The best authors of romance fiction know how to use the conventions of the genre. They are skilled not only at storytelling and prose style but also at tweaking and twisting familiar tropes— sometimes even violating taboos—to make their stories stand out from the thousands of other romance novels available in print and digital formats. But one convention that is practically sacrosanct in romance is the appearance of the hero. Most heroes are exceptionally good-looking. Reviewers and other readers routinely sigh over their favorite handsome, hunky, hot heroes. Nora Roberts’s Roarke topped All About Romance’s 2006 mini-poll for favorite hero, and certainly his looks are part of his immense appeal. He is first described in Naked in Death (1995) as “almost ridiculously handsome” with black hair that is “thick and full and swept back from a strong forehead to fall inches above broad shoulders” and eyes of such an extraordinary blue that “the word was much too simple for the intensity of color or the power in them.” Diana Gabaldon’s Jamie Fraser was first runner-up in the AAR poll, and while I’ve never read the Outlander books, I can deduce from Gabaldon’s proposing Gabriel Aubry as a lookalike that Jamie must be extraordinarily good-looking.
Beastly heroes, who may or may not be transformed into handsome princes (or dukes or earls or . . .), are rarer than handsome heroes but still very much a part of the pantheon of Romance’s most beloved heroes. Arguably, Sebastian Ballister, Marquess of Dain, hero of Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels (1995), heads this list. Dain’s “dark . . . harsh, hard” face with his Usignuolo nose is a match for his “Dartmoor soul,” a fitting description for one known as “Lord Beelzebub.” As much as I adore Dain, my candidate for the most visually memorable beastly hero is Sir Alistair Munroe in Elizabeth Hoyt’s To Beguile a Beast (2009): “Black, lank hair fell in tangles to his shoulders. . . . One side of his stubbled face was twisted with red angry scars. A single light brown eye reflected the lightning at them diabolically."
The purpose of my musings about handsome and ugly heroes is that while romance novelists and their readers have embraced both beautiful and beastly heroes, homely heroes are the rarest species to be found in the gallery of romance heroes. “Homely” means plain, of ordinary appearance, not beautiful or good-looking, but not truly beastly either. Perhaps it is the connection with the ordinary that makes a homely hero seem a contradiction in terms, but Edith Layton created a quartet of heroes who demonstrate that homely hero is an oxymoron, an apparent contradiction that proves surprisingly true.
1. Lord Rafael Dalton, the hero of The Chance (2000), the third book in Layton’s C series, not only possesses a “hard-planed, angular face with strict features” made harsher by a scowl, but he also has red hair, which is considered both unattractive and unlucky. He keeps it cut “ruthlessly close in a modish Brutus cut,” but even that is not enough to prevent self-consciousness about his hair color. Rafe is saved from unadulterated plainness only by “the surprisingly dark lashes that offset his deep blue eyes.” Beta heroes of any description are a minority in historical romance, but Rafe is a beta hero with serious self-esteem issues. He regrets his inarticulateness and his war-scarred body. When he considers his attributes, he counts only a “strong back, good teeth, clear skin” along with his riding skills, his refusal to overindulge in alcohol, and his objection to violence against women as qualities to offset a face “with all the charm of the side of a cliff.”
The beauty with whom Rafe imagines himself in love thinks Rafe’s hair is a “ghastly color,” and while she concedes that he is “eligible, amiable, and wealthy enough,” she deems him immeasurably inferior to Damon Ryder, the man she expected to marry (The Choice, Book 2): “Damon looked like a Greek statue come to life. Rafe looked like a man.” she is too self-focused to see beyond the surface and to recognize that Rafe’s humanness is a strength. In contrast, the heroine, Brenna Ford, sees Rafe as hero material from the beginning: “He was so very handsome, that vivid coloring, that strong, determined face, a soldier’s body and a gentleman’s grace. . . . As for his good heart? It was plain to see from his actions as well as in his face.” Of course, Rafe proves to be all that Brenna believes him to be. And it turns out that he needed only to fall in love to gain the ability to speak words to melt a woman’s heart: “[T]hat’s just what she was, a star seen from afar—dazzling and distant. But stars are there to navigate by, and she led me to you. . . . Bren, when I’m with you, I feel like I’ve come home after a long and dangerous journey.”
2. The Earl of Drummond, the hero of The Conquest (2001), the last of Layton’s C books proper (To Wed a Stranger and To Tempt a Bride are spinoffs), may be a friend of Rafe’s, but the two are unlike in most ways. About as far as possible from a beta hero, Drum is such an arrogant alpha through the first four books that it is difficult to imagine him as a likeable hero. But his pride takes a fall, literally, in his own book which begins with an ambush that has him tumbling off his horse. The fall gives his head a hard blow and breaks his leg in two places. He is rescued by the heroine, Alexandria Gascoyne, who sums up his appearance thusly: “Poor fellow . . . He was actually homely, with that long nose, that bony face, those high cheekbones over gaunt cheeks.” But as Ally soon discovers, Drum’s homeliness is insignificant when paired with his charm: “He was all personality, grace, and style. His looks could be considered unfortunate until he opened those forget-me-not eyes and that glib mouth of his, when he became well-nigh irresistible.” However irresistible he may be, Drum’s presence in their lives is temporary. Ally recognizes that he is “rare, fascinating, and impermanent,” the latter because they belong to two different worlds.
