Jun 12 2013 1:30pm

Gentle Giants and Towering Beasts: Big Heroes in Romance Novels

Meant to Be by Terri OsburnSeveral months ago, I read Meant to Be, Terri Osburn's debut novel. As with nearly all the romance novels that make up my keepers, I fell in love with the characters, major and minor. One of the minor characters whom I really hope to see more of in future books is Randy Navarro. Osburn describes Randy as a “gentle giant” with night-dark, curly hair and a “massive breadth of chest and shoulders.” When he later proves to be a protective type with a sense of humor, I knew he deserved to be the hero of his own story. Thinking about this Osburn character made me remember other big heroes whose stories I love. Among them are some of the most memorable heroes in the genre.

First, there was Hugo, or the unknown Ajax as he is christened in Georgette Heyer’s novel by that title. The Unknown Ajax (1959) is one of Heyer’s funniest books with a cast of wonderfully drawn characters from a pair of feuding valets to an aristocratic matron whose hauteur and self-possession are inimitable (though many have tried), but the star of the book is Major Hugh “Hugo” Darracott, the product of a misalliance between the second son of an arrogant peer and a weaver’s daughter. When the lord’s eldest son and his heir drown, Hugo, to the great dismay of his grandfather and most of the Darracott family, becomes the heir. When Hugo arrives at the family estate to meet his paternal relatives for the first time, he realizes they think he is an uneducated bumpkin with little wit and less social poise. Since Hugo’s besetting sin is his “levity,” he cannot resist giving his family what they expect. He speaks in a broad Yorkshire accent that leaves them cringing and assumes the role of a naïve bumbling giant of a man, graceless and limited in intellect.

Hugo is six-feet, four-inches tall and “built on noble lines with great shoulders, a deep barrel of a chest, and powerful thighs.” The displaced heir, a jaded and jealous Corinthian, mockingly refers to the Hugo as “the elephant Ajax,” a comparison to a large and fool-hardy character from Shakespeare’s play Troilus and Cressida. Even the heroine is at first deceived by Hugo’s pretense and concludes that he is “an overgrown gapeseed, slow of speech and short of wit; either too wood-headed to understand the malicious shafts that had been aimed at him, or too meek to resent them.”

She and the other women realize long before the other male characters do that Hugo is anything but slow-moving and slow-witted. In the end, it is Hugo whose quick action and quick thinking save the family from a nasty scandal in a comic masterpiece of a scene that involves almost the full cast of characters. Hugo proves himself, to be all the heroine declares him in the final exchange of the novel: Noble Ajax, you are as strong, as valiant, as wise, no less noble, much more gentle, and altogether more tractable!

Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta ChaseLoretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels (1995) features one of romance fiction’s most beloved heroes, Sebastian, Marquess of Dain, who, with his “coal black hair and bold, black eyes and a great conquering Caesar of a nose and a sullen sensuality of a mouth,” is a cross between the fairy tale beast and a Miltonic Satan. The heroine, Jessica Trent, knows that Dain is a large man, but she expects a “hulking gorilla” and finds instead a “stallion, big and splendidly proportioned—and powerfully muscled, if what his snug trousers outlined was any indication.”  Because of his childhood and the looks inherited from his Italian mother that mark him as different from other boys, Dain sees himself as monstrous, and with Jessica, he is conscious of how small she is in relation to him. Even after he has accepted his “oversize body” and acquired a certain grace of movement through sports, she makes him feel like a “great, ugly, stupid lummox.” But Jessica, from their first meeting, is aware of his sensual appeal. Both his reaction and hers are part of the famous kiss-in-the-rain scene. Dain “didn’t care what he crushed or broke. He reached out and wrapped his monster hands about her waist . . . .”  He thinks of the lightning bolt that ends the kiss as a sign that the Almighty views Beelzebub’s kissing an innocent an outrage. However, when Jessica mentally enumerates the facts surrounding the kiss, she concludes that she “goaded him into assaulting her,” that she “nearly choked him to death, demanding the assault continue,” and that it took “a bolt of lightning to knock her loose.” Small surprise that kiss is the start of a stormy but close-to-perfect romance.

