Thursday, December 09, 2010

How do I look?

I've been reading some of my Amazon reviews (never something to do without a stiff drink to hand) and one of them got me thinking. Well, actually several of them got me thinking, and not necessarily nice things, either (there's one review of Still Waters where the reader seems to have wandered off into fantasy land and actually made up things to complain about).

But this was a review of I, Spy? complaining that Sophie Green is one of those "gorgeous heroines who think they're average." This is interesting to me, because this is pretty much how Sophie sees herself, and given that her books are narrated in the first person by herself, it's really only her viewpoint we get to see.

So is she gorgeous, or is she average? I think she's both. Perhaps the fault lies with me for not explaining this well enough in the book, but to my mind Sophie has good days, where she thinks she's pretty hot, and bad days, where she's afraid to go out without a paper bag. I figure this is pretty normal. It's certainly how I feel about myself a lot of the time.

So I was thinking. What sort of relationship do our characters have with their looks, and does it alter our perception of them as a person? Is it possible to be beautiful and genuinely not know it? Why do we hate attractive people so much, anyway?

(Yes, this is me trying out the Carrie Bradshaw method of writing. I'll let you know how it works out for me.)

One of the challenges of writing a 1st person POV is explaining how the character sees herself. Sophie might genuinely think she's kind of average looking, but the rest of the world might disagree. How does she, or the reader, know any different? Of course, we get her take on other people's reactions. I don't think at any point anybody ever tells Sophie outright that she's gorgeous, but Luke clearly fancies the pants off her, and so do various other men. So who's right? Is her modesty normal, or annoying? If Sophie narrated herself as drop-dead gorgeous, would she lose the reader's sympathy?
There are days when I look in the mirror and think, damn, I’m hot. And there are days when I look in the mirror and it breaks. Luke must have caught me on a good day the first time he saw me, because the main SO17 hypothesis is that he hired me because he wanted to shag me. That’s really the only explanation anyone can think of. (Ugley Business)

Now I'm writing Luke's POV for the first time, and it's interesting how his perception of her is developing. She's beautiful to him, but he admits this is a personal opinion and maybe not everyone will see her the same way. She's beautiful because he loves her. Earlier on, I suspect if I'd asked Luke what he thought of Sophie's looks, 'beautiful' wouldn't have been the word he'd use. He'd say she was pretty hot, but then to convince himself he wasn't falling for her he'd probably modify it in some way, and he'd definitely tell you he'd been with more beautiful women (Luke is a bit of a bastard sometimes, a fact he freely admits). I've been enjoying writing scenes between Luke and his new assistant, who is very beautiful and exactly the sort of woman he'd have gone for before he met Sophie. Now, he's just not interested (and his assistant can't figure out why he'd prefer the much-inferior Sophie).

For the record, Luke knows he's a handsome bastard. He thinks of his looks as a useful asset, like being a good shot or speaking fluent Russian. That's simply the extent of his relationship with his appearance.

Sophie's attitude is in contrast to that of Chance, the heroine of Almost Human. While Sophie might be modest in her view of herself, Chance isn't. She can't afford to be. She's a courtesan, and knows that her beauty is her biggest selling tool. She works hard on looking good and takes pride in her appearance. She knows that her body is perfect and that her face is exquisite; she can't avoid knowing it. She enjoys being admired. She has recognised very early on that her looks are something she can exploit, and she's not shy about doing it. I really enjoyed writing someone who is so frank about her perception of herself, and to my knowledge, no one has complained about it.

But this problem isn't limited to 1st person. The Untied Kingdom is a 3rd person narrative, shared pretty equally by the hero and heroine. And I really enjoyed writing about the gap in their perceptions of each other. As the omniscient creator, I can describe Eve and Harker to you, but that's no fun. Letting them describe themselves and each other is much more interesting, and tells you far more about them and their relationship with their looks.

Eve thinks of herself as reasonably attractive. As a teen pop star, she was used to being dolled up and admired, but she knows now she's not as primped and toned as she was at 17. She doesn't hate her figure, even if it's not popstar perfect any more (she still shudders at the memory of a certain pair of lime green hotpants) and that while she won't stop traffic, she has a pretty face. If she considers her looks at all, it's with some regret that she's not as pretty as she was when she was 17, and that she'll never be able to recreate the made-up, airbrushed images of herself from that time. She knows Harker finds her attractive, and she's secretly quite pleased about it.

