Beautiful heroines, handsome heroes : never ugly, never bald?

Let’s hear it for the heroes! Tall, dark and handsome?

mysterious hero but is he handsome?

Hero = handsome; heroine = beautiful?
Bestselling author Susanna Kearsley published a blog last week that asks a thought-provoking question about romantic heroines:  — why is it that “some readers, when faced with a blank face, are programmed to fill in the features as ‘beautiful’?”

Good question.
A disturbing question, too, perhaps.

But what about the heroes? Do we readers fill in male features in a similar way? Why?
Do the heroes of our imagination have to be tall, dark and handsome?mysterious fair hero but is he handsome?

OK, maybe sometimes tall, fair and handsome.

But what about short heroes? Or plain ones?
Even ugly? Or fat, or bald, or seedy?

How far did I have to go in that list of physical descriptions before you were turned off?

Or maybe you weren’t?

Note that I’m not talking about anything other than physical appearance here. Heroes are fascinating to readers for lots of reasons apart from looks, as the results of our hero poll showed very clearly in 2016. We considered some of the other hero tropes too, back then.

Tall dark and handsome heroes, Alan Rickman & Richard ArmitageBut this is rather different. Assuming the author hasn’t described the hero’s appearance, how do we, as readers, conjure up a mental picture of him? What influences how we visualise a desirable hero?

With that question in mind, I hope you’ll forgive me for including this picture of Alan Rickman and Richard Armitage having a black leather moment. Blogs need pictures and this is purely for decorative purposes, you understand…  😉

Napoleon — not tall, dark and handsome, but still a hero?

Napoleon, hero to many, but not tall dark and handsomeNapoleon was shortish (about 5ft 7ins or 1.70m), not exactly handsome and definitely of a paunchy tendency. Yet he certainly had charisma and was passionately loved by both women and men.

He doesn’t make my case, of course. He had an awful lot more going for him than looks. Power, for starters. And when we think about Napoleon, our mental view of him is clouded by history and his aura of “gloire”.

No, if we’re trying to create a romantic hero, he can’t be a real figure from history. They have too much baggage. The best romantic heroes have no reality other than the one we readers take from the story and our own imaginations.

So… fictional, yet tall, dark and handsome? But is male (or female) beauty our default? Why?

Lichtenstein castleFairytales have us brainwashed?

Have we been brainwashed, at a very early age, by Middle European fairytales? The heroine (always beautiful) is rescued by the hero (always handsome) and the pair live happily ever after. Out of the Black Forest came, not a gateau, but a stereotype?

Think of Sleeping Beauty, for one. Or Snow white. Or what about Cinderella, a filthy and ragged kitchen drudge who was magically transformed into a beautiful princess for the ball. And Lo! the handsome prince took one look and fell in love. Not with her wit or her intelligence or her charitable disposition — she hadn’t said a word — but with her beauty.
Is there a lesson for us there?

(And think of all those glittery fairy princess dresses sold as Halloween costumes for little girls. A lesson AND a profit opportunity.)

Disney (and Hollywood more generally) has much to answer for in the fairytale stakes.

But not all cartoons go for the heroine=beautiful, hero=handsome approach. Dreamworks produced the wonderful Shrek where the hero is an ogre. Not tall, dark and handsome. Not handsome at all. What’s more, he’s green. He also has a paunch and peculiar ears.
And he is BALD. Yes, a bald hero at last!

His true love, Princess Fiona, starts off beautiful and is transformed into the ogress she is underneath. Not beautiful. Yet she is comfortable being her ogress self. Given a chance to revert to her beautiful form, she prefers being an ogress. With Shrek. [Happy sigh.]

Shrek is a rare example of the leavening I think we need. But there are an awful lot of examples on the other side, with stereotypically drop-dead-gorgeous heroes plus stunning heroines who live (of course!) happily ever after.

Do we default to something familiar? Something more like us?

Not many of us are green ogres. White Brits like me may be unlikely to visualise their ideal hero as a man from the other side of the world who doesn’t speak English. We have unconscious biases, even without the conditioning from those blasted fairytales.

When a black actress, Noma Dumezweni, was cast as Hermione in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on the London stage, it provoked a backlash on social media. JK Rowling called it racist. She stressed that Hermione’s skin colour had never been made explicit in the Harry Potter books. It seems that many readers just assumed Hermione was white without ever considering the issue at all. Maybe, like Shrek, she was actually green?

