Keeping it real – sort of

Okay, so I read a lot of romance. A lot. In general, the leads in all these romances are all DDG, i.e. drop dead gorgeous. Rarely does one encounter a romantic hero with a paunch and thinning hair, or a heroine with bifocals, a tad too many pounds round her waist and a preference for flat heels. And yes, I agree that part of the appeal is that while reading a romance I can pretend to be one of those over-represented redhaired beauties with long, long legs and green eyes. I can pretend that the man holding me so tenderly to his chest is six foot something, a lot of muscle and tousle-worthy hair. All very nice.

Still, sometimes I get a tad irritated by all these male leads with ripped abs and bulging biceps, with muscled thighs and pecs to die for. Why? Because they never do anything to maintain their physique! Rarely do we see our leads go to the gym, sweat like crazy and collapse in sheer exhaustion afterwards. Yes, there are books where exercise happens, but usually these mouth-watering men and their female counterparts just are. Like Venus alighting from her sea-shell, they embody perfection without having done much to deserve their physical attributes. Great DNA, one presumes.

As an aside, look at Venus as depicted by Botticelli and consider whether our goddess of love would even qualify as mouth-watering in this age of physical perfection. Neither here nor there, but I suspect Botticelli was actually using a real woman as his model, ergo the softness to some of the curves, the lack of overall athletic tone. Kudos to him, I say.

Most authors gravitate towards type. I do that myself, liking my male leads taller than average and somewhat hunky. But one of them is hunky because he’s a medieval knight and spends a LOT of time perfecting his fighting skills. The other is brawny because he’s a farmer, wresting virgin land from the American forests to convert it into arable fields. Hard, hard work that leaves a man with long, strong muscles, a broad chest and strong arms (and, as he gets older, an aching back). My soon-to-see-the-light-of-the-day contemporary lead is a fine-looking specimen, but him we also see work out. Still: one could argue I should vary myself and have non-descript men as my heroes. Maybe I should—but I won’t. I will, however, try to make their physique the result of some effort.

What I find rather fascinating when it comes to romance heroines is that very often they like to eat—a lot—without this having an impact on their weight. How often doesn’t a romance hero gaze fondly at his soon-to-be other half as she chomps her way through generous portions and desserts and say “I love a woman who enjoys her food”? Argh! Very few women, in my experience, can indulge their appetite and retain their perfect figure. Well, unless they work out which very often romance heroines don’t. Especially if they’re 19th century Regency Romance heroines, seeing as there weren’t any gyms back then, so exercise was often restricted to walks, at times long dramatic walks over rain-drenched moors, at others more of a stroll round the nearby park.

Anyway: I can forgive the handsome hunks (of course I can) and the lucky lady with the constant hourglass figure, no matter how much she stuffs her face. What I do have a major problem with is when the obstacles our couple have to overcome become too inane. Misunderstandings are ok, but when the protagonists lose all communication skills overnight, thereby making it impossible to have that one conversation required to clear up the mess, I generally groan. Loudly.

Skilled writers usually complicate things by creating a misunderstanding followed by a separation in place, i.e. he never gets the opportunity to explain he wasn’t flirting with another woman because he is abducted by the villain of the book. Or she rushes to tell him she didn’t mean to kiss Handsome Harry—in fact, he forced her, the bastard—and is abducted by the villain of the book, a.k.a. Handsome Harry. Or he is called away to the deathbed of his father. Or she is afflicted by measles and almost dies (which creates an excellent opportunity for the dashing hero to brave the germs and sit beside her as she twists and tosses in a high fever, repeatedly calling his name. Awww…)

Whichever version, at some point our DDG hero is going to a) escape and brain Handsome Harry while doing so b) rescue her and brain Handsome Harry while doing so c) hasten back from the deathbed once Papa has passed and punch Handsome Harry in the face before declaring just how much he loves his redhaired beauty d) fall to his knees when she finally wakes and beg for forgiveness for being such a cad last time they were together.

There are also those variants where it is the determined heroine who saves her hero from the clutches of the evil Handsome Harry. At times, she does this by sacrificing herself (free him and I will be yours) but fortunately once HH has complied, our hero returns to save his sweetheart. Alternatively, our heroine grips a poker and defends herself… I rather like ladies who rely on themselves rather than their man.

The interesting thing about romance is that even if we all know there will be a Happily Ever After in which the dashing hero rides off into the sunset with the glamorous heroine, good writers still manage to create sufficient tension and novelty. How? Mostly be developing the characters and giving them quirks and unique personalities – and keeping them real. Or at least realish. Which, dear peeps, means that IF you have a glorious hunk strolling across the pages of your novel, please, please make all that musculature feasible. Give him a rowing machine (or a row-boat if we’re back in time). Give him a gym membership or a tough fencing master. Give him something!