Heavy D and the Hero

I started this post on 25 October, and put it aside because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say. In mid-October, I put Heavy D’s “Now That We’ve Found Love” on my running mix and was thinking about the song and how much I liked it (and Heavy D) while I was out one day. Heavy D died unexpectedly on 8 November at age 44, and the news headline made me remember this post and that I’d never finished it. While I’m still not sure that I made every point I wanted to make (my train of thought while out running moves long the lines of Huh. Heavy D. Romance heroes. Why not heavy D heroes? …. Squirrel! Treebranch… manhole cover. Hi doggy! …. Romance heroes. Huh? ) I am still thinking about this topic, and wanted to ask your opinion.

While listening to Heavy D tell me about how he’s found love, I got to wondering whether we’ll ever see heroes who don’t fit a physical ideal – a super hard muscular one. There are built heroes and slender heroes, but even the slender heroes, once they take their shirts off, are described in such a way that almost always mentions muscles.  I’ve read runner heroes and swimmer heroes and the absolutely physically astonishing Navy SEAL heroes, whose muscles have muscles of their own. The image of romance heroes is pretty darn sculpted much of the time.

Many hero descriptions include specific mentions of broad chests, narrow hips, defined arms or abs, or all of the above. In some romances, it seems like the heroine was undressing the Incredible Hulk, what with some of the descriptions that made the hero seem larger than life.


For fun, I searched Google:Books for romance author names, like “Catherine Coulter” or “Kathleen Woodiwiss” alongside the word “muscles” and looked at the sample text that appeared.

“His muscles were well honed to a vibrant hardness.” – A Season Beyond a Kiss, Kathleen Woodiwiss, 2001.

“The full length of her thigh was pressed to the granite-hard muscles of his.” – The Flame and the Flower, Kathleen Woodiwiss, 1972.

“The shirt lay open to the middle of his muscular chest, revealing sun-bronzed skin…” – The Elusive Flame, Kathleen Woodiwiss, 1999.

“He was well made, looked to be as strong as Prince, her grandfather’s most vicious wolfhound, his muscles stark and hard.” The Penwyth Curse, Catherine Coulter, 2003.

And it’s not just the romance authors whose careers have spanned decades who I searched for. I was curious about some of the more recent popular authors, too, in my highly and completely un-scientific searching.

“His chest was pure muscle, the kind that came from fighting thoroughbred horses for mastery, day after day. Even in the waning light, she could see that his shoulders were enormous, his arms rippled with muscles as he loosely held the reins. He was turned to the side, slightly away from her, so she could see how the muscles marched down his broad back.” The Lady Most Likely, Julia Quinn, Eloisa James, Connie Brockway, 2010.

“He undid the buttons on his shirt and peeled it off, revealing a tight white T-shirt that showed off his firm chest muscles.” Something About You, Julie James, 2010.

“His chest was tanned, sculpted muscle, sprinkled with golden hairs. Not big, bulging muscles, but the muscles of someone who did physical work every day, hefting tanks around and lowering boats into the water…” – Crazy for Love, Victoria Dahl, 2010.

And of course:

“His abdomen was ribbed as if he were smuggling paint rollers under his skin. His legs were thick and corded.” Dark Lover, JR Ward, 2005.

I could keep going, but you get the point. The heroes, they are muscular. And not just Down There.

I don’t meant to call out these authors as if they’ve done something wrong in their descriptions – they haven’t. Not at all. One of the odd things is that the cover model might not match the hero’s appearance – his hair or eye color, for example – but the muscles will probably match up in strength and definition.

The funny thing about that super, possibly superhuman, physique: it takes a lot to maintain it. Yet these super-muscular heroes aren’t going to the gym in every chapter, despite the fact that keeping those hardened and sculpted leg muscles and all those washboard/paint roller/eight pairs of parked Volkswagen Beetle abs requires regular maintenance. All that gym time would cut into the wooing time. And the business time, too. (Question: Was there a Regency GNC, selling protein powders and weight gain shakes for all these heroes back then?)

Anyway, these authors are successfully writing the heroes we read about, and continue to read about, ostensibly giving us, the readers, what we want: really finely sculpted specimens of manly manhood with extra muscles of manfulness on the side (and back, and legs, etc).

