Privileging the Pretty

It’s not that I hate pretty people.  I’m generally in favor of them–maybe a little less so if that’s all they have to offer, but generally, in favor.

But I’m getting tired of beautiful women as main characters in fiction.  I’m not talking about attractive, I’m talking about the woman with hair as soft and lambent as a raven’s wing; flawless pale skin; strong but delicate bones; dark (or light) eyes that catch the light, into which a man (or woman) could fall forever…etc.  I’m talking about what sort of information you’re giving the reader when you make a character flawlessly beautiful.  Particularly when the character is already talented and good and smart and prone to random acts of heroism.  Add beauty on top of all that, and it’s not only insufferable; it makes me wonder exactly what the writer’s problem is.

It pulls me out of the story.

A year or two ago I read an otherwise terrific book, set in a far-future world ruled by a far-future version of Islam with harsh rules regarding women. The main character was a woman, a talented healer; someone who is fortunate, within her world, in her husband and in her life. She is smart and kind and noble.  She is also ravishingly beautiful; the author reminds us of this at every opportunity, to the point where I began to wonder why. Would this character have been any less estimable or heroic if she’d been merely attractive?  What about if she’d been plain as a doorknob?  Disfigured?  Fat?

So what is it about beauty, anyway?  In the Olden Days it was seen as the outward sign of inward virtue.  I think we’ve moved beyond that–a little, anyway.  Beauty is also mutable: the medieval notion of beauty (acres of forehead, rounded belly, pale skin) is not the 21st century idea.  I remember when, between 1960 and 1970, “beauty” underwent a sea change–from Marilyn Monroe to Twiggy (from curvy to flat; from frankly adult and sexual to seemingly waif-like and innocent).  Some eras like blondes, others brunettes, and yes, redheads get their day too.  Standards of beauty often tell us something about the culture setting the standards: in a culture where food is scarce, a plump baby or child may be beautiful; in a culture where people work hard in the sun, being pale suggests wealth, privilege, rarity.

It’s not just the setting that determines what’s beautiful, either.  Beauty is personal.  My idea of what is beautiful may not be yours. Barbara Cartland, who sold a hell of a lot of books, loved fragile heroines.  As I recall it, her heroines seemed to get more and more fragile–hell, frail–as Cartland’s career went on; sometimes they seemed so frail they could barely get through an entire sentence without ellipses.  Perhaps she liked fragile heroines because their indomitable virtue (and the effect it had on her rakish heroes) was somehow contrapuntal to their exterior frailty.  Me, I don’t particularly admire fragile, but more, I really, really try not to make my characters’ looks a metaphor for their personalities or their roles in the story.

When I was writing Point of Honour I wrote a lot of different female characters.  One of my favorites is a retired lady of pleasure who is hugely fat.  She has a pretty face, loves pretty things (and, being poor, her attempts at prettying her clothes and household were rather pathetic).  I took pains, and some pleasure, in describing the meatiness of her shoulders and thighs, her plump fingers, her round, frankly pretty face.  She thought of herself as the pretty girl she had been, and I had to honor that, at the same time as I wanted to capture the incongruity of a woman who refuses to acknowledge that she’s not what she once was.

In fiction beauty often seems to be more than just beauty: it means good; it means evil; it’s a metaphor for health or Godliness or purity or the salvation of the Union.  That’s a lot of freight for a permanent wave and long-lasting lipstick to carry.  So what’s the point of beauty?  Next time you envision a character with shining golden curls, sparkling blue eyes and a perfectly shaped nose, take a minute to ask yourself what that means to you, and what you want it to mean to your readers.

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Madeleine Robins is the author of Point of Honour and Petty Treason, two mysteries featuring the redoubtable Miss Sarah Tolerance, Agent of Inquiry.  Her short fiction is available on BVC, and she is slowly digitizing her early Regency romances (watch the skies!).

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About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books

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Privileging the Pretty — 15 Comments

  1. Hear hear!

    I always like that Elli Quinn, in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books, was given a flawlessly beautiful face and it caused her no end of trouble. People responded to her totally differently, she had to learn how to command people all over again, she had trouble getting any sense out of men… etc.

  2. The being-taken-seriously thing is (I understand from my conventionally lovely friends) a real problem, and it’s a pleasure to find it in fiction. One of the things I loved about Buffy was that she had to grow into her smarts, but was always pretty–so that she became easier to underestimate, even as the threats grew larger.

  3. Thank you for posting this. It drives me up the wall as well, when heroines are strikingly beautiful for absolutely no reason. Maybe some authors think that unless a heroine is stunning, there’s no chance of a romance plot, forgetting that most of the world manages to fall in love without looking like Catherine Zeta-Jones. And if your character is strikingly beautiful, that’s going to have its own set of problems–for reference, see the recent debacle over the banker who was treated like crap and then fired because her male coworkers allegedly couldn’t concentrate due to her beauty. Or Emilie Autumn’s song “Thank God I’m Pretty.”

