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The Art of Exaggeration and Romance Fiction

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It wasn’t until I saw this picture of Shaquille O’Neal and his girlfriend that the size disparity between paranormal heroes and their heroines really hit home.  Shaquille O’Neal is 7′ 1″ and his girlfriend at the time was 5’2″.

In “Lover Eternal,” Rhage is described as having “shoulders were broad as the door he’d come through, his legs so long he was taller than anyone in the place.”  Wrath is six foot six inches with “[s]houlders … twice the size of most males”. Vishous is “six feet, six inches tall and built like a brick shithouse”

What’s fascinating about the use of exaggeration in the BDB series is the difference between a pre-transformative vampire and a post transformative vampire.  The pre-trans vampire like John Michael was “At the age of twenty-three, he was five feet, six inches tall, 102 pounds.”   He’s delicate, completely hairless, and impotent.  The post trans John Michael is wearing “a fleece the size of a sleeping bag, an XXXL T-shirt, and a pair of size-fourteen Nike Air Shox in a shiny new box.”

But exaggeration isn’t just used in paranormals.  It permeates every part of the genre.

In the contemporary setting, we have heroines who aren’t merely poor, but they are poor, abandoned and pregnant.  In Trish Morey’s “The Heir from Nowhere”, the heroine is described as “so undernourished, she looked—weighed down” and a “ragged urchin” wearing a “thin discount department store cardigan” and “shabby and pale, a ghost of a woman dressed in drab clothes and with hair the colour of dishwater pulled into an unkempt ponytail.”  In her home, she has only “two remaining mismatched chairs” and “a rickety side table”.

There is Roarke from the J.D. Robb series and Gideon from Sylvia Day’s Bared to You books that own half of New York City, if not more.  Roarke seems to own every major establishment on Earth and off Earth worth owning.

In romantic suspense, authors vie to have the most gruesome killers doing the most vile things (mostly to female victims). It is not enough for the villain to have killed one person.  For the sake of the book, he must have killed five or six and be working toward an even dozen.

In historicals, we have an ungodly assortment of dukes running around not to mention titled spies.  According to this site, only 40 dukes have existed at any one given time.  Yet, if you look at the historical romance shelves, there have to be at least 4,000 of them.  And let’s not get started on the rakes in romance.

Exaggerations are utilized, sometimes intentionally and oftentimes unconsciously, for emphasis.  In the BDB series, the physicality of the males is highlighted because the heroes are warriors and in this mythos, the warriors are characterized by otherworldly strength and endurance.  Their reward for suffering the diminutive, effete, hairless body pre trans is a post trans body that inspires awe and fear.  It is the literal extrapolation of the Charles Atlas or Captain America comic.

In Harlequin Presents, the exaggerated circumstances of the downtrodden female are used to create sympathy for the heroine, a first layer of angst necessary for a successful HP recipe. The wealthy male cannot be brought to his knees by an equal. Instead, the power dynamic must be imbalanced from the beginning in order to make the flip at the end more emotionally resonate.

With wealthy heroes, whether they be the contemporary billionaire or the historical duke, the exaggerated wealth provides security for the heroine and allows her the freedom to pursue her own endeavors without the pesky worry of a regular income.

For the male rakes, the idea is that if he can satisfy a legion of women, he can satisfy the heroine and bring to her the most powerful orgasms in all of creation. Moreover, the vast legion of pre heroine women he has taken will make his final decision one that is true.

The primary use of exaggeration in romance is to provide security for the heroine whether it comes in the form of brute strength, financial means, or sexual prowess.  The serial killer may have escaped undetected but he is no match for the hero (and sometimes heroine).  The exaggerations, when given some thought, may be frightening in real life such as the devoted lover who bugs your telephone; GPS tracks your car, and determines what you wear.  But in romance fiction, the readers convert those characteristics into something more palatable, like how the body converts sunlight into Vitamin D.  The reader mind converts the huge beast of a male who stalks the heroine’s every move as a sign of love and devotion. The rake’s past excesses are converted into sexual prowess that is used only to satisfy the heroine.

