The other week in a lady nerd group, a friend of mine was talking about how much she hated it that in so much children’s literature, the villains were ugly. And I was like, “YES YES A THOUSAND TIMES YES!”
Even as a kid, it bothered me that Cinderella’s evil stepsisters were hideous. I loathed Roald Dahl’s depiction of the character Augustus Gloop, a fat, slobby boy obsessed with eating who gets a frightening comeuppance.
As an ugly child, it was easy for me to see the injustice in how often the villains and fools in stories were unattractive.
Some writers still fall into this trap as adults! I was once in a romance critique group with a woman who had a loathsome female character in her story. In more than one place, the story described this character’s fat body in disparaging detail.
Naturally, I spoke up and said she was going to make all of her fat readers feel awful (I probably should have mentioned that it made me feel awful too, even though I’m not fat.) She graciously conceded the point, and said the character was based on someone she couldn’t stand in real life. I thought it was too bad that she would fixate on this person’s physique and not her meanness, but she did rewrite the story.
The funny thing is, I never even read romance in my teens or twenties, because I assumed all of the characters would be perfect-looking. I didn’t think I could relate to supermodels in love.
I think maybe some of the older romances did have gorgeous heroines – I’m not positive. In any case, the romance genre now has many, many ordinary-looking heroines, and lots of fat heroines (often helpfully tagged “BBW” right in the title on Amazon.)
The heroes in romance, however, are almost uniformly hot. There are a few exceptions – Elizabeth Hoyt, who is probably my favorite romance writer, has many plain heroes, although they all look good on the book covers!
Personally, although I write handsome heroes, I’m never going to be one of those romance writers who goes on and on about a guy’s perfect looks. That’s not me, and if I tried to do it, it would sound half-hearted:
Kathy stared in rapt amazement at his square jaw and dark eyes that smoldered with sensual heat. Her gaze traveled lower, taking in the magnificent sight of his massive masculine manly pecs and abs so chiseled that they could slice something, like they could double as a steak knife or something, I don’t know, anyway he was like super duper hot.
I’m way more interested in the hero’s sense of humor, determination, intelligence, and especially, his sense of honor (YESSS, SO HOT).
Hot ladies are awarded to normal-looking guys in so many movies, books, and TV shows that I think it’s okay to have one little genre in the corner that says, “Hey, normal chick, how about if you get the hot guy this time?”
At the same time, I feel conflicted about the way that men are objectified in the genre. Eventually, I’m going to write a hero who’s overweight, which is virtually unheard of. Men in our society face pressure to look a certain way, too, and although that pressure isn’t as intense as it is for women, it’s still there.
Remember, because beauty is such a subjective quality, a character may become more attractive to another over the course of a romance. Call it the Elizabeth Bennet Effect. Near the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy describes her as
…tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me.
Later on, he says:
…it is many months since I have considered her as one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance.
Because of the pressure to look good, I think a lot of readers prefer a protagonist who is regular-looking or plain, regardless of the genre. Recently I began a book in which the main character informed me almost immediately, apropos of nothing, of her bra size (she had much bigger boobs than mine), her dress size (smaller than mine), her gym habits, and how she didn’t have to diet “like most girls” she knew. There are more graceful ways for a writer to convey what a character looks like in the first person, but beyond that issue, it seemed so weird and braggy.
I’ve heard writers say, “I just don’t describe what my character looks like at all.” As a reader I think, “Um, thanks a lot.” I don’t think it’s a great way to get around the issue of appearance, because I like to be able to envision people.
I just think it’s important to make sure their looks don’t determine their role in the story. Don’t rely on crooked teeth, for instance, to convince a reader that a character is vile (I have crooked teeth!), and don’t think your reader is going to fall in love with a character just because they have a slamming physique or pretty blue eyes.
By the way, Roald Dahl also wrote this nice thing about attractiveness, which I happen to believe:
How do you react to beautiful or ugly characters in stories? How do you handle physical attractiveness in your own writing? I always learn so much from people’s comments! Thanks for reading, you gorgeous thing, and have a great week!