What Makes a Romantic Hero? Is there a formula?

The Romantic Hero is Tall, Dark and Handsomea romantic hero? handsome behind that mask?

Contrary to received wisdom in some quarters — particularly those parts of the media that love to sneer at romantic fiction — a romantic hero is not always tall, dark and handsome. Sometimes his looks matter; sometimes they don’t. And sometimes, they don’t even rate a mention!

If you don’t believe me, just think back to those ageing actors in movies, making love to heroines less than half their age. Were they tall, dark and handsome? Nope. More like grey, thinning on top and struggling to keep their bodies in half-decent nick for the screen. But, greying or not, saggy or not, those men are still movie action heroes according to Hollywood. And fans go along with it.

So if it’s not what he looks like, what is the secret? Are books different from movies? And is there a timeless formula?

The Romantic Hero Acts — the Heroine Screams

The Romantic Hero is active and the heroine is, essentially, pretty passive. He takes all the decisions, she does as she is told and — at least in older action movies — dutifully screams in terror when confronted with the villain or the oncoming train or the gaping chasm into which they’re both about to fall.

chasm will romantic hero save heroine from falling in?

The hero does not scream. Of course not. His brilliant brain is too busy working out how he’s going to get them both out of the fix they’re in.


Books, using the subtlety of words rather than fleeting visuals for impact, were never quite so black-and-white about this. If authors choose to, they can get inside the heroine’s head and show what she is feeling and thinking, rather than lazily assuming that a mere female confronted with something life-threatening will always scream in terror and/or collapse in a soggy heap.

The Romantic Hero is the Confident Arbiter of Right and Wrong

Trust ConceptAnother variant on the all-powerful-hero trope. Think of the hero in so many classic Westerns, fighting alone against apparently overwhelming odds but knowing his cause is just. As Sophie puts it — she can do American accents and I can’t — it’s John Wayne saying: “Never apolojahse. It’s a sahn a weakness.”

Or, on the book front, think of the Heyer Heroes that we were discussing here on the blog just recently, the ones that a blogger elsewhere called “utter douchebags” and “jerks”. She termed it “sexism and classism”. But I wonder if the issue is partly that heroes written at that period were supposed to be supremely confident in their own judgement of right and wrong. They weren’t expected to consult mere females. So (a lot of the time) they didn’t.

The Romantic Hero is Dominant and Brutal

Back in the last century, some very popular authors — Ethel M Dell was the big name, and later E M Hull (The Sheikh) and Barbara Cartland — regularly wrote romantic heroes who were arrogant, hard, even cruel. Why?

Was it market-driven, a reaction to wars? Was a huge population of bereft women looking for a strong, self-assured and competent man to fantasise about? Many women had been left with no man to marry at all, in an age when marriage was widely seen as woman’s primary role.

Towards the end of those romances, the hero often growled “You little fool” as he jerked the heroine into a fierce embrace and kissed her passionately. She — being a woman of her times and a woman after the author’s own heart, too — duly melted under his irresistible onslaught.

Cue virgin riding off into the metaphorical sunset with ruthless man of power, now just a fraction tamed by the love of our heroine.

Timeless Tropes?

Timeless? Not a chance.

Why? Never mind the heroes. Women have changed. No more virgin sacrifices, chained to a rock waiting to be rescued by Our Formidable Hero. The modern heroine is quite capable of hammering a piton into the rock face, paying out a rope and abseiling down to freedom all by herself.Woman businesswoman in business concept

And she’s unlikely to be a virgin, either.

The Romantic Hero Formula?

So… is there a formula? There may have been, once — particularly in parts of Hollywood — though it’s debatable. I’d argue that there certainly isn’t a formula now. I’d say most of the tropes I’ve pondered above don’t work any more, if they ever did. But maybe you think they do?

What does work nowadays? Ah, that’s another story and another blog. Coming soon!

15 thoughts on “What Makes a Romantic Hero? Is there a formula?

  1. Lesley Cookman

    I agree! And I’ve found that while I accepted the Heyer Heroes when I first read them, I now (shock horror) get a bit irritated. I’ve been on a Heyer kick since your previous post. The books I prefer are the ones with older (25?) heroines who stand up to the heroes, and, as has been said in previous comments we have to remember not to brand them with presentism! (Is that the right word?)

    1. Joanna Post author

      Yes, I think “presentism” was the word used in the original rant

      Interestingly, I’m on the same kick as you, Lesley, and with much the same reactions. I’m re-reading Frederica at the moment, and I find myself smugly satisfied every time she takes Alverstoke down a peg. Is it an age thing? Mine, I mean, not Frederica’s 😉

  2. Elizabeth Bailey

    It’s a hugely interesting idea. I believe romantic heroes follow the needs of women of their time. When men led pretty dissipated, rambunctious lives in the Georgian era, the romantic hero was a man who behaved impeccably – Sir Charles Grandison and Lord Orville being prominent examples. Come the rigidly correct Victorian times and we get bad boys like Heathcliff and Rochester.