There seems to be a very wide chasm between the depictions of heroes in romances, and men like Heavy D, and other men of size. Or just men of different sizes. I mean, come on, Heavy D found love, right? He sang about it (over and over and over. Seriously that song has, like, 14 repeats of the chorus). Heavy D was a stumbling, bumbling overweight lover (though I have NO idea why he’s dancing in a raincoat in that video).

And most men don’t match that described muscled ideal. Men gain weight in different places than women – often in the stomach area (though for some reason as they age, many men lose their asses. Where the hell do they go, anyway?). Most of the fathers and husbands I know are not super muscly. They aren’t physical ideals as defined by the romance genre, but they are, some of them, pretty hot. And their wives and partners and girlfriends love them.

If part of the underlying message of romance is that the hero and heroine aren’t idealized images of perfection, and are instead two people with human flaws who are perfect for each other, why are the heroes continually ripped and cut into muscled ideals? I know the muscular descriptions are ways to reinforce the virility of the hero, but are there other models of heroic proportion we could embrace as readers?

We’re seeing more heroines of different sizes, slowly but surely. Would we accept a hero who isn’t muscled and physically ideal?

I would like to think so. Have a look at this Tumblr blog of romance authors posting pictures of their real-life husbands and partners: Romance Authors Present: The Sexiest Men Alive. Some of them are truly adorable and gorgeous and funny (I love the expression on Daisy Harris’ husband’s face).  But these are real men with real bodies, many without the stark hard muscles of rippling, granite-hard hardness.

So do we want to cross that chasm between the romance depiction and the shaped varieties of they actual human male body? What descriptions would we as readers welcome, and conversely, what would repel us?


Random Musings

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  1. 1
    Madd says:

    I could swear I read a romance, or was it erotica?, where the hero was describes as being “stout” and he was described as being softer than the heroine was used to. Damn my vague memory.

  2. 2
    Kristen A. says:

    I think I remember that although many of Vicki Lewis Thompson’s nerd series heroes like to work out to clear their heads when wrestling with a difficult programming problem or something (for some of them its believable, or at least obviously necessary for the story, for others not so much), the hero of The Nerd Who Loved Me is described as being kind of soft around the middle. Also hung like a horse. But at least there wasn’t any attempt to shoe-in a way for an accountant to be pumping iron on a daily basis.

  3. 3

    Maybe as authors we need to describe our heros more like the men in our lives.  Men have problems with their self image too.  I’ve seen men of all sizes with a woman clinging to their arms and eyes filled with love.  Which means make our heros more human and believable.  Your right for these men to have the bodies that are described, the men would not have time for anything else.  I would not be happy if my guy didn’t have time for me.  LOL.  As women we are constantly telling the world to accept us as we really are and maybe it is time for men to demand that also.

  4. 4
    Antje says:

    I actually can’t stand overly-muscled men. All those “cords” and bulging muscles take me out of the book. I wish the authors would stop beefing their heroes up.

  5. 5

    I’ve been fascinated by the response to the hero of my last book, “The Orchid Affair”—he’s medium height, wears glasses, has two kids, and he’s a lawyer (so, let’s face it, there isn’t much musculature happening).  I’ve gotten a lot of mail telling me how nice it is to have an ordinary hero, with particular enthusiasm for the fact that he wears glasses.  Who knew?

    So I’d say that we are ready to embrace heroes that we could actually embrace, the ones with extraordinary hearts and ordinary physiques.

  6. 6
    corina says:

    In one of Eloisa James’ Duchess books (too lazy to get up and look for it) the hero starts out an alcoholic who has a pronounced belly and I believe is described as overall being soft. Of course, by the time the HEA rolls around he’s off the sauce and has gained the traditional romance hero musculature.

    The only other hero I can remember with an acknowledged imperfect physique is in a Heidi Cullinan book (Double Blind, she writes m/m and sometimes m/m/m/m) where one of the heroes had a little bit of a belly because he was in his thirties and didn’t have time to spend hours in the gym every day keeping it away. I thought that was a really sweet detail, especially seen through the adoring eyes of his boyfriend.

