Sat
Feb 9 2013 11:00am

Can Heroes of One Size Fit All Readers?: How Heavyset Heroes Can Rock Your World

Seth RogenYou may recall a post here about the physical attributes of romance heroes: Authors Elle Kennedy and Vivian Arend on Hot Bods in Romance. Two passages in particular stood out to me:

The moment he’s back in action, he’s toned and muscly again—and let’s be honest, that’s the way we like it. Because, come on, we read to escape.  To fantasize. ...

When I’m reading a romance, I don’t want my hero being described as chubby or overweight. I don’t want to read about potbellies, love handles, back fat, or double chins.  I don’t want him getting out of breath after carrying the heroine five feet to the bed.

I read those parts with keen interest. Why? Because in all honesty, I'm a reader who enjoys reading about heroes with non-traditional bodies and in particular, heavyset/chunky heroes. While I understand the appeal of sculpted flesh, I feel strongly about challenging the broad assumption that “...and let’s be honest, that’s the way we like it.”

Can we really paint all romance readers with such a broad brush? Seems to me the definition of “hot” varies across readers. Some of us love heroes with beards or mustaches. Others don’t. Some like tall heroes while others prefer heroes of average height. Then there’s differences of opinion about hair color, skin color, facial features, etc. I find it difficult to believe one-size hero fits all.

In fact, some of us gravitate to the Seth Rogens and Jonah Hills of romance heroes. Heavyset heroes are perfectly valid characters, even though the publishing marketing machines would have us believe otherwise.

One reason I enjoy reading about heavyset heroes (or watching them on film, like Jack Black’s character in the goofball romantic comedy Shallow Hal) relates to the core fantasy I’m seeking. In my romance reading, I like to celebrate the idea of heavyset heroes finding true love. It’s the fantasy of diversity, and of the idea that a person can be accepted no matter what his appearance.

Another reason is a heavyset hero will bring unique qualities to the story, which in turn impacts how his particular romance will unfold. Maybe he can’t carry the heroine to the bed without losing his breath, but he can do other things for her. The 2001 South Korean film My Wife is a Gangster captures that dynamic perfectly, with a plumpish hero who teaches a tough-as-nails gangster boss about the importance of respect in a marital relationship. Instead of focusing on what a heavyset hero can’t do, I prefer to focus on what they can.

One of the best examples of a heavyset hero in sci-fi romance (my preferred subgenre) is Boggle.

Boggle began as a secondary character in PJ Schnyder’s Hunting Kat. He’s a “Lone Gunmen” style computer whiz and a hacker by trade. As a result, he’s an invaluable asset to the heroine, Kat Darah. His dialogue is sharp, funny, and endearing. Boggle also makes a mean cup of joe (that clinched it for me).

There’s more to Boggle than meets the eye, and he’s definitely an eyeful. Here’s a snippet of the scene wherein Kat first makes his acquaintance:

A heavyset man rotated on a motorized chair to face her, pushing magnification goggles away from beady, close-set eyes. He blinked twice, leaning his not-so-impressive bulk forward to study her.

Despite the overabundance of fanboy clichés in the story, Boggle’s sympathetic side won out for this reader and made me hungry to experience him in a science fiction romance of his own. I find him compelling because he’s overweight and physically disabled. This isn’t about titillation—it’s about rooting for a hero who faces seemingly insurmountable odds in the game of love.

Boggle also has a unique, powerful ability: he deals in information. I’d never come across a character in a sci-fi romance who wielded information with such flair—it’s like his superpower!

It’s a testament to the author’s skill that I connected with him so strongly. Therefore, I issued a public challenge to the author proposing she write a story featuring Boggle as the hero.

A Gift for Boggle by PJ SchnyderAbout a year and a half later, PJ Schnyder responded with A Gift For Boggle. In this free short story, Boggle is the hero of his own sci-fi romance.

The author transformed Boggle into superlative hero material. Not by putting him on a low-carb diet and exercise routine, but by celebrating the qualities that make him unique and also desirable to the heroine. I wanted to see Boggle paired up with a heroine who would appreciate everything he has to offer. That’s how I like to fantasize.

Boggle is an innovative hero because he invites us to question our assumption about what defines a great hero, especially on the outside. A Gift For Boggle can be read as a stand-alone, but I strongly recommend you read Hunting Kat first for the full Boggle effect.

Another heavyset hero who made a lasting impression on me is Vladimir Bolokhovski from Manda Benson’s Moonsteed. Vladimir is a nerdy scientist and despite the story’s erotic elements, initially he rubs the heroine, Zeta Verity, in all the wrong ways.