Ubertreibungskünstler is a German term for “artists of exaggeration”, an insult leveled toward politicians who use rhetoric to manipulate and deceive.  But in the case of fiction, isn’t that what we ask of our authors?  To weave a web of words that make us believe in the fantastical?

The danger with using exaggeration is, of course, the overuse.  The over use of any particular exaggerated form results in a reader immunity.  The millionaires have turned to billionaires.  The serial killers into progenitors of mass homicides.  The six foot six man becomes the eight foot monster (Rhage) until all the exaggerations turn upon themselves and become no longer a fantastical fantasy but a laughable one.

Overuse of exaggeration ends with genre staleness.  When readers become disenchanted with a trope or a characterization that is used too often, the conversion no longer works for them.  Even Vitamin D, in excess, becomes toxic and dangerous negating its previously positive effects.

 

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

70 Comments

  1. SAO
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 07:02:36

    I dislike exaggeration. When I’m busy rolling my eyes at every other page, it’s hard to read. The swap shop at my local dump (civic amenity to you Brits) has more furniture than Trish Morey’s heroine.

  2. Moriah Jovan
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 07:34:09

    The millionaires have turned to billionaires.

    Inflation. A million dollars doesn’t go very far nowadays…

  3. Sarah Morgan
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 08:00:16

    @SAO: we Brits are happy to call it the local dump too.

    What fascinates me is whether Roarke owns a different half of New York to Gideon, or is Gideon sub-letting part of it from Roarke? Are they likely to clash over it? I think I might want to read that book……

  4. Shiloh Walker
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 08:04:45

    It’s an exaggeration in the extreme, but one of the images that has always come to my mind with the over the top massive male descriptions…

    bedazzled

    Brendan F as the basketball player in Bedazzled… he’s over the top huge, clumsy as hell and goofy. Endearing, sorta. But not sexy.

    I can work with some exaggeration-Roarke’s extreme wealth makes me roll my eyes sometimes, but I can buy it because the stories are still fun and he doesn’t come through the door dripping money and it’s not his money that makes him sexy.

    Too many books, though, seem to sell extreme wealth, extreme size, extreme this or that as sexy and it’s just…not. If I feel like it’s been shoved down my throat, I toss the book aside and usually don’t bother reading the author anymore.

  5. Meri
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 08:11:30

    @Sarah Morgan: I suspect the fanfic is already in progress. OTOH, two billionaires would be more original than one billionaire and one average to poor heroine, and we all know that m/m sells ;)

    I dislike exaggerations, too. I wouldn’t want to live the life of a billionaire, to marry a duke, or to end up with a seven-foot tall vampire who’s twice my weight. No thanks.

  6. Mom on the Run
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 08:58:14

    Funny you should say that about the dukes, as just the other day I was thinking how interesting it would be to count the Greek billionaires in the Harlequin Presents genre, especially considering Greece’s current economic woes. I guess that’s why so many of them have moved to Australia.

  7. dick
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 09:28:07

    Lawyers have legalese; senators, etc., have governmentese; academics have academese. Romance authors have exaggeration.

  8. cbackson
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 10:02:50

    OT, but I still can’t get over having a hero named “Vishous”. It’s not good to be one consonant away from an adjective typically applied to maple syrup. IDK, when I’m fighting evil, thick, sticky, slow-moving liquid isn’t generally what I’m going for.

  9. cleo
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 10:14:29

    Interesting post and good timing, since I’ve been thinking about this recently. The earlier discussion about dealing with rape realistically in romance got me thinking about how suffering is often exaggerated in romance – I’m thinking specifically about how main characters who were raped or abused often have additional suffering piled on – as if being raped once isn’t traumatic enough, so they also have to be sold into the sex trade or prostituted by their mother, etc.

