By Poison Ivy,

I just finished reading a story in which the hero was a dolt. A very sexy dolt, but a dolt nevertheless. He was rich, and rich men are idols of fantasy regardless of dolt status. Women like to think that successful romance with a rich man would be the ultimate pleasure. Or maybe the ultimate worldly triumph, a la Cinderella? But a romance with a dolt? I’m not enthusiastic. Reading about this rich guy’s doltishness did not amuse me. Watching the heroine win his doltish heart did not imbue in me a sense of romantic completion. I thought this guy was a waste of her time.

I’m sure the writer did not sit down and decide to create a hero who was a dolt. I suspect this happened as a byproduct of the plot she created. She needed him to be stupid or to act stupid at a key moment. The only way the story would work was if his intelligence suddenly took a nosedive. This happens more often than you think. In fact, in the writing world there’s a name for it and the name is: The Idiot Plot.

The idiot plot is a story that would not happen if some major character didn’t behave like a complete idiot. He sees something and leaps to an idiotic conclusion about it, which causes various other idiotic plot complications. Or she overhears or reads something, but the bottom line is that instead of doing what any normal person would do, and just ask the other person what’s up about this, the character takes some kind of action or has some kind of reaction that moves the story along in the path the author intends.

When a hero is behaving like an idiot it helps if he’s rich and glamorous, because these elements are distracting. Few can see a rich man without the powerful shadow of his wealth behind him, tempering his idiocy. And glamour, while it can be said to be a mere offshoot of wealth, can also be a separate category, as when a man has a mystique or a charisma about him. This can be from his looks or his bearing, or even from his profession. Movie stars (and TV actors) are glamorous, even though many of them aren’t all that rich or good looking. Their glamour is their chief appeal. After all, there are plenty of rich men in the world. Only a few of them ever get any major media coverage as glamorous. The rest are just rich. But back to idiocy (see how distracting wealth and glamour are?), the point is that a man who has the power of wealth or glamour can behave like an idiot and there will be consequences. He can close a company down, or date the world’s sexiest woman. He can command people. I once had a handsome man come up to me and ask me to do something, and it took me a minute to realize that he was using the power of his good looks (his glamour) to distract me from the truth that he had no business asking me anything at all. Such is the power of glamour.

The writer of a romance featuring a rich and glamorous hero is offering the reader a combination of powerful distractions. But the hero can still be a dolt as long as the reader doesn’t catch on. The writer’s task is to avoid disillusioning the reader. Creating heroes with credible personalities is a key step. The writer of a romance carefully seeds in bits about the hero’s personality so that his actions, however implausible, seem possible. This is often a matter of delicate balance. Make the hero too sensitive, and he comes across as a weakling. Make him too macho and he comes across as a jerk.

Well, how do you create a romance hero? There are two main ways. The first is to glamorize a real man. The second is to take a glamorous ideal and humanize him. An example of the first would be using one’s wonderful husband as the hero of all one’s romances. The writer enhances his sensitive qualities, beefs up his sexual ingenuity and energy, and magnifies his worldly success. But the key is that the writer uses the personality of a real man. His way of approaching the world and reacting to it. His way of dealing with conflict. The glamorizing bit comes in when not mentioning that this wonderful man routinely does not know where his socks are.

The second approach would be to take James Bond or any essentially fictional person, including that old TV ad character named the Marlboro Man (a craggy western guy on a horse, who smokes) and try to give him just enough personality to fit the storyline of this romance. Yes, even an actor seen for a mere 30 seconds in a commercial is a glamorous enough figure to be a character concept for a writer.

When a writer is using a real man as her base, she doesn’t take him whole. A romance hero is an exaggeration of a man, and his flaws are not the mundane flaws of real life. Not only is the romance hero magnetically attractive to the heroine, but others feel his power, too. A romance hero is an independent, confident man, strong enough to take onto his shoulders all the heroine’s problems. He doesn’t drag home exhausted from overwork, cursing the big mortgage and the kids’ bills that keep his nose to the grindstone. And most important, a romance hero does not need, as so many real men do, a motherly role from a wife, that of taskmaster, maidservant, and cheerleader combined.

When the writer is using a fictional hero as her base, she gives him personal quirks. If he’s a prince of a Ruritanian country, he’s a reluctant prince. If he’s a computer tycoon, he has a secret misery over some long-ago personal failure. If he’s a glamorous movie star, he’s desperate to be treated like a normal person by someone not out to steal his millions. And so on. So this unreal man has real yearnings or qualities added in, and what he needs from a heroine is a dose of the very reality that the real man (see the previous paragraph) doesn’t want.

But what keeps either hero type from becoming a dolt? Masterful writing can do it. Charlotte Lamb, who wrote many Harlequin Presents novels, had an especially fine touch with taking an implausible plot and creating such a tense, sexy, emotional drama that the reader would believe every ridiculous plot twist. A favorite was the one in which she took a cheap encounter in a bar, followed by an even cheaper sexual encounter, and turned it into a smashingly successful romance about love at first sight. (When I think of the title, I’ll post it, or you can if you remember it.) The novel was much imitated by other aspiring writers, but it was the deft writing that made the story work and they lacked her masterful touch.

The other way to keep the hero from looking like a dolt is good plotting. Good plotting requires that the hero and heroine do everything that a person of normal intelligence would do in their situation. They ask the questions. They consider the possibilities. Most important, they do not ignore the obvious. It’s okay for a hero or heroine to leap to an unfounded conclusion, but the writer must first set up this person as the type who is emotionally prone to such leaping. And ideally, there should be another character or a little voice inside who tells the hero, “You’re being an idiot!” But having set up that the hero is driven by his emotional demons to behave like an idiot, then the writer can get away with making him a dolt.

Sometimes. Sometimes the writer has tossed in too much idiocy and the character cannot recover. That’s when a reader like me suddenly notices that the hero, good looking, sexy as hell, even rich, is still a dolt.

From Poison Ivy