Let’s Talk About Tropes #9: Exercise

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It’s no secret that in addition to writing romance, I read a lot of it. I’ve seen so many different types of heroes–white or black or brown skin, every hair color, every eye color, tall or not-so-tall. But do you know what they all seem to have in common?

Muscles.

Even when the book cover doesn’t look something like the guy in the picture above, he’s described as well-muscled. Sometimes lean but still defined; sometimes outright bulky; always noticeable.

I’m even sort of guilty of it in the What We Need series! Paul’s no gym rat, even before his life went haywire, but with the drastically reduced quality of his diet, I expected most of his body fat would be gone, revealing the lean muscle underneath. I never describe him as bulky–in fact, I have other characters call him things like beanpole and skyscraper and scarecrow, so you know he’s rail-thin, but I still let Nina admire his muscles.

Because who’s a man without visible musculature?

Well…a lot of guys, actually! I’ve been attracted to plenty of men IRL who don’t spend hours at the gym, who don’t have the ridiculous V leading to their groin, who can’t bench press a city bus.

I know the romance genre, the authors are often going for more-attractive-than-real, for the kind of swelteringly hot dudes we see in movies, for the guy you think maybe you could never get yourself, but at least you get to read about him. And I don’t want you to think I’m trashing books with those heroes, or the authors who write them.

But I don’t actually see most of those heroes doing anything to account for their crazy-hot bodies. Sometimes, sure, there’s a passing reference to him hitting the gym or going for a run. Or he’s got a job that does it for him, like construction workers. Or he’s a sports star, and the training’s built into the story. Which is fine.

Everyone else, though?

So let’s make this general, now. If you’re going to write yourself a super-fit character, male, female, or NB, make sure there’s a good reason they are that way!

  1. Why does this person exercise enough to have a hot bod? Healthy and unhealthy attitudes toward hardcore fitness abound, from things as simple as “I like working out and feeling good about my body” to “I have acute insecurity about other aspects of my life and work to perfect my body as compensation or control.”
  2. What do they actually do for those muscles? Weight training is obvious but not the only answer, not if you don’t make the person super-swole. Swimming is a fantastic whole-body exercise. Dedicated martial artists can get pretty buff. Or maybe it’s less traditional, like rock climbing. The gym is not the only place to get fit.
  3. What would someone dedicated to the activity you choose actually look like? Distance runners might have defined legs but less going on up top, if they don’t supplement running with something else. Yoga practitioners could be quite sculpted, but not necessarily huge and buff. Honest-to-god gym rats might be huge, but move differently due to less flexibility.
  4. When does this rigorous exercise fit into their day? What else aren’t they doing because of it?
  5. Does this exercise come along with a specific diet plan? Can this person eat a whole pizza by themselves reasonably, and would they want to? Or is their kitchen full of protein powder bottles and pre-chopped fruit for smoothies?
  6. Is this person a fitness-conversion fanatic, constantly trying to get the people around them to work out with them, or just in general? Do they offer advice? Do they offer unsolicited advice? Some gym rats are toxic and obnoxious about it–plenty aren’t. Which one is your character?
  7. How is this person’s mood affected when they miss a workout? Do they have to skip more than one before it hits, or is it more immediate? How does that manifest in their behavior?

Not every character (not every romance hero!) has to be a fitness guru, but if they are, that lifestyle should be on display in the story beyond someone else admiring their physique. I hope these questions help you think about how to make fitness a more integral part of the characters who require it!

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