color—1-2% worldwide—but in the U.S. and England, where the majority of contemporary, suspense, and historical romances novels are set, the range is much higher (15-20% depending on your source).

I think we have even fewer blond heroes in romance, percentage-wise, than blond men in real life. When I mentioned this on Twitter, one author tweeted that she had heard that covers with blond heroes don’t sell as well. Perhaps that’s why the cover of Courtney Milan’s Unclaimed cuts off the head of Mark, the blond hero*. But, even if true, this shouldn’t prevent writers from writing blond heroes, unless the cover preference reflects a real bias against them among romance readers.

Why might romance readers prefer a dark-haired hero? Probably because dark hair is associated with virility, danger, and masculinity. So what is blond hair on men associated with? Well, if you live in an area, like Scandinavia, where pretty much everyone is blond, maybe not much. But if you are one of the romance readers who lives in the U.S., you might think a blond guy is weak, effeminate, safe, vain, a morally perfect angel, or just too “model good looking” to be interesting. Interestingly—but a topic for another post—it is just these (supposed) qualities that make blond women so attractive to men.

I think that blond heroes are often the most interesting of all. If the default hero hair color is black or dark brown, then when a writer decides to write a blond hero, she has a reason. And it often involves subverting the readers’ expectations about good-looking fair-haired men.

For example, who better to serve as a spy for his country than a guy no one thinks is dangerous? Consider Vere, of Sherry Thomas’s His at Night. When Elissande, the heroine, sees “the handsomest one of all” for the first time, this is what she thinks: “an outrageously good looking man, with features of perfect strength, masculinity, and symmetry.” But her hopes in finding him a suitable match are dashed when she realizes what an idiot Vere is. The reader knows Vere is as sharp as a tack, and quite effective in his role as spy, but his light hair contributes to his aura of harmlessness.

Often, a hero is blond to emphasize his good looks. In such cases, it’s those very good looks, and what they signify, that ramp up the conflict with the heroine. In Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome to Tempation, the minute Sophie sees Mayor Phin Tucker, in his pressed white Oxford cloth shirt, his khakis, his expensive sunglasses, and his blond hair, she has a memory of all the preppy boys who either snobbishly ignored her or broke her heart as a teen. She’s both deeply attracted to Phin because of his gorgeousness, but repelled, because his blond all-American boyness is such a contrast to her own positioning in American society, a borderline impoverished self-employed photographer whose family is a group of con artists.

In her Chicago Stars series, Susan Elizabeth Phillips often writes gorgeous blond men who seem to have it all. Take Kevin Tucker from This Heart of Mine; Kevin is the star quarterback for the Chicago Stars, a professional football team owned by Molly Somerville’s sister. Kevin is blond and classically handsome, and lives the life to go with it: a salary in the millions, fast cars, and loose women. Just as with Phin, however, Molly and the reader come to learn that the blond veneer of Kevin's perfect existence is just that: a veneer covering over—and helping him to deny—a very painful estrangement from his mother. I think the Sam Starrett’s blond hair, in Suzanne Brockmann’s Troubleshooters Navy SEALS series, works the same way.

Devil in Winter by Lisa KleypasThen there are the dangerous blonds. These guys are dangerous not just to enemies of the crown, as in His at Night, but to our heroines. By the time he gets his own book, Devil in Winter, Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, is already known to Lisa Kleypas fans. He’s been established, over the course of the prior two books in The Wallflower series, as a stunningly good looking, but amoral (and indeed, immoral, as when he attempts to kidnap the Lillian Bowman, the heroine of It Happened One Autumn), selfish, “muff chaser.” For a blond hero like Sebastian, the good looks, heightened by the blond locks, are a potentially dangerous distraction from the danger he presents to women in general (their reputations are ruined just by being seen with him), and to heroine Evie in particular (who, despite her intense attraction to him, refuses to allow herself to be used, only to be discarded like all the others).