Heyer reveals the truth (or what we’ve been taught is the truth)

I was reminded — thank you, Sophie — that Georgette Heyer had summed up our cultural bias towards physical beauty in her usual masterly way. In The Convenient Marriage, Society assumes Lord Rule has made an offer for the beautiful Lizzie Winwood, but he has actually agreed to marry Lizzie’s seventeen-year-old sister, Horatia, instead. Horatia is not a Beauty: she does have The Nose, but also unfortunate eyebrows, and she has given up hope of growing any taller. Moreover, she has a stammer.

Rule’s sister, Lady Louisa, cannot believe the news:

     “This nonsense about Horatia? What is the truth of it?”
     “Only that Horatia offered herself to me in her sister’s place. And that — but I need not tell you — is quite for your ears alone.”
     Lady Louisa was not in the habit of giving way to amazement, and she did not now indulge in fruitless ejaculation. “Marcus, is the girl a minx?” she asked.
     “No,” he answered. “She is not, Louisa. I am not at all sure that she is not a heroine.”
     “Don’t she wish to marry you?”
     The Earl’s eyes gleamed. “Well, I am rather old, you know, though no one would think it to look at me. But she assures me she would quite like to marry me. If my memory serves me, she prophesied that we should deal famously together.”
     Lady Louisa, watching him, said sharply, “Rule, is this a love-match?”
     His brows rose; he looked faintly amused. “My dear Louisa! At my age?”
     “Then marry the Beauty,” she said. “That one would understand better.”

Marrying a Beauty, without love, would be understood by everyone. Beauty Explains Everything.

Thank you, Ms Heyer. I rest my case.

Joanna Maitland, author



14 thoughts on “Beautiful heroines, handsome heroes : never ugly, never bald?

  1. lesley2cats

    And what about Jenny Chawleigh? “A suggestion of squareness”, with a short neck and no music in her flat toned voice, among other non-attributes. She’s described in great detail, obviously to circumvent our tendency to bestow beauty on our heroines.

    As for Disney and Hollywood, they have precedents in pantomime in the UK, which owed much to commedia d’el Arte in Italy, and used those same European fairytales. One of my favourite tenets is that those producing, writing and performing pantomime must do it to the absolute best of their ability, as in Britain, it is usuallythe first live theatre to which children are taken. It forms their first impressions of live performance and, of course, their vision of heroic beauty. You can’t have a plain Principal Girl, can you?

    Sorry, I’ve gone on a bit, haven’t I?

    1. Joanna Post author

      Go on as long as you like, Lesley. Your comments are always worth reading.

      You’re right about panto of course. At Christmas our famly always went to the circus and the panto. As far as I was concerned, panto was much better than circus. Because it fed my love of inner storytelling perhaps?

      I grew up in the tradition where the principal boy was played by an attractive, long-legged female. Nowadays, it seems that the principal boy is more often played by a male and, for me, that doesn’t feel right. And yes, the principal girl always has to be beautiful, too. I may just have shot my own case down in flames, but hey… 😉

  2. Elizabeth Bailey

    It’s much more enjoyable writing flawed heroes and heroines. They might be passable, if not quite pretty. And the hero with the jutting nose or, as I’ve just finished writing, a vulturish face, means you have got to build on character to make them lovable. Of course some are handsome or beautiful, but I think they may be the exception.

    But it’s true we are conditioned by fairy tales to think of beauty as a must for an h/h. Is it part of the unattainable dream perhaps?

    1. Joanna Post author

      I do agree about flawed heroes/heroines, Liz. And your “vulturish face” sounds like a wonderful challenge to write. Great stuff.

  3. susannakearsley

    Lovely post. And thanks for the mention of mine.

    As for heroes who aren’t handsome, Hugh MacPherson in my book A Desperate Fortune is decidedly NOT a good-looking man. I came right out and said that (although I’ve no doubt many readers, on learning that he was a Scotsman, defaulted to seeing him otherwise).

    Part of the thing I loved best about writing that novel was watching the heroine, Mary, begin to see past his looks to the good man inside.

    Beginning with this:

    “It did not help that he was plain of face, his features made more unattractive by the hardness of their angles and the absence of emotion in his eyes.”

    She went to this:

    “He looked less fearsome, reading. With his gaze turned downward it had not the piercing steadiness that hardened all his features; and his mouth, although still crooked and uneven at its corners, was not set into its stricter lines. He looked almost . . . approachable, she thought. And while he never would be handsome and had not the will to charm, she did allow some women might yet find his hair attractive.”

    And then this:

    “He was a fine-looking man from the back, and she thought it a shame he had not been born handsome, nor reared with more care for his manners, for he would have otherwise made a good hero.”

