In the eye of the reader…

Reading Megan’s post on Breaking Rules last week and some of the comments it generated made me think about common tropes regarding romance heroines and their looks.

I’m not sure there’s a rule that heroines need to be beautiful, although it’s definitely a common trope. In my mind, it goes along with the billionaire or duke (depending on subgenre) hero—a fantasy that’s OK in moderate doses and not taken too seriously.

I do get put off by books that continually emphasize the heroine’s beauty, especially when in her own point of view. It grates on me when the heroine repeatedly tosses her red-gold hair and flashes her sapphire eyes. It’s clumsy writing and yet such books can be popular, maybe because some readers love that fantasy so much.

I want the knockout heroine to have some substance. It’s fun when she recognizes her assets and uses them (as in BEAUTY by Judith Ivory) or if she has to downplay them in order to be taken seriously (MISS WONDERFUL, by Loretta Chase). It is going too far if the heroine is completely unaware of her beauty (false modesty) or is too full of self pity because people don’t value her for anything else.

Then there’s the trope of the too-tall, too-thin, too-whatever heroine, or the one with a limp or a crooked nose or mismatched eyes, or just plain in some way. I think that appeals to many of us who lived through an awkward phase, or are insecure in some way about our looks. We may long for, and with luck find, someone who appreciates us as we are. (Hopefully, in time we learn to do that for ourselves.) There’s also the fantasy of being made over, which can be really fun.

This trope can fail if the heroine only thinks she is plain, i.e. she thinks she’s too thin or hates her red hair, but we know everyone else can see she’s gorgeous. Again, it’s false modesty, really a kind of narcissism. Other ways the trope fails is when it’s a gimmick to inspire sympathy, or the heroine dwells too much in self-pity.

Done right, the plain/odd heroine can be very cool, especially if the heroine and others learn to see her physical traits as part of a total package they appreciate. The classic example is JANE EYRE. Among modern historical romances, my favorite (perhaps one that spawned some bad imitations) is the tall heroine with mismatched eyes in Mary Jo Putney’s THE RAKE AND THE REFORMER.

I’ve also enjoyed the descriptions of several of Julia Ross’s heroines: one with a longish nose (NIGHT OF SIN) and another who is freckled (CLANDESTINE). Maybe these stories go where Janet and Amanda were suggesting: the heroine of ordinary looks who doesn’t have any hangups about it, and whose hero enjoys her physical quirks along with everything else.

What do you think about these common tropes regarding heroines and their looks? Any particular sorts of heroines you enjoy reading about, or would like to see more of?


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Louisa Cornell
11 years ago

Actually I just finished a great book with a heroine who was plain, frumpy and had a limp. Oh, and she was considered too tall and too thin. Eileen Dreyer’s Never a Gentleman. And I must tell you, it worked! I thoroughly enjoyed the book and the heroine had depths that had nothing to do with her plainness.

I think the key is for the character to be well-written. Then the physical description can only add to the story.

Diane Gaston
11 years ago

I know readers like the plain overweight heroine who wins the hero anyway, but It is not a trope I’m fond of. I like the fantasy of an idealized heroine. She doesn’t have to be perfectly beautiful, but I sorta want her to be an ideal of “me,” that is, a person I might want to be.

I am totally fond of heroines who lose their appetites when upset….Now that’s a BIG fantasy!!!!

11 years ago

It gets a bit tiring to constantly hear the heroine being described by her exceedingly beautiful attributes. The same can be said about the dangerously handsome hero. Yes, a physical description of the characters is necessary, but once the particulars are given, it is time to develop who they are. That inner character and beauty is more important than emerald green eyes or hair that has the blue black sheen of a raven’s wing.

We want attractive heroes and heroines, but we need to remember that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There are many happy couples out there living their HEA and most would not cause anyone to stop and take a second look.

I guess it boils down to if the physical attributes are all the character has going for her/him, they and the story are in trouble.

11 years ago

I get a bit tired of books in which the heroine’s beauty is constantly being emphasised. I don’t mind when she’s beautiful, but does she have to be the most beautiful woman everyone has ever seen? It is enough for me that she is the loveliest thing the hero has clapped eyes on.

I am likewise annoyed by a constant emphasis on a heroine’s bad points. I only need to be told once that she has a crooked nose or a limp unless it is a turning point in the plot.

I have also become allergic to red-headed heroines who need to learn to control their fiery temper. Anne Shirley was the first such heroine I read about and I still haven’t come across better.

Elena Greene
11 years ago

Louisa, I agree, the heroine’s looks issues shouldn’t hijack the characterization or the story.

Diane, I think that plain heroine/gorgeous hero combination works sometimes but it is a slippery slope to being a mere wish-fulfillment fantasy. I tend to write average-pretty to beautiful heroines myself.

Pat, I totally agree. I want the inner story, the emotion, more than anything else.

LOL on the feisty redheads, Bibliophile! I agree, Anne Shirley was the original and still the best. 🙂

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