Blond vampires ramp up the danger even more. An important, indeed founding, figure in this tradition is, of course, Anne Rice’s Lestat from The Vampire Chronicles, memorably portrayed by a dyed blond Tom Cruise in the film Interview With the Vampire. But we have plenty of dangerous blonds in our own paranormal romances. For example, Colin Ames-Beaumont, from Meljean Brook’s Demon Moon, is vain, self-centered, and so gorgeous that his intense gaze can cause a range of responses in humans from intense desire to terror:

His features were impossible to forget: his short hair, like burnished gold; the darker, slashing brows; thick lashes around wintry gray eyes. A blond god, with a deity’s careless cruelty; the firm line of his mouth suggested it, and his smile was a predator’s.

In his vanity, exquisite taste, snobbishness, and his insatiable lust, Colin serves as a kind of parody of gorgeous blond man. Brook takes the qualities associated with blondness in men, and subverts them, creating a character who is in fact, also strong, caring and altruistic, and very masculine.

J. R. Ward also uses light hair color to bring out opposing character features in her Black Dagger Brotherhood series. Rhage, from J. R. Ward’s Lover Eternal, is, like Colin, subject to fits of insatiable lust when he feeds. Rhage is also a stunningly beautiful blond, earning him the nickname “Hollywood.” Mortal women and female vampires can be lured by the simple promise of his perfect form. But readers know that Rhage’s beauty is a cover for a terrible curse: Rhage’s body harbors the Beast, a mindlessly violent dragon with huge teeth and sharp claws. With Rhage, the contrast between the purity and serenity signified by blond hair and the danger within is made literal.

Alexander Skarsgard as Eric Northman in True BloodAnd how can I discuss gorgeous, lethal blond vampires without mentioning Eric Northman, from Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries? No, these books are not romances, but Harris utilizes many romance tropes showing a clear familiarity and debt to the genre, as in Sookie’s first descrption of him:

“handsome, in fact, radiant; blond and blue-eyed, tall and broad shouldered. He was wearing boots, jeans, and a vest. Period. Kind of like the guys on the cover of romance books.”**

Eric’s blondness is actually a signal of his history and heritage: he’s a 1000 year old Viking. Harris draws on common (often stereotypical) ideas about Vikings in constructing Eric’s character: arrogant (remember when he referred to Sookie as his “future lover”?! Of course, he was right.), confident, lethal, and living life to the fullest, as if there might be no tomorrow, a great irony for a vampire. Of course, as with the best writers, Eric’s character becomes more and more complicated as the series progresses.

Sometimes the blond hair signifies in the hero purity, goodness, and light, a hero that works especially well when paired with heroines who have been with very bad men. One example would be Stephen Huxtable from Mary Balogh’s aptly titled Seducing an Angel. But my favorite example is Alfie, the hero from False Colors by Alex Beecroft, a naval adventure romance set in the eighteenth century’s Age of Sail. In this case, all those associations of blondness with purity, moral goodness, and light are employed, in part to point up a contrast between Alfie’s simple goodness and a culture in which his homosexuality is viewed as a sin, a view shared, heartbreakingly, by Captain John Cavendish, the object of Alfie’s affections. Beecroft uses metaphors of sun and light to both describe Alfie and to reveal John’s attraction to him, and attitude towards him. Here’s captain John’s first impression of his new lieutenant:

John could not wrench his gaze away from Donwell’s face. Limned with gold, it was perfectly nondescript; round, pleasant, and completely lacking in self-conscious guilt. Donwell’s mouth quirked up at one side into a slow, charming smile. And his presence! It was extraordinary. It beat on John’s skin like strong sunshine. He fought the urge to close his eyes and bathe in it. His pulse picked up, waiting, waiting for something….

