He’d been on the acting scene for more than ten years before it was released, but I would hazard a guess you’d never heard of Colin Firth until he played Mr Darcy in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. And then, suddenly, he was the nation’s heart-throb.
Colin Firth hadn’t changed. He’d become better-known, but that’s all, and that isn’t enough to explain why pulses raced for him in Pride and Prejudice but not, say, Circle of Friends. The truth is (vast overgeneralisation alert), we ladies might like looks, but we fall for personality. And most of those women fell for Mr Darcy, not Colin Firth. They just weren’t very good at noticing the difference and now Firth can command a higher salary and expect much better audience figures as a result.
For the record, I’m not a fan. The man can act – I thoroughly enjoyed The King’s Speech, for example – I just don’t find him swoon-worthy. But then I will completely admit that my John Hannah crush is as much to do with Matthew from 4 Weddings and A Funeral and James from Sliding Doors as the man himself.
So what’s this got to do with writing?
Well, two things, one directly relevant, one more tangential. First, when writing romantic heroes, it’s worth bearing in mind that the reader doesn’t need Mr Drop-Dead Gorgeous as the male protagonist. You can afford to make the guy average-looking, even physically flawed (see Mr Rochester), because your female protagonist and your readers need to fall in love with him for what he does and says, not just what he looks like.
The second point is about character in general. It’s easy to spot the writers who have spent a long time on physical checklists. They tell you everything they can about a person’s appearance. It’s the same with non-people characters – the places and organisations that populate a story – and for which these writers like to give endless and careful details in every description.
But at the end of the day, what makes for good writing is the substance of the characters, of the places and of the plot. The reason we read on, and come back, and recommend the book to a friend, is what everyone does and how they make us feel.
Whether they are romantic heroes or not, have us fall in love with your characters for their brilliant, uncomfortable, noble personalities, even if we think they look good in a wet t-shirt.