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Strip Jack Naked: Revealing the Romantic Hero

In a romance, what is the ultimate function of a hero? There are so many things a hero is supposed to be and do, but in a romance there is really only one absolute requirement. He has to be the kind of man that the heroine AND THE READER can fall in love with.

As writers we spend a lot of time getting our hero to be the man that our heroine will fall for. But how much time do we spend thinking about and crafting the READER’S experience of the hero?

Jack is financially independent.
In the real world, it’s hard to prioritize sexy lingerie when you’re juggling grocery money and bill payments so you and the kids can both eat and stay warm.

But as writers, we create a dreamscape with words. In our dreams, we can afford the Parisienne bustier or, more practically, a bra that doesn’t look like a mouse nibbled it and then scuttled off with the underwire. In our dreams, we work because we want to, not because we’ll lose the house if we don’t.

The feeling you’re trying to elicit in your reader here is the same sense of excited anticipation you get when you buy a Lotto ticket. OMG! What would I do with thirty million dollars? If I had thirty million I could … and I wouldn’t have to …

It gives a nice big tick in your reader’s fantasy box, because financial independence—from “I have enough to do what I want” through to “I own half the known universe”—speaks to two very female needs: those of survival and security. Of the five levels on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the need for shelter, clothing, food, and water (all things that are a lot easier to get if you’re rolling in moolah) are level one. The need for security is level two.

Jack doesn’t have to be a billionaire or a rock star, but he has to be good at his job, be able to contribute financially to the relationship, and be willing to look after the woman he loves. I’m not saying the heroine can’t or shouldn’t provide financially for herself. I’m saying Jack is the kind of man who isn’t a selfish dollop of bat guano.

Jack has a sense of humor.
After close to forty years with my husband, I can tell you that a man with a sense of humor is a man worth keeping. Time brings many changes—some of them not so great. But the ability to see the funny side of the everyday is absolute gold.

Humor is a vital trait in a romance hero because so much in life isn’t funny. It’s emotional and annoying and frightening and sometimes just plain sad.

Humor lifts our spirits—I’m talking about clever humor here, not the dark, cold sarcasm that masquerades as “funny” and isn’t. It helps us manage conflict, diffuse tension, put things into perspective. It’s also a sign of intelligence.

Give your reader a man like this. A sense of humor also indicates he isn’t afraid to be playful and do crazy, fun things. A man with a sense of humor tends to be more creative. If you then combine playful, crazy, and creative, you have a man who will bring his heroine a great deal of pleasure.

Which segues nicely into…

Jack knows how to make love.
Of course, you say. We’re talking about the hero of a romance here. It’s a given that he’s going to know how to make love.

Well, no. Not always. There are a lot of “romantic” novels out there that read more like a sex manual (Insert Tab M into Slot F until function ends) than anything remotely romantic.

Romance is about love. Love is about caring. Caring implies a certain amount of selflessness, and—when it comes to making love not just scratching a sexual itch—selflessness is the name of the game.

By gifting your reader a hero who knows the difference between making love and having sex, you’re offering her a glimpse of something she may or may not be getting in real life—a patient man who puts her physical and emotional needs ahead of his own. One who thinks she’s gorgeous and isn’t afraid to say so. A man who knows her—literally—inside out, and adores her … cellulite, overbite, and all.

If she’s in a good relationship, she’ll love him because he reinforces the emotionally satisfying bond she already shares. If she’s in no relationship, she’ll love him because he confirms to her that good men who think the sun rises and sets on their women do exist, even if she hasn’t found one yet. If she’s in a bad relationship, she’ll love him because he shows her that not all men are assholes—and maybe, just maybe, she’ll take steps to shake the toxic guy off.

Jack is honorable.
In a lot of ways, it doesn’t matter how much of a ratbag Jack is at the beginning of the book, as long as, somewhere deep inside him, the reader can see that he’s redeemable. He might have a screwed sense of honor, but he has one. And by the end of the book he has proved himself to be the kind of man who not only lives what he believes but will also die for it.

