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What Makes a Sexy Fictional Hero?

This post is a bit of fun.  Do not even think about taking it seriously.

When I first had the idea of writing about sexy fictional heroes, I was concerned that it might appear frivolous.  So I took one of my regular soundings on Twitter and got a response that was, well, enthusiastic to say the least (in fact it was described by one person as ‘necessary’.)  Then I asked for nominations and things began to get interesting.

But why was I thinking about this in the first place?  Well, last week I was taking stock of the second manuscript which I started in April and found I’d written almost 25,000 words.  This came as a nice surprise as it’s been a very frustrating year for me as a writer (albeit a great one as a blogger!)  The idea grew from something I witnessed in the south of France several years ago; I can’t remember exactly when, and it was over in about 30 seconds.  It’s an image that hasn’t left my mind, and I’m excited that it seems well on the way to becoming a novel.

One of the two main characters is a man (I’ll call him B) and writing him has already led me into some fascinating new territory and to consider aspects of maleness I’d never thought about before even though in my own life I am surrounded by men/boys.  I’ve long been interested in authors who write across gender (my perception is that women writing men is more common, and dare I say, often more successful than the opposite) and the fact that many of them say that the real challenge lay not in writing as the opposite sex, but in some other aspect of the character. So far, I agree with this.

Although this isn’t the tricky part about my character B either (I’m not saying what is!), people are attracted to him and this means I have recently spent a lot of time contemplating what makes a fictional hero sexy and/or attractive (not always the same thing), both within the story itself and to readers and viewers.  I automatically found myself including protagonists of film, TV and drama too even though the issue is clearly somewhat different.  Assuming that not many people sit around reading plays or scripts, those characters exist primarily as represented by actors, whereas with the written word readers conjure up their own vivid pictures of what a character is like which strongly influences their response.  This is why casting film adaptations is so difficult – how many times have you seen ‘the film of the book’ and been disappointed because the actor was nothing like you imagined?

I envy film directors because a good actor can convey so much with body language, facial expressions, gestures… if an actor raises his eyebrows on screen, chances are you immediately get whether it is suggestive, ironic, complicit, in shock, surprise, disapproval.  It is much harder to achieve the same with words without appearing laboured or overwritten.  If I’ve seen a film or TV adaptation of a book, I find it very hard to disassociate the character from the actor’s performance, and judging by the nominations I received for gorgeous literary heroes, I’m not alone in this.

The usual suspects fared well: Mr Darcy, Gatsby, Hamlet (David Tennant was mentioned, although I can only ever think of Ralph Fiennes who I saw 17 years ago at the Hackney Empire), Heathcliff.  Thomas Hardy did well too with Gabriel Oak and Sergeant Troy (Terence Stamp).  Perhaps the most original nomination was Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab as played by Gregory Peck.

Strangely, Christian Grey failed to get a single mention…

I hope nobody is analysing this because the results would probably be deeply worrying but my idea of an attractive hero could be summed up by the formula ‘sexy but vulnerable and/or emotionally repressed and/or psychotic’.  My choices as influenced by actors would be  John Thornton in North and South played by Richard Armitage, Vincent Cassell in the title role as the terrorist Mesrine and James Franco as Allen Ginsberg in Howl (both bio-pics but let’s not split hairs).  On the stage, Damian Lewis, the star of Homeland was irresistible in a contemporary production of Molière’s Misanthropist and Zach Braff was all of the above in his own play All New People.  If I had to pick one, it’d be him.

I actually found it really difficult to come up with hot literary characters not linked to films.  Attilius from Robert Harris’s Pompeii; Deranged musician Eden Bellwether from The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood; Mike Schwartz from Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding.  Completely inexplicably (as is often the way), I liked Hawthorn of Keith Ridgway’s cult detective novel Hawthorn & Child, who is gay.

So who are your hot heroes/heroines of the page and screen?  In a novel, do you want to be told what they look like or would you rather imagine?  I enjoy writing dialogue above all and I’m always being told to give more visuals, yet I approach this with caution because to me ‘shopping-list’ style physical descriptions of characters scream bad writing.  Are you attracted to the same kind of people in fiction as in real life?  (I’m happy to say that only the handsome bit is true of my husband!)

You don’t have to answer any of these questions, of course, but it would be great if some of you did…

Thanks to Janet O’Kane, Helen MacKinven, Denise Meredith, Fiona Melrose, Miranda France, David J Burns and Susan Elliott-Wright for being good sports and a bad influence.

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


22 thoughts on “What Makes a Sexy Fictional Hero?

