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?