    Frex, in Nora Robert’s Sea Swept (1st in Chesapeake Bay saga), not only was Ana raped when she was 12 (iirc), but her mother was raped and murdered in that same attack, in front of her. I love Sea Swept, but every time I re-read it, I find that exaggeration in Ana’s history to be jarring.

  10. Christine M.
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 10:28:15

    @cbackson:

    *dies laughing*

  11. Molly O'Keefe
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 10:36:28

    I think it’s part of the blunt force tools we use to get emotional reaction in our books and from the readers. As a writer who has never met a tragic backstory she didn’t want to pile onto a character – it’s an easy short cut to sympathy, or pain. There can be, in general, a lack of subtlety in our genre. If one hero in a series is big, the rest of them have to be bigger, until it makes no sense as an effort to short hand to the reader that this guy is strong and brave and a protector…
    This post is making me think hard in terms of more subtlety and less exaggeration…

  12. leslie
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 10:38:46

    Just last night I was having a discussion with my book club about the height issue. A book someone proposed had a very tall hero and a very very petite heroine.
    I’ve stopped reading many books, especially paranormals where the hero is six feet, seven and the heroine barely five foot. It actually creeps me out. My book club was clearly divided along height lines, the petite gals like the big dudes, little woman trope, the taller gals don’t. Go figure!

    I agree with Shiloh Walker about Roarke’s exaggerated wealth. For me the fact that Dallas is always teasing him about his “empire” helps to make it more acceptable. In general I don’t care for the millionaire/billionaire trope. My mother who is eighty and has bookcases of HQs from way back loves them. I’ve just always disliked the disparity of age, wealth and sexual experience in those HQs.

    @Sarah Morgan: I want to read that book too!

  13. leslie
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 10:47:37

    @cleo: I agree about Sea Swept, but the thing that really bothered me was how the details of Anna’s experience changed from book to book.

  14. becca
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 10:56:16

    I always figured that Roarke’s having to own everything kind of exaggerated wealth was more Eve’s reaction to it, and teasing him about it, and him teasing her back. Fabulously wealthy, yes, but not necessarily truly owning half of New York (not to mention the rest of the universe)

  15. Las
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 11:02:16

    It’s lazy writing. It doesn’t mean the book is bad, and it can absolutely make for a fun read, but if an author is using exaggeration to make the heroine likable or the hero more attractive, then it’s lazy.

  16. Janine
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 11:06:18

    Overuse of exaggeration ends with genre staleness. When readers become disenchanted with a trope or a characterization that is used too often, the conversion no longer works for them. Even Vitamin D, in excess, becomes toxic and dangerous negating its previously positive effects.

    Yes! Thank you! Exaggeration has its place, and I have loved some books that use it, but some books over-rely on it. I dread the day the trillionaires replace the billionaires.

  17. Donna Thorland
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 11:06:41

    I think from a craft point of view, for me, it’s worth differentiating between exaggeration and raising the stakes. The first is descriptive and passive, the second is functional and active. So if you make your hero a gazillionaire who owns three quarters of Manhattan, that is exaggeration (and I agree that staleness and reader fatigue are real dangers here). If he must raise a gazillion dollars to ransom the heroine by 3pm, that’s raising the stakes. I think the thing about gruesome back stories is that they’re just exaggeration if the character doesn’t have to overcome the trauma–but they are raising the stakes if she has to get past them to reach her HEA.

  18. Kate K.F.
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 12:07:14

    This is an apt post for me as I’ve been reading a book that is full of characters on that edge of believability and its made it hard for me to enjoy the book. The main character is brilliant, from a poor background and comfortable in her sexuality and beautiful while the villain is another powerful beautiful woman just with lots of political power. I’m going to keep reading, but the exaggeration made it hard for me to care for the characters as they seem unrealistic.

    Its also a book that’s mixing genres of romance, fantasy and mystery yet I think one reason the exaggeration bothers me is it feels like its taking the place of world building. I won’t name the book as I hope that it improves and it is well written, it just has some of these issues.