    I admit that in my romantic fiction I like my heroes on the fantastical side, but I would like to read some more realistic bodies as well. If nothing else, I’d think it would be a fun challenge for an author to make a love scene HOT with two imperfect bodies.

  7. 7

    I estimate 75 percent of military men are “ordinary.”  While they do have to meet a physical standard, not all have bulging muscles.

    I’m all for “ordinary” heroes and heroines!

  8. 8
    Isabel C. says:

    Different body types? Sure—I’m more inclined toward Bowie than Ahnold, myself. “Realistic” bodies…depends on what you mean by realistic. Decent-shape-but-no-rippling-muscles? Sure.

    But…well, first of all, romantic relationships require sexual attraction, at least for me, and that requires a partner who makes *some* effort to take care of his appearance. Larry the Cable Guy, George from Seinfeld, Steve from Sex in the City…no. Furthermore, hell no. 

    I guess my middle ground is that the guy has to look something the guys I’d date RL—and I’m cheerfully shallow about that. After all, my *mom* has a great personality and a keen intellect. ;)

  9. 9
    snarkhunter says:

    I love that tumblr. It’s brought a bit old smile to my face.

    Now back to the “I can’t believe you just said that” paper-grading grimace.

  10. 10
    Isabel C. says:

    Also? I’m so not worried about guys being overly concerned about their appearances. In my experience as a fairly-recently-single girl, most of ‘em could stand to worry a little *more*.

  11. 11
    darlynne says:

    I loved the paint roller description the first time I read it, but the only way someone can look like Dolvett Quince on The Biggest Loser is to work out all day, every day. Which is not to say he can’t have a life, but his life would have to be hard physical work all the time. Come to think of it, why aren’t there more construction worker heroes?

    Do we need the microscopic level of description that permeates romantic fiction? How about a less-is-more philosophy and let the reader imagine the rest? I am tired of continual and over-the-top references to bulging muscles, piercing eyes, thick hair and ginormous mighty wangs. While physical attraction may be what starts the fire, it is the person underneath that keeps it banked and glowing.

  12. 12
    becca says:

    at least in the In Death books, we’re shown Eve and Roarke working out, sometimes for multiple hours.  Of course, Roarke doesn’t seem to sleep much either…

    I agree – I prefer the “ordinary” heroes to the overly-muscled, which to me can look/sound more freakish than sexy.

  13. 13

    A lot of readers talk about how romance novel covers embarrass them. Me, I’m in a somewhat different boat: i.e., the constant parade of shirtless, over-muscled heroes on the covers is not so much embarrassing to me as it is just uninteresting. And by “uninteresting”, I mean “this is not sexy to me”.

    How muscled—or how well-endowed—the hero is does not define his sexiness for me. I’m way more of a sucker for gorgeous eyes, or tousled hair, or a nice deep voice, or especially good hands—this last, especially, if the hero is a musician. :D Above and beyond the physical, though, what’ll REALLY make him sexy to me is if he’s smart, or funny, or brave, or all of the above. Bonus points if he is, indeed, wearing glasses. Because glasses on a handsome man? Yum.

    This is absolutely why I loved the covers on Zoe Archer’s novels so much. The guys were all fully clothed, which let me exercise my imagination! I keep hearing that the reason we see so many headless females on covers is so that female readers can envision the heroine looking however they like, up to and including “like themselves”. But I really appreciate a cover that’ll let me exercise my imagination about what a hero looks like with his shirt off and doesn’t feel the need to spell it out for me. What is NOT shown to me is often way, way more sexy to me than what is.

  14. 14
    Faellie says:

    His chest was pure muscle, the kind that came from fighting thoroughbred horses for mastery, day after day. Even in the waning light, she could see that his shoulders were enormous, his arms rippled with muscles as he loosely held the reins. He was turned to the side, slightly away from her, so she could see how the muscles marched down his broad back.” The Lady Most Likely, Julia Quinn, Eloisa James, Connie Brockway, 2010.

    I just want to say that any man who has the chest, shoulders, arms and back so described from “fighting thoroughbred horses for mastery, day after day” is misunderstanding horses so badly, and treating them so badly, that I would have nothing to do with him, and would advise any other woman to have nothing to do with him.