Moonsteed by Manda BensonHe’s Russian, pudgy, and cerebral. Yet he doesn’t hesitate to confront Verity when she attempts to cut him down with repeated barbs. As the story progresses, she’s surprised by her attraction to him. Moonsteed’s romance is of the opposites attract variety. It’s also subversive because the hero is “soft” both physically and emotionally while the heroine is hard and edgy, an anti-heroine. Vladimir displays his heroic abilities in a surprising, enterprising way—and with an awesome bit of dialogue, I might add.

Moonsteed is for adventurous readers, but if you’re looking for a cute, pudgy hero then Vladimir might be up your alley.

Not everyone enjoys heavyset heroes, and that’s okay. The beauty of the romance genre is it can stretch to accommodate many types of fantasies. Will some types be more popular than others? Sure. But in the end, all heroes are hot in their own way.

Seth Rogen image source

 


Heather Massey is a lifelong fan of science fiction romance. She searches for sci-fi romance adventures aboard her blog, The Galaxy Express. She’s also an author in the subgenre. To learn more about her work, visit heathermassey.com.

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22 comments
Rakisha Kearns-White
1. BrooklynShoeBabe
I appreciate your article. You're right. It's wrong to assume that all romance readers want the hunky muscular hero. I prefer the hunky guys and perhaps that's because I grew up watching soap operas with my grandmother. lol. In my dating life (and now married life), my fellas were more Seth Rogan then Channing Tatum and I found them no less sexy. I loved them for more than their bodies. And to be brutally frank, if I was given the opportunity, I'd tear Seth Rogan's clothes off in a minute. ;-)
Heather Massey
2. HeatherMassey
You and me both! Of course, I wouldn't want Jack Black to feel left out, so the same goes for him, heh.

Thanks for reading!
EC Spurlock
3. EC Spurlock
I'm on the opposite end of the spectrum -- I prefer thin guys with smarts and suavity rather than brawn. Perfect example: Pierce Brosnan as Remington Steele. Clearly not someone who could overpower the bad guys but who could definitely outthink them. On the other hand I wouldn't say no to Jorge Garcia as Hugo Hurley in LOST just for his laid-back attitude and incredible emotional generosity. Musclebound bodybuilder types always make me think of the ecorches I had to study in art school, and therefore leave a slightly yucky taste in the back of my mind.

Bottom line is, what makes a man sexy is whether he can deliver what you as an individual value most, whether that's hot sex, good laughs, financial security, or emotional stability.
Lege Artis
4. LegeArtis
Risking to be shallow one, Seth Rogen or Jack Black sex appeal is completely lost on me.They do nothing for me.
And I get what you're trying to say; among my favorite novel heroes there are those who can't be considered physically perfect like Terrible or Dain, but all my favorite fiction heroes are not my favorite beacuse they're physically gorgeus- it's their actions or words that makes them attractive. I was lost on Derek Craven because he kept Sara's glasses with him, but I'm not sure 100% if his eyes were green....
Matt Smith, new doctor Who is not pretty in usual sense, but I find him sexy. ..
Heather Massey
5. HeatherMassey
@ECSpurlock Even as I was writing this post I kept getting the urge to mention lean bodied heroes. So glad you brought them up because they certainly have strong appeal. Maybe someone will be inspired to do a post about them!

>Risking to be shallow one

To me it's not a matter of being shallow or not shallow--it's just wanting different fantasies. One is not inherently better than the other or more lofty. And given the health concerns of being overweight, I understand why some readers wouldn't want to read about heavyset characters.

