Must our heroes be handsome?

This summer I attended an interesting workshop by a bestselling, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, who discussed his approach to crafting thrillers. It was his opinion that main characters need to be handsome (or beautiful, if female), intelligent, and successful. As he described his approach, “I write a main character that women want to sleep with, and men want to be. ” In other words, more James Bond than Monk. His reason for his writing main characters that way? “I like to write books that sell.”

It’s an interesting thought. I’d always assumed that a main character didn’t need to be particularly genetically or intellectually gifted. I always assumed that overcoming adversity was what made a hero appealing to readers.  But when I think back about books I’ve particularly enjoyed–SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, COMA–I have to admit that those protagonists were handsome and brilliant. I just never thought of those characteristics as being requirements for popular appeal.

What do you think? Is physical beauty, in particular, central to creating an appealing main character? 

54 thoughts on “Must our heroes be handsome?

  1. Not so much handsome or beautiful, as lovable. Depends on the reader, I would think. If the main character can make me laugh and loves dogs, they’re a hero in my eyes.

    • The hero with a dog is as tropey as the cop or lawyer or PI who loves blues or jazz. We’ve seen these characters at least forty-seven times. Can’t ITW declare a binding moratorium on them, or something?

    • Sorry. They’ve got to be beautiful. In my own life, I root for attractive, cutie-pie women. I’m tired of being told that I should compromise on the looks of my protagonist. My current protagonist is 4-foot-11-inches tall and Molly Quinn- cute. She is a U.S. Marine military police officer who has been awarded the silver star because she was accidentally shoved into combat by an officer working to save a Marine company that has been caught in a firefight. She doesn’t know it at the moment, but her husband is in that company. The pick-up quick reaction team is also caught in a street fight by Taliban fighters, and she has to dive for cover in the street. The little pick.up team has three guys go down. My protagonist saves their lives at a horrible cost to herself. The horrible cost to herself wouldn’t matter if she were a plain-jane run-of-the-mill woman.

  2. I wouldn’t particularly describe a character using adjectives like handsome, pretty but let readers draw their own conclusions. What I think is most important is that the characters be gripping—their actions, words draw me in and keep me from closing the book. These actions aren’t always good or heroic but readable.

    • I agree, Melissa, which is why I was surprised that this big-time author considered those traits to be essential. But maybe I’ve been overlooking something!

  3. Interesting question.

    I think like beauty, our characters looks are in the eyes of our readers… if we do things right. We lead them into our character to get to know them, give them some sense of how the character looks, but they complete the picture in their minds. It’s their hero/heroine.

    I’ve also found that one’s idea of beauty can and does change as we get to know someone. Have you ever noticed how someone who seems plain or unattractive, becomes more attractive as you get to know them? Cool.

  4. The main character needs to be someone the reader can empathize with. Some charisma is nice, and that may be most easily done with good looks and/or extraordinary smarts.

    Of course, everyone here is either a writer or a serious reader, which makes us all outliers. If an author looks to appeal to the least common denominator, looking good may well be the way to go.

  5. I think sexy or charismatic is more important that ‘handsome’ or beautiful per se – but there does have to be some kind of chemistry that makes a reader intrigued, involved and sympathetic. A boring or bland character isn’t likely to light a book on fire:)

    • Clare said exactly what I was going to say – thanks, Clare! Charismatic, with some sex appeal. I’d also add that they should have some vulnerability and inner conflict to make them interesting and engage the readers to identify with them and start worrying about them.

  6. The one thing I rant about is that the women always seem to be stacked to the rafters. And if the blurb describes them as sexy, I often pass. (Dirk Hunter finds himself paired with the sleek sensuous smoldering Mossad agent Greta Gamut.)

    My characters are very physically attractive, but not super models. I tried to opt for a more Mulder and Scully vibe.

    In one passage he tells her (in boots and shorts) that she looks like “prepper porn star.” Her internal dialogue refers to his “absurd good looks” and wrapping her hand around a bicep with the “consistency of a fresh tennis ball.”

    But other than a few cues like that, I don’t really use many descriptors. Like Clare said, I try to go for charisma and the chemistry between them.

    We’ll see what readers think. The countdown clock is around 60 days give or take.

    Terri

  7. For me, the hero must be compelling in his presence only by his personality, not his physical description. You don’t even have to tell me what the hero looks like so long as you flesh him out nicely, and I will fall in love with him EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.