Is every blond hero “blond for a reason”? Nah. Sometimes it’s just a hair color. There’s Stan “Senior Chief” Stan Wolchonok of Suzanne Brockmann’s Over the Edge, Octavius Fitzroger of Jo Beverley’s A Most Unsuitable Man, and Ty Gallagher from Deirdre Martin’s Body Check, to name just a few (which I could never manage without the help of my Twitter friends). But often, I think talented writers are saying something interesting even with such a seemingly small choice as hair color. Do blonds have more fun? I am not sure. But readers of blonds do!

*Thanks to Courtney Milan for correcting our initial reference.

**Even though I think you’d be hard pressed to find a blond hero on the cover of romance (really, go look!), so powerful is the connection between “hunk,” “blond,” and “romance novel hero” that Sookie, an avid reader, assumes it to be true.


 

Jessica Tripler, who lives in Maine with her family, runs the book blog Read React Review.

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32 comments
Courtney Milan
1. Courtney Milan
Interesting discussion.

One correction, though. Ash isn't blond. He's dark-haired. His brother, Mark, is blond, though--and on the cover for Unclaimed, his head is conveniently cut off so that you can't see his hair-color.
Courtney Milan
2. girluknow
That's interesting. I didn't know there were so few. Wish there were more. I'd rather have a blond hero any day. I think it gives a guy an appealingly vulnerable quality, even when he's the villain.


Mara
Susanna Fraser
3. Susanna Fraser
I admit I do prefer a dark-haired hero in general, but there are PLENTY of hot blond men out there. Sean Bean comes immediately to mind. Also two of my favorite geeky crushes, Alton Brown and Mythbuster Adam Savage, are blond.

I'm surprised there aren't more blonds on romance covers--then again, it seems like there are maybe four or five major male cover models at any given time, so there's not much variety for the hero's looks in general!
Courtney Milan
4. JenM
I have noticed that heros are usually dark haired and it's ironic since so many people are attracted to blonds in real life. I wonder if it's also do to the "dumb blond" stereotype, although that mainly applies to women, not men.
Evangeline Holland
5. EvangelineHolland
I love blond heroes. Many of my first adolescent crushes were usually on blonde guys, and a lot of my favorite fictional heroes are blond (James from Ivory's Sleeping Beauty; Milton from Holt's The Road to Paradise Island--swoon). For reasons unknown, I tend to associate a blond hero with honor and sterling strength, a bit of innocence, but with a lot of wit and intelligence, so when they're in a wonderful romance, it's icing on the cake.
Miranda Neville
6. Miranda Neville
Fun post, Jessica. I love me some blond men and I have absolutely no prejudice against blond heroes. I'm about to go into cover conference with a blond hero in my next book. I'll let you know if his head gets cut off :)
Louise Partain
7. Louise321
Interesting post! I l-o-v-e-d Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent! Elizabeth Hoyt has two of my very favorite blonds: Viscount Simon Iddesleigh in "The Serpent Prince" and Lazarus Huntington, Lord Caire in "Wicked Intentions," both of who fall into the category of bad boy blonds who are obsessed with prim little dark women with sensual secrets.
Miranda Neville
8. Miranda Neville
I forgot to mention, Jenny Brown's 2010 debut Lord Lightning has a serious blond on the cover.
http://www.amazon.com/Lord-Lightning-Jenny-Brown/dp/0061976059/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1275076775&sr=1-1
Courtney Milan
9. Courtney Milan
Thanks for the correction! I don't mind for myself, but I know the cover artists tried to make the cover for Unveiled accurate & I didn't want them to feel slighted.

I have to admit that Mark Turner's blondness does fall into that "goodness and purity" type--he's not only a virgin, he's the celebrated author of a book on male chastity. And unless I deleted that bit, there's a point in Unveiled where Mark gets pissed off at Ash, and Ash thinks that he looks like an archangel, barring his way into heaven. So, yeah, I use the blondness.

