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What Makes a Hero

Barbara Vey of Publishers’ Weekly asked those attending Lady Jane’s Salon in New York City for three words that describe a hero. Many of the respondents went for the superficial (tall, dark and handsome was one answer and yet another said “Sexy, handsome and luscious”): sexy and strong.

One author appeared to be stumped and said that at the spur of the moment all she could think of was the covers. Blogger (and aspiring author), Kate Gabbarrant gave intelligent, brave, and sense of humor. Another author (Sara Lindsey maybe?) said loyalty, strength, and courage.

One author said “my dad.” Only one author said “loving”. Some of the authors gave competitive, dangerous or mysterious as one of the three adjectives describing a hero. Kathleen O’Reilly said “Funny, confident but not arrogant, brunette.”

I’ve always thought the perfect hero is described in this Trisha Yearwood song which is admittedly more than three words:

I like a man who will lay down beside me
Stand up to me, cry on my shoulder, crazy about me
Can live without me too
That’s what I like about
Can’t live my life without
That’s what I like about you

I figure that the sexy and handsome traits materialize in my imagination once other elements are met.   After all, we love the Beast stories.   Some of the most unattractive heroes are the most beloved such as Stan from Suzanne Brockmann’s Over the Edge, who had a face “only a mother could love” or To Beguile a Beast by Elizabeth Hoyt where the hero made women scream in horror and young kids cry.

What makes the perfect hero for you? What qualities are must have in a hero? Alternatively, what traits do heroes have that are flaws to be overcome or a trait that automatically disqualifies someone from being a hero (ie incest, cruelty to animals, children or something less extreme).

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and 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


  1. Edie
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 04:47:45

    I am pretty boring in my qualities for a hero, strength of character, sense of humour, with an ability to see the heroine for who and what she is, faults and all – and accepts her as is.

  2. GrowlyCub
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 06:43:33

    Integrity, honesty, dependability, sense of humor.

    And since we are talking heroes and are purely in the fantasy realm, tall, blond, blue-eyed, bearded and ripped… :)

    I really think the appeal of the beast is his emotional vulnerability not the fact that he is scarred and I’d bet that if books were visual fewer beasts would get play time because I believe the majority of readers ‘think them pretty’ in the absence of irrefutable visual evidence, even when they are described as less than handsome.

    I know that even though Brockmann harps on Tom Paoletti going bald that’s absolutely not included in my mental image of him and while I understand that Miles Vorkosigan is short and his head too big for his 4’9″ body I still don’t mentally see a dwarfish looking hyper git…

  3. Terry Odell
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 06:59:44

    In addition to the above, I want a hero who not only listens, but hears. Both the spoken and the unspoken, and I don’t mean what her sexual preferences are. The little things. Like hearing her mumble at the television asking no one in particular why she doesn’t have a nifty Swiss Army Knife like MacGyver — and then buying her one. For Valentine’s Day. (That’s MY hero. Been with him 40 years next month.)

  4. Maggie Robinson
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 07:00:51

    A hero brings out what’s best in the heroine, can save her even when she doesn’t know she needs saving. I think this works for what makes a good heroine too.

  5. RStewie
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 07:01:13

    I think his character traits are way more important than his physical traits. Give me a well-drawn hero that is both masculine AND able to meet a heroine halfway, and really, I’m going to mentally impose my own image on him anyway.

    I could not tell you now what some of my favorite heros actually Looked Like in their respective novels; Sam from The Shadow and The Star…tallish? Built, I’m assuming. Dark hair? No. Blonde, I think. Or Ruck from For My Lady’s Heart…wasn’t he a ginger? Had to be built, just from the whole armor and riding thing. But such a Nice Guy!! Or Constantine from Sunshine…I think he was dark and slender?

    My point, though, is that it really doesn’t matter what he Looks Like…it’s all about how strong and masculine he is, and how falling in love with the heroine bends that to something that all women want…a man that is willing to do just about anything for the woman he loves.

    I mean, really, look at what we have in real life…obviously women aren’t as hung up on the attractiveness factor of a man, otherwise none of our husbands would have us! Although mine is emminently sexy with his little belly and hairy legs. ;)

  6. Elise Logan
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 07:18:12

    Hm. Loyal, strong, smart. Jeez. I make him sound like a dog.