I am curious as to whether Hugh “Hugo” Eames, Lord Trentham, the hero of The Proposal (2012) by Mary Balogh, was so named in tribute to Heyer’s Hugo. The two have not only their name and size in common but also their middle-class connections and their military backgrounds. The dour Trentham is the opposite of Hugo Darracott in personality, however. The only son of a wealthy merchant, Trentham receives his title for extraordinary courage in battle, an action that also leaves him with severe PTSD. But his wounds of war bring him his most intimate friendships as he becomes part of the Survivor’s Club under the leadership of the Duke of Stanbrook.

Hugo’s size is a matter of affectionate teasing when he is greeted by these friends in the book’s prologue, but others view him quite differently. His size is an essential part of the impression that leaves Gwen, Lady Muir, terrified when the two meet on an isolated beach.

He was a great giant of a man with broad shoulders and chest and powerful thighs. His five-caped greatcoat gave the impression of even greater bulk. He looked quite menacingly large, in fact. He wore no hat. His brown hair was cropped close to his head. His features were strong and harsh, his eyes dark and fierce, his mouth a straight severe line, his jaw hard set. And his expression did nothing to soften his looks. He was frowning—or scowling, perhaps.

Yet many of these same physical characteristics that evoke terror at first sight also create in the widowed Lady Muir an awareness of the man’s powerful masculinity. This awareness that awakens when Balogh’s Hugo carries the injured Gwen to the home of the Duke of Stanbrook where Trentham is a guest quickly intensifies. By the time he has placed her on a sofa in the duke’s drawing room to await the arrival of a doctor, Gwen is sipping tea and shocking herself with her thoughts about the saturnine giant.

He was . . . a terribly attractive man, He ought not to be. He was too large to be either elegant or graceful. . . . There was nothing to suggest charm or humor or any warmth of personality.

And yet . . .

And yet there was an aura about him of almost overpowering physicality. Of masculinity.

It would be an absolutely wonderful experience . . . to go to bed with him.

What follows is an account of two adults, who share a physical and emotional attraction potent enough to overcome class differences, falling in love.

Robyn Carr uses this basic situation of a hero of intimidating proportions rescuing a heroine rendered helpless by a particular set of circumstances in two of her contemporary novels. In Shelter Mountain (2007), the second book in Carr’s popular Virgin River series, John “Preacher” Middleton, a six foot, four inch gentle giant, offers sanctuary to a battered woman and her child.

Preacher assures the vulnerable and wary Paige Lassiter that his looks are deceiving and even shares with her the origin of his nickname given to him by his Marine buddies because he rarely cursed and regularly attended mass. Even so, Paige pushes the dresser in front of the door the first night she and her young son sleep in Preacher’s former room above Jack’s bar, but Preacher gradually earns her trust. He shows her that he is a man tender enough to cherish her and strong enough to be her champion. She comes to accept him at his own valuation: “tough on the outside and soft on the inside. Justice and loyalty—these values were everything to him.”

A Summer in Sonoma by Robyn CarrWalt Arneson, the primary hero of Carr’s A Summer in Sonoma (2010), saves Cassie Rasmussen from a date rape in the book’s opening scene. Ironically, Cassie accepts a date with her attacker because he seems like such a nice guy—“polite, attentive, interested  .  .  .  with a sense of humor.” When she first sees Walt, he appears more frightening than her date who can’t take no for an answer.

This was a giant wearing a tight white T-shirt covered by a black leather vest adorned with chains. On the arm that had freed her was the tattoo of a naked lady. He had a lot of facial hair—long, thick sideburns and a handlebar mustache that framed his mouth. His hair was pulled back into a ponytail.

Over the next months, Cassie discovers that the scary biker dude is the kindest, most understanding man she has ever known, an expert at quality conversation and quality kisses. But she insists they are just good friends because  she can’t imagine a future with a man who looks like a thug and works as a motorcycle mechanic. She and Walt have been seeing each other for more than four months when Cassie finally realizes that “Walt might look like a bruiser, but he was not. What he was instead was perfect. Gentle but strong, confident, sensitive, skilled.”  Once she finds out that this biker dude is actually the CEO of his own company, a chain of motorcycle shops, she’s angry that he’s not who she thought he was. The reader knows well before Cassie is negotiating motorcycle-riding age for their future offspring that the woman is an idiot if she doesn’t hang on to this big hero with both hands. Walt was so beloved by Carr’s readers that he made appearances in a couple of Virgin River books.

