I love the tale of Beauty & the Beast except for one thing: when the beast turns into a wimpy little pretty boy prince at the end.
The thing is, I liked reading about a dark, physically unappealing man and how he woos his lady love. She doesn’t have to be a beauty either. In fact, I’ve noticed that making heroines “plain” or “not beautiful” by society standards is quite common but how often do we have plain or downright ugly heroes? Not often at all, and my recent reading and conversations with Mandi here at Smexy have inspired me to write about my love of the ugly hero.
Once she’d thought he was ugly; he still was ugly, she supposed. She just didn’t give a shit. He was who he was, and her heart fluttered in her chest and wouldn’t stop.
That is a quote from the Downside series by Stacia Kane, the heroine talking about Terrible – a mutton chop and pomade hairdo, scarred, huge, incredibly ugly man who is also the head enforcer/security/leg breaker and money collector for her drug dealer. When I started this series, I was excited to see an unattractive man as the clear hero of the piece. It’s hard not to love Terrible as you spend time with him in this series. While I think he deserves better (let’s not even get into that!) – it’s great just to see him there. A big ‘ol ugly lump of a man that would make most women scream and run in the opposite direction should they come across him.
I understand the appeal of the handsome man, the beautifully sculpted, perfectly toned, hero. Some of my favorite characters are indeed handsome. Here’s the thing though, recently I’ve read a number of books both historical and contemporary where the hero’s dreaminess is his best quality, what defines him. He doesn’t have to work hard, he doesn’t have to make us swoon with his actions because he is a hunk, and that’s all he needs to do. I’ve known men like this in real life, and while they might take your breath away at first, once you talk to them, get to know them, one of two things happen. Either they are 100% studly and their appeal increases, or more likely, the shine wears off. Getting to know or sometimes simply hearing him talk makes him less attractive, more flawed, not as appealing.
That’s why I am writing today, to give three cheers to the ugly hero.
I have limits on my ugly hero love. I’m not talking about the potato chip eating pot bellied couch potato hero here. I’m talking about the man who has had life kick his ass, the man who was not handed the golden ticket of good looks, the hard working man, and the man who’s actions and personality end up making him more handsome as you get to know him.
One of my all time favorites is the Marquis of Dain (Sebastian) from Lord Of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase. Here is a quote from the prologue:
His mother had bought him a number of handsome picture books. None of the people in the books looked anything like him – except for a hook-nosed, humpbacked devil’s imp who perched on little Tommy’s shoulder and tricked him into doing wicked things.
Teased and alone, Dain goes from crying boy to bully and never looks back. He laughs everything off and lets no one near, until a slip of an English bluestocking captures his attention. Here’s from their first meeting:
Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed his reflection in the glass.
His dark face was harsh and hard, the face of Beelzebub himself. In Dain’s case, the book could be judged accurately by the cover, for he was dark and hard inside as well. He was a Dartmoor soul, where the wind blew fierce and the rain beat down upon grim, grey rocks, and where the pretty green patches of ground turned out to be mires that could suck down an ox.
Anyone with half a brain could see the signs posted: “ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE” or, more to the point, “DANGER, QUICKSAND”
Equally to the point, the creature before him was a lady, and no signs had to be posted about her to warn him off. Ladies, in his dictionary, were listed under Plague, Pestilence, and Famine.
He was Lord Beelzebub, wasn’t he? She was supposed to faint, or recoil in horrified revulsion at the very least. Yet she had gazed at him as bold as brass, and it had seemed for a moment as though the creature were actually flirting with him.
Jessica is utterly in lust with Dain at first sight. His large muscular body makes her dizzy with wanting him, and she never once thinks him ugly. What is interesting in this book is that I believe he grew out of his “ugly duckling” phase but he never realized it, and by only living a life of ruin, of being with whores only, of having no expectation and such low self esteem he keeps himself safe from attachments or emotional pain. Here’s another quote for you:
Sweet, was he? He was a gross, disgusting pig of a debauchee, and if she thought she’d get off with merely one repellent peck of his polluted lips, she had another thing coming.
There was nothing sweet or chivalrous about his kiss. It was a hard, brazen, take-no-prisoners assault that drove her head back.
For one terrifying moment, he wondered if he’d broken her neck.
But she couldn’t be dead, because she was still flailing at him and squirming. He wrapped one arm tightly about her waist and brought the other hand up to hold her head firmly in place.
Instantly she stopped squirming and flailing. And in that instant her tightly compressed lips yielded to his assault with a suddenness that made him stagger backward, into the lamppost.
Her arms lashed about his neck in a stranglehold.
Madonna in cielo.
Sweet mother of Jesus, the demented female was kissing him back.
He has no idea what to do with Jessica’s interest, or his response to her. It makes him howl like a beast and to see him come around and get to a place of happiness in his life – well it makes this one of my all time favorites that’s for sure.
In romantic suspense it isn’t uncommon to have a military leading man with some kind of huge scar, a missing hand or foot, or some other visible reminder of the heroic life he’s led. That said, usually the man is also deadly handsome and has the heroine instantly. In Cindy Gerard’s BOI series (which I highly recommend) more than once a female meeting the BOIs comments that you must have to be incredibly good looking to be on the team. I wish she’d put a tall, dark, and ugly man on the roster.
In contemporary romance I can think of a number of romances where the man is nerdy or brainy, but he’s still always attractive. Likewise I can think of the dark brooding hero who is good looking but scary or off-putting in some way.
There is another favorite book of mine with a very ugly – actually he’s missing an eyeball and makes children scream so he avoids everyone and anyone- hero. It’s To Beguile a Beast by Elizabeth Hoyt, and here’s a scene where the heroine and her kids meet the man who they hope will employ her (as a housekeeper) and keep her hidden from the man (she’s a mistress) who is threatening her.
At that moment, lightning forked across the sky, close and amazingly bright. It lit the man and his familiar as if he was on a stage. The beast was tall and gray and lean, with gleaming black eyes. The man was even worse. Black, lank hair fell in tangles to his shoulders. He wore old breeches, gaiters, and a rough coat better suited for the rubbish heap. One side of his stubbled face was twisted with red angry scars. A single light brown eye reflected the lightning at them diabolically.
Most horrible of all, there was only a sunken pit where his left eye should have been.
Perhaps what I love most about the ugly hero is not only that it gives me a break from the physically perfect people, but it forces the author to explain more why there is such a true love connection here. It requires great character development and showing us little details over time on why he’s not so bad, in fact why once you get to know him he’s downright loveable.
Is it because I like to root for the underdog? Because I want to see more inner beauty? Or am I just twisted? It’s probably a little of all of the above, but I do love an ugly leading man. I would really like to see more of them, as well as an actual UGLY (not just plain) heroine now and again. I know it’s fiction and all that, but I will always love a well done ugly character more than the perfection of the pretty face and every girl’s dream kind of man.