Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Wednesday Wisdom with Stephanie Campisi - Does size matter?

Does size matter? On short men in romance novels

It seems that more than any other genre romance is, ahem, big on measurements. I am, of course, talking about height. (What did you think I was talking about?)

In every romance novel I've read of late the hero's height has been explicitly described, and curiously, I haven't yet come across a hero shorter than 6'2”. This got me thinking about the way that masculinity is represented in romance novels, and of the relatively narrow way that male attractiveness is defined.

While romance heroines are afforded a little more variability in terms of height and body shape (although they tend to cluster around very petite and very tall and at lithe or curvy, without much in between), heroes have far less flexibility afforded them. From my romance reading, the prototypical hero is, well, basically a giant.

One possibility is that men don't tend to receive the descriptive nuance that women do: where a writer might describe a woman's dress sense, her hair, makeup, comportment and so on, fewer descriptive phrases tend to be applied to men. And of those, hair and eye colour and overall physique are probably the most salient.

I do wonder, however, whether it's because heroes tend to fall into the brooding alpha male category, and having a powerful physique complements the other elements of the alpha male personality. After all, size can readily be correlated with perceived strength and power: we've all probably read the research showing that taller men tend to earn more than their shorter counterparts.

Still, what's interesting here is not just that heroes tend to be so tall, but that this height has to be explicitly stated. As noted above, heroines tend to be described in terms of petite or tall rather than a specific height, and yet, male heroes are very rarely described in comparative terms. Height, then, seems in romance novels to be a sort of attractiveness currency: it's almost as though height is the new salary. (“You must be this tall to ride”, perhaps?).

There's definitely a perception that a hero who doesn't meet a particular height threshold is somehow unmasculine, and I wonder whether that height threshold is increasing in line with the independence and equality of heroines. In a world where women are closing the gap in terms of education and career success, and where gender roles are being rewritten, perhaps writers are using physicality as a proxy for masculinity.

What do you think? Why do you think that romance heroes are so tall, and has this changed over time?

Stephanie Campisi is a middle grade author and book reviewer (

Her novel Spatterbaum and Zitherbother is currently on submission.

You can sign up here ( to be alerted when it's published.

Stephanie is extremely petite, and is married to a man who by romance novel standards would also be considered petite. She doesn't mind at all.

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Unknown said...

I think there is a definite trend toward the big, bulky guys because of the alpha male thing. I know my first couple of heroes were 6'4/6'5", brawny and very rugged.

Then I went with 6'0", slender and incredibly pretty (yes, pretty...not handsome).

I like both, and a lot can be done with 'tude. But I have trouble taking someone seriously as an alpha if I can look down at the top of his head. Of course I'm 5'10". Hehe.

Pirate Princess Eve said...

I'm 6' tall and my heroines tend to be on the tall side. Therefore my heroes are at least 6' tall. I usually stick with 6'3". This is fantasy to me since it is my experience in life that tall men generally end up with short women. The only exception to that rule is my 5'10" friend author MK Meredith whose husband is 6'4".

Stephanie @ Read In a Single Sitting said...

Hmm, maybe I'm noticing this because I'm 5'1", and can't fathom the logistics of a 6'4" guy?

The Busy Author said...

I like tallish men. Hubby is a six oneish in shoes and I'm 5'7 so if I wear heels we're close but if I wear flats, he towers over me. Either way works. Variety!

But my heroes lean towards tall and slender/fit. Most of them are so young that they're still growing though. ;-). My heroines are average height and either curvy or athletic fit. I don't do petite or skinny girls with bulky guys because I think that's a weird dynamic.

But, different strokes. Romance is basically fantasy, right? And the ideal male IS taller than the female. So making him 6'5" covers all readers, even WNBA players.

Jacqui Carling-Rodgers said...

I'm 5'8" but my husband is 5'6" and while he's not an alpha in a physical sense, he's an utter babe magnet. Women love him (me most of all).

