Jan 18 2012 9:30am

Imperfect Heroes, and Why We Love Them

Ricky Gervais in The Office UKI confess, despite its popularity, I’ve never seen the American version of The Office. The reason is this—I’m a huge Ricky Gervais fan. What I appreciate about his comedy is that he’s not afraid of being disliked; indeed, he revels in making his viewers uncomfortable. And within this discomfort is his edgy genius. I could be wrong, but I have a hard time believing that the Steve Carell, who always seems to emanate a certain ineffable sweetness, could ever match Gervais’s appallingly insensitive David Brent or would even try.

Just as Gervais doesn’t seem to care whether he’s considered likeable by his audiences, so too, British leading men also seem less concerned with appearing ‘perfectly’ handsome. I’m willing to bet you won’t see Clive Owen or Daniel Craig become freaks of plastic surgery like Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger in a desperate attempt remain box office beefcake. (Though of course, there will always be exceptions; I recently caught sight of Roger Moore in a made-for-TV Hallmark movie and he looks like the crypt-keepers fat-injected, botoxed older brother.)

There is something eminently more interesting about the imperfectly handsome hero. Perhaps its because we imagine we have a better chance of snagging him than we do of someone as eerily ageless and good looking as Tom Cruise? Or maybe it’s because the hero’s physical imperfections seem to be a reflection of the internal flaws that make him vulnerable, appealing, and ultimately worthy of the heroine’s redemptive gift of true love.

Jason Isaacs in Case HistoriesThese are the men you’d never take home to mother, but you can’t resist taking home…

Jason Isaacs - Public television has recently been running episodes of the detective series, Case Histories, in which he plays a cynical, rule-breaking ex-cop, hired to solve cold cases. He’s a tattooed, chain-smoker, with a receding hairline and a working class accent so thick it’s frequently hard for a Yank like me, to understand. And yet I find myself hanging on his every word. Isaacs has a dark intensity; he plays characters who are trying to do what they think is right, but struggle against inner demons. It’s this intensity that makes him a sexy scene-stealer even when he’s playing the most evil of villains such as the elegantly depraved Lucien Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies or the brutal Tarleton in the abysmal cinematic swamp that was Mel Gibson’s The Patriot.

James Purefoy in RomeJames Purefoy - Okay, if you know Purefoy, you might be thinking he’s too pretty to be an imperfect hero. Purefoy frequently plays the bad boy, but what is fascinating about his portrayals is his willingness to enthusiastically embrace the most unsavory aspects of the bad boy. His Mark Antony in HBO’s Rome is joyfully rutting, wine-swilling sensualist. While he frequently appears nude and he’s not always what you’d call toned. (Brad Pitt may sport a skeezy beard, bad hair, and prosthetics when he wants to play against pretty, but a real paunch?) Austen fans might recognize Purefoy as the drunken rake Tom in Mansfield Park or the wicked Rawdon Crawley in Vanity Fair. As a decadent British peer reduced to spying for the French, he does the near impossible and steals a scene from Sean Bean in Sharpe’s Sword. (And he seduces Kevin McKidd, another ‘jolie laide’ hero in the 1998 Bedrooms and Hallways.) Purefoy’s characters are lost boys, irreparably damaged and spiraling out of control. At their heart is an innocence and vulnerability that makes the desire to save them irresistible.

Martin Clunes as Doc MartinMartin Clunes - Heavy-set Clunes, with his liver lips and ears that make Daniel Craig’s seem positively shell-like, may seem like an odd addition to this list. Yet as Doc Martin, a pompous London surgeon forced to give up his successful practice when he develops a blood phobia and to take a job as a general practitioner in an isolated fishing village in Cornwall, he’s oddly and intensely appealing. The village is filled with eccentric characters who are the human equivalent of nails on a blackboard to the misogynistic doctor. Like Hugh Laurie’s House, Doc Martin’s a brilliant man with a damaged childhood who prefers the logic of science to the irrationality of people. The intelligence of both Martin and House, the ferocity with which they guard their hearts, and the depth of the passions they suppress, are what make them so fascinating. (And it’s just such a fascination Eloisa James skillfully explore in her heroine’s quest to break through the protective shell of the guarded hero’s heart in When Beauty Tamed the Beast.)

Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta ChaseNo one brings the imperfect hero more perfectly to life than Loretta Chase in Lord of Scoundrels. She introduces Sebastian Ballister in the prologue as the answer to his father’s fervent prayers for an heir (in large part because he’s come to despise having sex with his beautiful and unsettlingly passionate Italian wife.) When he got his first look at the infant, though, Lord Dain suspected it was Satan who had answered them. His heir was a wizened olive thing with large black eyes, ill-proportioned limbs, and a grossly oversize nose. It howled incessantly. If he could have denied the thing was his, he would have.

Despised by his father, abandoned by his mother, brutalized by his schoolmates for his hobgoblin-like appearance, there’s no way that Sebastian, who grows into a man “well over six feet and every inch dark and brutally hard” will ever be a perfect hero. But his intensity, vulnerability, intelligence and fiercely guarded heart, make him one of the most wickedly alluring imperfect heroes in romance.


Before turning her hand to writing commercial fiction, Joanna Novins spent over a decade working for the Central Intelligence Agency. She does not kill people who ask her about her previous job, though she came close once with an aging Navy SEAL who handed her a training grenade despite warnings that she throws like a girl. Published in historical romance by Berkley, Joanna also writes YA spy novels as Jody Novins.

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1. Lafka
Oh, I definitely agree with you when it comes to Jason Isaacs _ though that I DO find him attractive, so I'm not sure I'm fueling the "imperfect hero" thing ;)
I actually don't mind an imperfect hero _ quite on the contrary, it's good from time to time to read a book or watch a TV show that is not all about some beauty god.
Nonetheless, as superficial as it may sound, I still have to be at least a little bit attracted to a hero to be hooked by a story _ only when it comes to romance of course, when it's a thriller or whatever I don't mind in the slightest what the hero looks like. But reading or watching a romantic story when I keep thinking "what on earth can the heroine see in him?" has me switch off the said story quite quickly.
Please notice though that I am not particularly difficult when it comes to men _ there's not one type I like or one I dislike in particular _ so it doesn't happen to me quite often to find a hero not attractive or charming at all... ;)
Joanna Novins
2. JoannaNovins
Thanks Lafka. What got me started thinking about this piece is how your sense of attraction to someone can change as you get to know them (or their character) better. How at first glance you think - not my type at all...and then something changes. Clunes and Laurie are probably the best examples (check out Laurie as the idiot Prince Regent in the Black Adder series--definitely not sexy.)
3. love bad guys
I JUST started reading Lord of Scoundrels a few days ago on the recommendation of a friend. Where has this book been all my life? Dain is just... *head explodes from lust*

I love men who are rough around the edges in romance. Would love more recs of heroes like Lord Dain. I like a lot of Kinsale's heroes too. Allegreto in Shadowheart, Jerveaulx in Flowers from the Storm. When they finally--or gradually--redeem themselves, it's like a romance-gasm. Oh, and McNaught's Ian Thornton. Ahhh.....I forget the book title, but I remember him. I loved him.

One thing that scares me is I think authors are playing it safer lately with heroes so as not to outrage the modern women, does anyone see this trend? Any recs of current authors writing "bad boy" heroes would be so appreciated.
Joanna Novins
4. JoannaNovins
I remember stumbling across Loretta's books in a library and reading them all in a week. IMO, she's hands down one of the best in the romance biz (Scoundrels is perhaps the best of her best). Kinsales is also one of my favorites--her books, like her heroes, are often dark and unpredictable (Flowers in the Storm, For My Lady's Heart). Haven't read McNaught (thanks for the recommendation). Worked briefly for a publisher reading submissions and I will say that I think with the difficult economy and changes in the industry, they're looking particularly hard at what will sell--sometimes a bit like trying to predict how dice will roll . But it is easier to predict sales levels with celebrities, established authors and/or established themes.
5. Charlayne
When I think of the imperfect hero, first thing I think of are the Brothers of the Black Dagger Brotherhood. Talk about a messed up bunch of guys who are sexy as hell and oh so lusty. Zsadist had his head so messed up when he was kidnapped and held as a blood slave that even the other Brothers, and his twin, thought he was killing the women he went out with. He slept on the floor. He tried to scare the woman that ended up as his wife and he was terrified of his child.