  15. 15
    Rachel says:


    It’s funny you should mention Zoe Archer, because she is definitely the person I thought of first when I read this post. About halfway through all of her books I started skimming, because we were constantly being told about the hero’s perfect abs/arms/thighs/ass/etc. The heroine(s) couldn’t even look at the men without making a mental comment on their physique. It got very old, very fast.

    Though, I do agree with you about the covers. I was happy that they actually featured clothed men!

  16. 16
    Lisa J says:

    I agree with Anna the Piper, in that I don’t need a hero with cords and bulges and ripples, when I cam have great eyes and hair and hands (and possibly some sort of accent). I do prefer a little bit of musculature, because like Isabel C said, it’s all about the fantasy and the sexual attraction, but too much weirds me out. But I guess if I wanted to fantasize about guys in not-so-great shape, I could just look around the company I work in. Romance, for me, is all about the escapism, so I do prefer a-little-more-perfect-than-real heroes (hence why I do love Roarke so much). It does seem like some authors are trying to outdo each other, though. “Your hero has eight-pack abs? Well, mine has a *twelve* pack!”

  17. 17
    EC Spurlock says:

    Personally I’ve always had issues with bodybuilder types; they remind me too much of all the ecorches (flayed bodies) I had to study for anatomy in art school. Plus, most of them only get that way if they take steroids, which shrink the wang like nobody’s business. What good are all those muscles when the most important one doesn’t work?

    I’m with Darlynne, just give us a suggestion and let our imaginations fill in the rest. Jaquie D’Allessandro does this really well; I remember a hero of hers who was an architect; the heroine was initially attracted to him because she had a thing about men with glasses, and when he undressed she just indicated that the heroine liked what she saw and left it at that.

    Capcha: ideas85 – There are at least 85 ideas of what the ideal man should look like!

  18. 18

    @Rachel: Yeah well, the glowing descriptions of physiques are why I do a lot of skimming in many romances, too. ;)

    @Lisa J: ACCENTS! Also yum! And accent + musician = I will TOTALLY swoon. And if you have a romance or a fantasy novel with a hero who’s a Newfoundlander musician OR a French Canadian musician, so I can have accents AND music? I will break down the door of the nearest bookstore to get your novel as fast as possible. :D

  19. 19
    Cynara says:

    Now, I haven’t been reading romance for decades, but I feel like I’ve just met my fortieth Regency rake who does nothing but whore, drink, and gamble – and somehow has a tan and those mighty, muscled thighs, etc.  I would welcome some more variation, for sure.  Somehow, all those body-builder descriptions don’t turn me on, and it’s actually starting to affect my enjoyment of the genre – thews, check, multi-gazillionaire, check, emotional fuckwit (I mean, haughty and brooding…), check.  I mean, think of Dag from the Sharing Knife series – he wasn’t any of the above, but he was utterly awesome.

  20. 20
    Quill says:

    Nora Roberts’ Vision in White has a geeky bespectacled hero, who is lanky and slightly clumsy.  He’s my favorite in the series for just that reason.

  21. 21
    Vicki says:

    I, too, have problems with really muscular men. Especially if they have tattoos. That just screams ex-con to me. When I worked with incarcerated minors, many of the nice, clean-cut, buff-bodied ones were murder ones. Away from juvenile hall, the really buff ones were generally doing steroids and their wives were in my office complaining of DV.

    OTOH, I do like a runner’s body, long and lean with good (but not bulky) muscles, especially in the legs. Or even just an average joe body in shape from lawn mowing, hiking, rafting, and painting the bedroom.

    BTW, Faellie, I enjoyed most of The Lady Most Likely. The earl seemed otherwise OK so I read past that though he was not my favorite of all the heroes. Too muscular and horsey.

  22. 22

    I can enjoy the fantasy of ripped abs and broad chests, but increasingly I find myself drawn to heroes whose bodies deviate from the Beautiful People standard.