  19. cead
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 13:10:40

    @leslie:

    I’ve stopped reading many books, especially paranormals where the hero is six feet, seven and the heroine barely five foot. It actually creeps me out. My book club was clearly divided along height lines, the petite gals like the big dudes, little woman trope, the taller gals don’t. Go figure!

    Thank you for this — it creeps me out too, and I’m glad I’m not the only one. The other thing that creeps me out is the requirement that all heroes must be hung like horses. Sometimes I kinda have to mentally shrink the guy in order to appreciate the fantasy.

  20. Alix
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 13:13:05

    I once had a boyfriend who was almost 12 inches taller than me. Not fun. Since then I’ve always tried to make my characters of relatively equal height. And if that involves a woman that would mean that without heels on she still has to be able to comfortably kiss him without getting a cringe in her neck.

    It was one of the things I liked about Avengers: Robert Downey hr. is tiny when put next to Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth. In one shot they show that he’s wearing heels. Or on Hawai’i 5-0 Scott Caan next to Alex O’Loughlin. Now imagine those two kissing…. ;-)

    While I like my vampires sexy, good-looking and physically whole, sometimes I can’t help but wonder what they really would look like considering lack of modern hygiene and medical treatments. Rotten teeth? Scars? Bad eyesight? Missing fingers or toes? Tiny and scrawny due to malnutrition?

    But do we want to read about that? Even minor things like a character wearing glasses are relatively rare in romances. Disability even more so, yet especially in stories involving military characters would it be so difficult to imagine a romantic hero who lost a limb during combat? It would be a different kind of challenge for the lovers to overcome.

    It’s one of the things I liked about Lois Bujold ‘Miles Vorkosigan’-books. Here the hero wasn’t physically perfect and instead had to rely on his charm and intelligence. But I guess someone like him wouldn’t really make much of a romantic hero even though some of the novels have a romantic subplot.

    I don’t mind the millionaire/billionaire trope so much although it would be interesting if she were rich too and would not depend on him for his money. As for the title thing, I always wanted to do something with the whole ‘adopted aka bought his title’-thing where the ‘prince of XY’ is filthily rich and also a brothel-owner or such and not part of the actual aristocratic family.

  21. cleo
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 13:33:37

    @leslie: I don’t remember that – how did Ana’s story change?

    @Donna Thorland:

    I think the thing about gruesome back stories is that they’re just exaggeration if the character doesn’t have to overcome the trauma–but they are raising the stakes if she has to get past them to reach her HEA.

    Really interesting point. I think that there’s something very satisfying about reading about an MC who has to overcome (or at least come to terms with) their horrible background to get their HEA.

    I’m still struggling with this tendency I’ve noticed to exaggerate rape – I can see that if a character has to deal with being raped as a child to reach their hea, it raises the stakes and it works. If they have to overcome being raped as a child by a group of Russian mobsters and then sold into sex work by their evil uncle, that seems like exaggeration to me, even if also raises the stakes.

    @cead: LOL – I have to mentally shrink heroes too.

  22. Janine
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 13:34:10

    @Donna Thorland: Great point.

    @cead:

    The other thing that creeps me out is the requirement that all heroes must be hung like horses.

    LOL and yeah, agreed.

  23. leslie
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 13:45:53

    @cleo: It’s been awhile but, I remember details of the incident and Anna’s age changed in each redescription. I have found that often in Nora Roberts’ series, just little things, but it’s annoying.

  24. Dabney
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 13:47:34

    @leslie: As the mom of a six foot tall daughter, I think it’s interesting how the height disparity isn’t necessarily nature at work. This Atlantic article was fascinating: http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/01/why-its-so-rare-for-a-wife-to-be-taller-than-her-husband/272585/

  25. Dabney
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 13:49:00

    @cead: If I read one more book where the heroine needs two hands to span the hero’s member, I’m going to just put it down. Please!

  26. Janine
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 14:00:08

    @Dabney: Maybe her hands are tiny?

