Ain’t She/He a Beaut?

Some blog posts seem to write themselves, and this is no exception. It screamed to be born as I drove out of the parking lot of my local library, and fired my synapses to recall a certain grad lecture at VCFA and a subsequent discussion on beauty.

That’s what I want to talk about. Beauty.

red_gerbera_daisy-HD

And what interesting timing. As I began this post, a news story flicked across my screen, declaring that People magazine named Gwyneth Paltrow as the World’s Most Beautiful Woman.

Perhaps when you think of beauty, the poem, “She Walks in Beauty,” by Lord Byron comes to mind. Here’s the first stanza:

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes

But I think about an incident during my undergraduate years at Northwestern. (Go Wildcats!) Senior year, my roommate situation was like a revolving door. One would leave and another would arrive. It was just one of those years.

One of those roommates—let’s call her Marcie—had the kind of Miss America looks that guaranteed her male attention. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as they say. But I don’t think many people would disagree that Marcie “was in high looks” as Jane Austen would say.

At first, I thought, Great. I’m doomed. Whose gonna notice me with her around? And then, Opportunistic Me thought, Maybe I can get her leftovers. So let’s just say I had a catty reaction to Maricie until I came to know her better. She told me her story: how women instantly hated her because of her looks (and I admit I looked shamefaced at that); how some men only wanted her because of her looks. In other words, how objectified she felt.

Long story short, that conversation made a deep impression on me—but not then. I was too busy crying my own river, and couldn’t really see beyond my own nose. Cut to now, with the writing of one of my novels and the point of this post. You see, my main character is physically beautiful. Because of that conversation with Marcie, I wanted to write about a heroine for whom beauty isn’t working—as in Marcie’s case. It slams shut some doors and causes her pain.

YET my character is beautiful. And I can’t think of a book besides Secret Garden, Jane Eyre, and Sarah, Plain and Tall that I’ve read where the heroine wasn’t described as “beautiful,” “pretty,” “in high looks.” (Note the words I’ve read. You might have read others, and I welcome any suggestions of titles.)

I don’t mean those books where the heroine says in that self-deprecating way, “Oh, I’m not beautiful,” but really is, since everyone reminds her that she is, and even animals follow her around. If there’s a love interest/hero, he’s smoking hot—unless he’s Mr. Rochester. But notice the actors cast in the most recent adaptations of Jane Eyre: Michael Fassbender and Toby Stephens.

Actor Michael Fassbender arrives for the BAFTA awards ceremony in London

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They’re not exactly how Charlotte Brontë described Rochester.

The love interest for my main character isn’t what you would call hot. But I fight against the temptation to make him handsome somehow. Kinda like in that stereotypical way when someone takes off a pair of glasses and somehow is an instant knockout. “Oh my goodness! I didn’t notice! You’re gorgeous!!!” I cringe at scenes like that. Just like I cringe at the fact that no one seems to recognize that Clark Kent is Superman, simply because he’s wearing glasses. But I digress. The temptation is there, because I wonder if readers will be turned off if he isn’t hot.

This comes from my often shallow outlook. As I mentioned before, I’m pretty middle grade in my thinking. I used to rate comic book or animation characters by their hotness. Zuko in Avatar? Hot. Tony Stark? Hottie. Thor? Hubba, hubba. (Okay, I shouldn’t lie and say used to. I still rate them that way.)

The issue for me about my main character’s love interest isn’t his looks but his character: how he treats my MC. He’s there for her when others reject her. He’s faithful and loving, but also stubborn and taciturn sometimes. In other words, he’s a real guy, instead of the fantasy I keep trying to inject in my fantasy story.

This is not to say that a hot guy or three aren’t lurking somewhere in my book. But I struggled with whether they really served a purpose, or if their inclusion was my way of worshiping at the altar of beauty. (The jury’s still out on that one.)

What’s your take on beauty? In your WIP, is your main character gorgeous? When you read a book, how important is it to you that a main character be extremely attractive? Please do not misunderstand me. I am NOT against characters who are physically beautiful. I’m just curious.

Photos from greenobles.com and filmofilia.com

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17 thoughts on “Ain’t She/He a Beaut?