    In fact, I have a story related to this topic. In November 2009, I wrote a blog post calling for more pudgy heroes in science fiction romance (http://www.thegalaxyexpress.net/2009/11/my-wife-is-gangster-nurturing-hero.html) as I had recently watched and enjoyed MY WIFE IS A GANGSTER, which features a cool pudgy hero. SFR has the potential for a lot of diversity and hero body types could be one of them.

    Fast forward to May, 2011. Author Manda Benson contacts me and says that her latest erotic sci-fi romance, MOONSTEED, features a pudgy hero. Feeling giddy with anticipation, I read the book. Lo and behold, the hero, Vladimir, was *exactly* what I’d hoped for.  And in the climactic battle scene he kicks butt in a totally awesome (and subversive) way. I can’t recommend Vladimir enough.

    Here’s a link if you’re interested in reading my non-spoiler lowdown of MOONSTEED: http://www.thegalaxyexpress.net/2011/05/secret-ingredient-in-manda-bensons.html

    Also, I got a huge kick out of Boggle, an overweight secondary character in PJ Schnyder’s HUNTING KAT. I blogged about how I would love to see him get his own sci-fi romance, and the author publicly stated in the comments that she would think about it! Fingers crossed, at any rate.

    What’s great about ebooks is that readers who want more variety in body types can have them more often than in the past, provided authors are interested in writing about them.

  23. 23
    Shelisa says:

    I’ve never been a fan of bodybuilder-esque muscles on a man, but I love a long, lean build with some definition rather than size. Every man I’ve known with that build, including my two sons, doesn’t do much to maintain it: an hour or so in the gym a couple of times a week, if that. The rest seems to be just staying reasonably active. Oh how I wish that worked for me!

    I get really tired of the really built hero. I tend to gloss over the description and just picture him the way I want anyway.

  24. 24
    Cyranetta says:

    Because I’m not really attracted to the Conan-the-Barbarian style of heroic body, I find that I almost have to ignore the hero being described in that way if I’m otherwise engaged by his other qualities.

    If I were to think of a body type that I DO find engaging, the first one that comes to mind is Pierce Brosnan—love the long and lean and either lethally graceful (Bond) or charmingly awkward (Remington Steele in many instances).

    As for the non-physical attractions, wit really engages my attention, BUT it cannot be malicious with, but the kind of wit that is almost a translation for “isn’t the world a wonderful place, and wouldn’t we enjoy it better together?”.

    Someone upthread mentioned hands—oh, yes, especially considering how they can be used…

  25. 25
    snarkhunter says:

    Nora Roberts’ Vision in White has a geeky bespectacled hero, who is lanky and slightly clumsy

    Oh, God, do I love Carter. I love Carter a LOT. I wish he were real. And in my bed. :D

    Of course, it wouldn’t really work. I probably only love Carter b/c he’s me in male form. Clumsy, geeky, and an English professor. Except I’m short.

  26. 26
    Alpha Lyra says:

    I’m one of those readers who doesn’t find a super muscled body to be a turn-on. I’m more attracted to lithe, wiry men.

    I’m all for reading about more realistic (and more varied) bodies in romance. It’s not the muscles that makes a hero.

  27. 27
    Bella says:

    I once read a romance where the hero was tall and thin and looked like a grasshopper when he climbed out of a car—and yet he was so stinkin’ sexy (and British—that may have tipped the scales). No muscles in sight, yet very swoonworthy…

  28. 28

    Meep! Thanks for the shout-out y’all! That was a fun Tumblr to put together, sparked of course by a Twitter conversation. Any romance authors who have a real-life hero to add, feel free to submit a photo! There’s a “submit” button up at the top.

  29. 29
    Lila B. says:

    Romance novels are all about escapism for me. I want everything to be just a little “better” than real life. The heroines sexier, the action actionier, the angst angstier, and the heroes bigger and badder. While I don’t really go for the steroid cases, I do like heroes that are tall with lean muscle. Love me some manly alpha heroes (who also have the wit and brains, of course).

    That said, I do think there should be books featuring heroes of varying physical description so there’s something for everyone.

  30. 30
    Becca P says:

    Not a direct reply to your question, but… my hubby is a BIG guy.  I met him that way, married him that way and love him that way.  While I love reading JR Ward, IRL I wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with a person that self-involved.

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