Straight Dope ladies, I could use some romance-fiction advice

I’m a man, writing romance fiction.

There are some formulaic plots or tropes I strongly dislike in fiction, and the romance genre is perhaps the most repetitive, unoriginal genre of all.

The stereotypical male protagonist embodies some or all of the following characteristics: Tall, white Caucasian, wealthy, confident, rugged, sensuous, strong, some major personality flaw or troubled past, mysterious, etc.
I would like to write fiction that breaks away from convention or standard formula. My question is: ** How much can a romance novel male protagonist diverge from the typical norm and still be considered attractive?**
Can he have no major personality flaws, or is that too boring?

Can he lack confidence?

Race doesn’t seem to be too big an issue.

Is 5’6 or so the absolute minimum acceptable height?


Physically weak or handicapped?

Etc. etc.

I’m not female, but I’ve seen that being rich trumps pretty much everything.

I’ve always thought that an otherwise healthy man with a minor physical defect to be sexy. Say wearing an eye patch or walking with a stylish cane.

Too late to edit, but I should have rephrased better: "In which aspects can a romance novel male protagonist diverge from the typical norm and still be considered attractive?"

As with all such writing questions, yes. You can do anything you want, as long as you do it well. One thing working in your favor, incidentally, is that major publishers have been moving romance away from your great-aunt’s Regency stuff and closer to the realm of erotica, where the heroes have long come in all shapes, sizes, and personalities. You can be just about whatever in the streets if you’re a maestro in the sheets, and readers will buy it.

In my opinion, while rich/handsome/tall/devoted is the standard set of romantic hero features, what women really want is the devoted part of that, plus capability. They want the man to be competent at life, and they want him to be hopelessly in love with the heroine specifically, so much so that no other woman could ever take her place, and so much so that he is motivated to pursue her. They also want him to be in some way vulnerable. The heroine must be able to help him, somehow.

FWIW, I’m writing a romantic drama starring a short, broke hero with a cleft lip right now, and yes, female readers are totally going to cream their pants for him. Just do it well.

I don’t know if you can successfully subvert a genre if you don’t get what makes it popular to begin with.

It’s kind of like someone wanting to write a groundbreaking science fiction book but who hates all sci fi. It’s not going to happen.

There’s a difference between hating and understanding a genre. You can understand a genre without liking it.

In high school, I wrote a short novel emulating the bodice-ripper style my girlfriend liked. I can’t stand that genre, and I did intentionally subvert it in a few ways. There are some sci-fi elements (the male protagonist has a cybernetic arm), some war elements (a sort of near-future WWIII) and a questionable male protagonist (he, via the cybernetic arm, punched and killed his wife. The story does not clarify whether this was his loss of temper or a malfunction in the equipment.)

Not only did my girlfriend like it, she gave copies to all her friends. And the comments they wrote back… I’m still blushing.

Interesting, might write that in, thanks.

There have been a number of very successful books where the Hero is “off trope”. I suggest you go over to Amazon’s Romance Forum and do some searches for threads on Hero with different characteristics. Just off the top of my head:

The Hero and heroine are both extremely ugly to the other (they are in an arranged marriage to strengthen alliance between their two kingdoms) Radiance

The H has high functioning Aspergers The Maddness of Lord Ian Mackenzie

The Hero has mental heath issues (depression, panic attacks, etc) Five Minutes Late

The Hero is blind In the Blink of an Eye

The Hero is poor (ex-con v well to do heroine) One Summer

Just a note from your target audience - I read for escapism, so unless you are an externally skillful writer and I trust you as an author, don’t knock over too many tropes in writing you Hero or I won’t read the book.

If you think this, why are you writing in this genre? Why not write in a genre that you like and have some respect for?

That said, while I kind of understand where you’ve picked up that stereotype, I can think of many examples (by successful, popular authors) where the hero doesn’t fit into it. I’d recommend you get more familiar with some of what’s out there first. Along with the site that Reepicheep mentioned, you might want to check out Smart Bitches, Trashy Books or some other romance reader sites as well.

Because I’d like to influence it differently, somewhat.

Witty and funny does it to me every time. I liked Chandler MUCH better than Joey on Friends, even though Joey was better looking.


Well, aren’t you precious.

If you want to write in a genre that you don’t read for pleasure yourself, do yourself and your readers a favor and do a lot of research. That means reading about the history of the genre, past trends and current trends, learning what the established subgenres are (Regency romance? Historical? Sci-fi? Urban Fantasy? Contemporary? Western? Classic Gothic? What tropes within the subgenre - Kidfic? Erotica? Fake relationship? Arranged marriage? Prior-relationship-rekindling?), what makes a work fit into those subgenres, and a whole bunch of other meta.