Docia Kent, heroine of Venus in Blue Jeans (2009)—the first book in Meg Benjamin’s Konigsburg, Texas, series—has none of Cassie’s reservations when she meets Calthorpe “Cal” Toleffson whom she thinks of as “Dr. Gorgeous.” Cal, originally from Lander, Iowa, is a veterinarian who recently bought into the only vet’s practice in Konigsburg. He’s oblivious to all the female attention he’s getting, but one look at Docia is enough for him to know she is the one. It’s been a long, dry spell for Docia since she had her heart broken by a jerk in charmer’s apparel, but she immediately thinks Cal may be just the man to end her romance drought.

Lordy, he was big! At least six–three, probably more, given the way he towered over the people around him. Brown hair just long enough to curl over his collar. Short beard and mustache. Shoulders that looked too big for his denim shirt. She’d bet anything he had on boots too.

When somebody shoots Docia’s cat Nicodemus and the new vet saves Nico’s life, Cal becomes all the more irresistible. Docia is eager to have his boots under her bed, but warning bells sound when she thinks of emotional entanglements. Cal’s hearing a different sound: “If he’d looked less like Bigfoot and more like Baryshnikov, he would have danced down the avenue. As it was, he settled for whistling the Iowa State fight song.”

It takes Cal’s saving her life, Docia’s true confessions, and a near-breakup before the two begin their HEA, but their wedding in book 2 brings Cal’s hunky brothers to Konigsburg, all of them as big or bigger than Cal. Benjamin’s giant-size Toleffsons fill the booths at the Dew Drop Inn and the dreams of Konigsburg’s female population through three more books: Wedding Bell Blues (2009), Pete Toleffson’s story; Be My Baby (2009), Lars Toleffson’s story; and Long Time Gone (2010), Erik Toleffson’s story.

Remember Randy Navarro, Terri Osburn’s character who inspired this post? He will be the hero of the third Anchor Island novel. I’m preordering it as soon as it goes up online. In the meantime, it’s been a while since I reread Ravished (1992) by Amanda Quick. Gideon, Viscount St. Justin is another big, beautiful, beastly hero—complete with a lightning bolt scar.


Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.

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Terri Osburn
1. Terri Osburn
Thanks so much for the mention and all the support. I adore Meg Benjamin's Toleffson brothers, but Cal is my favorite. Cannot resist a sweet-natured, Beta hero who loves animals. And he falls so hard for Docia.
Jennifer Proffitt
2. JenniferProffitt
I always loved Dane from Celeste Bradley's Surrender to a Wicked Spy. He's this huge man who looks like a Viking. His wife is equally tall and pretty solidly built. I love them as a duo.

I'm a relatively short person IRL and I love a tall hero (both in real life and in fiction). If they can be as tall as a basketball player and built like a linebacker, send them my way!
Terri Osburn
3. KJ Charles
I adore huge heroes. The Unknown Ajax is the best to my mind. And (if it's not too pluggy to mention it), the hero of my Non-Stop Till Tokyo, coming out next year with Samhain, is a Samoan ex-sumo wrestler who's 6'7. So I'm going to put down a tentative 'tallest hero' marker till someone takes it away from me...
Terri Osburn
4. Grace S
I's add JR Ward's Rhage to the list, who at 6'7 is a vampire *and* turns into a dragon that eats people! Yet he's so tender and gentle with small, terminal cancer suffering Mary, especially once he realizes he won't break her with his physical attentions.
Terri Osburn
5. Saranna DeWylde
I love giant heroes. Although, 6'4 doesn't exactly hit my giant button anymore. That's just the right size for me. ;)
Carmen Pinzon
6. bungluna
Shelley Laurenston's heroes tend to be big. "Bear Meets Girl"'s hero in particular caught my eye. He's a policeman but he has a calming effect on the heroine. Love Laurenston!
Kathleen Kennedy
7. kath9969
Love, love, love The Unknown Ajax (and pretty much all of Georgette Heyer's books) and I agree with JR Ward's Rhage as a favourite also. I would also add Curran from Ilona Andrew's Kate Daniels series.
8. Janga
Terri, Cal's my favorite Toleffson too, although I adore them all, maybe Erik a little less. :) I'm poised on ready for Randy's story.
9. Janga
Jennifer, I've read some of Bradley's books, but I must have missed that one. I'll have to check it out.