Every woman wants a man who knows what he wants and will do whatever is necessary to get it. But she also wants a man who has a deep, unshakable sense of right and wrong, and the guts and heart to stand up for what he believes. In a world where everything is at least fifty shades of grey, the man who sees his truth in black and white stands out.

Jack is a wounded warrior.
When Fifty Shades of Gray came out there was an outcry. Emotive words rained out of the sky like Hitchcock’s birds. But, say what you like, there’s one thing E. L. James did really well: she made Christian Gray both flawed and wounded.

The guy was an emotional Popsicle. A control freak, blind to his lack of true emotional connection. Sure, he could go through the motions of normality. He ran a business, had acquaintances, enjoyed hobbies that required a high level of intellectual function. He had an adoptive family. He had lovers. He even believed he was happy. But his horrific childhood had scarred him so deeply he couldn’t bear to be touched. It was something he’d come to accept as his version of normal—so much so that he wouldn’t even acknowledge his need for wholeness. Then, along came Anastasia … and the man was toast.

Our Jack might carry the wound on his body, but in most cases he carries his pain in his spirit. Doctors can heal a body. It’s far more difficult to heal the effects of injustice or failure, of isolation or betrayal. You can’t slap sticking plaster on rejection, or swipe a bit of antibiotic ointment on neglect.

And yet these wounds have brought Jack to where he is today—about to meet the one woman in all the world whose love can make him whole, and whose own wounds are the basis for the healing she offers.

If you’ve ever seen an abused dog snarling and trembling at the same time, then you’ve probably gone through the gamut of emotions you want your reader to experience here.

You can see the poor animal’s had the stuffing kicked out of him. He’s so used to being beaten that he sees all raised hands as weapons. You know if you hold yours out—even with a treat in your fingers—you risk a nasty bite.

And yet. And yet.

You want to save him. You know he’s hurting. You see he can’t save himself. You can’t leave him where he is or—one way or another—he’ll die. He needs to know there’s a world out there where he can be safe and loved. You ache with sorrow. With empathy. With tenderness. With compassion. And if you’re the right person, you’re willing to risk a short-term negative response to ensure long-term positive behavior. These are the feelings that roil around in your gut as you watch and agonize, hope and despair.

As all of us have been hurt or rejected in some form, it makes a wounded hero someone we can identify with. He’s also male, most romance readers are female, and most women are wired to heal hurts and fix pain. They want to experience their own emotional roller-coaster as the heroine fights through whatever it takes to bring the hero through his pain to healing.

A heroine needs her hero to be wounded so she can show her own heroic nature. The hero’s wound, when the heroine finds it, opens the way for her to come to terms with some of his more asshole moments.

Jack is faithful.
It doesn’t matter how many lovers Jack has had in the past. It only matters that the heroine is the last one.

The man might’ve been a rake and a womanizer. Then he discovers the one woman who’s worth committing his life to. He works hard to change himself to be worthy of her. He learns true love is not about taking everything you can, but about giving everything you have. He realizes that without faithfulness, true love cannot survive. Without faithfulness he will hurt the woman he loves.

Faithfulness is a cornerstone of the foundation of love—and one that’s being destroyed in millions of families around the globe all day every day.

As writers, we can give our readers positive examples of change and growth. As writers of romance, we can give our readers a hero worth falling in love with.


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This article is reprinted by permission of the author.

Gracie O’Neil writes Romantic Suspense and lives with her husband in a renovated Leyland Leopard bus in small-town New Zealand. She loves really hot cappuccino, loathes Brussels Sprouts, and will talk about her heroes and heroines—plus their secrets and lies—till the cows come home. She wants to write on a cruise ship one day. Right now, however, she’s happy spinning dreams with the earth under her feet. You can contact Gracie at

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