“How important is it that a hero/heroine be physically attractive? What other character traits/meanings does Beauty (or lack thereof) communicate to the reader? What were historical standards of beauty and how do they differ from our own time? (And how do you mediate this for the reader–?)”
This is a topic so juicy that more than one Wench might address it. For starters, it can easily be divided into separate topics for female and male beauty. I’ll start with female beauty because it’s probably a more complex subject.
Authors deal with physical beauty in many different ways, even among our own books. But since romance usually has strong fantasy elements, it’s not uncommon for characters to be gorgeous beyond the general run of humankind. Early historicals sometimes devoted pages to her ripe, luscious lips or his strong, manly calves and amazingly broad shoulders. The famous Angelique, heroine of a series of romantic historical adventures by a French couple who wrote as Sergeanne Golon was described as the “most ravishing—and ravished—heroine” in literature.
“Ravishing and ravished.” Traditionally, female power has come from a woman’s ability to attract men, preferably powerful men who would put her in a position of increased wealth and security. Many have many paths to power, but for women, being desirable is one of the best available currencies.
So early historical romances abounded with fabulous babes who could be ill-used and dragged through a bush backwards, yet still be so utterly stunning that every man who sees her just has to have her. Such a heroine would have a perfect face, masses of great hair, a tiny waist, and her worst problem is getting her amazing breasts into her skimpy ball gown. Ah, yes, such problems as we all have. <g>
But there are germs of truth in this stereotype. Beauty is alluring, and studies have shown that good looking people start life with a real advantage. More relevant to my topic, sexual attraction is an important component of developing romantic interest in another person, so describing how a character looks is a way of showing interest and attraction. Hence the fact that romance tends to be a descriptive genre. Books generally give a fair amount of attention to how characters look, and how others respond to them.
But that doesn’t mean characters have to be beautiful. I tend to like having heroines of average looks—young, healthy, nice enough figure and features and they clean up well, but not drop-dead gorgeous—but what I think matters less than that the hero finds her irresistible. Often he’s struck by her immediately (men tend to be visual creatures so this is not unreasonable), but sometimes the attraction grows over the course of the story. I remember a Kasey Michael’s Regency where the hero started by thinking the heroine’s red hair was downright freakish, and in no time, he was convinced that she was the most beautiful woman in England. <g>
There’s a good dose of realism in this. Yes, there is love at first sight—I’ve had several women friends who saw a man and knew instantly that they would marry him. (Though it isn’t always love per se. One friend heard a little voice in her head saying, “You’ve just met the man you will marry,” and she retorted, “But he isn’t even American!” Nonetheless, Reader, she married him. <g>)
But love at first sight and psychic flashes are a somewhat different topic. Getting back to beauty, I seldom have truly beautiful heroines—and when I do, they may well suffer for it. Being the object of every man’s desire can be tiresome and even dangerous. (Gwynne in A Kiss of Fate learns this the hard way. The hero always thinks she’s gorgeous, but when other men start thinking the same thing, it’s a total nuisance. And ultimately, a weapon.)
Over the years, I’ve regularly played with ideas of beauty, and as a reader, I enjoy stories where the average-looking girl is the one who is wonderfully lovable and who wins the guy. And I’ve loved some books that take the concept even further. Our Lady Layton did a wonderful historical romance called To Wed a Stranger, where the beautiful bad girl from several earlier books gives up and marries a guy who is nice but a virtual stranger. Then right after their marriage, Annabelle falls ill and loses her looks. All of her life, she’s has power because of her beauty, and suddenly it’s gone. How does she feel about herself? How do others feel about her? How does her husband feel his marriage? It’s a wonderful, romantic story and exploration of beauty.
A book that takes this idea even further is the always terrific Deborah Smith’s recent The Crossroads Café, which came out in September from the small press Belle Books. You might have to special order it, but the story is well worth the effort. Catherine Deen is a major movie star, and possibly the most beautiful woman in the world. She’s basically a pretty decent person, but all of her life she has enjoyed the special perks—and exploitations—of being beautiful.
Then a horrible car accident ruins Cathy’s looks and her life falls apart. Her view of herself and her beauty were central to her self-image. Not only is her sense of herself destroyed, but all the world’s paparazzi are eager to shove their cameras in her ruined face to beam her image around the world. Salvation comes from a distant cousin in North Carolina (so distant that a Yankee like me would say not really a cousin at all <g>) and Cathy ends up taking refuge in her late grandmother’s remote mountain farmhouse. There she discovers what she’s really made of, with the help of a man who has also suffered greatly. The issues are dead serious but it’s a smart and often funny story of growth and redemption, with an amazing climax.
Men are a whole ‘nother topic. They need to be sexy and wildly attractive to the heroine, but they don’t have to be handsome. Being fit and athletic goes a long way toward making a guy look good, and scars and craggy faces can be very sexy without conventional good looks. In other words, a great body compensates for less than perfect features. Much rarer is a hero like Carla Kelly’s Hal Hampton, who is pudgy, nearing middle age, and balding. <g> If I recall correctly, by the end of the book he’s in better shape, but still balding. Some deviations from the norm are more acceptable than others.
As for historical norms of beauty, we know they change. The ripe, voluptuous beauties of the Georgian era are very different from modern ideals, which in some cases are thin to the point of bony emaciation. (When I studied art history in college, the professor said that in baroque periods, both the buildings and the women got larger. Funny what stays with you from an education!)
As for mediating physical appearance for readers—well, I’m not a very visual writer. I usually settle for a general sketch of height, coloring, and general appearance and let readers fill in details as they wish. Here are how the characters in next summer’s A Distant Magic see each other:
Forgetting her manners, Jean stared in frank appreciation at one of the handsomest men she’d ever seen. The newcomer was dressed with expensive European elegance, but his strong features and dark coloring surely came from some more exotic land. Lean and a little above average height, he moved like man who walked in dangerous places. And wherever he walked, women would notice.
When Nikolai first spots Jean Macrae (he’s just knocked her unconscious with magic so he can kidnap her):
Nikolai’s hand still held the girl’s, which slowed her collapse enough for him to catch her before she folded onto the floor. Dear God, but she was light, scarcely heavier than a child! He stared down into the small, pale face. She must be in her middle twenties, but she looked much younger, a prim sheltered child of the British aristocracy……….This pallid girl, who had become his by the merest chance, would be his weapon. He studied her with avid curiosity, thinking that her slight body had never known adversity or hard labor. Her light green dress brought out her delicate coloring. Her hair was powdered heavily enough to disguise the color. He hadn’t really noticed her eyes. They might have been a light hazel.
But she was a pretty thing, in a fragile, high-bred fashion.
As you can see, there is a some attraction, particularly on Jean’s part, but there is more going on here than just appreciation of physical appearance. Incidentally, I tend to find it works best for me if the hero is noticeably handsome—my books are mostly female fantasies, after all! The heroine is negotiable, and mine come in all shapes and sizes.
As readers and writers, how do you feel about the use of beauty in romances? For true romance, what matters is believing that these two people really love each other, and that’s more a matter of emotion, beliefs, and commitment. But looks do matter. What stories has stuck in your minds where looks are a significant factor? What do you hate, what would you like to see more of? Please tell!
Mary Jo, who has average looks–i. e., cleans up fairly well, looks like something the cat dragged in when on deadline–and has found that works just fine.