Johnny Harris. Strawberry skirt. If you, like me, were there for Karen Robards’ shift into hardcover contemporary romance in the 1990s, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. Those four little words evoke a specific image…and a very specific man. These days, Tessa Bailey is known for filthy-talking heroes, Cara McKenna wrote Hard Time about a convict hero, and Victoria Dahl’s and Alisha Rai’s heroes love going downtown (and I don’t mean for shopping!). In 1993, Robards fit it all into One Summer—one very scandalous summer. Johnny had it all: a chip on his shoulder, tight blue jeans and t-shirts and a tortured history. Most importantly, he’d carried a torch for one woman for years—his former high school teacher, Rachel Grant. A really, really, hot torch.
Then there he was in the doorway. Johnny Harris. He wore scuffed brown cowboy boots and beat-up jeans and a white cotton T-shirt. His shoulders were wide enough to stretch the knit shirt taut across them. His biceps bulged with muscle, and his skin was surprisingly tan. He was thin. No, that wasn’t the right word—lean was the one she wanted. Lean and hard and tough as leather. His hair was the same color, coal black, as it had always been, though it was longer than he used to wear it, almost touching his shoulders, and wavy. His face was the same—she would have recognized him anywhere once she looked into it, although several days’ worth of stubble blurred the lines of his jaw and chin. The sullenly handsome boy she remembered was still sullen, still handsome, but no longer a boy. He had matured into a dangerous-looking man.
I was 15 when I met him; I still haven’t recovered. I even told Karen Robards herself that at this year’s Romance Writers of America conference in New York City. That’s what a singular romance hero does: burn himself into your impressionable brain so that you find yourself raving about him 22 years later.
Sure, every rake ends up reformed by the love of a good woman, but sometimes there’s just something extra that puts a hero over the top. Here’s my very unscientific roundup of what makes a memorable hero…and how Mr. Johnny Harris fits the bill.
1 He does something shocking and unforgettable.
Like pleasuring his former teacher while she’s wearing a strawberry-dotted skirt. More like Johnny on the G-spot, am I right?
2. Even if the heroine hasn’t seen it yet, the reader knows he has a vulnerable side.
“Ah, Wolf,” he said as he accepted the truth at last, that this one thing that he had loved had been spared in order to greet him. Then, as the big head snuggled into his lap, he wrapped his arms around the dog’s thick neck and buried his face against the animal’s side.
For the first time in eleven years, he wept.
Yes, that’s right. HE CRIED OVER HIS DOG.
3. He puts himself on the line for the heroine or walks into the lions’ den for her.
Johnny (somewhat) voluntarily goes to Sunday dinner at Rachel’s parents’ house—Rachel’s superconservative parents’ house—and is wonderful to sister, her nieces and her ailing father. It’s a heck of a lot to face when you’re from the wrong side of the tracks, but he does it!
4. He gives unbelievably great grovel or makes a grand gesture to win the heroine’s heart.
Johnny proposes to Rachel in her childhood treehouse and when she asks for it to be “done right,” he recites Robert Burns’ “A Red, Red Rose.”
For a moment after the last words died away, they were both silent. Rachel looked deeply into Johnny’s eyes and thought she saw the true and good and shining thing that was his soul. Her eyes were so teary that they threatened to overflow—and then, suddenly, he grinned.
“Robert Burns must’ve had his pick of chicks. That poem of his is one hell of a line.”
5. He loses something important or makes a huge sacrifice en route to true love.
An interesting facet of Johnny is that his whole life is about loss. He’s abused by an alcoholic father, who dies during the course of the book; he spends 11 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit; his ex-lover is attacked by the same murderer-at-large; the townspeople despise him, etc. And all he really has to protect himself is his bad-boy image. So, what’s his sacrifice…? Laying that image to rest. He stops drinking, he cuts his hair, he starts watching his language.
He caught her hand and carried it to his mouth, where he pressed his lips to the palm. “There’s not much I wouldn’t do if you asked, Rachel.”
Johnny Harris does a thousand and one things to imprint himself in a reader’s mind and his heroine’s heart…and Karen Robards did the most memorable thing by creating him!
Originally published on HeroesandHeartbreakers.Com