Drum is no less fascinated with Ally, but he is too conscious of the differences in class and what he owes to his father to dream there can be anything other than fleeting friendship between them. That conviction only grows stronger when Ally reveals that she was a foundling. “She was too far beneath him in class to be a wife, too middle class for the role of his mistress. She was respectable after all.” Even his friends, as much as they love Drum, recognize that his pride allows for no compromise. Gilly Ryder sums him up: “He’s a good man, really he is. But he thinks too much of the proprieties and he cares too much for his father’s opinions, the stiff-rumped fool. . . . He’d rather break than bend.”
But his rank and his pride don’t make Drum a true hero. He acquires that status when he loses the glibness for which he so well-known. The verbally awkward Rafe became lyrical as he declared his love for Brenna, but fittingly Drum loses his facile smoothness. The man who had his choice of a roomful of London’s most eligible beauties wants only this most ineligible one. He yells and threatens: “If I have to truss you up . . ., I’ll keep you here until I can get you to the altar.” He speaks “through gritted teeth” in language plain and unadorned: “Goose girl be damned! We’re not talking fairy stories. You’re the right woman for me. Never doubt it.”
3. Sir Alasdair St. Erth, male lead in The Devil’s Bargain (2002) is the darkest of Layton’s homely heroes. Moreover, his personality and his sexual appeal are so powerful that his flawed features are irrelevant. The opening scene stresses his earthiness. He is described as “a young Hercules rather than an Apollo.” He is not a god but a man who, like the mythical Hercules, is possessed of great strength, great loyalty, and great passions, a man who is a bad enemy and a good friend. But he is not a handsome man.
“His heavily muscled frame was made of massive bones, but altogether well-formed, down to the arches in his narrow, classically molded feet. If it weren’t for the masculine pattern of dark hair on that rock-hard chest and the shield of it below, he might have been the model for one of those statues. Except for that—and his face. It would never have graced any Greek statue. The ancients believed only balance and harmony made for masculine beauty.
Sir Alasdair St. Erth was not remotely beautiful.”
Despite his flaws that include a jaw that prompts heroine Kate Corbet to remark that she’s “hung lanterns that were of subtler design,” St. Erth has many qualities of the conventional hero: an aristocratic lineage, a large fortune, and enviable skills with a sword, a gun, and his fists. Dark rumors swirl around him concerning his past and his present, but these merely add to his appeal in the eyes of many women. In fact, he and Kate meet when she saves him from one determined lady who hopes to trap him into marriage. Except for his unbalanced features, St. Erth is a true Byronic hero—isolated, passionate, driven by dark memories, and indifferent to society’s view of him. “Sir Alisdair commanded the eye and delighted the ear. The most delicious part was that he obviously didn’t give a tinker’s damn if he did.”
Consumed with his plan for revenge on his enemies, he is in danger of losing his humanity, willing to sacrifice even Kate to reach his goal. But when he does realize his love for Kate, he is a transformed man. The transformation manifests itself physically. The dark hero becomes “gracious, warm, full of charming and clever jests. His voice was rich and deep with affability. Even his craggy face looked milder, and it wasn’t just a trick of the cheery firelight. It was especially so when he gazed at Kate, which he did constantly.”
4. Leland Grant, Viscount Haye, hero of How to Seduce a Bride (2006), Book 4 in the Botany Bay series, is a charming, deceptively light-hearted man who to the unobservant seems to care only for his clothes and his amusement. He insists, “Nothing is amusing if taken seriously, and I live to be amused.” He and the heroine, Daisy Tanner, have a mutual friend to whom they are both devoted. This friend, Geoffrey Sauvage, Earl of Egremont, enlists Lee’s help in preparing Daisy, a former Botany Bay convict, to enter English society. Lee is such a fop that Daisy is at first convinced that he prefers men to women. She thinks that “his tall thin frame must have made the perfect fit of his clothes difficult for his tailor to achieve.” When she discovers how highly regarded Lee’s fashion sense is, she marvels more: “He was much too tall, thin, and careless for fashion, but he was Fashion. It still amazed her.”
Foppish heroes are not new in romance fiction, but in my memory only Layton has created a foppish hero who is such an atypical physical specimen. Lee says somewhat indignantly to his brother, I may be a beanpole, with a nose that’s a caricaturist’s delight, homely as an old boot, in fact, but I have been known to attract a female or two in my time, you know.” Lee is considerably underestimating his appeal for women. He “was a wildly successful womanizer. He loved women and they loved him, but he was resolutely single and lived in high style, entertaining women of all classes and conditions.”
One of the most revealing statements about Lee appears in a quick comment from the earl, who says to the younger man, “You show only surface; the rest is hidden deep.” Even his attitude toward women is deceptive, for his long list of amours is not the result of a man who views women as conquests to slake an appetite.
“But he did so enjoy sex with a warm, willing partner. There was nothing like the feeling of a female body pressed to his own, nothing to make him feel more connected to another being, and not just in body. Ecstasy was the goal, but so was the feeling, for a few minutes, that he was no longer alone, that he was part of something more.”
The reader is aware of the contradictions within Lee long before Daisy is willing to admit them. Her physical response to him comes first. Once he turns his charm on her, Daisy concedes “Neither was there anything foppish or feminine about him now; he seemed entirely, intensely masculine.” Daisy, who wants to dislike Lee, takes longer to him to her heart, and even then, she is unprepared for physical intimacy. Married at a young age to a brute who abused her emotionally and physically, she thinks of sex as something she was forced to endure and hoped to avoid after she was widowed. Lee woos her with understanding, tenderness, and humor. He awakens desire within her, but Daisy still can’t let go of her fears.
She bowed her head into her hands. “Oh,” she whispered in an agony of self-loathing, “why do you put up with me?”
“Because,” he said softly, “I love you. I thought you knew that.”
A perfect moment. A perfect, albeit homely, hero.