Harker thinks Eve is the prettiest woman he's ever seen. He's physically attracted to her right from the start, and the more he falls for her, the more beautiful he finds her (one of my favourite lines is Harker wondering if she's being this beautiful on purpose, as it's the sort of thing she'd do). He particularly likes her blue-green eyes, and he really enjoys following her up a staircase. He knows other men find her attractive, and it's enough to make him jealous.

Harker's view of himself is somewhat less rosy. He dislikes grooming and primping himself and would rather look like he doesn't have time to shave or get a haircut, but this is the extent of his thoughts on the matter. He doesn't really see the point in working out whether he's good looking or not, as it isn't useful and there's nothing he can do about it anyway. The only time he really thinks about it is when Eve sees how badly scarred he is, and he mistakes her concern for revulsion. He doesn't want to be affected by it, but he's upset that she doesn't find him attractive, and even tries to alter his appearance to please her.

I really enjoyed writing Eve's changing views on Harker's appearance. Early on, she wonders why she's flirting with him when he's not even that good looking (which says a lot more about Eve at that point than it does about Harker). Later, as she tries to convince herself she's not falling for him, she repeats this to herself and just to make sure, categorises all the things about his appearance that aren't perfect.

“He’s not even that good-looking,” she said out loud. His lips were too thin and his nose was too big, and he was always scowling or mocking, and would it seriously kill him to shave or wash his hair? All right, so he was tall and he was undoubtedly in great shape, but so what? (The Untied Kingdom)
 But as she admits to herself how she feels about him, she begins to admit that he's actually quite a handsome man. As she becomes more attracted to his personality, she finds his looks growing on her too, to the extent that she describes him as beautiful towards the end of the book. She has to convince him that she finds him attractive. As with Luke and Sophie, Harker becomes beautiful because Eve loves him.

I also used certain words when I described Harker, deliberately choosing words like 'hard', 'stormy', and 'dark'. His eyes are gunmetal grey, and that too was a deliberate choice to remind you he's an army man. I wanted no softness or warmth when I described him, apart from a few instances when Eve sees heat in his eyes. In contrast, when he thinks of Eve, he uses words like 'soft' and 'lush'. Her eyes are blue-green: mutable and warm. While Harker is dark-haired and unkempt, Eve has soft pale hair. They're from different worlds, have different outlooks and agendas, and I wanted to emphasise this.

I'm currently percolating a story in the same universe as Almost Human with a heroine who has a difficult relationship with her looks. The phrase that's defined her early life is "Your face will be your fortune," and she's come to rely on her looks and nothing else. When her beauty is marred, she finds it difficult to believe she has any other assets. I'm quite looking forward to exploring this relationship with her appearance.

What about you? How do you relate to a character and their appearance? Does anyone have examples of a character's relationship with their looks that's really well done, or really badly?


  1. I've seen that disconnect in a lot of books. I think it's definitely a show that confidence really does make someone more attractive. Sophie doesn't seem confident about her looks, but I've never doubted her overall hotness. I think some people find the disconnect with the lack of self-esteem.

    But that's real life. I wake up sometimes with perfect hair, non-blotchy complexion and find a shirt that shows off why my mother gave me. Then there are days when I wake up hungover sporting leftover makeup. It's a project - something that every woman faces. I'd say that that reviewer is either someone with a hangover hating beautiful blondes - or a beautiful blonde wondering why the hell someone would ever lack confidence.

    Either way, Luke likes Sophie, and we like Sophie, and Sophie mostly likes Sophie -- so Amazon's love lost can shove it.

  2. I think what can be really annoying is a character everyone else finds stunningly beautiful, but who just doesn't know it. Doesn't she have a mirror?

    And the other one that gets me is the very beautiful heroine whose looks aren't an issue in any way. Beautiful people deal with a lot of shit, from people who pester them, from people who hate them for being beautiful, from people who assume they're stupid or nasty. I rarely see that jealousy in books.

  3. Hmm, interesting. I think its definitely realistic for people to feel great about the way they look one day, and then feel hideous the next. I certainly do! But as you and Bethany have both said, this comes down to self esteem, confidence, external factors... i think its pretty normal. maybe this is why the reviewer complained- because its such a typical thing, lots of book's characters feel like this, and maybe it seems overdone...?

    for me, it comes down to the characters personality. as long as you can understand why they feel the way they do (and they're not a complete cow) and they're generally a nice person then i'll like them.

    but as you say, why should we hate pretty people or even pretty people who don't feel pretty....? some people just have a bee in their bonnet about things like this. forget them!