    He’s terse, he’s to the point, he knows what he wants, he wants it now, doesn’t wait for answers as he already has them. Know what I mean? He sounds a bit arrogant and impatient, but it’s what I like. I don’t want a sissy ass hero. 😀

    If I sense weakness, it’s a turn off. PERIOD.

    Looks has nothing to do with it. I’d rather not know what he looks like. Same with the female. If she has the following qualities, I like her no matter what.

    She’s intuitively keen. She’s presumptuous. She’s deceptively coy. She doesn’t take no for an answer.

    Seems a bit conflicting at times, but just a show how physical beauty can fall flat all by itself.

    • I’m the same, Diane. I like to flesh out the vision of the main character with my own imagination. What did we know about Scarlett O’hara? Not beautiful, but she had emerald green eyes, a cute nose, and the smallest waist in three counties. The rest is up to the reader.

    • True! I once read a romance where the hero had a scar or disfigurment, but he was sexy as hell. 😀 As I read, I was thinking to myself, “dayum, why couldn’t this guy be in my life?” lol

  8. Any particular reason you didn’t identify John Sandford by name as the thriller author in question? He’s said this in many public forums and settings.

  9. I’d hate to think we’re that shallow, but it may be true. It did make me think about my current WIP, which is probably short on the descriptors. Something I need to go back and work on.
    I don’t know what this might mean, it’s just an observation. Physical description is factual – tall, short, lean, muscled, blond, with a cleft chin. Our visceral reaction to those is something else. Sexy, repulsive, trustworthy, lovable etc.
    Maybe I’m saying we need to draw the picture, and let the reader react as she or he wants.

    • I tend to under-describe as well, John, possibly because I’m trying to avoid the dreaded “description dump.” I’ve actually had readers complain that I’ve given them too little of an idea about what my main character looks like.

  10. One question: Who was the Pulitzer-Prize winning author who would cough up a hairball like “the kind of man women want to sleep with and men want to be”?

    Geez, that’s like a bad Axe commercial.

  11. Attractive, yes. But likeable is more important. Why should I care about a woman who is gorgeous, rich and thin? Humanize her. As for James Bond, he’s handsome, but has his own problems — he hits the booze and had serious daddy issues with M. The male M, not Judi Dench.

  12. I find it boring when the author stacks the deck in favor of his/her heroes. Not just in terms of looks and sexiness (which should always be implied and never stated), but the enduring trope of preliminary tragedy that demands instant and unearned sympathy from the reader. This usually leads to shallow, lazy reading experiences.

    John Sandford (the thriller in author in question) transcends this because he writes sharp plots in an original prose style with a strong sense of setting. But I suspect he started out wanting to write an AutoTuned thriller series — something that slickly repackaged sales-friendly tropes. I’m glad he turned out to be better than his ambitions. I enjoy his Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers novels, but very much in spite of the panty-dropping antics of his protagonists.

  13. I think it’s almost a cliche (can’t do the accent) to make your hero or heroine super good-looking, although if the descriptions are fresh enough, and if the characters are otherwise well drawn, I suppose it does work to sell books (using Heidiger’s Balance Theory, most often used in advertising.)

    I think the best technique as far as looks are concerned is to create enough clues, but still let the reader draw his or her own conclusions or picture of the character. If the reader needs the character to be good looking, too, then the reader will create that type of picture, and you’ll still sell books.

    • Oh sure, make me run to Wikipedia to look up Balance Theory!
      “Balance Theory is a motivational theory of attitude change, proposed by Fritz Heider. It conceptualizes the cognitive consistency motive as a drive toward psychological balance. The consistency motive is the urge to maintain one’s values and beliefs over time. Heider proposed that “sentiment” or liking relationships are balanced if the affect valence in a system multiplies out to a positive result.”
      I’m not too sure what that means, but I’ll assume it means being beautiful can’t hurt! 😉

  14. I agree with most of these comments. It’s first of all sad to think that only “handsome” and “beautiful” sell books. I have to wonder if this is really true.

    What about Lisbeth in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and her cohort, Michael? Neither would be considered beautiful or handsome.

    How about Miss Marple? or Sherlock Holmes? OK, they weren’t thrillers, but still. . .

    To me what makes the characters appealing is not the looks, but their 1) believability 2) competence–I always like it when they seem smart enough to get out of whatever jam the author puts them in 3) compassion.

