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.
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!).