  27. Iola
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 14:05:11

    @Dabney:

    There are also all those books where the hero can span the heroine’s waist (or waste, in a bad book) with his two hands. I’m sorry, but the combination can’t be physically possible.

  28. Robin/Janet
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 14:15:00

    I am still traumatized by a description in Sophia Nash’s A Passionate Endeavor of the hero’s fear that he would — in all his gigantic male splendor — break the bird-like heroine by having sex with her. If his fixation on her tiny size hadn’t been enough, that pretty much finished me off (but not the heroine, natch).

  29. Jane
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 14:16:30

    @Robin/Janet: I thought for sure you would break out the description used by Brenda Joyce for her hero’s penis – the club.

  30. Robin/Janet
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 14:22:58

    @Jane: It is so funny you mention that, because I was reminded of that horrific imagery yesterday while reading Ruthie Knox’s How To Misbehave, wherein the hero and heroine discuss the similarities between a penis and a cudgel/club. It was NOT a happy memory.

  31. leslie
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 14:35:16

    @Dabney: I have a six two son. Should we matchmake?

  32. Donna Thorland
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 14:44:13

    @Dabney

    @cead: If I read one more book where the heroine needs two hands to span the hero’s member, I’m going to just put it down. Please!

    Ouch.

  33. Alix
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 14:55:52

    @Dabney:

    I have tiny hands and even so…. ouch. There’s being a size-queen and then there’s this.

  34. Fiona McGier
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 15:15:10

    The most commented on blog I ever wrote was about having read a 3-story anthology that had a vampire hero who was described as having a member as large as the heroine’s arm from fist to elbow, and despite her lack of sexual experience, they almost immediately were varying positions…if you get my meaning…MINUS lube! I had to put the book down and laugh out loud after screaming, “Ew! Ow! Ew!” I finished the story, but somehow it had lost its magic for me. I like a bit more realism, and a whole lot less exaggeration in my erotic romances. And some of my heroes are told by the heroine that she actually prefers a realistically-sized man, since just as men are proportional, so are women. Yes, a baby can come out of most of us (I had 4 c-sections), but still…

  35. Sheri Cobb South
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 15:48:28

    I had to laugh at the descriptions (to say nothing of the names!) in your example. My husband is 6’5″ (11 inches taller than my 5’6″), and if women knew what a hassle it is to try to find jeans with a 36″ inseam–to say nothing of the $$$ you pay for that extra 2″ of length on sleeves and shirttails–they might find that sort of thing a lot less romantic! ;-D

  36. Carrie G
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 16:24:44

    @Dabney: Interesting article. I’m one of the <4% who are married to a man who is the same height or actually a little shorter than me. I'm 5'6" and my first husband was 6'3". He was a jerk, which had nothing to do with his height. ;-) I guess I'm just saying I don't know why height matters to people. I'm married to this really cool guy who's also a great dad. I'll take that over "tall, dark and handsome" any day! ;-)

  37. Emily A.
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 16:26:54

    I am so enjoying everyone’s posts.
    @ Lola yes I hate books where the hero’s two hands fit her waist.
    That being said I do like my heroes tall. I read one book where the hero was an NBA player who is really tall and 6’2″. I don’t consider 6’2″ tall for a man and certainly not a NBA player.
    As for billionaires, I always find Roarke’s wealth a little frightening and not very attractive. I would be somewhat scared by someone so rich coming on to me. Sigh But the millionaires became billionaires when in real life the richest went from millions to billions. We only have to worry about Trillionaires when the rich get that rich… although Roarke might totally be a trillionaire.
    On the other Eve Dallas is 5’11″ and weighs 120 pounds and maybe less depending on the book
    http://www.healthchecksystems.com/heightweightchart.htm
    All in all great post!

  38. Ann Somerville
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 17:14:08

    Why this obsession with people looking like ‘brick shithouses’? First, never seen one (and I highly doubt anyone using the phrase has either) – all the ones I’ve seen are made of timber and second, most outdoor ‘dunnies’ in Australia are decidedly ramshackle affairs.

