Sunday, May 23, 2010

Pretty is as pretty does

As a society, we are obsessed with good looking people, and it translates into gorgeous, sexy, well-dressed characters on TV, in movies, and in books. Women want to look like Julia Roberts, they want their men to look like George Clooney (or, if you're a younger person, maybe you're thinking Miley Cyrus is the epitome of what a teenage girl should look like. Just take a poll and see how many teenage boys now have Justin Bieber hair).

Physical descriptions in books are important, because the reader wants to be able to picture the characters in their heads. I made a point never to describe Annie Seymour too carefully because I wanted the reader to imagine her, not just see her clearly. But with Brett Kavanaugh, I have described her short red hair, the fact that she's almost six feet tall and skinny, and all of her tattoos in detail. She's an attractive woman.

Other writers follow suit: Alafair Burke's Ellie Hatcher is petite, blond and extremely attractive. Lee Child's Jack Reacher is a man's man and a woman's man, even though I've always wondered just how "clean" he is, since he doesn't carry a suitcase and seems to wear the same clothes all the time. Louise Penny's Inspector Gamache is a nattily dressed middle aged man. In Harlan Coben's THE WOODS, all the women are gorgeous and have long legs. Jim Born's Duarte is surrounded by amazingly attractive women, as is his Bill Tasker. Wallace Stroby's Harry Rane always manages to bed beautiful, sexy women.

Speaking of sex, Lori Armstrong's Martinez is the epitome of hot (and if you read SHALLOW GRAVE you may find yourself blushing). Alison Gaylin's Krull may be strong and silent, but not when it counts. Michele Martinez’s Dan causes Melanie to throw caution to the wind, lock her office door and offer herself to him on the desk. In my books, Vinny DeLucia used to be a geek but now he makes Annie weak in the knees. In THE MISSING INK, Brett meets a suave, gorgeous, British casino manager who sweeps her off her feet.

In reality, though, as an example, those CSI shows can't be farther from the truth when you see an actual CSI. Cops aren't always that good looking. Neither are lawyers or tattoo artists or journalists. Can we justify feeding into society's idea of what people should look like by writing these characters who take our books just a stone’s throw from the old-fashioned bodice rippers? Can we justify this by saying that’s what readers want? Can we justify it by saying that’s what we want?


P.A.Brown said...

Normally I give very little description in my books. In most cases I leave it up to the reader to imagine who they want in the role. When I do, it's not always of beautiful people. My cop in the L.A. series is described as having very thick black hair and pock-marked skin. He even has a bit of a belly in the first book. On the other hand Chris, in the same series is described through everyone's reaction to him as being drop dead gorgeous. I did this deliberately as a kind of beauty and the beast.

I've had a lot of my characters described by other characters as not being what would be called beautiful. Now what readers do with those characters is up to them. If they insist on making them gorgeous, what can I do? :-)

Sunny Frazier said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sunny Frazier said...

I got knocked by my writing group for making my astrologer Christy Bristol a wallflower. My response: I don't know a lot of drop-dead gorgeous women with high-profile jobs. Christy is plain, but that gives me a chance for her to evolve and find her own beauty. In FOOLS RUSH IN she discovered she had fortitude; in WHERE ANGELS FEAR she uncovered her sexuality. In A SNITCH IN TIME she will find the value of female bonding. By the time I'm finished with the series I'm sure some readers will find her beautiful.

Holli said...

Readers don't want to read about protagonists with pock marked faces that they can see at the check out in the grocery store every day. They read for fantasy.

When I write, I try to give them fantasy looks with a good dose of reality mixed in. Nobody is physically perfect in my book. But that doesn't mean they can't be hot or attractive or even my own ideal of beautiful.

I think we want to read about beautiful people, but there is a huge caveat- people disagree on what qualifies as beauty. I thought it was fitting that you mention Justin Beiber, because my eight-year-old and ten-year-old, both girls, think he looks too much like a girl and can't believe the girls in their classes are in love with him. (I have my own concerns about the older women you see at his concerts drooling over him myself, but that's fodder for another topic.)