  1. Great fun post to brighten up a dreich winter’s night with thoughts of sexy men! The first fictional hero that springs to mind is Jackson Brodie from Kate Atkinson’s series. I love her writing and think she has the combo just right, as you say “sexy but vulnerable”. I didn’t watch the TV adaption (I’d been pre-warned that the Scottish accents were dire and it put me off) so I’m not sure if Jason Isaacs nailed the character but he certainly has the good looks 🙂

    Posted by helenmackinven | November 19, 2012, 18:18
  2. Mr Rochester…..

    Posted by voulagrand | November 19, 2012, 18:40
  3. I know you’ve mentioned the likes of Hardy and Melville above but do you think male authors can write a ‘sexy’ fictional hero who appeals to women as effectively as female writers can (thinking about how enduring D’Arcy, Heathcliffe, Mr Rochester and so on have become)? I’m not sure men can easily see what it is that women find attractive about them — especially the cads or brooders.

    I’m writing a novel which uses the POV of both the main male and female characters so cross-gender writing is a also a fascinating subject for me. As the two form a relationship, I clearly have to try and make the man look attractive from the POV of the woman. However, as the novel is set close to the present day, he can’t be a modern day brooding bastard — in fact he’s very conscious of treating women equally and decently and he’s surrounded by strong female characters who almost leave him in their shadow in career terms and in achieving what they want. However, I do wonder whether, by portraying him as a man-of-his-times then he might be seen by women readers as a well-intentioned wimp.

    I do have him beat up sleazy guy as a bit of an insurance policy.

    Interesting point about whether men or women are better at cross-gender writing. From my experience in creative writing groups and classes, women seem to succeed because they’re not daunted by it. Men always seem to feel (or perhaps be encouraged to feel) self-conscious about it.

    Posted by MIke Clarke | November 19, 2012, 20:30
    • Hi Mike
      I’m glad you found the post interesting and thanks for the great comment. I’ve just been looking at your blog and I saw that like me you were at York and unlike me you have (or soon will) an MA so I doubt I can tell you anything you haven’t heard before from more authoritative sources although I’m flattered that you would ask my opinion! Nobody can speak on behalf of male or female writers or readers en masse and I’m well aware that, tongue in cheek aside, my own views of what makes a sexy hero play to many of the stereotypes about what female readers like, but that’s just how it is. I think it is totally possible that a male writer could achieve what you are aiming for. I always think the key to good characterization is complexity and people not being quite who they initially seem. You seem to be concerned about ‘nice guys finish last’ syndrome – just don’t make him too nice would be my feeling. Have him do something out of character. Have you read Murakami’s Norwegian Wood? I think Watanabe is a fantastic example of a good guy who gets involved in some very complex relationships and dilemmas. Above all, get plenty of women to read it – I’d be happy to read a sample chapter if you like.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 19, 2012, 22:49
  4. “If I loved you less I might be able to talk about it more, but you know what I am.” I think Mr Knightley falls into your strong but vulnerable category. I don’t think Jane Austen does much in the way of physical description bar tall or ‘fine figure’. He’s late thirties, has apparently had no female action and is prepared to move in with sickly father-in-law. But he is so sexy.

    Posted by Janet Brewer | November 19, 2012, 23:21
  5. Isabel, thanks for the reply. I think you’d be surprised that what women might consider stereotypes of male heroes are probably not as obvious to men as you might think — perhaps that’s because women are arguably less transparent then men?

    I’ve not read the Murakami book but I’ll look out for it.

    My male character gets involved in plenty of dilemmas too. I’d love to send you a chapter but I’m not sure how — iI couldn’t find an e-mail address on here but you should be able to DM me on twitter with one and I have a contact mail address on my blog somewhere.

    I agree about having plenty of women read the material — one of the big benefits of doing the MA (and other courses) is that I’ve had plenty of feedback — and a lot from women too. I can’t remember any of them saying they found my character ravishingly attractive though ;-).

    Posted by MIke Clarke | November 20, 2012, 00:13
  6. I endorse the suggestions of Mr Rochester and Jackson Brodie, and I recall from early reading that the first character to register on the ‘attractive scale’ was Jem in Jamaica Inn, largely on the strength of a description of his hands(!). In her early novels Barabara Kingsolver has some very appealing strong, monosyllabic types who know lots of things about nature and are good with solving practical problems. Rather like in life, seeing a man doing something he’s good at goes a long way!

    (I think you have to be careful with Damien Lewis, he managed to make Soames Forsyte attractive on TV – a very different proposition to Eric Porter playing the same role in the 1960s!)