Phury, his twin, was blaming himself for all the problems that Zsadist had that he turned to drugs. He had shot his leg off trying to help his brother and he didn't think that was anything. He was giving up his life, and would, if it would make Z happy. He even tried to do something that almost killed him.

Rhage- the one with so bad a temper that the Scribe Virgin had to curse him to make him learn to control it. He had to learn to control all of his emotions and the emotions could literally kill someone.

Vishious- very smart and very tortured, figuratively and physically. A father who was a real S.O.B who tried to take his manhood and had him tattooed, he finds his sexual gratification with BDSM and he sees the future, including the deaths of his Brothers, how but never when.

Tohrment- The stable one who had the most joy, the most life in his world, until something so shatters him that he seeks his own death and all but ruins the life of another.

Butch-Haunted by a death, he stays with the Brotherhood and then becomes one of them when he is taken by the Omega and is given a piece of him. He has a foot in two worlds and somehow feels a part of neither at times.

And Wrath--the King, who is going blind, who has to take the race's throne against his will and give up the fight that he's always known and loved.

Each one of the Brothers is flawed and that is what made the books so much more interesting than just the Hero who can Do anything and Get the Girl. Flaws make our heroes so much more like the rest of us and much more heroic when they conquor their own flaws along with the bad guy.
Marian DeVol
6. ladyengineer
Anne Stuart's House of Rohan series is full of particularly dark heroes, especially Francis Rohan, le Comte de Giverney, of Ruthless (1st full length novel of the series).

Most heroes of this series are still fairly pretty but ruthless in seducing the heroine. One notable exception is the vengence seeking Lucien de Malheur, the severely scarred Earl in Breathless (3rd book).
7. Misreall
As a lover of Robert Carlyle I appreciate your list, but in what world is James Purefoy not conventionally good looking? The man's nickname is James Pure-sex for heaven's sake!
Joanna Novins
8. JoannaNovins
You're right Misreall, and if you'll note I did hesitate about putting Purefoy on the list. The reason I included him is because I find it intriguing that Purefoy is willing to play against the pretty in more than a superficial way. He seems to revel in bringing out the 'bad' in his bad boys . I think there are some actors who wouldn't be quite so willing to push that envelope. In a similar vein, it's like romance novels where the hero is declared a rake, but you never see the rakish/bad behavior that's earned him that reputation.
Joanna Novins
9. JoannaNovins
Clearly I'm not the only Purefoy fan--from Atlantic Wire:

Buckle your girdles, everyone. Marc Antony is headed to the Hamptons. Former Rome rake James Purefoy has been cast in a guest role on Revenge as a love interest for Madeleine Stowe's beachside ice queen. Perfect! They'll be wicked and calculating together until they let snakes eat them or whatever happened to Tony and Cleo. Well, actually, it will be Emily/Amanda and Nolan dressed as snakes, the show is going to take a real Dada turn pretty soon, but same difference. That is exciting news! Always nice for a good show to get even gooder.
romance reader
10. bookstorecat
Nailed it! Even with Martin Clunes/Doc Martin, who really is almost bizarre-looking. I sometimes think the real appeal of the "bad boys" is that they tend to tug at the heartstrings in unexpected ways. So it's not so much about looks as about the vulnerabilities you can't see at first glance.
11. Nancy Herkness
I SOOOO agree with you on Jason Isaacs. I'm dying to see him play the hero for once so I can lust after him without wondering what's wrong with me.
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