Holding Out for a Hero

Posted on Posted in Characterisation


If you are writing popular romance fiction and especially category romance, then the rules are simple.

Your hero has to be:

Aspirational and admirable

Romance readers normally do not come to romance fiction to read about the kind of men they meet in real life. This is why billionaire heroes, oil-rich sheiks, princes with castles to spare and talented surgeons have never been more popular. An Italian count with a superyacht? An Amish widower with a farm and family he loves and rock solid faith? They are all there. But he has to be single – cheaters are not aspirational. This hero has way too much respect for women to let you down when you need him.

Larger than life

This hero knows who he is and what he wants and takes action to get what he wants. No waiting in lines or saving for a rainy day or staying safe. He takes big decisions and makes things happen even if it is risky. He’s not scared of telling our heroine that he finds her attractive and wants to take it further. He may prefer action to dialogue but he will make things happen.

A man who is worthy of the love of our heroine

There is something very special about our hero. He has to be ready and willing to take the time to find out more about our heroine and break through the barriers she has created to get below her surface outward appearance, and love her for who she truly is. He gives her the space to share her ideas and hopes for the future, and is willing to support her to make her dreams come true.

Intelligent, classy and funny

The world’s most powerful aphrodisiac is the ability to make a girl laugh out loud without being cheesy. He can walk into a bar full of strangers in a rough part of town and leave having made 10 new pals.

Physically attractive

Perfect model looks are boring. But it helps if he has at least one physical feature which our heroine finds irresistible, such as his eyes, hands, smile, stance, the way he looks at a person so that they feel that they are the most important person in the room at that moment. Some aspect which reaches out and grabs you and you have to take another look.

In other words – the romance hero is a fantasy character.

We are creating the men women fantasise about.

Escapist? Certainly.  So is all storytelling, whether on the TV, movies, comic books, cartoons and fiction. It is medium of catharsis.

Romance fiction is, and always will be, the medium of hope. Hope that somewhere there is a man who will see us for who we truly are and love us. That’s special.

But here is the challenge for every romance author.

We have to create a hero who is deeply flawed at the start of the story.

Why? Because no matter what the romance subgenre, our readers expect to be entertained.

How are they entertained? By taking our readers on a journey where the hero and heroine will have to battle against enormous multiple challenges, blocks and barriers of all types, before they can earn the reward of mutual love and a happy ending.

A romance novel should be a roller coaster of highs and lows, both physical and emotional as the hero and heroine battle both one another and then their internal limiting beliefs to find happiness together.

In every romance the hero battles with three story threads:

·         The plot line. The hero starts out with a goal or objective and by the end of the story he will have achieved that goal. What do they hope to accomplish and what does the specific finish line look like for that goal. The conflict will come from external forces and other characters.

For example; save the family business, find out who the serial killer is, make his sister’s wedding a huge success. This is the central story idea which is the backbone of the story.

·         The heroine. At the beginning our heroine may be the challenge that is blocking him from achieving that external objective. By the end she will force him to face his greatest challenges – his inner barriers to moving forwards in his life.

·         His own character. How the hero overcomes his great weakness.

The inner journey of the hero from their initial state to their final true state has to mesh with the structure of both the romance story and the plot line.

If the hero is already perfectly successful and happy in life – where is he going to go in this story? How will the heroine fundamentally change the hero’s deepest internal beliefs and challenges?

What readers care about is seeing how our hero overcomes a deep weakness – because of the romance relationship with our heroine. And the bigger the change in his beliefs and behaviour, and the more extreme the shift, the more we enjoy the story.

That is what makes us care about this character. We see him in pain and we see him in trouble at the start of the story.

What is he afraid of – but would never tell anyone? When the story begins out hero is living an incomplete life with layers of suppressed fears. He is living in what screenwriter Michael Hauge calls his “identity”. The façade he has built up around the core of his essential true personality. Laurie Hutzler prefers to call this the “mask” the character wears.

The romance relationship will force the hero to go on an inner journey – and this time the conflict and struggle comes from inside the character.

It could be the result of a past incident [screenwriters call this the ghost from the past] which has carried on to their present life in the form of belief systems and patterns of thinking and behaving.

These are usually self-protection mechanisms which have been created to protect the hero from pain and loss.

Here is the twist.

The “hero” does not have to be “heroic” at the start of the story. They can become heroic as a result of the romance relationship.

For example: What if the hero had been married with a child and he lost them both in a plane crash where he was the pilot? When the story begins he is blocked and frozen, clinging onto the memory of his little boy and the woman he loved. Their memory is keeping him going. Nothing else is allowed into that mental space.

The hero appears on the surface to be totally in control. An alpha male and the leader of the pack both in business and within his close circle of pals. Heads turn when he walks into the room.  He appears fearless and dominant.