But I don't think it's just that blondness has to serve a purpose. Any physical trait that my characters have serves some kind of purpose. I don't mention a physical trait, ever, just to mention it. If I mention a physical trait, I'm usually doing so in accompaniment to the emotions that it's generating in the person doing the viewing. So sometimes I choose a hair color for a reason, and other times, having chosen the hair color, I invent reasons around it. If there's no reason, I might not mention it at all.

But I could write a dangerous hero--or a good-boy hero--with any color of hair.

One of the other interesting things is how many heroines have red hair (way overrepresented) versus heroes (way underrepresented).
Courtney Milan
10. Moriah Jovan
I first fell in love with blond heroes with Woodiwiss's Wolf and the Dove. Trust me, he was no wuss.

Anyhoo, the first blond I wrote was based on somebody I knew and admired. The second blond I wrote started out with dark hair but I realized a) all the other men had dark hair and b) it's an unexpected hair color on his personality and both hides and reveals him. The third and fourth blonds I'm writing I'm going to kill, so I don't know what that says...
Courtney Milan
11. Janet W
Perhaps because Jo Beverley was one of the first authors I really plunged into, Lucien, the glittering blond marquess of the Rogue series, has always stood out for me. I can imagine fairies surrounding his ducal cradle showering him with the gifts: fair of face, brilliant of mind ... but it takes his friends to temper his arrogance and his wife to show him there's nothing more enticing than a well-turned mind :) He stands out like blonds so often too. They just can't fade in a crowd.

I wonder if they are ever painted with that dumb blond brush and I think you pointed out in contemporaries especially, you bet. Could Phin be any more alluring? I certainly don't think so -- he's a walking cliche of every rich kid home for the summer from boarding school.

Male heroes of the blond persuasion always stand out for me, and their paths to an HEA are never boring.
Jessica Tripler
12. JessicaTripler
ok, folks, I just lost an entire long comment to each of you. I just want to thank you for making comments on the post. I love the additional considerations each of you has raised.
Courtney Milan
13. ksb36
I love a blond hero. Sebastian from Meredith Duran's Bound by Your Touch is my favorite kind of pretty boy: smart, tough, funny and well aware of how deceiving his looks truly are.
Courtney Milan
14. Carolyn Crane
Wow, fun post! And, I think you're onto something. I DO have that idea that dark haired heroes are more dangerous and virile, and if I look deep in my heart, I do also think I'd be more attracted to a dark haired man on the cover of a book. Freak out. I really enjoyed your explanations of why, and that there is often a reason for it.

I believe your theories may somewhat hold true for urban fantasy heroines as well. If they don't have dark hair (most do), it seems like there is a reason.

I read and loved His at Night, but in my mind, I totally put in a dark-haired fellow, not a blond. I was surprised to read in this post that he was blond. Apparently I'm just used to the brunettes.
Janet Schneider
15. Janet Schneider
Great post. It seems to me blondness plays a similar role in mysteries, particularly when there is a romance/relationship subplot. I'm pretty sure detective Harry Nelson in the Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths is blond. More famously, in Elizabeth George's books (but obviously not on TV) Inspector Lynley is blond. His lovely blond hair is referred to so much it's practically a character on its own...
Courtney Milan
17. Moriah Jovan
"[...]redheaded heroes"

Howard Roark. John Galt.

Oh, c'mon. You knew that was coming... *ducks*
Courtney Milan
18. etv13
My taste runs to blonds (I married one, after all), and there are actually quite a lot of blond heroes of all different stripes. Francis Crawford, Sir Gerald Stapleton, Samuel Gerard . . .

A question: Did Cornwell change Sharpe's hair color in the books after Sean Bean was cast to play him? I remember in one of the early books he had black hair.
Courtney Milan
19. Jenny Brown
Now that you mention it, Lymond and Lynly are two of my all time favorite heroes. They have that mix of brilliant and tormented that appeals to me and which I did my best to recreate in the hero of Lord Lightning.

One thing that has to be mentioned is the huge gap between the blond we describe in the book and the model who ends up on the cover. The guy on my Lord Lightning cover looks like he left his surfboard in the next room. The man I describe on the pages inside is a sophisticated, somewhat jaded, but always elegant nobleman who delights in outrageous behavior.