  1. I believe that a flawed character is far more interesting than one that is amazingly perfect and with chiseled features. Seems …Mary sue or Gary Stu, if they are “perfection”. If my characters come across one that proclaims to be all that in roleplay, they usually get shot down pretty quick. ❤

    • Charlotte, I’m glad you brought up our old friends Mary Sue and Gary Stu. You are absolutely right. I took the Mary Sue test to make sure my characters didn’t fall into that trap. Thanks for commenting!

      • You’re so welcome. I work fairly hard to ensure that my characters don’t end up like sparkling vamps or such. One of my more recent small story series, called “The Secret life of Lotus – six parts, I really tried to flesh out the characters there, and show them warts and all. Insight with all the nasty bits. It was a labour of love.

  2. Eek! You stole one of my future post topics! Actually, I love when that happens. I like a nice web of links to my favourite blogs when I talk about something like this. 😉

    It’s an interesting topic, isn’t it? I have some beautiful characters. The mer folk are generally very attractive, even if their skin is greyish when they’re in their natural forms. Makes for interesting situations when people judge them based on that, or compare themselves to these lovely creatures.

    But my main characters… well, that depends.

    I don’t say that they’re beautiful until they’re beautiful to each other, and only when it’s relevant. The guy Rowan is planning to marry early in the story? He thinks she’s nice to look at. But she doesn’t have a ton of other guys falling over themselves to steal her away from him. When Aren first meets her, he says she’s attractive enough, but nothing compared to the well-groomed, stylish, dazzling women he’s known at home. It’s only later, after he comes to respect and like her (and yes, when she gets cleaned up a bit), that he sees her true beauty*. As for Aren, he’s attractive by most standards. But he’s going through a lot of stress, he can’t sleep properly, he’s injured and using more magic than he should be, and it takes a toll. Circles under the eyes, stress lines on his face, pale skin, scruffiness… I love writing that. Nobody should be perfect, and he needed to be brought down a peg or three. Also, Rowan has trouble seeing him in a good light at first because he’s cold and mean. You can’t blame her.

    As a reader, I really hate the characters who insist they’re not beautiful when all evidence suggests otherwise, or yes, the easy transformation from geek to gorgeous (or whatever). When characters have other, deeper stuff going on, I don’t think looks need to matter too much. Sure, I like to picture attractive characters in my mind when I’m reading. But be honest about it, and for goodness sake don’t remind me on every other page that OMG HE’S LIKE SO PERFECT I CAN’T BREATHE. I didn’t forget, and I’d like to hear about something else, please and thanks.

    Don’t even get me started on Clark Kent’s glasses. -_-

    Holy crap, my post on this is going to be long.

    *I’d much rather see characters fall in love with a person’s mind than be instantly blown away by their physical perfection or some cosmic connection.

    • I know what you mean, Kate, and I love your thoughts on Rowan and Aren. And that’s what I find compelling: the process–the character development. And we can see how your characters grow. I brought up Zuko from Avatar, because I love the fact that the series creator made him a burn victim. He isn’t “perfect” looking (though he’s still quite hot). 🙂 And as for mer people, perhaps all of that moisture helps their skin look its best. 🙂

  3. Linda — I *love* this topic. Thank you for posting and letting me think about this a bit. We, in America, love pretty people, don’t we? You don’t see the obsession for beauty so much in, say, British TV shows. I loved the way that Mandy Robbins addressed this in her lecture. I think she suggested focusing on the specifics of the character that make him attractive versus the generic markers for attractiveness. I’m also going to private message you on this topic.

  4. You know how I’ve been revisiting James Herbert books?
    Well this post brought to mind his book ‘Others.’
    Cannot recall much about it now, except that the ‘hero’ in it was a one eyed, deformed hunchback detective.

    • What a character! And I hope in fiction we don’t lose the kind of character that character actors in movies or old TV shows like Columbo were known for: the rumpled, whiskey-voiced, craggy featured. In other words: real people. The emphasis is so much on how someone looks, rather than the depth of his or her character.

  5. Pingback: What Is Beauty? | El Space–The Blog of L. Marie

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