Friday, November 11, 2011

Worth Spending Time With

What makes someone beautiful to you? Is it physical, like the curves of their body or the steely feel of their work-hardened muscles? Is genetics, such as the softness of their hair, the color of their eyes, the shape of their face? Is it personality: their humor, their loyalty, their love? Is it a little of everything, an indefinable mix of character and physical traits that makes a person uniquely beautiful?

I suspect all of us would readily agree that beauty is subjective. Beauty is also dependent upon the whims of society, on culture, on time and place.

Last summer, while parked on a bench at the Alaska State Fair, I observed the fair-goers and I was struck by just how few people would fall into the “beautiful” category. We humans are really, um, unattractive. (Can I say that out loud?)

I looked through the crowd of families, teens, lovers-in-arms, and oddities, gauging each person on the Hollywood Scale of Beauty. Shallow of me, I know. But I wasn’t being judgmental in that I thought I was better looking than any of them. I was a curious writer deep in people-observation-mode wondering what memorable character I could find here and cache away in my memory bank for later use.

Had I asked the fair-goers if they thought their husband, or wife, or lover was attractive, I’m sure most would say, “To me they are because…” The answers would be heart-felt and the stories behind the reasons probably better than any fiction.

But fiction is where my thoughts wandered to that day at the fair. I thought of the heroes and heroines of my favorite novels. The protagonists in them are almost always appealing in some way, either physically or by force of personality. It could be that I gravitate toward a certain genre, but I suspect that nearly all novels have characters that readers deem attractive. After all, not many of us like to spend time with people we don’t like.

There are very few physical descriptions of characters in my own writing, something I thought was a weakness. The descriptions are absent, not because I don’t know what they look like, but because I can’t seem to find the appropriate places to insert them. But an odd thing began to happen whenever I shared my writing: people not only liked my hero, but some thought he was sexy. Huh? How, I wondered, did they come to that conclusion?

Claire, with her ever insightful way told me why she thought others were attracted to Nathan Rivers. It was a matter of his personality, his actions, his beliefs, and his personal code of honor. I was deeply pleased with her reply, for it meant that even with my inability to describe a character physically, I had managed to create one that was admired.

What about you? What makes you want to spend time in the company of certain characters? Is it physical beauty, or some part of their personality that gives them their appeal, or both? Is it their journey that keeps you reading? How do you know a character is worth spending time with?


  1. Very interesting observations. One advantage to not over describing characters is that the reader can come up with their own image and that helps them forge a connection with the character. Of course their ideas may not look anything like the character. Look at Pride and Prejudice, all we really know of Lizzy is that she had "fine eyes". We know she wasn't a traditional beauty because of all her mother's comments but that her force of personality gave her beauty.

  2. Great post, Susan. I think my favorite characters are all about character, not physical beauty. I see them through their actions and the response of others to them. And that's always biased. Besides, in real life, I'm partial to tall, lithe blonds. (Just check out Laura Grace's descriptions of Tom. ; )

  3. Great post! Ironic that I just saw a picture of Marilyn Monroe in a bathing suit displaying what used to be sexy... I'm not sure when women who are built like little boys became sexy, but Marilyn's curves (or those like it) should be at the forefront of sexy.

    I try to remember this when creating my characters - well to make them real, human and not stick figures!

  4. Yum, Nathan. [waves]
    Actually, I have on days and off days. Some days I look at the crowds shopping along Ste Catherine street and think they all look like like hideous self-important sheep (and that's an insult to sheep).
    But you know what? If I've been writing a lot that day, and maybe it's cos I write romance, I find I'm more forgiving. I take time to see more of the little things - the hand holding, the looks that pass between people - and I remember the basic idea that each of these people just wants to be loved for who they are. And everyone starts seeming more attractive.
    Then it passes, and I'm back to thinking what a bunch of ignorant clods they are.

  5. Terrific post! Just like every antagonist is the protag of his/her own story, everyone is likely beautiful and appealing to someone else.

  6. Ahem, why *others* are attracted to Nathan Rivers? Just FYI, they can get their mitts off that man. Hehe. Anyway! A beautiful character with no depth is no use to me in any story I'm reading or writing. I think that's largely because I'm the kind of reader who likes relatively minimal description- I like to fill the blanks with my own perception of how someone looks.

    The interaction of any character with others is a really good yardstick of their attractiveness rating in an overall, non-visual sense- in my own story, I do deliberately have the one playboy who's a good-looker and a smooth-talker. If he wasn't those things, he might not attain the social standing he has. And if he didn't attain that, his fall from grace would be nowhere near as far, and his reversal as a character when he can no longer rely on his physical attributes wouldn't be anywhere near as good a story. But the attractiveness is more on the magnetism scale- the way people react to him and his actions- than it is on an appearance scale.

    I don't draw on shiny perfect models for character inspiration. I end up looking at sportspeople who are not physically perfect, but they are attractive for a whole other range of reasons- especially their commitment to the game, their team, and for their imperfections. The things they do wrong, even though they're held up as role models. Flaws are oddly attractive to me in characters- vulnerability of any kind is important.

  7. S.P. Bowers - Yes, not having a lot of description is a huge advantage and one that I tend to favor in my own reading. I like to fill in the blanks with my own imagination.

  8. Zan Marie, when I wrote this post, I thought of your character, Laura Grace. She's a classic example of inner beauty and strength.

  9. Kim - I don't think REAL men actually like "stick figure" women, either. Good for you for creating real characters!

  10. Deniz, LOL! Tell is like it is, girl... But yeah, if you watch with a writer's eye, you begin to see the stories, the humanity, rather than the outward physical being.

  11. Precie - good point! Everyone is beautiful to someone.

  12. Claire, absolutely! Shallow characters are boring. Love your observation that it's often how other characters relate to the MC that determines just how attractive he is to readers. And this just feeds into the whole "show, don't tell" thing.

    One of my pet peeves is reading a list of a character's physical traits. "Six-foot Ryan brushed back his mop of blond hair and squinted his pale blue eyes as he picked up his surfboard, muscles rippling under his sun bronze skin." bleh! blah! gah.

    You've carefully crafted your character to leave women in the novel swooning in his wake and I fully expect readers will also think of him as handsome. However, even though I know he is supposed to be attractive, he wasn't attractive to me personally until his journey became that of a hero's. Suddenly, I cared very much for him.

  13. I never found Anthony Keidis (lead singer of Red Hot Chili Peppers) attractive until I read his autobiography. Now when I look at him I feel weak in the knees. It's his strength, his dreams and his failings that make him so irresistible. That says so much to me about beauty and sexuality. It is much, much more than skin deep. xx