While I have to confess that while I didn't specify the height of my hero, it can be taken as read that he is taller than the heroine.

Perhaps romance novels fulfill a needing which our heroine princess still needs to be certain that our hero prince is capable of slaying the metaphors dragon on her behalf.

It's an interesting point for discussion.

I'm just starting work on my second manuscript and the heroine is almost as tall as the hero.

Another thought which occurred to me is that we need to have a wide variety of heroine physique so the reader can imprint herself on the cataracter.

For the hero 'tall,dark and handsome' will do.

Anyone else reminded of the Seinfeld sketch where he asks why at a wedding, the groom and the groomed are all addressed the same? It's because the men are interchangeable. 'Do you take... this man...'

Maggie Nash said...

I can remember my first crush. This boy's name was Leon, and he was what we all called a "spunk" back in the day. He had tanned skin, a long blond mullet, and clear blue eyes. And he was an inch or two shorter than me. Did it matter to me? Not one bit. He was just a "spunk" to me! I've read some very romantic stories where the hero is scarred, is short, is nerdy, has a less than stereotypical heroic description, but at the end of the day, what makes a hero to me? It's their actions. So if a story is written where the male protagonist ACTS heroic, my heart melts. It's all about the way his character is written, and what he does. There's nothing wrong with tall, dark and handsome of course - but to quote a movie character of great wisdom - "Stupid is as stupid does" :-)

Thanks so much for being my guest today Stephanie! Your post is very thought provoking :-)

aureliatevans said...

In the novel I'm editing now, my female and male characters are in the under six-foot but still tallish area. My first novel had a petite heroine and an under-average-height alpha male type (who was hella hot in all his compact glory, tbh). In its sequel, the female character is average height, and the male interest is tall but somewhat lanky.

As a short woman (around 5'1"), tall is something I notice immediately. It's something that overwhelms me about men, and to a lesser degree, women. I think "tall" is used for that typical "female overwhelmed" sense that happens a lot in romance. It's not just representative of the alpha male presence.

Stephanie @ Read In a Single Sitting said...

Thanks for all the comments, everyone! It's really interesting to see that height does seem to be correlated with masculinity and the ability to protect etc.

It's interesting how readers' own heights also influence how they respond to heroes' heights. I'm short, so I have no qualms at all reading about a hero who's 5'8", but I imagine that a taller reader might mentally flag that. Perhaps leaving it unspecified is best?

Unknown said...

Hey - I just want it known that I thought you were talking about height - cause what else could you possibly be talking about????

Good post.

Maggie Nash said...

Of course Victoria. We all thought that *vbg*

Beverley Eikli aka Beverley Oakley said...

I've never been out with someone shorter than me, though that's not hard as I'm only 5' 1" on my good leg.

I do tend to describe my heroes more in terms of 'presence' rather than height, though, and none of my heroines are tall. I just don't know how to write from that perspective.

So, I guess all heroes are tall from my heroine's POV.

Interesting discussion.

Burrows said...

In my writing I like to use 'average height' or 'above average height' as I write historical novels and average changes. My dad was 5'8" and that was average for an Aussie male in the 1940s.
My husband is 5'8" and he's probably thought to be a bit short now. (I'm 5'1" and he suits me perfectly.) I knew a girl who was 5'2" and refused to consider a man under 6' - she's still single at 48...

Mai said...

LOL...of course you were talking height, hmmm :-) My guy needs to be tall to handle me, I'm 6ft

Great post!

Cheryse Durrant said...

Stephanie, thanks for sharing and I love your: '... is married to a man who by romance novel standards would also be considered petite. She doesn't mind at all.' Maggie, totally agree with your comments. It is their actions that speak louder than their, um, size.

Maggie Nash said...

Thanks Cheryse :-) I love your name by the way! I can't wait to meet you at ARRC in March :-) And thanks for leaving a comment. Much appreciated.

Maggie Nash said...

So Mai - no one can mess with you huh? LOL...