    Strength for me is strength of character as well as physical strength, so it covers a lot of territory. If he isn’t loyal, he isn’t worth my time or my readers’ time. He has to be smart, at least to a certain baseline, because otherwise he isn’t going to be interesting enough to hold the reader’s attention. He doesn’t have to be Stephen Hawking-brilliant, but there has to be enough going on in his head to hold an informed conversation and to make reasonable decisions.

    I’d agree that looks aren’t as important, as I find a wide variety of physical types appealing.

    For the fantasy element, there are some physical norms – it’s fantasy, after all. He should be in good shape and sexy. But sexy covers a lot of territory, and usually hooks more to demeanor and confidence than to looks.

  7. Aoife
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 07:23:48

    Integrity, sense of humour, intelligence…pretty much what I look for in any friend, and all of which my husband of 30+ years possesses.

    The physical appearance thing is nice in a romance, but not required. To pick up on GrowlyCub’s reference: I always think of Miles Vorkosigan as Bujold describes him, and he’s still one of the sexiest heroes around, in all his miniature glory. It’s what’s inside his head that makes him so enormously appealing. The problem is that many writers either don’t take the time to fully develop their characters, and rely on the tall, dark and dangerous stereotype as shorthand for “sexy,” or lack the writing skills to bring a character alive without depending on that stereotype. I think the list of responses Jane gives is depressing. If writers aren’t giving any deeper thought to the kind of hereos they create than that, no wonder we have so many cookie-cutter romances on the shelves.

  8. vanessa jaye
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 07:24:41

    Honorable, sense of humor, kind/thoughtful, intelligent, good listener, *not* lazy, and attractive *to me* (which doesn’t necessarily mean handsome/goodlooking. Just that *I* like looking at him, being with him.) Courageous, but again, doesn’t have to be guns blazing Alpha bravery, just will to go out there and face the world, his own fears & stand up for what’s right, etc. (god, feels like I’m filling out application for eHarmony. lol)

    That’s the basic start of a real life hero. Fictional heroes tend to be larger than life though, that’s part of their appeal.

  9. Skyler White
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 07:35:21

    I think the mandatory traits of a hero are whichever will redeem the heroine. We have such a wide variety of options because our heroines are so varied. But the one thing every hero has to be able to do is provide the perfect balance of challenge and reward for the heroine to become more fully herself while interweaving her life with his. If she's innocent, he needs to be dangerous, and help her integrate her dark side. If she's tough, he needs to help her learn to be vulnerable, or at least trusting. Whatever it is she (we) need that we don't want in order to grown, that's what he is. Also the teeth. He's got to have great teeth.

  10. joanne
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 07:37:01

    Okay, I’m done laughing over the 3 word response:

    super strong and powerful

    Personally, for my preference, the author can have a field day since I’m open to any characteristics as long as the hero isn’t immoral. If asked– and I hadn’t been sitting with SB Sarah drinking whatevers (and I wasn’t)– I would have to say intuitive, smart and brave.

    In my imagination I am also intuitive, smart and gorgeous.
    I love fiction!

  11. Mireya
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 08:12:26

    To me, it’s Sheryl Crow’s “Strong Enough”. I couldn’t describe it in three words and no, physical attributes don’t come to mind either except for the stereotype.

  12. Kalen Hughes
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 08:17:59

    What qualities are must have in a hero?

    Thoughtful, intelligent and posses a good heart. Those three things are indispensable in any hero (or man, IMO). Almost everything else grows out of-‘or is built upon-‘those three (and can be part of his story arc). Afterall, the hero on the first page often isn't the same as the hero on the last page. He needs to grow and learn to better know himself.

    trait that automatically disqualifies someone from being a hero

    Incest, rape, cruelty . . . all of the “biggies”, but I also find a few of the “alpha” traits to be disturbing, verging on disqualifying: overt possessiveness, controlling, over protecting (basically anything that would make me tell a girlfriend that her guy was well on his way to qualifying as an abuser).

  13. Moth
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 08:19:04

    What makes the perfect hero for you? I love funny, smart heroes. They can be cocky (like Gen from the Thief books) or humble (like Cazaril from Curse of Chalion), but if they make me grin or even giggle the author’s got me hooked.

    What qualities are must have in a hero? Funny, competant, kind.

