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?

Elena

About Elena Greene

Elena Greene grew up reading anything she could lay her hands on, including her mother's Georgette Heyer novels. She also enjoyed writing but decided to pursue a more practical career in software engineering. Fate intervened when she was sent on a three year international assignment to England, where she was inspired to start writing romances set in the Regency. Her books have won the National Readers' Choice Award, the Desert Rose Golden Quill and the Colorado Romance Writers' Award of Excellence. Her Super Regency, LADY DEARING'S MASQUERADE, won RT Book Club's award for Best Regency Romance of 2005 and made the Kindle Top 100 list in 2011. When not writing, Elena enjoys swimming, cooking, meditation, playing the piano, volunteer work and craft projects. She lives in upstate New York with her two daughters and more yarn, wire and beads than she would like to admit.
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