    I don’t like many of the contemporary writers of thriller fiction because their characters are so cardboard. The stories are plot driven, and characterization seems to get lost in the shuffle. Is that what readers want? I don’t think so. . .

    • I really don’t know. Michael Crichton was accused of writing cardboard characters, yet readers gobbled up his stories, because they were so intriguing.

  15. This logic leads down a path of boring cookie cutter characters. If we follow this logic that only stereotypically attractive characters can sell lots of books, then we’d also eliminate gay characters, minorities, handicapped characters, etc. etc. Anyone who might challenge a reader’s prejudices or make them feel uncomfortable. Personally, that’s not the kind of world I want to depict or the kind or writer i want to be.

  16. Funny, my favorite mystery antagonist right now is hairy, slobbers, has trouble paying attention, rarely understands exactly what’s going on – oh, and has four legs, a tail and quite an appetite. He’s Chet the canine star of Spencer Quinn’s “Chet and Bernie” series. The stories are all told from the canine’s POV. But even his “partner,” private detective Bernie Little, is kind of a lovable loser, who could be more successful if he didn’t have such high standards, is often on the edge of financial disaster because of questionable investments (pants made of Hawaiian shirt material?) has thinning hair (except on his back!) sometimes drinks too much, and is rumpled and shambling. But 10 minutes with him and you know – as Chet does – that Bernie’s one of the good guys, and usually “the smartest guy in the room.” But as good as Bernie is, he still needs Chet to help bail him out of the tough cases. Quinn (a pseudonym) just nails the dog, I’ve never seen a dog written better.

  17. Kathryn–
    There’s not much left to say, but when did that ever stop me? As someone has already noted, given a few well-chosen details, the reader will flesh out the character. But it’s useful to remember that most stories–in part or in whole–serve as wish fulfillment. Almost none of the pedestrian aspects of daily life figure, etc. Who wants to read about doing laundry, or edging the grass? Sex is a perfect example: it’s usually presented in a way–and in a quantity–that has almost nothing to do with most readers’ experience. And this is exactly why readers like ideal sex, beautiful, invulnerable characters, etc.

  18. For my male characters I imagine myself with six pack abs, well defined musculature, 15% body-fat and only one chin. Then write that character as if he realizes he will look like the real me as soon as the story ends, so he must keep moving and marry the girl, because he won’t get a second chance to impress another lady that both looks that nice and is not crazy.

    As for the ladies, at risk of having my eyes scratched out, I pick from ladies I actually know and either write them as they are or make an amalgam of traits the particular character needs. I really try not to make the leading ladies too hot, but have to say, I honestly know some really amazingly beautiful women.

    That’s my preference in reading as well, imperfect characters who wish they were perfect, but realize they’re not. Although some are pretty hard core.

  19. Halloo.

    This is Boffin, Basil’s staff assistant in charge of things he don’t always realise he needs. He left his computer on this page after his comment and upon reading your article, Lady Kathryn, my brother Fillii and I thought it wise to define the kind of “Hot Woman” we’d like to see more of in books. So here’s a list that you should all consider when creating the ideal “Hot Woman” for your books.

    Height:
    2ft 8in – 3ft 6in

    Weight:
    10 – 12 stone

    Hair:
    Yes

    Eyes:
    Yes

    Face:
    Round like the moon with a nose for nuzzling, lips for kissing, and beard optional

    Hands:
    Yes, and strong enough to milk both cow and goat, and carry said milk via bucket to house

    Breasts:
    Sufficient for the leanbh, er, babies, but not so dimensional as to be top heavy

    Waist:
    Yes

    Hips & Bum:
    Yes, else how would she sit?

    Legs:
    Yes. See entry on hands for requirements.

    Well, that about sums it up I think. If you want to put the perfect, hot and sexy woman in your books, this here’s the definition of perfect.

    Wait, Fillii just pointed something out to me. How could I have forgotten?

    Feet:
    Ah the feet, she must have the perfect for the type of shoes we like to make, size 9 -13, and not too hairy, although there must be some.

  20. I think genre plays a role in these considerations. If I am reading paranormal romance, for example, I want a hunk hero. If it’s a heartwarming contemporary romance, a sensitive guy is more important. As for my mystery protags, the men have to be good looking but can have some uneven features. Their appeal comes from their overall package, including their admiration for the heroine.

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