Strong Female Characters Part 4- I’ll get you, my pretty!

24 Sep

Sorry for the delay – I wrote most of this a while ago, but this flue/bronchitis will not let up. I finally have paid real money for real medicine, as well as gone to the health store for a placebo. I have no way to determine a control group, but I’d like the other medics to stop looking at me like a test subject for chest auscultation if we get a student. You can hear it without a stethoscope, grumble grumble.

A few months ago I read an article about Why Fiction Needs more “Ugly” Heroines. There were aspects I agreed about, and ones I didn’t, but I figured it’s some food for thought before moving on. I don’t 100% agree with the author, because like I’ll go into below: constantly reminding us that a heroine is plain, ugly or whatever, unless it’s a plot point, is about as obnoxious as reminding us how beautiful she is.

The romance is there because it SELLS. That’s why I get bitchy when I’m promised an adventure and we’re focusing on will-they-won’t they. I know there’s cross-genre appeal, but romance tends to almost always be happy, whereas my favourite stuff tends to be hard-hitting and downright cruel.

There’s a difference between beauty and attraction. Allegedly, in general people are attracted to confidence. When someone becomes more dear to us, we find them more attractive. However, we’re going for the shallowest of the shallows today – judging someone solely on their appearance, and why this is actually kind of hard with the written word.

I’m not going to waste time talking the beauty myth – you come up with your own conclusions. We can pull out waist-hip ratios, beauty masks, they could get attention by merit being exotic. Personally, I’d never say someone was ‘good looking in an exotic way’ because to me, that just means your viewpoint character isn’t that familiar with ‘other’, but that’s a topic for a new day.

Generally speaking, universally, humans find the following things attractive: symmetry, indicators of health, youth, and occasionally, things that strike us as interesting but not grotesque. For instance, a generically pretty face might actually be kind of boring if we were to stick a bunch of the same level of good-looking people together – sure, some variation, but after a while, everyone’s pretty so no one sticks out.

Beauty has both its objective and subjective values. Let’s look at a bunch of white brunette actresses. Objective in that no one would argue that these women are ‘gross’ but subjective that we peel over magazines about who wore what best, if someone gained five pounds, I like her hair but ew her nose, etc.

Any of these women fit the profile of an attractive woman, but not only are we looking at different bone structures, eye shape, body types, different people would focus on different things. And obviously, describing these women would depend on the book’s style, as well as the viewpoint doing the describing.

As a reader though, even if I don’t get a description, I start to form in my mind what the character looks like, and it might be totally different than how you imagine them. Say I describe a woman as about twenty wearing a regency-era british gown, voluptuous, girl next door pretty, dark hair and a round face. Odds are, if I were to sit twenty people down and handed out art supplies, we’d have twenty different interpretations, with the exception of the people who had no idea and just started copying their neighbour. Is the woman’s hair curly, full, thin? How big and what shape are her eyes? When I said voluptuous, how many assumed fat or pudgy, and how many assumed hourglass? Who just drew big boobs? What are her lips shaped like? How tall is she?

Personally, I don’t mind a character being generically good looking because when I pick up most titles, the characters are usually young, and youth is an indicator of beauty. Don’t get me wrong – not everyone is a supermodel if she just takes off the glasses. In some of my unpublished books, characters get ragged on because they’ve been in the bush for weeks and look the part. However, most people can clean up and have their ‘best’. Adaptation into other media aside where ‘hollywood fat’ is a thing, where a character’s repeatedly shown (or at least treated) like they’re fat.

I like this movie – although I will never understand why the one on the right is ‘fat’.

Is it fair? No. Should we have a variety? Sure – but I honestly can’t say we can win a war here as I can’t control how you interpret a character’s description. I think unless we actually make beauty or ugliness a plot point for discussion, most people will imagine the character however they want, even if I have official character portraits in the book or a website. As a reader though, I’d rather know the spirit of the character and one or two of their more noticeable features, like perhaps they have a piercing gaze or a mannerism. And given how beauty has its subjective components as well, this could be really hard to handle in fiction.

A character who is objectified and not treated like a person because of their physical appearance is in a much different category than a character who is revered for their looks. You can have a lot of fun with this – for instance, let’s say you’re writing about a culture where beauty is seen as vanity and that the society attacks this person, meanwhile hypocritically desiring those same attributes. In this kind of story, you can see it escalating because individuals would hate themselves, and hate the person who has let’s just say has ‘beauty’ more. This is interesting and there’s a reason for the character to be obsessed about their looks. Less so, is yet another pretty-but-doesn’t know it heroine fishing for complements while she’s humble-bragging.

There are lots of stories where the heroines aren’t beautiful. My favourite novel, Till We Have Faces, is a retelling of Eros and Psyche from the perspective of Psyche’s ugly sister Orual. Orual is at first defined by her ugly features, which is in keeping with the original story and is explored. Pratchett’s Witches series in general, two of the main characters are older ladies, and Magrat is usually not described in a flattering way (I have only read the first of the Tiffany Aching series – I have no idea how her looks are treated in later novels). But, as with the previous article, pretty shiny things and sexy things sell, so we have to accept that part of having things adapted (and very few of us authors have much say in the cover of the book, let alone who is directing, making the score, etc.) is that we do lose some control at some point.

Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s important to sometimes clarify what a character looks like, and state certain things. I find this can be more difficult when talking about different races in fantasy when words like “South-east Asian” no longer work as they’re on a made up planet. I would probably pitch a fit if ToO ever gets adapted and they casted someone other than an aboriginal woman as Naguset, but if they found the perfect actress who was tall rather than the petite woman I described, that wouldn’t bother me. But even if we look at the article and say “we need more plain heroines with a variety of body types’ I have a hard time with this because different body types can be attractive, even if the media tries to frump them up.

Almost done with these posts – Part 5: Tokenism and Final Thoughts. Hopefully I’ll wrap this stuff up and not get too off topic. Got a schwack load of new books to R&R, and I just did a swap for the last part of a children’s book I wrote (which the beta incidentally doesn’t care for, but it’s just proof he doesn’t tell me what I want to hear). My confidence isn’t 100% back, but I’m hoping I’m going to be sending out a few manuscripts in the coming months.


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