There 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.
Then 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.
And 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.