    Posted by rowena | November 20, 2012, 08:12
    • Some more brilliant suggestions, thanks Rowena! You’re tapping into something that runs very deep with the strong, silent, capable type. And your comment re Damian Lewis made me laugh – you’re absolutely right of course that some actors (and all the ones I mentioned) make any character they play attractive!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 20, 2012, 10:09
  7. I’ve always fancied the pants off Mr Rochester, he’s so … thrilling isn’t he? Not so crazy about Heathcliff, he’s too scary. I thought Timothy Dalton was a brilliant Rochester on the BBC years back, I have it on DVD, I think it’s the best Jane Eyre adaptation. I love many of the male characters in Joyce Carol Oates’s work, although often they are violent and/or screwed up, but somehow attractive too … she does the vulnerability thing so well. In my WIP I have a “love interest” male character and I fancy him like mad! I think you have to fall in love with your creations in order to convince the reader that they should too 🙂

    Posted by Louise | November 20, 2012, 10:36
  8. Hi Isabel, As you know what a fan I am of Jane Austen, I heartily second and third the suggestions regarding Darcy and Knightley, and I would add Captain Frederick Wentworth to this list as well from Persuasion. I do also wholeheartedly agree with Rochester. These characters are all men with a strong sense of themselves but they’re very gentle as well (that strong but vulnerable quality already mentioned). I’ve been trying to think of others that I’ve found attractive from the books alone, without movie intervention, and it’s difficult. Have to admit, I’m quite fond of Inspector Morse, as played by John Thaw. Love the hard edges with the intelligence, love of music, and warm heart underneath.

    Posted by Kristin | November 20, 2012, 11:50
    • Hooray, the older man makes an entrance! I’m sure many would agree with you about John Thaw playing Morse. Laurence Fox as Hathaway in ‘Lewis’ has many of the same qualities – it’s so clever how they turned it on its head when Lewis took over as the boss.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 20, 2012, 15:03
  9. I’ve read so many books and no doubt fallen in lust with many of the leading men within, yet there are no ‘obvious’ sexy heroes come to mind. or, more likely, too *many* obvious ones occur. ‘Rebecca’ for example, is one of my favourite books and a romantic classic, but while it may be customary to fall for Maxim de Winter and his steely demeanour, finding something beautiful in his emotional unavailability and haunted grief, I felt nothing for him. Maxim is boring, stilted and unromantic. I imagine he may be a ‘goer’ in the sheets,but I doubt I’d have let Maxim even get me to the third step on the staircase, so bad was his patter. No, I much preferred Jack Favell, the rude, breezy cousin – right up until the last few pages, at least, where Daphne du Maurier throws his sexiness under the bus by making him sound whiny and cheap. Shame.

    On, then, to Wuthering Heights, another favourite. I guess I’m supposed to be mad for the wild man of the moors Heathcliff, but imagine the dirt under his fingernails! His predilection for beating up anyone who came within 10 feet of him also ruined him for me. Hareton Earnshaw is very much suggested to be a great big hunk of hormones, with zero between his ears but plenty between his legs, but a roll in the cattleshed with Hareton wouldn’t satisfy for long – best left to fantasy.

    An unlikely candidate is next. Unlikely because he’s a borderline sadist with a heroin addiction, but there was little to beat those early ’90s frissons you got from reading a passage from Trainspotting which featured Sick Boy. His portrayal by Jonny Lee Miller in the movie no doubt helped, but there was ‘something’ about the self-destructive pstcho who looked like an angel which couldn’t be bottled. As charming as Mr Darcy and as dangerous as Patrick Bateman, Sick Boy really was the worst of both worlds.

    Posted by The Guyliner | November 20, 2012, 15:38
    • Thanks for responding so speedily to my personal invitation to comment on this most ‘necessary’ subject. I felt the world needed to hear your take on this and look, I was right! Although, considering around 10 minutes elapsed between you telling me you’d never thought about it and posting this comment, I am not entirely sure I believe you! Anyone who doesn’t read Guyliner’s blog yet, do. One of my absolute favourites.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 20, 2012, 18:54
      • Ha, I swear it was utterly off the cuff!

        How else would I have missed out the dreamy desperation of the wretched Julien Sorel from Le Rouge et le Noir, or poor, self-absorbed, yet tragically beautiful, Pip from Great Expectations – both idiots doing their level best to raise the temperatures in books steeped in eternal chill and angst. What dolts they were. How hot they were. Call me a cliché, but I can’t resist a screw-up. Barrel-chestedness not necessary.

        Thank you very much for the kind words about the blog. I do try.

        Posted by The Guyliner | November 20, 2012, 22:41
  10. I think a description of a ‘sexy’ hero is less important than writing what he does, thinks, imagines. i’ve read many many books (literary and commercial) with many many sexy heros but Rhett Butler still comes to mind. He’s a classic ‘sexy hero’ to me in that he’s handsome and devil-may-care at first, but then he begins to really care about others, and that’s when the sexy hits in.

    Posted by roughwighting | November 24, 2012, 17:34


  1. Pingback: Things I hate about my writing and other people’s | Isabel Costello - April 26, 2013

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