Still, I think it's helpful to question our assumptions about what makes for an ideal hero body type and/or standards of beauty, especially since different people have different tastes. Romance would be much less interesting if it devolved into a homogeneous group of stories and characters.
Lori
6. LoriK
It always bothers me to see the assumption that all romance readers want the same sort of hero, regardless of the particular attribute being discussed. It contributes to homogeneity in the genre and to me that's boring. I also think the idea that fat is something to escape from is problematic. There's a whole world of fat-shaming and body issues and judgment there and I think we could all do with less of that, even in our escapist reading.
EC Spurlock
7. huntece
Nothing wrong with a curvy heroine so whats wrong with the hero equivalent :)
EC Spurlock
8. Katie T.
I'm rather torn on this, in real life I prefer tall, super skinny and nerdy guys, and in my romance novels I generally don't care what the guy looks like but I do want my main male leads to look physically fit. I'm not into the brick house alpha but he should be strong and sleek. I am rather hypocritical on this because plenty if the regencies I read have curvy, plump, and imperfect female leads, so why should I have different standards for men. Good question, it really made me think.
EC Spurlock
9. Pauline Baird Jones
I love this! Real heroes are more about their character and standing fast, than a body type. I get the fantasy and yes, everyone has a right to theirs. I do love the geeky type heroes. Leonard is so cute on Big Bang Theory. And look at Amy and Sheldon as a couple. I love it.
Jennifer Proffitt
10. JenniferProffitt
One of my favorite overweight heroes is Eloisa James's Rafe from The Taming of the Duke. Rafe starts out as a drunken overweight and incompetent guardian and with the help of the heroine, sobers up and starts exercising again. So, granted he isn't overweight for long, and by the time the heroine sees him naked he's fit, but just one of my favorite books of all time and definitely a favorite with a heavyset hero.

@huntece: I love a good curvy heroine, but I do think even with curvy heroines you find that they have a lot of T and A and maybe the hero is blown away by their "incredibly tiny waist" but very few are actually pudgy. So unfortunately in romance (by and large unless you count the Rubenesque theme line from Ellora's Cave) we have curvy heroines, just not in the way real women are curvy, I think. I will still pick up any book that at all implies a curvier heroine.

But maybe the heroines are more confident than I am (or at least the authors) and can say "so what I have cellulite and not really an hour-glass figure, I have great boobs and a butt that doesn't quit!" and so they leave out all the self-loathing about said cellulite. lol
EC Spurlock
11. Alissa H.
We definitely need heroes in all shapes and sizes! This is a great post, and the comments have also been interesting. Given the topic, however, I'm rather discouraged to see the hateful phrase "real women" make an appearance in the comments. Women come in all shapes and sizes, and all of them are real. Some people are blessed with voluptuous curves, and some are blessed with very high metabolisms. There's no need to insult either group. I hope we all find our happy endings, in whatever size, shape or form we desire.
Heather Massey
13. HeatherMassey
>There's a whole world of fat-shaming and body issues and judgment there and I think we could all do with less of that, even in our escapist
reading.

Agreed.

@huntece Excatly!

@Katie T. I appreciate you coming by and reflecting on the issue! One thing that struck me after reading your comment is that it's nice to have different kinds of characters and stories for our various moods and stages in our lives. One day we migh be ready for a different type of hero (or heroine) and how wonderful if authors can be ready with the stories when we want to find them.

@Jennifer Thanks for the book rec!

>and so they leave out all the self-loathing about said cellulite.

Which makes me wonder if we sometimes forget authors can be selective about how they describe heavyset heroes. If a romance wants to focus on the consequences of how being overweight can impact one's love life, by all means bring it on, but if one wants to celebrate the beauty of a voluptuous hero or heroine then language can be shaped to do that.

The term "love handles" for example are often used in a derogatory manner but you could just as easily have a heroine caress a heroe's love handles and explain why she finds them attractive. In other words, a heavyset hero's body could be reinvented through word choice. I would love to see that option explored more often.

@Alissa H. Thanks for reading! I feel fortunate to have have had an opportunity to share my views at H&H. One of my motivations for delving into this topic is because sometimes it's difficult to talk about our individual tastes with other readers, especially if there's a fear others will think we're weird or odd.

Just as there are men who love and celebrate Rubenesque women (the artist Robert Crumb comes to mind), there are women who dig heavyset heroes (or thin/lean ones as the case may be!). I felt it was important to represent!

>As long as the heroine finds him attractive

Maddie, that's what's key for me. If she's happy, I'm happy.

>so why is this considered the standard of male beauty?

Good question and a whole book could be written about that topic! That said, romance books are a wonderful place to explore the issue in an entertaining way.
Donna Kissam
14. The Cat Bastet
I think I would be fine with an overweight hero - and I don't mean one that's going to get in shape over the course of the novel, I mean he is what he is - if I already knew the guy. If he was the latest hero of some series and I'd seen a few things out of him that appealed to my matchmaking instincts. The heroes I read about don't have to be attractive to me personally - otherwise I couldn't read 90% of books that feature male doms - but I have to think that someone could want him, and to do that I have to have some reason to see past the weight.