    Alternatively, what traits do heroes have that are flaws to be overcome or a trait that automatically disqualifies someone from being a hero (ie incest, cruelty to animals, children or something less extreme)? Cruelty in general, I think, makes me want to dump the hero. I can get over it if it doesn’t happen often, but if the hero is consistently treating the heroine like dirt then he’s not much of a hero to me.

    And, um, incest would definitely disqualify a guy as the Hero, I think. As long as it’s willful. If the poor sap doesn’t know then that’s just squicky, not a total deal-breaker… although I probably wouldn’t want to read a book like that.

    As for the physical attractiveness thing it is totally not a necessity for me. My sister teases me I have a thing for blacksmith-types (big bulky men with huge shoulders, who are usually a bit overweight, think Brian Blessed in his youth) and the “shriveled old wine sack” as we have termed them (Over the hill men who usually take their comfort at the bottom of a bottle)… (Robinton from Dragonriders books, Cadfael, Sam from the Burn Notice TV show). Some of the sexiest heroes I think I’ve ever read belong to Bujold, and as I pointed out in the If You Like Lois McMaster Bujold piece most of her heroes have left bits and pieces of themselves all over their worlds.

    A hero doesn’t have to be the most attractive guy around to be the sexiest man there is.

  14. Moth
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 08:19:51

    Spam filter, did you eats my comment?

  15. DS
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 08:31:52

    I’m with Edie. But I like teeth to be in good repair and no pornstache or wonky sideburns. And a certain amount of geekiness helps.

  16. Danielle Yockman
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 08:32:01

    I was just posting about this the other day on my blog! I like a bad boy with a soft heart. Reform them and they are yours for ever!

  17. Denny S. Bryce
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 08:54:52

    I’m blogging about this topic – except from a somewhat different perspective. I’m talking to friends – my way of surveying:) – about wanting to see more romances novels with diverse casts, if you will, which includes a hero of color now and then. I also want more paranormal, sci-fi and urban fantasies with more characters interwoven that reflect the diversity of our society. There are a few authors who do this quite well. I’d like to see more.

    And maybe I’ll be able to contribute and get one of my books published soon:) (fingers crossed).

    Anyway, for me I like my heroes sexy, smart and loyal (and not only to a woman, but to a cause, to a friendship, to his beliefs).

  18. Sam
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 09:04:03

    Well, I think my answer would be very fluid and changing if we are talking about “what makes a hero in a novel” vs. “what makes up my hero in real life”.

    Mr. romance novel hero’s ideal attributes vary depending on my mood, the heroine’s personality, the voice of the author, the tone of the book etc.

    For instance if I am reading erotica, I like my hero to be alpha, self-assured, and dark…in other romances, sometimes the same, others– not so much.

    In real life my answer would probably be much, much more complex.

  19. vanessa jaye
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 09:27:07

    This question has been sticking with me, because of course I listed all the noble, admirable stuff, but what about the other stuff that makes you love the hero despite of, or maybe in case of.

    His stubborness? Can’t carry a tune to save his life? Sloppy dresser?

    He lies. But he lies because he can’t bare to hurt feelings.

    Or the opposite: plain talker, no tact, and that’s because he can’t dissemble. So you always know where you stand with him.

    Loud, boisterous, opinionated, and embarrassing so? Or just friendly, approachable, unfailling optimistic who will always raise your spirits?

    Is he mean? How? With money, time or love? Maybe he’s really just fiscally responsible, hardworking and discerning/careful with who he opens his heart to.

    Does he always open doors, but never do the dishes?

    He doesn’t have a six-pack, but his arms hold you with all the tenderness and strength you’ll ever need.

    Like others have indicated, the hero doesn’t have to be all that admirable; just be the right man, at the right time, for the heroine (of that particular novel), flaws and all.

  20. CEmerson
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 09:46:27

    Kind. Confident. Dependable.

    or –

    Kind. Impulsive. Fallible. (I like a hero who screws up every now and then.)

    Kindness above all. And I prefer a hero with a history of treating women decently to the guy who’s never respected a woman in his life until the heroine came along.

  21. Monica Burns
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 09:47:59

    Intelligent, Conversation is important no matter what your age

    Inventive, Ability to surprise and declare love in unique ways is a major plus. It’s romantic

    Strong, Someone you can lean on when you’re not able to be strong yourself

  22. daisy
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 10:01:42

    I can sum up what appeals to me in a real life man or in a romance hero in one very simple, very complex word – integrity.