Anyway, my light skinned, bald-headed black cop with the unlikely blue eyes and numerous tattoos and piercings for his undercover work may make some readers shiver in revulsion, while others may think he is as hot as I think he is. (Physical description is loosely based on a read cop, so I am biased in his favor somewhat.)

Beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder, but I don't think most people want to read about a really ugly lead character, or someone who is hideously disfigured. Our culture tells us those are supposed to be the bad guys in novels, whether we agree with it personally or not.

Holli Castillo
Gumbo Justice

jennymilch said...

I agree with a lot of the commenters--that movie star looks are for the movies. In my fiction I want characters who fit the roles they have. Some hard-edged PI better not look like someone from a boy band. But I do think it comes down to whether we read fiction to escape into fantasy--or someone else's reality.

Lauren Carr said...

Most readers, especially of fiction, want to escape into some sort of fantasy. Yet, while I want fantasy, I like enough reality to make me believe that my dream is within my grasp.

In IT'S MURDER, MY SON, Mac Faraday is a bankrupt homicide detective that inherits a fortune beyond his dreams from his late birth mother, America's Queen of Mystery. I describe him by way of a description of a painting over his mother's fireplace. The painting is of the ficitonal lead detective in his late mother's books. I then have characters struck by the resemblance between Mac and that detective.

Ironically, while Mac has a new champagne budget, his sense of fashion needs time to catch up. He still dresses in worn loafers and faded jeans, making him the worst dressed millionaire at the club.

As Mac's character developes in his new life of glamour and leisure, which begins to mirror that of his mother's chief detective, he will become more dashing.

Karen Olson said...

You all raise a lot of interesting points. Beauty IS in the eye of the beholder, and perhaps as writers we are the beholders.

There was one cop show that comes to mind in this discussion: HOMICIDE, LIFE ON THE STREET. That show had actors who looked like real people, who looked like real cops. The women cops weren't gorgeous or wearing high heels when chasing down the bad guys.

I find it interesting, too, that we don't have any men chiming in here yet...

Anonymous said...

I think that it's distracting from the reality of the story if the characters all look like soap opera stars. It's the character's actions that can make him or her attractive. That should be the real challenge for a writer, making even an unappealing character sound hot and sexy. Because, in real life, what truly keeps a couple together isn't the way they look, but how they interact and react to each other.
Karyne Corum

L.J. Sellers said...

We write about good-looking protagonists because we all want to be good-looking protagonists.

And who the heck is Justin Bieber?

Holli said...

L.J. I like your post and have to agree to some extent without trying to reveal my vanity. My protag is who I would like to be, short like me but she weighs a lot less, is much younger, and has much better hair.

Justin Bieber is a little boy singer who is the next hottest pop star. I think he's 15 or 16 by now, but has been at it a while, making it big when he was 14. He looks even younger and the girls and unfortunately some women really go for him. You learn all about these things when you have two daughters in elementary school.


Kieran Shea said...

And yet, and yet...some of the most endearing characters in fiction and film are the hobbled, the shamed, the sad, the outcast, and the ugly. Ignatius Jacques Reilly! Finbar McBride! Sherlock Holmes was a gaunt drug-addled freakshow, riddled with depression.

Karen Olson said...

LJ, you're totally right!

Holli, not sure Justin Bieber is that old because his voice hasn't even changed yet. I bet he's younger...

Kieran, you're right, but villians seem to get the short end of the looks stick mostly. However, perhaps writers should look to real villians like Ted Bundy, whose charms and good looks got him his victims.

David Terrenoire said...

I don't describe my characters as a rule, preferring to take Dutch Leonard's advice. But I will let other characters do it. Of course, BAPM was written in first person, so Harper described everything he saw and he saw plenty.

In this WIP, set in '41, other characters tell the protag that he looks like Gary Cooper.After being in prison for 16 years, he has no idea if this is a good thing or a bad thing.