    When I was young, heroes were indeed masterful alphas who tamed their women. Now we have masterful heroines who tame their hero, neither being completely submissive, but sharing the load. Rotherham was an early version in Bath Tangle – “You’ll take every fence I take and we’ll clear them neck and neck.” But he was definitely not New Man!

    I think even Hollywood has woken up to the need for heroes to show their tender side. And thank goodness that ridiculous age gap is disappearing. I mean, come on! Would I expect a lad in his twenties or thirties to find me a turn on at my time of life! of course, one is allowed to window shop 🙂

    1. Joanna Post author

      Great points, Liz. Real food for thought there.

      And yes, we all know who we mean re the age gap, even if we don’t Name Names! For me, the aged hero/young heroine is a no-no, up there with Screaming Heroines. As you may have gathered from my blog . . .

  3. janelovering

    Very interesting post! As one who mainly writes beta-heroes, I’m interested in the psychology of attraction – what makes certain men attractive to certain women and, yes, there are women who are only attracted to the Alpha Male. I think it’s less about the hero per se, as what he represents – an alpha is going to be the top dog at everything he does, rich, dominating, always knowing best, which are qualities that are attractive to women who are often having to be very much ‘in control’ of their daily lives. Who wouldn’t like, under those circumstances, to have a gorgeous man ride in and say ‘you don’t have to worry any more, I’ve got all this under control’.

    But there is such a fine line between taking control to help and taking control full stop. A successful alpha hero stays the right side of that line, but what in an author’s head is ‘being masterful’ can sometimes be read as ‘domineering and controlling’. It’s a difficult balancing act to write a man who is ‘,manly’ yet also not afraid to show emotion and allow the heroine access to his finer feelings.

    A good, thought-provoking post, thank you!

    1. Joanna Post author

      More great points! Thanks, Jane.

      I did find myself wondering whether we would ever reverse the roles, though. Would we ever say:

      What man wouldn’t like, under those circumstances, to have a gorgeous woman ride in and say ‘you don’t have to worry any more, I’ve got all this under control’.

      You are so right — I think 😉 — about how difficult it is for the author to get the balance right between masterful and controlling.

    2. Sophie

      I so agree, Jane. It’s an ongoing tension and I’ve never resolved it.

      It was one of Alan Boon’s great maxims that the hero most women wanted to see in category romance was the Alpha Man. That seemed to mean powerful and decisive and sex on a stick, of course (though Alan Boon was too much an old-style gent ever to put it like that). The downside, for me, was that they didn’t have much (or any) sense of humour; and seldom listened to anyone else, including the heroine.

      As for taking care of the heroine – I could cope with that if they had to get out of the jungle and the hero knew the way and the wildlife. In other scenarios it was just plain annoying. All too often, I ended up wanting to slap him.

      But then I read Gone With The Wind, a favourite of my mother’s, who didn’t really read romantic fiction, and in Rhett Butler I found a decisive, competent, cool dude with a genuine sense of humour. Not only did he not take over from the heroine, he called her out on some of her hypocrisies. Only – he was a gun runner. Mills & Boon readers would never have tolerated that.

      So I’ve never managed to write an Alpha hero. Maybe one day…

  4. Sue McCormick

    Every time I read about “the woman screams”! I think about a 1930s character of comics and serials, Wilma Deering of Buck Rogers fame knew more than Buck did, was frequently in charge of the action (it was HER century, not his), and was his tutor. Neither character every wasted time screaming! Both were heroic.

    The Buck Rogers stories began with a science fiction story — aimed at the typically macho male SF audience of those times. Look where it soared and blossomed! Wilma certainly never fit her publication/screening times, but Buck Rogers was always popular!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, Sue. Not being a Buck Rogers fan, I was unaware of Wilma so am really grateful for the info. Having a woman who isn’t stereotyped as a screamer is a great advance, I’d say. We need more of ’em.

  5. Melinda Hammond

    What an interesting post – and great replies, too! This debate will run and run, because times and situations change. I have often written heroines who actually rescue the hero at some point. I think today most of us want more of a partnership with our soulmate

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks Melinda. We’ll have more on heroes (and heroines, too, we’re not forgetting them) in the coming weeks.

      I can think of a few of those female rescuers in your books, too, though it’s not that easy to do in historicals. Jane talked about the difficulty of keeping the balance between masterful and controlling where heroes are concerned. But there’s also the balance between historical accuracy (what women of the period really did) and creating a heroine that modern-day readers will warm to. When in doubt, I remind myself that Lizzie Bennet walked all the way to Netherfield and got mud all over her petticoat but didn’t give a rap about what proper Miss Bingley thought.

      1. Melinda Hammond

        That’s true, and there were some pretty strong women around in the 18th and 19th C, too – Hester Stanhope, for one (I based my latest heroine on her, just a little bit).

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