“His cheekbones were high and stark, and somehow this made his gaze seem more potent, as though he were calmly viewing a siege from the crenelations of a castle. His eyes were a shade darker than whiskey. Not a safe face. And not a face one could get accustomed to in a glance. Three or four or fifteen more glances of the lingering sort, perhaps.”— How the Marquess Was Won by Julie Anne Long

It’s a difficult thing to describe the hero of a romance. As I mentioned in my last column, the covers often cut the model off at the neck so there’s no face to contradict the reader’s imagination. But even with the headless covers, there’s always a description.

All too often, much to my dismay, the same terms are used. Here’s a quick list of descriptions most commonly found in romances to describe the hero.

Hair: Often too long, unkempt, rebellious of current fashion and unwilling to be tamed. Like the hero himself, I bet!

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Cheekbones: Sharp! Defined! Dangerous! Perhaps even elegant. A firm structure beneath the soft skin of his face.

Eyes: Often glaring or glinting with something. Sometimes described as hard, and often a shade of gray.

Nose: Roman or patrician. Maybe broken or imperfect.

Mouth: Ah, a thousand words can be used on the hero’s mouth. Firm, hard, uncompromising—until there’s kissing. Then it’s a wonderland of soft and seductive temptation.

Now some or all of these can be used effectively, as with the Long quote above—she starts out with stereotypical cheekbones, but then uses a description that’s memorable: women have to keep looking at the hero’s face to get used to it. Her description creates lots of room for the reader’s imagination, with a unique and lasting image. 

And heaven knows, we love a lasting hero.

The trick is to describe enough so that readers get a unique idea of the hero’s appearance in their minds, without making the hero one of the many carbon copies that populate romances. The heroine’s first major impression of the hero is often brought about by his appearance, so descriptions are important. But relying on overused and tired descriptions can make the hero forgettable.

And heaven knows that even more, we readers love an unforgettable hero!

Sarah Wendell is the co-creator, editor and mastermind of the popular romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.