KJ, except for Deborah Smith's true giant hero, I can't recall a hero taller than 6'7. Your hero sounds interesting. :)
10. Janga
Grace and Kath, I don't read vampire books, but I know Rhage is a favorite of many romance readers.
11. Janga
Saranna, I checked to see of Deborah Smith's giant story was ever published so that I could direct you to a hero who truly is a giant. LOL But it doesn't even seem to be on her website anymore. Too bad. I thought it was a poignant tale.
12. Janga
Bungluna, Laurenston is another author whose books I haven't read. Are all her books shifters?

I'm happy to see Heyer's Ajax getting so much love. He is one of my all-time favorites. I also love her Sir Anthony Fanshawe, another big, deceptive hero.
Terri Osburn
13. robinsid
I just finished Grace Burrowes' book "Nicholas" with a hero who is very self conscious about his huge size. He joked that his great height and size freaked out the matchmaking mamas from chasing his title for their daughters. His HEA came with someone who didn't care. He's a great character.
Jennifer Proffitt
14. JenniferProffitt
@robinsid, there was something similar in Kresley Cole's No Rest for the Wicked. The hero was a virgin (or VERY inexperienced, I can't remember) because women were intimidated by his size and then he turned scholarly so he could just ignore them.
Carmen Pinzon
15. bungluna
@Janga- Laurenston has two series: one is shape shifters of many flavors (my favorite are the tigers and the bears) and the other is about dragons and it's more fantasy. Most of her heroes are big straping lads.
Terri Osburn
16. LadyWesley
One of my favorite big guys is Baron Clun, the hero in Miranda Davis's The Baron's Betrothal: An On-Again, Off-Again, On-Again Regency Romance. He's really a giant teddy bear, but his size, his scowling demeanor, and his reputation as a ferocious soldier frighten the young misses in the Marriage Mart. The heroine encounters him when she is looking for help in recovering her stolen money and jewelry from three hooligans in a village tavern.
She noted with satisfaction that his enormous size alone would suffice to serve her purpose. He wore expensive boots, well-made clothes and a decent greatcoat. From the neck up, however, he had a wild, berserker-like look about him and an even wilder mane of black hair that badly needed a trim. But he would do.
Moreover, he likes the looks of her.
She was fetching in a wild-eyed, windblown, lunatic sort of way, the sort of way he found appealing, given his body’s unambiguous approbation. Her own direct green glare crackled over him. She was tall for a woman, though her head reached no higher than his nose. Her figure, stuffed in what appeared to be a tight, long sack with sleeves, was trim but lush, not wispy or liable to break in his embrace. She stood before him, arms akimbo, Diana the Huntress or perhaps Aphrodite. Clun purred.
Not surprisingly, they hit it off.
Jennifer Proffitt
17. JenniferProffitt
@LadyWesley, sounds like a book I'll be adding to my TBR pile!
18. Janga
Robinsid, I'm behind on Burrowes's lords books. I've only read one. I'll be sure to take a look at Nicholas.

Thanks, Bungluna.

Lady Wesley, I just bought The Baron's Betrothal on your recommendation. It sounds good.
Terri Osburn
19. Lizzie18
I love this post; I am fairly tall myself and love a big strong hero.

I will keep this post and, ladies, I will check each and everyone of your suggestions. I have a 'go to' site on the internet that I love; it's It has over 30,000 authors in all genres. You type in the name of the author and you get a bio plus a chronological list (and cover picture) of all their books, plus divided by series. You click on one and get the synopsis of the story. While reading your post, I started checking some to put on my 'to buy' list starting with Lord of Scoundrels, Summer in Sonoma, Meg Benjamin and Celeste Bradley's books... just too many so I'll take my time reading and checking out your suggestions.

I love Shelly LAURENSTON shifters, especially those bears, yum...
I also love Julie GARWOOD's medieval big stapping heros.
Strange to say but these are my two 'bring to desert island' series. They seem very opposite: one has very romantic historical stories, and the other violent urban fantasy stories with pretty raunchy female characters. What to they have in comment ? More than we might think. There's action, sexyness (subtle or not), lots of humor (again subtle of not), and the repartee between all the characters is delicious. And always fun and interesting secondary characters.
Terri Osburn
20. jsmom2
Oh, I am so very happy you mentioned Gideon. He's the very first hero I thought of as I was reading. This poor tbr pile :D Thanks for the adds.
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