    Is there something inherently manly about being unpainted, rusting, and smelling strongly of poo?

  39. Ann Somerville
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 17:15:58

    @Emily A.:
    “I don’t consider 6’2″ tall for a man and certainly not a NBA player.”

    My husband is 6’2″ and he’s tall – to me, who is 5’2″. But every basketball player I’ve seen in USA or here has been 6’5″ at a bare minimum – and next to a man that height, spouse looks short.

  40. leslie
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 20:28:37

    @Emily A.: According to Dallas’s wiki page she’s 5’10″ and 120 lbs with a 26.2 inch waist. That was me before 3 kids. Those charts are all good and well, but they don’t take an individuals lifestyle into consideration. Not all slender people are unheatlhy or visa versa.
    @Ann Somerville: I thought immediately about the lead guy in Magic Mike, Channing Tatum, what a body! Built like a brick shithouse just means very well constructed.

  41. hapax
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 20:38:37

    Personally, I get all swoony over short, slender heroes — when I can find them. :-(

    And yeah, eyeglasses are a major turn-on.

    I wish that romance authors would wise up to the fact that not all women share the same tastes.

  42. Caffey
    Jan 29, 2013 @ 23:43:16

    In the post you had to click to go to a site that had info on “number of historical and dukes” but it ends up with “page not found”. Can you teell me where that link was to go. I’d like to read it. Thanks

  43. Katie T.
    Jan 30, 2013 @ 02:55:25

    @cbackson:

    I KNOW. I can’t read any of her books. The names are fucking ridiculous, I can’t take anyone seriously.

  44. Jane
    Jan 30, 2013 @ 07:59:32

    @Caffey – here is the link http://chinet.com/~laura/html/titles02.html

  45. Brie
    Jan 30, 2013 @ 08:21:24

    I like hunky, built heroes, but I also get, as @hapax said, swoony over slender shorter heroes, or any hero that breaks the mold. Heroes that step outside of the norm tend to have interesting, unique and more developed personalities, and I think larger-than-life personalities trump larger-than-life bodies every time.

    I wish someone would write a hero with the looks and personality of Martin Freeman. I have such a crush on him *sigh*

  46. Dabney
    Jan 30, 2013 @ 09:14:43

    @Janine: I hate that trope too. Way too common in historicals and mentioned over and over.

  47. Dabney
    Jan 30, 2013 @ 09:16:12

    @Robin/Janet: And yet that very notion fuels the much beloved Lord of Scoundrels.

  48. Dabney
    Jan 30, 2013 @ 09:18:21

    @leslie: Yes! She’s determined to have a tall mate. Her dad is 6’5″ and her brothers are all 6′+. My sister is 5’11″ and married to someone 6’5.” Our giant family has left my daughter with, um, tall expectations.

  49. Dabney
    Jan 30, 2013 @ 09:19:30

    @Sheri Cobb South: Online shopping. The only place a 32/36 is easy to find!

  50. Dabney
    Jan 30, 2013 @ 09:20:48

    @Carrie G: I keep telling my daughter that, but, at 16, she’s not there yet. On the other hand, she adores One Direction and they are all too short for her by her standard.

  51. Janine
    Jan 30, 2013 @ 09:21:21

    @Alix: It was me who made the tiny hands comment, but I was being tongue-in-cheek. Think tiny tiny hands. Doll sized.

  52. Janine
    Jan 30, 2013 @ 09:29:01

    @Ann Somerville: That was a riot! I will never read a “brick shithouse” description again without thinking of outhouses in all their smelly glory. Not that I’m likely to read a “brick shithouse” description again anyway. I gave up on Ward a while back.

  53. Moriah Jovan
    Jan 30, 2013 @ 09:50:39

    Well, now I feel compelled to weigh in on the “brick shithouse” thing. I haven’t read Ward, because, I, too, think the names are ridiculous and that Vishous looks like “viscous.” I am not down with viscous vampires any more than I am sparkly ones.