I was glad the cover model was attractive, but I suspect a lot of people walked by the book who might have enjoyed it if they hadn't thought it was about a beach bum and his teenaged girlfriend.

That this happens probably has to do with the available pool of blond models. The Lymonds among them are too busy living on the edge to stand around having their pictures taken for not-very-much money.

--Jenny
Courtney Milan
20. Janet W
I thought I knew my Gerald Stapletons ... is he a blonde? Why doesn't he feel like one? Of that whole gang of #peerswhoknoweachother starting with Dark Angel, isn't the nasty villain, Lionel, a blonde? Balogh doesn't have a lot of light haired heroes. Gerald ... hmmm, my whole world view shattered.
Evangeline Holland
21. EvangelineHolland
@Moriah

Yes! Howard Roark--one of the best non-romance genre romantic heroes. His flame-colored hair is a major part of the portrait Rand builds of his character over the course of The Fountainhead. And now that you've mentioned John Galt from Atlas Shrugged, and I think of Jamie Fraser from Outlander, I realize that most red-headed heroes are steadfast and resolute, with definite ideals from which they rarely, if ever, waver.
Alie V
22. ophelial
I personally love blond men, always have. When an author puts a fair haired hero in a book I love it, because sometimes, like you said it's hard to find them.
Courtney Milan
23. etv13
@Janet W

"He was of average height, slim and well-formed, fashionably dressed. His face was pleasant even if not startlingly handsome. His fair hair curled into no particular style, but it was soft and clean."

Stephen Huxtable's a blond too, isn't he?

I had the vague impression Carlyle's David Delacourt was a blond, but when I went to check, found that his eyebrows, at least, are black. (On the other hand, I had a crush in junior high on a guy who had yellow hair and black eyebrows.) Maybe I just think all Davids are blonds because mine is.

Another blond hero, though not precisely a romance hero, is Lord Peter Wimsey. And, of course, Jack Aubrey.
Courtney Milan
24. Donna A
I belong to the dark side. Blondes just don't do it for me.
Courtney Milan
25. Oona
This discussion is really interesting. It just occurred to me recently when I reread a book that I pictured all the heroes as dark-haired. Even though Stephen Huxtable is always described as the angel to Con's devil, I still don't picture him as a blonde--light brown maybe, but not blonde. I read Devil in Winter a long time ago,but don't remember Sebastian as blonde either. I first noticed this on rereading a Laurens book, and a couple of Betty Neels, where the authors referred to it a couple of times during the books, and I finally did a double take--"Wait a minute, he's blonde?!?" I had to totally re-picture them for the rest of the books. Seems funny especially for Neels . As most of them are Dutch, it would make more sense to picture them as blonde.
Maybe it's partly where you live? I'm in a crowded Boston area Panera right now, and don't see a blonde guy in the place.
Alana Abbott
26. alanajoli
There's a whole awesome subcategory of blond romance heroes: Vikings! Very rarely in the Viking books is there a hero with dark hair. If he has that, he's pointed out as a rarity.

I think Spike from Buffy did good things for the bleach-blond look for romance heroes, and though it doesn't come up often, there's a definite bad-boy vibe that tacks itself onto that hair color. Bones from the Night Huntress series is a vamp who starts out with white-blond hair.

