CONVERSATION: What Makes Hero Descriptions Work or Not Work for You?
Layla: I’m starting off this conversation about hero descriptions with one anecdote and two questions. The anecdote is about a book I recently picked up, Erin Satie’s Book of Love. Jennie did a fabulous review of it. I usually love Erin Satie’s books, but there was a description of the hero that just stopped me in my tracks. I could not continue reading the book! I started it and had a very visceral reaction which I have never had towards a hero— disgust. Even the opening description of what he looks like was gross or off-putting to me:
Biscuit colored from head to toe, with skin the color of fresh dough and hair the color of warm golden-brown of bread crust baked to perfection, all capped off by a blinding smile. Very white teeth.
What the……. comparing his skin color to dough did not come across as sexy or handsome and biscuit colored— I had no idea how to picture that!! He did not seem attractive at all. In her other books Satie’s heroes are not all conventionally attractive or perfect–I remember one, a boxer, is short and kind of beaten up, another Alfred (I think is his name?) is handsome but has crooked teeth. I still thought both were attractive from the descriptions. This hero, not so much.
Others in the comments pointed out that this could be an alluring description of a hero, but it just didn’t work for me.
So my two questions for the group:
What are some memorable descriptions of heroes that communicated their attractiveness?
What are some descriptions of heroes that were puzzling or put you off?
Janine: I haven’t read the Satie but that *is* a weird description. It doesn’t make me salivate over the hero but it does make me hungry for a just-out-of-the-oven braided loaf of challah bread, LOL. And brings to mind other baked goods adjectives that have been applied to men in romances, like “stud muffin” or “cinnamon roll hero.” These are not selling points for me. I don’t want to picture the Pillsbury doughboy or a plate of Danishes when I think about romance heroes.
Layla: You make me laugh so hard with your comment about challah bread. I tend to dislike any description comparing anyone–hero or heroine–to food. Just not sexy! And that description in the Erin Satie made me think of Pillsbury doughboy. There’s a way an author can use words to describe a hero who is not conventionally attractive–even Satie herself did it better with her book with a boxer hero (he is short, kind of squat, not terribly handsome, but still attractive because he is loyal, smart, powerful, protective, etc.)
Jayne: I will admit to not being a fan of comparing any characters to food.
Janine: POC are often offended by descriptions of POC characters that compare them to food, such as “skin the color of café au lait.” I’m 100% on board with those feelings. As a Jewish person I haven’t encountered that applied to Jewish characters but I sure have seen Jewish characters described as “swarthy” or “sallow” (and often to indicate villainy or unattractiveness). Anytime I see one of those adjectives applied to a POC, Jewish, Mediterranean, or Middle Eastern character I recoil. Lisa Kleypas did this–her Hathaways series has two Rom heroes. In Mine Till Midnight, Amelia’s first sight of Cam is described so:
He was black-haired and swarthy and exotic. And he moved with the swift grace of a cat, easily avoiding the swipes and lunges of his opponents.
In Seduce Me at Sunrise, there’s this:
Win was startled by the powerful expanse of his [Merripen’s] torso, all ribbed muscle and swarthy brawn.
Yuck. And another yuck for “exotic.” I enjoyed the first of these books but I wish she’d refrained.
Layla: I haven’t paid close attention to how POC are described, but everything you write Janine makes me shudder. Swarthy is a horrible descriptor, and lazy to boot.
Jennie: There’s a famous Edith Layton Regency – I think it’s The Duke’s Wager, but I couldn’t swear to it (I read it a LONG time ago), where the hero dresses and arrays himself very much in the style of the time. High heels, foppish clothing, cosmetics, and maybe a face patch? (Again, a looonnng time ago.) I think I had other problems with the book – which IIRC was a favorite of other readers – but beyond those issues, I could not get into the hero’s description. The closest semi-modern comparison would be hair metal bands of the 80s, and while I do like a good hair metal ballad, the musicians were never appealing to me.
Jayne: I don’t like comparing characters to famous people. If an author wants to write descriptions in a way that makes me think of a certain person, okay I’ll accept that but if the only thing the author can say is “He looked so much like Jason Momoa” or (used to be) George Clooney then I say “use your words and quit cheating with a shorthand depiction.”
Jennie: I agree on heroes being compared to celebrities. It always strikes me as cheesy and cringy. Why not describe a hero that looks like Jason Momoa or George Clooney? Like, usually actual adjectives rather than names?
Layla: Yes–I just downloaded a sample of a new Gena Showalter book and it was so awful–not least of which because the two characters in this mythical fictional fantastical universe mention Jason Momoa and Henry Cavill!!
Janine: I’m with you all on movie star comparisons. Not only does get in the way of my image of the hero but it can also get dated in really unfortunate ways. I thought Mel Gibson was gorgeous at one time, but now, knowing his racist views, I’d be horrified to come across a hero described as looking at him. Ditto the young Sean Connery. I used to think he was beautiful, but then I found out about his views on smacking women.