Another possibility would be if he was from some author that I just always know is going to do something weird and I expect unusual everything from her.
EC Spurlock
15. filkferengi
I married my "chubby hubby", & we've been eating beautiful ice cream together for 20+ years. So, rock on, heavyset heroes!
Diane Matters
16. DianeElaine
This was an interesting post, I've enjoyed reading it and everyone's responses
@EC Spurlock said -
Bottom line is, what makes a man sexy is whether he can deliver what you as an individual value most, whether that's hot sex, good laughs, financial security, or emotional stability.
Exactly!!
I am doing some rereads of old series favorites of mine. This month is Chicago Bears SEP. Even though its been years and years since I read this series the same thing that irked me about one book was still irksome when I did a reread. There was a great part of the storyline that SEP missed delving in, a nice secondary romance. Ron, the sweet, intelligent, funny, slight build, medium height side kick to the heroine does meet the girl of his dreams but it was all done as a behind the main story. He met and eventually marries this woman but it was not put in the book except as information. I've always felt it was done this way because he wasn't the norm in how SEP writes her male key characters.
I'm using this book only as an example of when I have seen this type of thing in books. I'm a long time SEP fan:) If I thought about it more I know I would have a long list of characters in some wonderful books where I was left wanting more of their story. Imo, this just doesn't seem to happen because they aren't accepted 'Hero material'. Hopefully we will see that change.
EC Spurlock
18. Charlayne
I read this one with interest. My beloved husband of 20 years has talked a lot about how the heroes are all tall, smart, six-pack abs, and everything. He says that there would never be a love story with a middle aged, fat, balding guy with gray hair and beard (ie: just like him). But yet we have such a story between us, both had bad marriage, decided never agin, met at a convention over a button that says "I still miss my ex, but my aim is getting better" and when I checked with my sister and she found out he was available, she was literally screaming "Go out with him, he's the one I would have picked for you the first time!" and he was standing behind me (unknown to me) and hearing every word of it. We went out that night and six months later we married. Storybook romance, to be sure.

I would love to have a story, or better, a line of books, where there are unconventional heroes, older men, older women, disabled folks, the "not so pretty" in their books. I would buy and read them.
Wendy Lewis
19. wsl0612
I've been thinking about this and the weird thing is I'm probably more "turned off" by very thin characters than chubby ones. Maybe it's because I tend to be chubby, but I feel the same regardless of whether it's male or female. I like male characters who are described as teddy bears, the six-packs in romance are so darned tedious. It would be fun for someone to write a novel where the heroine falls for the teddy bear vs the male model because the male model is such an ass!
EC Spurlock
20. Ms.sabrina
no, sorry I disagree. I like the traditional ripped male gods with the 12 packs and chests of steel and the bulging biceps, mmm making my mouth water. the bigger the better (i mean really? a scrawny alpha is such a contradiction). I mean if I really wanted to get to see "chubby" guys I could just walk up the street. I choose to read to escape to my fantasies. and i definitely will not be fantasizing about a chubby guy with a beard. Sorry but i am just keeping it real.
EC Spurlock
21. Sarah Elkins
There's a charming side romance with a fat computer geek in Donald Westlake's Dortmunder (criminal caper) book, *Drowned Hopes*:
https://www.librarything.com/work/182019/reviews/94160386
Heather Massey
22. HeatherMassey
@The Cat Bastet

There's definitely good strategy in creating a compelling, three-dimensional hero of this type as well as introducing them in a way that makes the learning curve more comfortable. Great points!

@filkferengi Awesome!

@Charlayne

re: "a line of books, where there are unconventional heroes"

What a terrific idea! Hey publishers, any takers?!

@Ms.sabrina Thanks for sharing!

@Sarah Sounds fun--thanks for the rec!
EC Spurlock
23. AutumnM
I think it's the insistence that there's one 'type' that is supposed to be attractive to everyone that often turns me off of trad. romances. The stereotypical 'bulging everything' guy doesn't do anything for me (have you ever tried to get comfy on a six pack? Not possible--it's like trying to sleep on a rock-lol) just because he looks that way. Don't get me wrong--someone who tries to be fit is nice, and I prefer that, but fit is enough for me.

Romance novels are about fantasy, so I don't see myself writing a truly out of shape hero, but the absolute best response I've had is to the tall, gangly 'best friend of the hero' in my first book. He was funny, and the most 'confident without much reason' guy that you'd ever meet, and readers responded to that in a way that I totally didn't expect!

One non trad hero that I really liked was Cross in Sarah MacLean's One Good Earl Deserves a Lover (shuddery title, but good story). He was tall, skinny, ginger, and not particularly handsome, but he was clever and charming--that goes a long way toward true attractiveness for me :)
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