    And finally, in what became one of my favourite endings, this:

    “‘The face is a plain one,’ said Hugh, ‘but the workings inside will not fail ye.’
    Her gaze lifted slightly and focused on Hugh—on the serious line of his brow and the slash of a shadow his eyelashes made on his strong angled cheekbones, and Mary could not then imagine how she could have ever thought Hugh unattractive. ‘It is a handsome face,’ she told him, and again she was not speaking of the watch.”

    I, of course, knew he was wonderful all along, just as I knew the more handsome man couldn’t be trusted, but it was still nice to watch Mary discover it 🙂

    1. Joanna Post author

      Welcome to Libertà, Susanna. Hope you enjoy it here.

      I love your extracts and the underlying humour is great. “He was a fine-looking man from the back” is wonderful, as is the double meaning with the watch face. And I agree that handsome men cannot always be trusted. Think of Shrek where Charming, though amazingly handsome, is a nasty schemer controlled by his equally nasty mother, the so-called Fairy Godmother. Can you tell that I love that film? It is so subversive.

  4. Kate Johnson

    Thought provoking stuff, as usual!

    I read a Lucy Parker book recently where the heroine, an art student, is fascinated by the hero’s face despite him being, in his own and everyone else’s view, very much not handsome. It begins, “Picasso would have loved his face.” Its a lovely example of how conventional beauty isn’t for everyone.

    It’s interesting how quite a few heartthrobs aren’t really all that handsome. I still don’t think David Tennant is and am on the fence about Richard Armitage, and yet I still fancy them both desperately. My hero Harker from the Untied Kingdom was based on RA and the heroine doesn’t think he’s handsome at all to begin with. I enjoyed writing her growing attraction to him: by the end she doesn’t care about him being handsome.

    After that I wrote a blind heroine, which was an interesting challenge when it came to describing the hero’s looks!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, K8, and welcome. I loved your blind heroine: Impossible Things is a terrific book, much recommended.

      David Tennant doesn’t do it for me — and I don’t think he’s handsome, either — but Richard Armitage has a brooding quality that appeals. I had RA in mind when I wrote one particular antihero, possibly influenced by seeing RA as antihero Guy of Gisborne (where I could definitely understand why Marion was attracted).

      You may have noticed that I found an excuse for including a pic of RA in the blog.
      Here’s another, of the brooding variety 😉
      Richard Armitage (brooding) in Spooks

  5. Alison Morton

    Excellent piece. Tweeted. I rather like my villains to have good looks and charm with the heroes being a bit knocked about a bit. My first heroine is more sporty and skinny and envies her attractive and poised cousin; my second envies her socially adept daughter.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Agree, Alison. As I said in my reply to K8, I went for the Armitage “feel” for my antihero. But the point Susanna Kearsley was making was about how readers attach beauty to hero/heroine, whether we authors think they should be beautiful or not. And the reader (like the customer) is always right, no?

  6. Sue McCormick

    As I have said in other places, I like to picture my heroes (and heroines) as common looking (all the place between ugly and beautiful). Beauty can be a burden (and can make a person shallow because of the way we treat it). I like to think of the characters looking like all the people I know.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I think you may be a less “brainwashed” reader than some of us, Sue. But your point is a good one and perhaps (?) argues for authors to say much less about what hero/heroine look like and to let the reader fill in the blanks according to her own likes and dislikes. When I first started writing, I used to include quite a lot of physical description; nowadays, I include much less, I think. “Trust the reader” is a good way to go.

      I do agree that beauty can be a burden because of the way we treat it.

  7. lesley2cats

    Coming in a week later – this week I set up a new group on Facebook for readers of my books. Sounds big-headed, doesn’t it, but it was suggested by someone else who had already done it, and it got an instant response. The first discussion that emerged was about what the characters look like, and they all spent a couple of days “casting” it. The variation was huge! And, of course, they all insisted that their vision was the correct one. None of them matched mine. The one character who is nearest to a tall dark hero went from Sean McGann to Richard Armitage. Well, they’re both dark…

    1. Joanna Post author

      Congrats on the FB group, Lesley. Sounds like a great move and your fans (of whom I’m one, but not a regular FB-er) will love it.

      Your fans are right in saying that their vision is the correct one. That’s the point of stories, isn’t it? Like radio, stories have the best pictures, ie the ones in the reader’s imagination. As I said in response to an earlier comment, I’ve reduced the amount of physical description in my stories so readers can fill in the blanks themselves.

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