Of course he had a girlfriend. Guys like Brandon always do. They lumber into class four minutes to time and wedge into the lecture hall desks. For Brandons, it’s not so much their appearance, but how they present themselves to the world.
Maybe it was his strong back. Or the way he kept rolling his shoulders. His faded maroon sleeves tattled that the shirt was a favorite. An old, snug favorite. It could have been the ballpoint slotted behind his ear. Or the way he spread his Nikes wide like he was sitting double parked. Could have even been how his attention nodded as he fought sleep from pulling an all-nighter.
No matter. He was a yet another starry sky.
And there I was, without a wish.
Dear person reading, I characterized Brandon exactly as I see him three days a week, two rows down and on the left. I portrayed him from my view behind. No blues eyes gaze. No chiseled jaw firms. And best of all? No clichés.
Still, you can picture him, right? Lumbered makes you think heavy footsteps. His strong back suggests muscle. And how he wedges into the desk then spreads out confirms this boy is no twig. The fact that his shirt is not American Eagle tells us he’s more boy next door than hipster.
Here’s the thing about describing heroes in a romance: you are not—I repeat: you are not describing a man.
Romance is all about the feelings. And do you know what’s not emotional, dear person reading? Tall. Dark. And handsome. For all I know, you could be my roommate describing her first cup of coffee in the morning.
Instead of describing a man, construct a mirage. There are two reasons why you should do this.
- Handsome is a relative term.
- Feelings are not.
Choose an emotion to portray and then use the hero as a vehicle. For example, Brandon exploits a “wanting.” He is, after all, unattainable. When I depicted Brandon, I was specifically vague. By that I mean: I gave a hard outline but left most of his features up to you. It’s hazy. I know. You want your mirage to be that way so your reader can fill in the specifics. You don’t want to interfere with their imagination’s version of handsome. (Speaking of handsome, I never once said Brandon was. As a reader, you naturally want a hero to be handsome, so he is. Therefore: as a writer, I don’t need to tell you he’s hotter than a black truck under a Texas sun.)
To create a man mirage use three tactics:
1. Hope. (Romances are all about hope.)
Ask not: What does he look like, but what does my heroine see in him?
You’ve Got Mail brings us the perfect example of hope. As Kathleen Kelly waits to meet her internet crush for the first time, she tells Joe Fox exactly what she knows/dreams about NY152. What she doesn’t know is Joe Fox is NY152.
Meg Ryan thinks NY152 is all that and a plate of cookies. And for the record, Joe is sort of crummy.
As your romance plays out, contrast the heroine’s hope with reality. Let there be two parts to your hero: the man your heroine sees (NY152) and the man your hero is (Joe Fox). A good heroine will make the hero want to be better than he is. Joe Fox wants to be NY152 for Kathleen Kelly. But by the end, the heroine should fall for the man the hero is. Kathleen wants NY152 to be Joe.
Ask not: What is he wearing, but how is he wearing it?
Captain Hook/Killian Jones from ABC’s Once Upon A Time has no qualms about strutting around in his leather attire from Neverland in present-day New York City.
“Great personality” isn’t code for ugly. Well, not in fiction. Make sure your hero’s actions speak louder than his clothing designer. Or, if your hero is Captain Hook, guyliner.
3. Memory or normalcy. (Something familiar.)
Ask not: What makes him “different” from all the rest, but how is his “sameness” better? Remember: you want your heroine to feel as though she’s walked with him once upon a dream.
And a bad dream is exactly what Andy McNally remembers. In this clip from the season four finale of Rookie Blue, Andy tells Sam a story, a memory of how he comforted her when they were dating.
Their “normal night” reveals a lot about Officer Sam Swarek. For one, at the point this memory occurred, they’d probably been dating for awhile since he’s comfortable teasing her and they’re spending the night together. For two, he’s got her. Physically, he’s holding her tight. Emotionally, he knows her.
Also, we can assume Sam isn’t too big on sharing the depths of his soul. He may have whispered sweet nothings to Andy, but the guy wasn’t exactly awake.
There you have it, dear person reading. No blue eyes or broad shoulders necessary.
What is your favorite hero description? Or better yet, what hero cliché do you come across most?