Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Cliché of Beauty

Novelist Lionel Shriver wrote an essay where she claimed that “fiction writers’ biggest mistake is to create so many characters who are casually beautiful.”

Well, now. Them’s fightin’ words.

Because you can't possibly be as attractive as the protagonist in the book I'm reading. Even though you have the distinct advantage of being real.

But before you start pointing to the few books where there is an overweight protagonist or a love interest with crooked teeth, understand that Shriver wasn’t really telling writers they ought to make all of their characters ugly. She merely pointed out that, in fiction, we don’t think it’s strange to be in a world populated with beautiful and handsome people in a much greater percentage than we would find in the real world.

Romance novels are almost inevitable offenders here, but other genres are not excused either. Most books we read are filled with good-looking people. Shriver puts forth a few reasons why this might be. First, our culture has told us that beautiful people are more likeable, and we accept that. Second, beauty is a form of power that characters can use to get others to do things for them.

I’d add a third reason: fiction is about escapism, and almost all of us have had times where we have not felt attractive. So we want our heroes and heroines to be attractive…and we actually have control over this.

What’s a novelist to do, then, confronted with the cliché of the young and the beautiful? Here are a few ideas:

  • Reject society’s (extremely narrow) definition of beauty. This does not necessarily mean drastic changes in everything you write. But it’s really okay to have a middle-aged woman who sags in a few places. Or a man without rippling muscles. Or a female protagonist who is only mildly pretty instead of drop-dead gorgeous. Characters should be extraordinary, but not all of them need to be extraordinarily physically beautiful.

  • View things from the eye of the beholder. So the two characters in your story find each other attractive. Great. Why? We all know from experience that people have differences of opinions when it comes to beauty. Chances are, you know people in real life who you would say are attractive even though they wouldn’t be featured on the cover of a fashion magazine. Why? With your characters, that might mean describing what about the other person immediately captures your protagonist’s attention…and what they notice and come to find beautiful after a long period of time.

  • Understand what damaging effects beauty can have. One commenter on Shriver’s essay mentioned the fact that if ugly kids are mocked, beautiful kids are objectified. Both can ruin a person’s life, or at least give them struggles to overcome. If your character is unusually attractive, think about how that might change various aspects of their backstory.

  • Think about how you describe physical appearance. The cliché of beauty probably has a lot to do with the fact that we use the same tired adjectives to describe how attractive people look. Eyes, for example. Don’t make them piercing, smoldering, soulful, or icy. Not even if they are. Talk about them in a way that we haven’t heard before, or, maybe better, talk about why the protagonists feels that way about them; what effect the eyes have on him/her.

  • Understand what makes people ugly. Think back to high school (sorry to do this to you, but it’s necessary to prove a point). That girl with the flawless makeup and smooth hair, the one who ate half a rice cake for lunch and used the spare time to gossip and stab people in the back…she wasn’t really that attractive, was she? The guy with the flashy grin who turned out to be completely self-obsessed is the kind of person you’d want for a prom picture but not for a best friend. Most of your characters are going to need to be likeable. In the real world, that doesn’t always line up to a ranking of physical attraction (if you pick your buddies by who you deem most attractive, I pity you).

Nothing wrong with having an attractive protagonist…but you should never blindly follow a convention just because it’s the way it’s always been done.


  1. Wonderful post! You made so many great points! An inward personality affects outward appearance so strongly. :)

    1. So true, Hannah. I think that's the way we were made. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  2. This is such a great post! As a young writer, I hated the stereotypical supermodel characters, and my first main character was, well, not ugly, but pretty average. As I've gotten more used to writing, though, my characters have become more physically beautiful. I think this might be because I like my characters more now than I did when I was first writing.
    Lovely or not, we tend to think of people as more beautiful when we like them, I think. Which explains why so many writers, myself included, have characters our readers would describe as beautiful. *new follower*

    Great post!

    ~Sarah Faulkner

    1. That's a really good point, Sarah...sometimes I think of a character as beautiful just because I like him/her (or possibly also because of cover art). Always great to hear from other writers!

  3. Enjoyed this rather a lot. Thanks for the ideas!

    1. :) Let's take the writing world by storm!