    Anyhoooooooooooo, onward. Straight Dope has the best explanation I’ve seen yet:

    The guy who first used “built like a brick shithouse” to describe a woman with a nice figure wasn’t thickheaded, just a smart-ass. From the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang we learn that: (a) the phrase and its euphemistic variants date back at least to 1903; (b) said variants replace “shithouse” with switch shanty, schoolhouse, slaughterhouse, or backhouse, among others; and (c) all were originally–and more sensibly–applied to men of solid or powerful build. When said of women, one 1938 source notes, the phrase usually meant a “heavy, cloddish, sexually unappetizing female.” But even in the 1930s a few wiseguys were applying it to attractive women, and in the U.S. that usage has now supplanted all others.

    Cue The Commodores who cemented it in the mainstream, albeit without the “shit” part. Because standards! Ward is a year younger than me and if she was listening to the radio at all, she would’ve grown up with it like I did.

    I further suspect this is part of Ward’s pitiful attempt at appropriating black culture. However, using it to describe a man (in the US) is, um…weird.

  54. Nonny
    Jan 30, 2013 @ 10:15:58

    re: the little woman/tall guy stereotype

    I am actually 4’11, and I freak out if I am around guys who are over 6ft. They may be perfectly nice men but it just sets me on edge. It’s somewhat of a difficulty when reading romance novels, and I often skip past height descriptions entirely because if I focus on it too much, I’m likely to have difficulty continuing the book.

    I would LOVE to read a romance with a short dude sometime, just saying.

  55. Dabney
    Jan 30, 2013 @ 10:49:11

    @Moriah Jovan: Yeah, who wants a guy who’s 36-24-36?

  56. Gayle
    Jan 30, 2013 @ 11:03:45

    @Nonny:

    Trust me, when you’re smaller and you’re with a much bigger guy, it’s like being trapped under a mattress. Not much fun! lol

  57. Nonny
    Jan 30, 2013 @ 11:07:30

    @Gayle:

    LOL, yes, my family teases me as it is for getting involved with “tall” people as my partner is 5’11. A foot difference is pretty much the outside of what I can handle, and as the both of us have arthritis just kissing can be difficult!

  58. Isobel Carr
    Jan 30, 2013 @ 11:21:08

    @Nonny: I don’t think most women of even average height are used to having that kind of experience (they’d have to be hanging out exclusively with Pro Basketball players or something). I know I’m not. I’m nearly 6’, and it’s RARE for a man to make me feel short or uneasy because of his size. He has to be 6’8” or so before he really registers to me as “tall” (meaning I have to go up on tiptoe to hug him).

  59. P. Kirby
    Jan 30, 2013 @ 11:46:26

    “In “Lover Eternal,” Rhage is described as having “shoulders were broad as the door he’d come through, his legs so long he was taller than anyone in the place.””

    Oooh, so that’s where that’s from. See, I have a tendency, habit, whatever, to rant about the over-the-top alpha males that seem to characterize paranormal romance. (Sorry, but enormous, testosterone poisoned males aren’t my cuppa.) My rants usually include a reference to humungous men who can barely fit through a doorway. I know I’ve read such a male somewhere (and never read the author again), but couldn’t remember where.

    Interesting how something can be so memorable and yet totally forgettable (Book, author).

  60. cead
    Jan 30, 2013 @ 12:20:09

    @hapax: THANK YOU! I don’t care about eyeglasses one way or the other, but short and slender heroes are my preference too.

  61. Erica Anderson
    Jan 30, 2013 @ 12:42:59

    I get Jane’s point about the heroes in J.R. Ward’s BDB series–I’m a fan and I’ve thought about why I find the massiveness of the heroes so appealing. It’s not just the sense of security this gives to the heroines. I think for Ward it’s also about the disparity between the hero’s size and appearance (huge! aggressive! powerful!) and his internal sense of himself (as weak, broken, and a failure). Ward uses this disparity to create major emotional conflict. Is it exaggeration? Sure. Is it effective in creating conflict? Absolutely.

