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How much does physical beauty really matter in romance?

I haven’t posted here in over a year because most of my thought-power has been going to my job at a publisher.  But lately, I get the urge to write an essay, or share some random observations, and I realize that I actually miss blogging.  I blog for my job, but I have to be careful.  My opinion, my personal thoughts, sometimes are just not appropriate to express when I speak for a brand.

I missed the opportunity to really reveal myself, to be honest with my own thoughts.  Like the phoenix, I blog once more!  (Wait, that didn’t quite work.)

A few thoughts about modern romance novels & physical beauty.

So, I’ve been doing some reading for work.  We’re slowly getting ready for our first “New Adult” release, so I’ve been reading some YA, paranormal romance, and urban fantasy, which usually has some romance in it.  In a crime / urban fantasy series I picked up, one of the viewpoint characters is an adult police detective, and what I knew about him was mostly from his actions.

It wasn’t until I got into the second volume, where he mentioned his own ordinary looks, that I realized I had absolutely no idea what he looked like.  I hadn’t even tried to visualize it, because the author didn’t even give a hair or eye color.  And I was all right with that.  Granted, this was mostly an urban fantasy story with a sliver of romance in it, and I had a slightly better idea of what the lead female looked like.

But only slightly, with the emphasis on her nonhuman features (she is an elf.)  And, to my memory, she was never discussed as being beautiful, pretty, voluptuous, sensual, or even particularly feminine.  I still cared about the characters, and, for the most part, still believed their attraction.

It made me wonder how essential being beautiful / handsome / pretty / hot is for romance characters.  For us to want to participate in the story and the romance, do they have to be beautiful? It wasn’t in the urban fantasy series, but the romance wasn’t central.

I read another book for work.  Reading is such a generous term for it; this was one of those New Adult books that seems to be flooding the digital market.  I’m a full adult and have no inherent interest in twenty-year-olds or their developmental angst.

It’s not that I avoid central characters who are 18 – 25, it’s that the New Adult books aren’t any more compelling just because of the age of their characters, any more than I expect my son to be interested in friendship with someone just because they go to the same school.

I never would have considered reading it, except that it’s part of my job. And it was number one on Amazon for a long time (though not anymore.)  That alone was enough to spark my interest.

The main character was a senior in college, and naturally, smokin’ hot.  But of course she didn’t feel hot and was quite insecure because of her history of abuse.  The love(?) interest / lust object was a teacher, only slightly older, but still forbidden fruit because he’s a teacher where she’s a student.  Also smokin’ hot.

In fact, it seems like the only thing these two had going for them was emotional baggage from the past and good looks.  Their personalities?  There wasn’t much there for him except some generic charming behavior.  Though I spent 300+ pages with the viewpoint character and her feelings, I still didn’t feel like there was much ghost in the 20-year-old shell.  If anything, she was presented as nothing more than a victim of her own emotions.

The plot was a constant series of coincidences and dramatic outside pressures that made sense within the story… but only barely.  The attraction between them seemed to be only based on mutual sympathy for each others’ tragic pasts and being beautiful.

So why the hell was this so popular?  Every time I read a book like this, I get the feeling that the moral of the story is that romance is only for the young, hot, wounded, and / or plucky.

Romance is a deeply vital and human motivation.  Everyone has an attitude about romance because it’s part of life, whether directly or indirectly, but when I read books like the second one, I start to lose faith that writers are still tapping into the actual substance of the human experience to create their works.

Because this is my blog, I’m offering up my strong opinion.  Here it is:

In this age of self-publishing, I think more erotica and romance writers should take a chance.  If they’re so inclined, I would love to see them depart from the lazy, superficial groove of what sells, and go more into what moves us, or at least moves me: some actual human experience.  I would like to see more romance writers stop relying on the “halo effect” of beauty, and stretch their imaginations and go further with what’s actually inside the character’s heads (if anything…)

It seems lazy to have a generically beautiful / hot character without the reader or other characters having to do the work of finding out what is beautiful or sexy about them.  Our own attraction is what makes people attractive.  Desirability isn’t a quality that someone inherently has; it’s a quality that the one who desires them gives them.

I’m interested in characters as whole people, not only aesthetic objects of desire.  It’s actually rather insulting to me that most of the writers in a majority genre thinks I won’t be interested in characters unless they’re beautiful.

Perhaps they should trust the readers a little more and see what happens?  Anyway, I’ll read it…

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