What makes a hero into a memorable character rather than a cliché?
The clichés abound. Hundreds, no, thousands of romance novels provide an enticing bare-chested hero on the cover as a temptation. And invariably the heros are tall—almost always 6’2”—and incredibly good looking, whether rough-hewn strong or James Bond smooth. And they are, equally invariably, formulaic and ridiculous. But like lemmings over the cliff, we swarm to buy them.
Of course I have my personal favorites, Sandra Brown, Judith McNaught, Nora Roberts (whoa, talk about formulaic clichés), now adding Laura Drake. Even such far out reads as T. M. Frazier’s King, and Cherise Sinclair’s Master of the Mountain. I tried Elizabeth Reyes (because of the bare chests, of course), but that really stretched the imagination. I’m sorry, I taught high school, and those kids do not look like that.
So, why do women readers insist on big, muscled, confident, even arrogant heroes? Probably because we so rarely get that in reality; our Texas favorite, J.J. Watt, being a notable exception. I was thinking about the successful businessmen of my acquaintance. They are usually smaller men, not particularly prepossessing, but despite their looks, they are certainly confident. Even Hubby Flatbottom is only 5’2” but he has always had the quiet confidence of a Hemingway hero.
In literature, as in life, the classic heroes are rarely 6’2” and magnificently muscled with six-pack abs. Read Hemingway, think of Don Quixote, or even To Kill a Mockingbird. The stories are about real humans with all their flaws. So how to write an enticing, ‘bare-chested’ novel that sells, and still respect yourself in the morning (as you haul those bags of filthy lucre to the bank)? How to walk that fine line between cliché and classic?
“The tall prisoner started across the room with a confident swagger. She froze, unable to swallow, her pulse beating rapidly in her throat. As the light from the courtyard struck the man, she stared into eyes the gray-green of ocean froth on a winter day. A two-day stubble darkened his jaw, a moustache traced his upper lip. Thick eyebrows arched over his startling eyes. He halted in mid-stride, no more than a foot from her, his head tilted to one side.
Analisa felt her chest go tight with fear. He leisurely scanned her up and down, almost as if he were appraising a marketable mule. Analisa’s hands tightened around her fan. The scent of male sweat, smoke and liquor assailed her. She stared in disbelief as one of his eyebrows lifted and a grin curved his lips. White teeth gleamed beneath his moustache.
In the back of her mind, she scrambled to make sense of the big stranger. He exuded a powerful male presence, a machismo, that bordered on arrogance. It showed in the set of his shoulders, the tilt of his head, the line of his jaw. This man was a soldier, as tall as a Spaniard, his features Spanish, but almost certainly a criollo, one of those Spaniards born in the New World whose loyalty to Spain could no longer be trusted. Certainly no self-respecting Spaniard would have allowed himself to become so disreputably filthy.”
Nope. This one sounds pretty cliché to me.