Hot Stuff

I’m currently revising the second draft of my novel, The Silvergreen Sea. One of the elements I’m trying to develop further is the romantic attraction between my heroine and her – let’s go with prospective boyfriend, needless to say the course of true love runs no smoother for them than for any other fictional couple.

In revising their scenes together, I’ve found it difficult to imply attraction without implying physical attractiveness. And this means I’ve run right up against an issue which has been bugging me in a low-key way for a while now. Namely, as an author, should you make your main characters hot? I couldn’t find any scholarly research on the topic, and I suspect it varies accordingly to the genre, but certainly in my personal experience there are many more books with good-looking protagonists than with plain ones. I find this kind of annoying, especially if not only the protagonist and the love interest(s) are hotties, but the supporting cast as well. The worst example in my own recollection is Here on Earth by Alice Hoffman: a book in which every single character is gorgeous, even the alcoholic who lives in a shack. But there are plenty of other instances – Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles spring to mind, or Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries (vampires are obviously particularly guilty of excessive beauty, although you’d have thought the whole mirror thing would cause issues for personal grooming).

What’s the problem with all this literary hotness? Well, in case you hadn’t noticed, not that many people in real life actually look like movie stars. That’s why the few who do get to be movie stars, and the rest of us get to be project managers or supermarket shelf-stackers or unemployed writers or something equally unglamorous. But books – even fantasy books set in medieval societies without cosmetic dentistry or hair salons – are overflowing with luscious auburn locks, sparkling green eyes and perfectly sculpted cheekbones. It can send my suspension of disbelief crashing to the floor. The only thing worse than making characters pretty is making them ‘not pretty’, as satirised mercilessly by Max Beerbohm back in 1911: ‘Zuleika was not strictly beautiful. Her eyes were a trifle large, and their lashes longer than they need have been’.

Not only is it unrealistic to populate your book with babes, there’s also something rather problematic about the way so many authors focus in on the stories of the handsome, neglecting that ugly people have feelings too. I remember vividly a line from Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth: ‘She had sensibilities which, to Lily, would have seemed comic in a person with a freckled nose* and red eyelids … but poor Grace’s limitations gave them a more concentrated inner life’. And yet the book isn’t about Grace, but the lovely Lily. Is it more poignant to see the [spoilers] downfall and death of a young beauty than that of a young minger? Perhaps. We read, after all, to escape from reality, so if we’re going to imagine ourselves into the role of tragic heroine, we’d probably prefer it if she had perfect skin and sleek hair and thighs which never rub together.

The other side of this coin is that the reader generally wants to fancy the love interest, which is what I’m trying to (subtly) make happen at the moment. I’m also trying not to be too obvious, to maintain some uncertainty, not have the heroine go ‘phwoar’ early on and give the game away. Get her – and, by extension, the reader – to love him for his engaging personality and all that. But still imply that he’s kind of a dish. The book I’ve just finished, The Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb, does a great job of establishing an attraction between two rather plain characters, although Hobb still describes at least half her male characters as ‘handsome’. And I have to confess I’ve called my heroine ‘pretty’ a couple of times, albeit in dialogue rather than narrative voice.

So I guess the conclusion I’ve come to is that, unrealistic, shallow and vaguely problematic or not, readers want hotties and that’s all there is to it. Even if you try to make characters plain, many readers will just imagine them as hot anyway – a phenomenon known by tvtropes.org as Draco in Leather Pants. So you may as well bow to the inevitable. And if the book is ever successful enough to be made into a film – well, then they’ll all end up looking like movie stars in any case.

*as someone with a freckled nose myself, I object to Ms Wharton’s implication here and will counter it with a link to a Buzzfeed article about hot guys with freckles http://www.buzzfeed.com/juliegerstein/freckle-face-yes-please#.vmd91x3Mz . You’re welcome.

Writers’ Tears

I recently finished the second draft of my novel, The Silvergreen Sea, a full six weeks ahead of schedule, just in time to go off on holiday to the South of France. Hooray! Celebration! Get out the champers!
Once the initial jubilation fades, it’s time to think about what happens next. And – oh dear – what happens next is the most terrifying part of the whole writing process. Giving the manuscript to another human being to read. Aargh! