Posted On September 6, 2017 by Print This Post

Putting Meat on the Bones of your Heroes by Tessa Shapcott

Welcome back to Tessa Shapcott as she tells us how to turn a typical male character into a NOT so typical character your readers will love!

Tessa ShapcottWhat makes the ideal romantic hero? We all have our personal favourites from novels we’ve read and loved. But there is a general archetype that’s accepted throughout fiction.  He’s the man who stands alone and head and shoulders above the rest.  He doesn’t necessarily live his life by norms or conventions and, if he’s a Bad Boy, may be rejected by society himself.  He’s definitely complex. He has his own code of honour, a power, an ability to lead when it counts, but is also often flawed too: arrogant, introspective, having demons on his shoulder or a dark secret in his past.  But, ultimately, he’s redeemable. It also helps that he’s a wonderful lover too―both physically and emotionally!

However, one of the commonest issues I encounter when working with aspiring romance writers, and sometimes, published authors, is that despite all this rich material, their lead male characters can appear two-dimensional on the page.  Indeed, the more niche the genre (for example, alpha males, historical, western or medical romance), the more of a cardboard cut-out the hero is likely to be.

Of course, one reason behind this is that these male characters are archetypes; a model of maleness, which gives them their heroic attributes. However, it can be too easy to take the accepted traits and turn them into a shorthand, which short-changes their characterisation.  I hear writers say, “Well, that’s what my hero is:  he’s A, B and C,” without thinking to delve behind the reasons why.

So, here are a few tips from me about putting some flesh onto the bones of your particular hero to give him the weight and extra dimensions that will really make him resonate with readers.

  • Give him a meaty back story to chew on. He needs a past, a story for his individual, self-assembled values and the path he’s chosen to hew in life.  It may have dark elements and a strong emotional influence, or have included a life-changing event.  Whatever, it informs everything he does in the present, including the code of behaviour he’s built for himself and how he handles relationships.
  • Be sure of his motivations. When he acts, always give him reasons which transcend his archetypal characteristics.  For example, if he is the lonesome cowboy who is a bit ornery and chooses not mix with the townspeople more than he has to, show the reader why―what is his rationale for being Mr Grumpy and keeping himself to himself? Or if he’s the dynamic alpha male businessman and apparently a little ruthless to boot, collect the influences and conclusions that have led him to always go and get what he wants.  Again, whatever his shtick, his code of ethics will be very important here, and it’s up to the writer to show that his reputation may well be unfair or even unfounded, and that there’s a set of honourable motivations and a heart of gold beating underneath.
  • Challenge him with conflicting emotions. If he is that loner, does another part of him long for an emotional connection, only he’s convinced himself that it will only end in tears? What will you give him to deal with in the story that arouses unfamiliar or unwanted feelings that force him to review his outlook or change his modus operandi?  There has to be an inciting incident at that start of your novel that stops him up short, and it usually has to do with the heroine―or it brings him into contact with her―and then a whole set of dilemmas that will take him on a ride through emotional rapids and into uncharted waters.
  • Let him grow. He may start out brooding and alone, but by the end of his journey, he needs to have discovered, or re-discovered another, better, more loving side of himself, and have developed as a person and a partner.  His founding heroic traits will still be much in evidence―he may even have strengthened them during events on his journey―but there should be even more to his character than when he set forth.
  • Your heroine is key. She represents the emotions he cannot show, face or deal with.

She’s the one person who challenges him, even confronts him and his flaws, but because of the growing physical and emotional bond between her and him, he’s prepared at some level to listen and gradually let her in.  She nurtures him too, which maybe he hasn’t had enough of.  She acts as his catalyst.

  • Fall in love with him yourself! You want your readers to tumble head-over-heels for him, so discover what it is in him that you find irresistible and makes you go weak at the knees. It won’t just be a set of archetypal traits, but character facets that make you laugh, cry, occasionally yell and certainly never forget him.
  • Think of your favourite literary heroes. Who was the guy who really caught your eye, and why! You may have to go back to novels you read in your teens (always good, because it’s like re-discovering a first love and brings into sharp focus what spoke to you). Take that man and break him down via back story, motivation, emotional conflict, character development, the heroine’s influence and that special something that made you adore him.


We’d love to hear who your all-time favourite hero is and why!  Share with us in a post, below.

Join us on Friday for Damon Suede!


Bio: Tessa Shapcott is a freelance editor and writer.  Contact her at  She also writes romance fiction as Joanne Walsh.

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8 Responses to “Putting Meat on the Bones of your Heroes by Tessa Shapcott”

  1. A timely post. I was told my hero is a bastard, pure and simple at the beginning of the book. I hope I have made him something else by the end. Due to upload soon, guess I will find out.

    Posted by Barbara | September 6, 2017, 7:59 am
  2. I think my hero meets all these criteria, but he sometimes seems a little TOO introspective, a little TOO protective of his heart, a little too haunted by his past. Is there any way to tell? I don’t want a woosie hero!

    Posted by Kathleen Day | September 6, 2017, 8:36 am
  3. This is a great post. Some of my fave heroes if I think back to my teens…

    Michael Sky from Sooner or Later. He swept Jessie right off of her feet.

    Royce of Wyndhurst from Hearts Aflame. He was very alpha but had a tender side to him. The man adored his little sister and hated that she feared him. He went over backwards to put her at ease.

    Chandos from A Heart So Wild. A loner, ornery, sullen, raging inside with anger over what happened to his little sister and mother. He had a great backstory hiding inside of him that was revealed little by little.

    Posted by Mercy | September 6, 2017, 10:36 am
  4. This is a good post for me now. Our RWA chapter just had a speaker on beta heroes, and I seem to always write them. Just because he isn’t the alpha many expect the hero of your story to be doesn’t mean he can’t be the best hero in my story, and he needs to have a rich backstory.
    Betas are more likely to be our real life heroes.
    I know, I am about to celebrate 51 years with my own beta hero!

    Posted by Sherrill Lee | September 6, 2017, 10:56 am
  5. I’ve felt for years that the unbeatable combination for a hero is strength (maybe with a touch of danger) coupled with vulnerability. You get that with all the classic heroes and any James Dean or early Marlon Brando depiction. Even Rhett Butler shows himself vulnerable when he becomes a father. I’m working hard to give my WIP hero this combo. This post was very insightful and useful. Thanks

    Posted by Ruchama Burrell | September 6, 2017, 5:37 pm
  6. My favorite heroes? Roarke from the Eve Dallas series…Ruark from Shanna by Kathleen Woodiwiss…Nicholas Stafford from A Knight in Shining Armor by Jude Deveraux.

    Lol…and now I’m going to have to go re-read those last two for the umpteenth time!

    Thanks Tessa!


    Posted by Carrie Peters | September 6, 2017, 10:08 pm

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