The Beauty Thing

I don’t actually have a point here, I’m just thinking, and feel free to chime in and argue with me if you want….

A while ago I got an email from a fan who, just in passing, referred to my protagonist as “a beautiful woman.” This threw me a little because I’ve never described Harper as beautiful. Rather I think I’d taken pains to describer her as ordinary-looking except for her height. She’s a bit too thin and there’s certainly nothing outstanding about her looks. She has plain brown hair and plain brown eyes and small breasts on an athlete’s body hidden under layers of boring clothes. No Marilyn Monroe figure, no gorgeous hair or designer clothes. She’s a working stiff and the sort of person you wouldn’t notice under most circumstances.

Of course, this is not the impression given by the book covers. The US covers feature a very attractive model with much darker hair and a lovely face and figure. Even the foreign covers show someone who’s intriguing–unless you’re looking at the highly abstract Chinese cover or the German cover with its close up of a (still very pretty) human eye. But this is marketing, since no one is going to pick up a book that has a boring cover.

But perhaps another factor is the beauty of competence. We tend to think of competent, confident people as attractive, even if they aren’t that good-looking when you analyze them objectively. The protagonists of most books are competent, interesting people who get things done that most of us wouldn’t even consider trying. So, of course, they must be pretty as well. And in real life, we tend to cut the same break to people who do the real world equivalent.

For instance, I used to take swing dance lessons from a short, fat, middle-aged chiropractor. He wasn’t horrible to look at, but he certainly wasn’t the guy women swooned over on the street. But when he was on a dance floor–especially when he was dressed to the nines for a performance of Swing or Tango–he was the sexiest man alive. He had Presence, Confidence, and Style. He could sweep up the clumsiest partner and make her look and feel smooth and light as a feather. That is the kind of beauty we could use more of–the kind that illuminates others as well.

And that, perhaps, is what we really see in those kick-ass heroines and tough-tender heroes. Maybe this is why they are shown to us as gorgeous on book covers, why we assume they must, indeed, be beautiful, even if they are said to be mundane-looking and have plain brown hair and crooked teeth and funny faces and lumpy butts. Our projection of beauty comes not from the belief that all protagonists are better-looking than we are, but from the assumption that confidence and competence are beautiful in themselves.

Huh. What do you think?

About Kat Richardson

Writer, editor, eccentric pain in the tail, bestselling author of the Greywalker novels.
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5 Responses to The Beauty Thing

  1. Jay W. says:

    I think some of the feeling that Harper is a fairly attractive woman comes from the cover imagery on the books. Not necessarily a bad thing, because it makes the books more attractive to readers, but it might also have the affect of coloring the readers’ thoughts in terms of Harper’s appearance.

  2. Sarah says:

    I think you’re absolutely right. There are people out there who aren’t necessarily the most attractive but their wit and/or intelligence and/or personality make them much more appealing.

    Your character, Harper, isn’t pretentious. She doesn’t bitch and moan about her figure, or her hair, or what other people think of her. She just does what she does and [sometimes] enjoys it. She’s confident. She isn’t TSTL (too stupid to live). As a female reader I’m attracted to her because no matter what happens story-wise I can count on her for some strength and intelligence.

    And yeah, the covers do help some 😉

  3. Adele says:

    I think we generally imagine characters we like to be good looking, not neccessarily drop dead hotness, but attractive, pretty. The great joy of a book of course is although we may all assume Harper is slim and attractive no two of us would imagine her the same.

  4. Elaine says:

    Agree with Sarah. Actually agree with all comments here.

    I like Harper being ordinary looking. It makes her smarter.

    A friend, who is dating, said she is looking for good personality first and foremost because she has noticed that good looking people with bad personalities are attractive but then they get uglier and uglier as you get to know them. And that those who are not so good looking look better and better as you get to know them when they have great personalities.

    So, basically, yeah, I agree about the dance instructor thing. Although I’m not sure if pretty people with bad personalities actually get ugly. Mostly they get unattractive and/or repulsive.

    And then there’s the time I was jolted to discover my sister had eye lid folds (from age) and I had never noticed and had, in fact, just considered them part of why I loved her. Whereas my eye folds are definitely ugly.

  5. Mike says:

    I agree with your assertions, Ms. Richardson, and find them insightful. That said, I think the cause is based entirely on the person who created that reality. You analysis may be entirely accurate based upon that gentleman’s perspective. Also, I believe the vision we have for Harper is based on a variety of other reasons. For example, while the girl on the cover is beautiful, I also found the artwork to be “cheesy” and it reminded me of some updated Nancy Drew cover, where they try and make her look more modern and stylish (not to mention, a bit older, which allows her to be a little more seductive in appearance!). Knowing that authors often have nothing to do with the cover work and that illustrators usually do not even read the book, I dismissed the cover. However, in my case, my picture of Harper was influenced by other factors. First, although you don’t describe her in any detail, I was influenced by the male characters’ perception of her beauty. In my opinion, there was some level of “crush” or sexual tension with many of the male figures in the book (and even with a particularly female vampire!) which has implications. Either she is attractive in some way, or she exudes an attractiveness. Further, as I found her assertiveness and drive appealing. So, I imagine that I projected my image of beauty on to her to make her look the part. A sort of backwards design, I suppose! Regardless, you created an interesting character and I certainly enjoyed the first in the series. I am now on my way out to pick up the second.

    Have a wonderful day. I plan on generating the most brilliant top ten list ever created for your contest, when I return… 🙂

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