This week’s post is a little late. Sometimes, I really have no idea what to write, so I’ll share whatever I thought of while sweeping at work.
Let’s talk word choice when dealing with characters who are supposed to be attractive, but the author doesn’t want to describe them as such. For whatever reason.
I see this a lot in YA novels, sometimes reaching over into adult fiction. A character is described as not being attractive and then described in a way that makes it obvious that they’re extremely attractive. Perhaps the character has self-esteem issues. Perhaps the author doesn’t want to make the character unattractive, but is trying to balance the character out with negative traits (take that as you will). Whatever the reason, when readers see a character described as unattractive being obviously good-looking, it can be highly annoying.
A lot of it comes down to word choice. Let’s take the self-esteem example.
This trend is common in YA fiction with good reason: people in that age group often do have a lot of self-esteem issues. I did, and I still do. I’m sure some of my followers here do. There’s nothing wrong with a teenager thinking they’re plain, or even ugly, and not realizing that they’re actually neither of those things.
Let’s take good old Twilight as an example. Our protagonist, Bella, doesn’t believe herself to be very pretty. That’s fine. The problem is that she describes herself—the narration being first person—as ‘slender’ and ‘ivory-skinned.’ These are very flattering words, and they don’t work because they’re coming from someone who thinks she’s unattractive. An actual person with low self-esteem would probably think themselves gaunt and pasty.
The thing about low self-esteem is that people with it will not focus on their good features, because they can’t see them. Yes, the girl in question might be slender and have her ivory complexion, but people are more likely to notice their negative features. A look in the mirror won’t result in descriptions of “hair like midnight” or “a complexion like freshly fallen snow,” but a reaction of “why can’t my hair stop looking like shit?”
In opposition, a love interest, best friend, or some other character who interacts with the protagonist will describe him or her using different terms. This doesn’t mean that everyone who isn’t your protagonist should heap compliments upon them. Some people are indifferent to how you look and might only note generic things, like skin tone or hair colour, or unique traits, like scars. A love interest or admirer of any kind will be far more flattering in their terminology (just please don’t make their love for the protagonist their only trait).
Self-esteem issues are understandable, but I don’t have much sympathy for the “he’s not attractive and yet my description makes him totally attractive” part of this situation. There’s no lack of self-esteem to explain why an obviously attractive person wouldn’t be considered attractive, and the author’s personal preference for what’s attractive can only go so far.
I believe maybe—maybe—it’s a point on the author’s part to avoid the dreaded ‘Mary Sue’ sigma. Attractiveness is one of the main traits of this dreaded written being. However, an audience is more likely to trust and sympathize with a character they find attractive. And as writers, some of us like our leading characters to be attractive. There’s no shame in it.
Honestly, if you want to make your character attractive, make them attractive. If trying to play off a character as plain when they’re clearly not—especially with no self-esteem issues attached—is your only way to make them seem flawed, then you need to take several steps back and seriously rethink this individual you’ve created.
In the end, it all comes down to how you choose to describe your character. If this makes any sense.