Jayne: That’s a good point about the movie star comparisons getting dated and not always in good ways.
Sirius: I don’t care for the hero describing himself while looking in the mirror. I understand the challenge of describing the person without disturbing the flow of the story but description from the mirror does tend to annoy me.
Layla: I agree, although I have to say, I haven’t encountered that commonly–can you think of books where this happens? I too like when the hero’s description is from the heroine’s perspective. (Third person omniscient works well too).
Sirius: Layla I don’t remember the titles off the top of my mind I will think about it! I actually prefer (and this is simply a personal preference) less description rather than more I like to imagine what the person looks like based on the clues. Say you mention a strong jaw and hair color and then you talk about the person doing sports I already can guess that he is fit and the rest I can see in my mind. I don’t particularly enjoy every single thing being described for me.
Jennie: I don’t have a strong inclination for or against a lot of description, though I find it most organic if it’s coming from the heroine’s observations. There are some descriptions that are so cliche I find them meaningless at this point, like a hero looking like “a pirate.” But I’ll bet there are books out there that I’ve liked that had little physical description but descriptions of personality/character that allowed me to build my own vision of the hero. (That said, I am not a very visual reader.)
Jayne: I agree that less is more in many cases but I do need some kind of description to get a character in my mind. It drives me nuts when authors give you nothing.
Sirius: No, no I don’t mean nothing. I just don’t like overdone :)
Jayne: Oh, I didn’t mean to imply that’s what you meant. I agree with you that hints are better than everyone overdoing it. But I have read some books and novellas in which the author *never* describes the main characters at all.
Janine: For attractive descriptions, I loved the first description of Samuel in Leda’s thoughts in Laura Kinsale’s The Shadow and the Star (he enters the dress shop where she works—it’s the first time she sees him):
The room full of women went uncharacteristically silent as Mr. Gerard appeared in the door…a collective intake of feminine breath at the sight of him—a golden, slightly wind-blown Gabriel come down to earth, minus nothing but the wings.
I am not a fan of the book, but I don’t know if I’ve ever read a description that better captures what it’s like to look at someone so arresting that you’re instantly a little bit in love. There’s something magical about that experience and Kinsale captures that magic.
That comes at just 4% in. But what I love even more is this paragraph at the 85% mark, because it cuts so much deeper:
He stood up. For one instant she allowed herself to look at him, to impress on her memory what was beyond remembering. Once he was gone, it wouldn’t be possible to create an image bright enough, or perfect enough, because when she looked at him she couldn’t seem to see the man Mrs. Richards had called indecently good-looking. She couldn’t see the potent, flawless, angel-Gabriel fascination that caused the ladies at the far table to slide glances over their menus. She knew it was there, before her eyes, but in her heart she only saw Samuel—saw the unhappiness in him, saw that his set expression was a mask.
If the first description captures the experience of falling a little bit in love at first sight, the second shows what is actually true love. Here, the reader realizes how much Leda loves Samuel precisely because she doesn’t see his beauty. She sees him.
Layla: My favorite descriptions of heroes are not so much about what they actually physically look like (although I need details like height and eye color and hair etc) but more about essence. When writers use metaphor well, it makes a character visceral, and come alive.
Two authors who I think do a great job with this are Meredith Duran, and Evie Dunmore (she’s my new fave!). Also, Lisa Kleypas, Laura Kinsale, Mary Balogh, and Loretta Chase (I can’t think of many contemporaries because I don’t read them as much.) But it’s more than just how a person looks— it’s their essence, how they interact with others, how their inner person is revealed to the world (and often to the heroine). I tend to love when the hero is a mystery at first, then his complex inner life is revealed to the heroine later. He goes literally from a stereotype or idea of a person–aristocrat, duke, rake, etc.–to being a fully realized person–Lucien, Tristan, etc. So part of the process of falling in love is discovering what lies beneath the surface–the complexity that makes up a person is partly about how they look, partly how they move in the world, partly how they interact with others, and partly about their history and past.
Janine: “He goes literally from a stereotype or idea of a person–aristocrat, duke, rake, etc.–to being a fully realized person”–yes! I love that too.
Sirius: I just want to say that I absolutely agree that description of the hero that reflects his essence are my favorite ones – passion for the job, desire to help others, etc. etc. if all this described as the story unfolds and not as information dump all the better for me.
Janine: I agree with you both. But that gets us into the bigger area of characterization in general–what you said holds true for me with any character and isn’t specific just to heroes. There’s so much to be said about that we should probably save it for a different conversation.
What about you, readers? What are the factors that make hero descriptions successful or unsuccessful for you? And do you have other thoughts (or specific examples) on this topic that you’d like to share?