Why We, As Readers, Love Imperfect Heroes

At Sunday dinner with my family this past weekend the conversation somehow veered into a discussion on the Romance Industry. This isn't a typical topic for us, and though my family knows I read and review romance novels, they've never actually asked me any questions about the genre before. We got to discussing sub-genres and niches when I mentioned a question that I recently posed to a bestselling historical romance author which had really upset me at the time. I asked the author if she ever had or would consider writing a plus-size heroine, as the average dress size of the American Woman is a 14. Her response was something along the lines of “I'd love to but I don't think publishers would go for it”. My brother pondered that for a minute and responded that to a certain extent it made sense because people often look to romance novels for characters who represent ideals. But in my experience, the opposite is true.

A few months ago I read a romance novel that featured amazing chemistry between the lovers and phenomenal sex scenes but that, despite my best efforts, I just couldn't love. The reason? The hero and heroine were both extremely successful, confident, outgoing and the epitome of socially dictated physical perfection – and utterly boring. There was no level on which I could connect with these characters. They had no flaws or insecurities that I could sympathize with, no quirks I could admire. They just weren't relatable, and that emotional distance from the characters kept me from enjoying the novel as much as I otherwise would have. I mean, the book was hot as hell but I couldn't bring myself to read the next story in the series because I knew it would just be more of the same.

Perfect heroes are boring. I think it's because as a society we're preconditioned to believe that good, beautiful boys and girls will always find love. It feels like a given. It's those stories where the unconventional happens – the wallflower gets the rake, the soldier with PTSD finds the woman who soothes his demons – that have a bit of the miraculous in them. We want to see those damaged, vulnerable characters who have overcome adversity find their soulmates. Because if they can, then maybe we can believe that loves is out there for our less-than-perfect selves.

One of the historical romances I always seem to come back to is The Perfect Wife by Lynsay Sands. In it, Avelyn, a sweet-tempered and voluptuously curved Lady, is arranged to marry a warrior she has never met before. She has spent her whole life being insulted and called fat by her cousins and is ashamed of her size – to the point where she faints at her wedding feast from a too-tight corset. But those things which Avelyn sees as failings are what her husband loves most. He has always longed for a soft, curvy wife to keep him warm at night and be his respite from a hard, battle-worn existence. It's her perceived flaws that make her absolutely perfect for him. Those are the kinds of romances I love to read. Where the hero and heroine are far from flawless, but they complement and improve each other in ways that makes them a perfect match.

As much as I can understand the theory that people love to read about idealistic characters for aspirational purposes, it just doesn't hold up in practice. We like to route for the underdog and find bits of ourselves in the stories we read. We feel the most when we can latch on to a character's insecurity or personal experience and sink right into their place in the novel. Characters don't have to be just like us to share that connection, they just have to seem human. You can keep your embodiments of social ideals, because the imperfect heroes will always have my heart.

Do you look to romance novels for flawless figures or do you prefer characters with some faults and complexities? Who are some of your favorite flawed heroes? Does the industry's stance on plus-size heroines bother anyone else? I'd love to hear from you.


  1. I love love love romance novels with imperfect heroes, plus-sized heroines, not stunningly beautiful heroines, and spinsters, bluestockings, and other odd ducks. You have two of my favorites in your image montage--Romancing Mr. Bridgerton, A Devil in Winter--but I also love:

    * Nine rules to break when romancing a rake (curvy heroine)
    * To charm a naughty countess (hero with asperger's)
    * Scandal (by Carolyn Jewel--heroine is not conventionally attractive)

    So many great stories.

    1. Same here! I think I have Scandal on my TBR pile as well!