We have to give the reader an insight into his great qualities by stepping into his point of view.

What is missing in his life? Joy and hope. He needs to find some way to believe that he has a chance of future happiness and love – but cannot take the risk. It would be too painful to go through that loss again.

That is where our lovely heroine comes in. She is going to fill that missing part of his internal life by breaking down the walls and attacking his protectionist beliefs one by one.

How does he become heroic?

He will only become truly heroic when he becomes strong enough to be vulnerable and reveal his true character to the heroine so that he can take a risk at loving someone again. At the start of the story he believes that he would never do that with anyone. Making that leap of faith is very powerful.

The heroine is the missing piece in the hero’s life and beliefs.

What is more, by revealing his true self, he is filling a gap in the emotional life of the heroine, which in turns helps her to complete her emotional journey and character arc. He is the missing piece in her life.

The emotional journey and character arc of the story then becomes the journey from ordinary to hero. He faces huge struggles and emerges triumphant with a woman he loves and is loved in return.

How does the heroine break down his barriers and outward appearance and get beneath the suit that is part of his identity?

That is the journey that we have to create for this hero in this story.


If you would like to know more about how to build the character arc for your hero, and your heroine, I cover the complete process in my free video training course – How to Outline Your Romance Novel.

You can find out more HERE.

Keep Your Pants On Free Video Training

And in the meantime – here is a little treat. In the Deep. North and South.


7 thoughts on “Holding Out for a Hero

  1. Thank you, Nina. This topic is something I struggle with at the planning stage.

    The advice given to general fiction writers (in how-to books) doesn’t seem to be quite right for writing a Mills& Boon type character driven romance. In many novels the theme is the lesson the protagonist has to learn and the book his/her story. But in romance (M&B, especially) the editors say they want to see both characters undergo clear changes. Which seems like they are asking for 2 stories in one. But if we write 2 strong character changes and both have an equally profound emotional lesson to learn then it dilutes/muddies the theme and becomes difficult for the writer to work out exactly what she’s saying.

    “or example; the heroine wanting to adopt and the hero does not want children,”

    In this example if we were to have a loner hero as the protagonist, and he comes to realise (due to the heroine’s influence) that children make life much happier and he turns into a family man because of it (the end point of his arc) What type of change would fit this heroine? What could she need to learn (from the hero) that doesn’t change her views on wanting children in her life?

    1. Hello Janet. Great questions. Yes, in any romance story you need to create not one but two character arcs since we have two main characters in the romance.
      I don’t think it dilutes or muddles the theme, but in most cases, only one character carries the dominant change and the reader steps into their shoes and experiences their journey as they fall in love and battle both external conflicts and internal conflicts.
      In the example where the heroine wants children and the hero does not – her wanting children is the external want.
      Her need is more complex. In my book Always the Bridemaid, my heroine Amy wants to adopt as her external want, but she was also injured and has a large scar on her chest. Her ex boyfriend broke up with her and she believes that she is not going to find love again. She needs a man who can see past her scars and love her for who she is.
      The hero undergoes the change from not wanting children to recognising that he could make a home and a family with the heroine – and in doing so he gives her what she wants, and also what she needs. She gives him the chance of future happiness which he needs.
      Both characters win.
      The idea of needs and wants has been explored by many of the screenwriting coaches and Michael Haugue has some excellent talks on this which you can find on YouTube and on his website. Here are a few more links you may find helpful.

      Best wishes, Nina

  2. Very interesting thank you–this has really made me think. Would you say that the hero (if he’s the protagonist )should undergo a more profound change than the heroine? I’m thinking that if the heroine is to fundamentally change the hero’s deepest internal beliefs then if her beliefs change drastically too, then they won’t be strong enough and firm enough to bring a positive change on the hero. Would her change be more about a change in her goal or her attitude towards the hero than than a profound character change?

    1. Great question – thank you, Janet. I have always thought that the main character in a romance is the person who will undergo the greatest transformation. It could be the hero or the heroine. They are the person who we meet in the opening scene and then follow their journey and challenges until they come out the other side with a different belief system and the reward of real love.
      In answer to your question, if the hero is the main character, then the heroine has to be rock solid in at least one goal or beliefs and she does not want to compromise on them – they are too important to her. The hero is matching her in some many ways but she won’t budge on this one.
      He is the one who then becomes heroic by making the compromise and shifting – but from a position of strength and self-awareness.
      This creates a fundamental dilemma which is only resolved after the dark moment when both of them feel that they cannot move forward.
      It has to about something real and fundamental of course, not just which football team they support.
      For example; the heroine wanting to adopt and the hero does not want children, or the hero is a front line war medic and the heroine lost her mother when she was a surgeon in a war zone.

      Hope that helps. All the best. Nina

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