That said, I'm pretty sure that the novel I just finished (Dukes to Left of Me, Princes to the Right by Kieran Kramer) had a blond hero, and it wasn't made an issue. (Just searched inside the book on amazon and he is, indeed: dark blond, but blond!) So sometimes it just happens. That said, I'm not always paying that much attention to the hero's hair *color* anyway... :)
Courtney Milan
27. ksb36
It was James Durham from Meredith Duran's "Bound by Your Touch" that was a delicious blonde. Mea culpa. That mistake will teach me not to post after a 14 hour night shift. And oh, yeah Laura Kinsale's Samuel from "The Shadow and the Star" was a blonde, too.
Courtney Milan
28. fsbuchler
First I just want to say that I've been married for 33 years to a wonderful man who has dark curly hair.
That said, I'd take Eric Northman, the 1000 year old Viking Vampire or Lisa Klaypas' Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent anytime!
As for redheads, Jaimie Fraser, sigh!
To me the hair color is not as important as how his character is written. A good writer can give her hero/villain any hair color she wants, but with good writing she can make him defy stereotype and make readers love or hate him. You sighted two perfect examples of this in Eric Northman and Sebastian. Lisa Kleypas shows us her writing depth by making us hate Sebastian through two books then love him in the next two. Eloisa James also does this to great effect in her "Desperate Duchesses" series with Leopold Dautry, Duke of Villiers. Significantly, she gives him very long, very black hair, with a startling streak of white, thus she combines both dark and light in hair and character.
Courtney Milan
29. VickiJ
In real life, I don't have a preference (my hubby had medium brown hair already greying a little when we married over 30 years ago and it's now snow white!!). In fantasy land, however, I've got to say I have a decided preference for dark haired (black, really) heroes and if hair colour is shown on a cover I'm more attracted to the dark ones.

For some reason, though, I find that if I picture the hero of a novel I'm reading, it doesn't seem to matter how the author describes him, in my mind he's very tall, muscular (not to body builder extreme though), black haired and either green or blue-eyed!!
Bella Franco
30. BeguileThySorrow
I've thought about this very thing when I saw and loved Daniel Craig in the Bond films. His are the only Bond movies I've ever seen but I recall how big a deal it was when they cast a blond guy for the role. It was like people couldn't believe it. And when I started thinking about it, I realized just (at the time, which is pre-Vampire Eric in True Blood) Brad Pitt and Daniel Craig were blond guys I found excedingly attractive...I'm guessing because of my associations that blond (to me anyway) equals dorky. Maybe cuz of actors like that guy from Breakfast Club.
Lara Simmon
31. simone121
Regarding blond heros, I would refer anyone interested back to one of my favorite authors, Jennifer Blake (aka Patricia Maxwell). Back in 1987, she created a most intriguing hero named Ransom Tyler in "Southern Rapture." The heroine Letitia Mason describes him as " . . . tall and broad and so very handsome . . . that he was beautiful . . . His hair was soft and blond, shining with sun streaks." I don't know whether it was the original Fawcett cover art or Ms. Blake's vivid descriptions, but I never had a problem visualizing Mr. Tyler :-) After re-reading the book over twenty years later, I confess the hero still holds up brilliantly after re-reading the story, light locks and all.

Earlier than that, in 1983, Jennifer Blake introduced Rolfe, the golden-haired prince of Ruthenia, in "Royal Seduction." As a wide-eyed teenaged reader at the time, I swear after finishing that book I never looked at a feather the same way again :-) Comparing Rolfe to other very excellent heros Blake/Maxwell has created over the years, it was a little hard to actually like Rolfe, so stoic and of such a severe demeanor. It would have been nice to have his inner monologue as later Blake heroes developed . . . but, with that said, I still have the original paperback with the cover Scotch taped to the spine and lots of dog-eared pages :-)

I'd encourage folks to check out some of the older books out there . . .
Sandra LEVITZ
32. Maddiemom
Ah, tall dark and handsome! Most of the dark-haired guys I dated back in the day, insisted their hair was dark brown. Truly black hair is virtually non existent in anyone not of Asian , African American, Indian or Hispanic heritage (the last largely derived from Indian or Moorish backround). This covers a lot of people, but doesn't much compute with the actual Anglo hero, as often depicted. A good-looking guy who is sexy is simply that...a good looking guy who is sexy. In reality, no woman would bypass a sexy, more blondish guy. Alexander S. of True Blood was a good example to use.
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