    With that, everything else is just cake.

    Without it, there is no reason for him to be in my life.

  23. ReacherFan
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 10:16:17

    I couldn’t agree more about looks being irrelevant. And I also agree about Stanley Wolchonok – is there a less romantic name or unlikely hero? But Stan is my favorite of all the Suzanne Brockman lead characters. Gideon Westbrook, nicknamed ‘The Beast of Blackthorne Hall’ from Amanda Quick’s Ravished is another. Loyalty, integrity, caring will trump looks and money any day with me! Keep your handsome Greek tycoons with their exotic names and stupendous fortunes and I’ll take Stan!

  24. Kathleen O'Reilly
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 11:07:05

    I want to be up front and say that Barbara gave you NO time to think over the answer, so it’s whatever came out of your mouth. I can say honestly that exercises such as these are why I’m a writer, not an improvisational speaker. :) My favorite heroic quality is a big heart. It’s even better when it starts as a closed-door heart and then, when the heroine cracks it open, it’s bigger than Texas.

  25. Ann
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 11:21:54

    Honor, courage, committment (to the heroine, the relationship).

    I sound like a US Marine Corps commercial, don’t I?

  26. Sherry Thomas
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 13:31:42

    A real man apologizes when he should.

    That simple act, in itself, says volumes about his character. And in the end, it’s all about his character.

  27. Susan/DC
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 13:34:55

    Can’t listen to the song on the video (I’m at work). Do the lyrics really say

    Can live without me too
    That's what I like about
    Can't live my life without
    That's what I like about you

    If so, per the lyrics he can live his life without you but you can’t live without him? Seems a bit unbalanced.

  28. Melissa
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 14:04:40

    Unless it’s a beast type of story, I tend to see both H and h as more average looking than labled. These are stories of people falling in love. Ask a friend in the first flush of attraction what a guy looks like, and she’ll discribe somebody who’s better looking than he is when you meet. So I kind of figure in the the POV and consider the hero “airbrushed by lurve.”

    For me it’s smart, funny and kind without being a doormat.

  29. Lori
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 14:22:34

    Respectful. I despise the arrogant hero who is rude to the heroine even if there is some sort of big understanding. If he’s an ass even with the big misunderstanding, then he’s an ass.

  30. Moth
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 14:44:38


    I despise the arrogant hero who is rude to the heroine even if there is some sort of big understanding. If he's an ass even with the big misunderstanding, then he's an ass.

    Not a fan of Pride and Prejudice then? I mean, Mr. Darcy is just an arrogant ass at first.

  31. Cameron Belle
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 15:31:55

    A hero (or a heroine for that matter) is a main character who, by the end of the book, figures out what the right thing is and does it, no matter how hard it is. What constitutes “the right thing” and why it’s so hard varies from book to book and genre to genre, but that’s my take on it. In Romance, he/she just manages to do this while falling in reciprocated love with the hero/ine.

    Where an author(‘s hero) is likely to lose me is when “the right thing” supports or demonstrates some theme I fundamentally disagree with, or if – for the part of the book where they haven’t yet figured the right thing out – they’re such raging assholes that the end doesn’t redeem them. Or if the author hasn’t done the job of showing me how they get from where they are at the beginning of the book to where they are when they finally “do the right thing”.

  32. Lori
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 17:14:01

    @Moth My preferred reading is contemporary so Mr. Darcy really isn’t on my list. Although you bring up a good point that different genres will bring different things to the table that can fit within that genre.

  33. (Jān)
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 22:34:34

    I like him to be devoted to the heroine, trustworthy as far as the heroine goes, and dangerous to everyone else. ;) OK, that last one is just sexy bad boy fantasy. Devoted, trustworthy, self-confident. Those are three things I just have to have, though they can take time developing.

    (There are two other things I require, but I’m assuming they’re a given in romance novels. The guy needs to love the heroine eventually. And he needs to be hygienic. No stinking RPats for me!)

  34. cate
    Jul 15, 2009 @ 06:58:26

    Faithfulness, honesty, patience…..Now he sounds like a ruddy Labrador !
    O.K….Gabriel Oak does it for me.
    Be honest if a man said to you —
    “At home by the fire,whenever I look up there you will be. And whenever you look up there shall I be”(THardy.FFTMC)….Tell me you wouldn’t be grabbing him with both hands, & keeping him for the next 60 odd years !

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