editing · fiction · tips · writing

The Beautiful Heroine


Kari Trumbo romantic heroine
She’s in almost every romance novel you read, so does that make her an integral part of the story? She also must be relatable. If we ourselves don’t find beauty something we can relate to, are we creating tension between reader and heroine that doesn’t need to exist?
First, if you write in first person point of view (hereafter POV) the only indication your heroine is beautiful should be seen on the cover or heard from other characters. It can work for the character to describe herself in comparison to someone else, but it really should come from someone else within the story.
I tend to write in multiple POV, not always, but usually. The male lead is generally the first to notice her looks. In my debut, Meg compares her own hair color to Jax’s and later looks in the mirror before bed, all she says is that she is “plain”. Meg doesn’t think highly of herself. Jax, however, sees her in a completely different light. Her hair is like melted chocolate and her eyes are crystal blue. He’s smitten at first glance.
So, why do authors do that to us? Why do they insist that all heroines be bombshells? I gave you a hint above. The man who is about to fall in love with her is not going to find her plain, wispy-haired, chubby, or negative in any way. Such is the way of love, it is blind.
Every character you read is gorgeous because we see them through the eyes of the characters we read. Of course his hair is golden like the sun, if we see him through her eyes. In real life, it might be yellow as straw and stick out everywhere. Our heroine sees him as perfect, especially in the early stages of infatuation. If we are true to love, they should become even more attractive to one another as the story progresses.
Sometimes, it is advantageous to avoid any description of your characters at all. If you are a fan of Pride and Prejudice, the only description of the heroine is a vague detail about her eyes, and if I’m not mistaken, there is little about Mr. Darcy. Austen focused on the intellectual capacity of all her characters, not physical appearance. In fact, as I read it the last time, whether she wrote it for this purpose or not, the less intellectual the character, the more ugly I found them.
Does it rankle when an author uses beautiful characters all the time? Do you find it takes away from the story for you? Try to remember that (at least most of the time) we are getting the physical details from someone attracted to that character. I loved the way Sarah Sundin dealt with character description in her last book Through Waters Deep. At first, the hero feels slight recognition, they knew each other from high school. There are no honey-sweet words, in fact, he notices little. As they spend time together, he becomes aware of her and she seems more beautiful to him. She didn’t change physically to anyone else, but to him, she did. I highly recommend that book for anyone tired of the tried and true gorgeous hero + heroine theory. She wrote the build-up of the relationship in a way that is poignant and touching. I actually had to grab a tissue when he finally sees her as more than someone from school.
It all comes down to what the author thinks is important to tell about the physical attributes of the characters. For instance, one of my secondary characters, Pete, is an Indian. One of my readers spoke to me later about him and was shocked to find this out. It wasn’t important to the first story. It will be important when he gets his own. That will be coming about a year from now. We know what his wife Rose looks like from Meg because she is jealous of Rose, but Pete is just another guy in this story. If the character’s physical appearance is important or gives an impression, the author will share it. If it isn’t important or like Austin the author wants you to create the character in your mind, you won’t be told.

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4 thoughts on “The Beautiful Heroine

  1. I had been thinking of this lately and feeling discouraged. The book covers show them to be so pretty and you (I) think, well no wonder she gets the boy. I understand what you’re saying but I wish the book covers wouldn’t paint them so prettily.

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    1. That’s mostly to sell books. A pleasing cover sells better, but I know what you mean. I actually like the trend of showing only part of the person or their back on the front cover. I wouldn’t do it for every novel but it does allow the reader to use their imagination.

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  2. What I enjoy is when the author uses this issue with a sense of humor. It’s a movie, of course, but one example is when someone mentions to George (maybe his mother? his younger brother?), in “It’s a Wonderful Life” that Mary is back in town after a few years away in school. George is utterly uninterested, remembering Mary as she was in high school, but then when he sees her at a dance and she has grown up in his absence, suddenly he sees her in a new light. Now, she may actually have grown in physical beauty, but I can’t help but think that one reason for her increase in attraction is the fact that George is lonesome, whereas he may not have been when he knew her before. I can’t think of other specific stories, but it’s the kind of thing where the guy doesn’t realize how attractive the heroine is until they go through a harrowing experience, the dust settles and suddenly he looks up and it’s as if to say, “Well, hello there, Jane, where’d you come from?” Then, of course, the heroine has the delicious chance to shrug him off and act like ‘well, I don’t know, you’ve been ignoring me. I’m not so sure I’m interested anymore, may never be, and in fact at this moment I’m hungry and need to go get a piece of pizza. Don’t hold your breath’ or whatever. I was thinking about this issue recently with one of my own stories in trying to decide about both the hero and heroine’s physical appearance. I’ve decided my hero is going to be in decent shape. He’s a cop and has to have a certain amount of physical ability but besides the fact that he goes out to eat donuts every morning, I’ve given him enough of a limp that one of the things that most attracts him to my heroine, unlike most other women, is that she sees his disability as a constant reminder of how brave he is, how much self-respect he has because he continues to keep working when his co-workers would totally understand if he’d rather call it quits. My heroine is cute, but she talks with a strong Appalachian accent that quickly leads most men to assume she is ‘white trash’. I think an author can repeatedly make their heroines gorgeous, but readers are more likely to relate to someone with a few flaws I think.

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    1. Sounds like an interesting story. I’m not sure it’s necessary to always have a beautiful heroine, but where there is any question, I’ve only ever seen it left open to interpretation. If it isn’t important to the author, it won’t be shared. I typically go with what the character looks like in my head.

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