  62. cead
    Jan 30, 2013 @ 12:47:05

    @Nonny: I’m a shade over 5’7”, and while I’m not uncomfortable being around men who are over six feet (my father and brother both are), I’m rarely attracted to them. For me, though, I think it’s more about overall mass than height: the taller the attractive-to-me guy, the greater the probability that he’s going to have a lighter build, whereas attractive-to-me guys closer to my own height have somewhat more variable builds. (It would probably make a beautiful graph.)

  63. Deljah
    Jan 30, 2013 @ 20:31:06

    I loved everything about this essay and the comments! I lost count of how many times I lol’d.

    I hate the overused size disparities as well. Why can’t any guys ever be 5’10? And where do the women get these whale-sized vaginas that can so easily accommodate their singularly endowed partners? Sometimes it seems like the vajays must extend past their sternums, lol. Talk about the law of diminishing sexiness.

  64. Susan
    Jan 30, 2013 @ 20:55:47

    I don’t universally hate exaggeration. It depends on what I’m reading and why I’m reading it. Sometimes I just need some pure escapism and a bit of exaggeration is just part of the package. Sometimes I want more realism and exaggeration is unnecessary and jarring.

  65. azteclady
    Jan 30, 2013 @ 23:36:13

    @Deljah:

    where do the women get these whale-sized vaginas that can so easily accommodate their singularly endowed partners? Sometimes it seems like the vajays must extend past their sternums, lol. Talk about the law of diminishing sexiness.

    Oh my good lord, now I’m breathless with laughter

  66. Janine
    Jan 31, 2013 @ 00:22:24

    @Nonny:

    I would LOVE to read a romance with a short dude sometime, just saying.

    Mary Jo Putney wrote one of those. Robin, the hero of Angel Rogue.

  67. cleo
    Jan 31, 2013 @ 17:13:47

    @Erica Anderson: Interesting. I haven’t read JR Ward, but I think there’s a similar dynamic in Lord of Scoundrels, where Dain is big but feels inadequate and broken.

    I just read Dirty Laundry, Heidi Cullinan’s latest, and she really plays with size and feeling safe and feeling broken, etc. Denver is a body builder, high school dropout and a bouncer at a gay bar and is described as being huge, and Adam is a skinny, geeky grad student who has OCD and severe anxiety. Both of them feel broken for different reasons and to different degrees, and they help each other to find wholeness and to accept their brokenness. It’s a really moving book and another example of using exaggeration well, I think.

  68. Friday Fragments: Drawing Lines | Something More
    Feb 01, 2013 @ 09:04:24

    [...] with everyone else.” Poor romance heroes; we expect them to be outsized in every way (as Jane’s post at Dear Author on “The Art of Exaggeration” makes clear). Would it be any wonder if [...]

  69. Erica Anderson
    Feb 01, 2013 @ 12:46:30

    @cleo: I hadn’t thought about Dain, but you’re exactly right. Even years after first reading Lord of Scoundrels, I still remember how big Dain was and how flawed he felt, despite the fact that everyone else thought he was this massive bada$$.

  70. Fantasy to the (Hyper) Extreme? |
    Aug 12, 2013 @ 04:48:51

    [...] Jane posted something interesting about exaggeration in romance recently and I agree with the thrust of what she said there.  I think that Reaper’s Property provides an exaggerated (or extreme) world and the characters in it are able to act in extreme ways to tell the story of a relationship against the odds and the journey to a HEA.  That is the romance fantasy isn’t it?  Sometimes, it is the world itself which is conspiring against the protagonists I think. I was a bit worried, starting this book that I’d have too big a problem with the MC/criminal element, but really, it’s more like Magician than Bikie Wars: Brothers in Arms to me^ so, it turns out, I’m fine with it.  Go figure. [...]

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