It also means reading a lot of the genre books themselves, start to finish, especially the books that are considered by the audience/critics (why, yes, there are critics that specialize in reviewing romance novels) as the best ones currently in the genre. Multiple books by the authors that are well-regarded. Take notes when you’re reading them about what you think works and what doesn’t, and why. Read the reviews of the critics as above and see what they think works and what doesn’t and why.

Make sure when you’re doing your research reading that it’s books that have been published recently - within the last 5 years. Romance just like any other genre has trends and fashions, and if you read a bunch of novels written in the 70’s or even the 90’s you’ll be working with an outdated view of the market and what tropes are currently used/acceptable. (Example: Back in the 70’s, there was a whole lot more dubious/nonconsensual sex where the hero is Unable To Resist The Heroine and Must Have Her Now Despite Her Saying No, No, No, But She Winds Up Liking It Anyway. That stuff doesn’t fly so much nowadays - not that you can’t find it in new stuff, but it’s much rarer. Conversely, works written back then pretty much never had either hero or heroine with an existing child, except maybe a ward or foundling, and the heroine was always explicitly a virgin (rare nowadays unless you’re writing for the YA or historical markets), and there were pretty much no same-sex romances, which are currently a fairly large and growing subgenre.

In other words, take the genre seriously, on its own terms, or don’t do it at all. You’re not going to swoop in and write a novel and have everyone go “OMG!!! This novel has shown me everything that is wrong with the books I love!! I had never noticed these flaws before!” Women who both read and write romances are, believe it or not, pretty smart cookies, and they know what they like and they will see it right away if they’re being pandered to. There are literally thousands of romances published every year, just physical books, and thousands more that are published only digitally. Don’t assume that because it’s a genre that is considered lesser and mostly written and read by women (hmmm wonder if those facts are connected) that it’ll be easy to just crank something out. It’s not.

Note: I’m not a big romance book reader, but I worked in bookstores for a decade and I have friends who write in the genre. Trust me on this one.

Edit: Oooh I did a google search for “Breaking Into Romance Writing” and this was the top item. Lots of the stuff I covered above in here.

I think it would be of benefit if you learned more about romance novels, including current trends in the genre.

Have you been reading a lot of recent titles? From a variety of publishers & imprints? For example, if you’ve only seen “Harlequin Presents” titles, then your stereotype holds very true because that series really is all alpha-male billionaires. That’s actually in the submission guidelines for that line. But it isn’t true for all of the genre (it’s not even the case for other Harlequin lines).

Trying to influence it toward what?

Trying to make a story rather unpredictable. It’s not actually technically a romance novel per se as it is a love story mixed into a bigger overall setting/plot, which should help.

The last two posters have said it better: Spend some serious time studying modern romance fiction. Do some research to discover the various genres & get some recommendations about the very best books out there. Then read them.

I’m not much of a romance fan. (In fact, I’m fond of the antiquated but charming Georgette Heyer.) But lots of smart women are.

Your contempt for the genre & for women just might get in the way.

Alternately, spend time studying & practicing in a genre* you *like. But you’ve probably already done that, with poor results…

If you could point out where I’ve shown contempt for women, I’d appreciate it.

My favorite fictional romantic hero is about 4’9" with extremely brittle bones and is, arguably, bipolar. Gorgeous women fall in love with him all the time. But he’s smart.

His name is Miles Naismith Vorkosigan.

True, it’s been recent titles. You’re right, some are all about tall rich handsome men and whatnot. Although the 1900s already showed the trend, IMHO.

Thanks for the courteous response, by the way. :slight_smile:

I’m totally new here, but a friend showed me this thread and I wanted to chime in. I am a romance author (professionally published and everything). Romance readers are EXTREMELY savvy and can sense contempt from an author from a mile away. The tropes that you are dismissing off-hand are what draw readers to romance. A good romance author knows how to use those tropes in new and unexpected ways and to connect with the reader emotionally. The emotional connection is WHY readers read romance. The expectations of the genre are why they keep coming back.

Yes, the tropes are there, but emotional honesty is the point. Without that, a romance novel falls flat.

Trying to approach the genre as a male who sees the need to “fix” a genre that isn’t broken is, honestly, not going to get you anywhere, and is pretty astonishingly arrogant.

If you truly want to write romance, you need to, as others have suggested, read a LOT of it, and if you don’t love it, the reader is going to know.