    But better yet, have your heroine look like a normal bloody person. Maybe then she’ll have to develop a personality.

  4. My daughter is half-Chinese, an athlete, and beautiful by Western standards. But when we went to China the reaction of the locals was interesting. They did not regard her as beautiful; beautiful girls in China are about a foot shorter, forty pounds lighter, and four dress sizes smaller. They are, as you say, frail. There is none of this toned, spandex-clad, six-pack abs, Brandy Chastain or Angelina Jolie aesthetic that we have. She went jogging in the early a.m. in metropolitan areas, exciting no interest but only awe.

  5. Barbara Cartland, who sold a hell of a lot of books, loved fragile heroines. As I recall it, her heroines seemed to get more and more fragile–hell, frail–as Cartland’s career went on; sometimes they seemed so frail they could barely get through an entire sentence without ellipses.

    Yes, this!!

    Well, I have to admit to being shallow and not really wanting my heroine to be totally ugly (especially when I’m reading a romance), but I really think there are different attractive features they can have, than just be a mannequin.

    And I don’t mind if the exterior beauty of the characters as such isn’t mentioned at all, just their niceness, intelligence, eloquence, whatever.

    I have some problems with Gail Carriger’s Soulless, but I totally enjoy the look of her heroine and the fact that the covers of the books reflect it accurately.

  6. I think readers like attractive heroes and heroines for relaxation reading, and it’s just easy to make those protags drop dead gorgeous. Working out how an otherwise ordinary person is attractive is as hard as depicting real emotion without resorting to the usual signposts (“Her eyes flashed fire . . . his eyes glittered coldly . . .”)

  7. But your eyes can flash fire or glitter coldly even if you have acne and frizzy hair!

    Brenda: your daughter inspires awe regardless of her looks. She is a Warrior Princess, after all.

  8. They did not look at her as an Eligible Female (her eagle eyed mother was keeping an eye out for that). They were looking at her as if she had arrived from some other planet. Like say Krypton.

  9. I’ve always considered needlessly beautiful protagonists in fiction to be a pretty obvious form of wish fulfillment. A lonely male author might pen ravishing heroines. A slightly uncertain female author might create a male vampire love interest with no flaws whatsoever 🙂

    It’s a fundametal human urge which breeds more comfort than literary depth, but there’s a niche for everything. (As a side note, this is somewhat more forgivable in film where the viewer must constantly look at a character, than in letters where physical appearance is largely subjetive–if the author will just allow it be).

  10. Recall the standards of conventional beauty in, say the 1700s — plump and fair. Heroines in novels set in that era should not be beautiful by our thin and toned modern standards. They should have delightful double chins, adorable little rolls of plumpitude around their wrists, and in bedroom scenes the hero should become dizzy with lust at the sight of those wobbles of chub at the upper thighs. (No cellulte, the word would be anachronistic.)

  11. And all those Rubensesque Baroque cuties! I would love, love, love to see an historical romance in which the characters match the local standards for beauty in the time/place of the setting–him with the short, bowl-shaped haircut, her with the (possibly plucked) high forehead and pouchy belly…

    Of course, many writers who do not admire the local beauty standards make their heroines stand out because they’re not conventionally beautiful by local standards, but are according to our own standards. I have to admit that I may have some culpability in this regard…

  12. Well, if they are not of the contemporary standards of beauty, then it should be acknowledged. by all. I remember admiring how Georgette Heyer did it. She took care to have her heroines different in coloring, build, etc. And their beaus, in those traditional early I-hate-you stages, would be caustic. “Admirable, but that Junoesque type always goes to fat in middle age,” I remember one hero commenting to a pal after coldly assessing the heroine’s charms. It made his later collapse all the funnier.

  13. Or, as Heyer does in A Lady of Quality, have the heroine herself dismiss her own style of prettiness. It makes her behavior (which is not that of a woman who expects to be admired just on accounta her guinea-gold hair) and general briskness of manner more believable.

  14. I tend to think the perception of a character’s beauty is a result of point of view. Yes, we all have different perceptions of beauty, so isn’t the way a hero sees a heroine (or vice-versa) going to “fit” that character’s perception of beauty? The way I see it there are few truly unattractive people. Oh, not everyone is perfect, but if you look at faces, most people are generally good-looking with one or two exceptional features. Maybe it’s beautiful eyes or a knockout smile, but almost everyone has something to offer. It’s what people do with those features that may make them stand out to one person or another.

  15. Wow, is our culture conditioned against seeing anything attractive about any presence of body fat at all (except in the breasts, but then that’s not fat, that’s silicone–allll righty then). And yet there’s more of it in the population than there’s been in the history of the world.

    I got a bit 0_o when fans were shadow-casting one of my novels and they cast its secondary female lead as Uma Thurman. She had been written as looking a whole lot more like Kathy Bates. I find Uma both unattractive and totally wrong for the part, whereas Kathy is awesome and I can so see her kicking Crusader butt.

    I guess I’m weird. I don’t like the skinny look at all, and can see great beauty in irregular features and a BMI above zero.