Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Curious Case of the Beautiful Heroine

I don’t know when I stopped describing heroines. Somewhere along the way between my first book and the middle ones I realized readers usually formed images themselves without my having to describe first-person narrators in detail. I might say what the colour of their hair was, or their age if it was relevant, but anything beyond that was more likely just a passing comment touching on some feature in comparison to someone else.

Celia, the heroine of Season of Storms, looking at her famous actress mother, admits: “She was lovely. I had always thought so, always wished my own eyes could have been as large, my features half as delicate. Instead I’d inherited only her small hands and her allergy to cats.”

And here’s the exchange between David Fortune, the hero of The Shadowy Horses, and the heroine Verity Grey, when they first meet:

“I must say,” he confessed, leaning back again, “you’re not at all as I pictured you.”
Everyone said that. Museum workers, I’d learned, were supposed to be little old ladies in spectacles, not twenty-nine-year-olds in short skirts. I nodded patiently. “I’m younger, you mean?”
“No. It’s only that, with Adrian recommending you, I’d have thought to find someone…well, someone…”
“Tall, blonde, and beautiful?”
“Something like that.”
I couldn’t help smiling. I was, to my knowledge, the only dark-haired woman who’d ever received so much as a dinner invitation from Adrian Sutton-Clarke, and I’d held his interest only until the next blonde had come along.

We later learn her hair is long, and that an eight-year-old boy thinks she’s a “stoater”, but that’s it.

In The Winter Sea, I don’t think I described Carrie at all. And I know in The Firebird the only stray reference to Nicola’s looks was made at the beginning, when she says she’d got her job partly because “I had the proper look [to suit the image of the Galerie St-Croix], the proper pedigree, the right credentials, and I always dressed to fit the part.” And later we learn what her hair colour is when Rob warns her his father has “aye had a liking for blondes.”

But that’s it.

So it fascinates me to no end to see readers remark that my heroines are always beautiful. I won’t quote any particular readers’ reviews because I don’t like doing that—readers are wholly entitled to have their opinions, and authors, in my view, should not interfere with that. But the comments come up with enough regularity to make me wonder why so many people, when faced with a character who isn’t fully described, seem to want to default to the “beautiful”.

Even more fascinating to me is that some readers seem to assume the heroine is beautiful because she manages to attract the romantic attention of one or more men in the small town she travels to, as if beauty alone is the thing that attracts men—as if no man could ever be attracted by a woman’s wit, intelligence, vivacity, or simply the sheer novelty of having her arrive in town. (I grew up in a small town and I’ve travelled to a lot of them and lived in a small village in the west of Wales—believe me when I say you do NOT have to be a beauty to attract attention when you turn up as a stranger in a local pub :-)

The women I see in my mind when I’m writing are never what I would call “beautiful”. Pretty, perhaps, in an ordinary everyday way, but it’s my belief everyone’s pretty to somebody, and the most plain-looking face can become pretty when we have fallen in love with the person behind it.

I’m curious, though: Why do you think some readers, when faced with a blank face, are programmed to fill in the features as “beautiful”?


  1. It annoys me when an author describes the heroine as beautiful, but unaware of her beauty. I prefer a few simple details like Susanna uses and let my imagination do the rest. I'm certainly not beautiful, but I've attracted the attention of several men throughout my life.

  2. I think this is a pattern of other books and what people automatically become accustom to, partly because - as pointed out in Firebird- we see what we choose to see, partly people's minds clamping into a stereotype- which helps us process data quicker, and finally a simple wish to not see our own flaws (rather, to not have flaws), since we often envision ourselves in the heroine rolls.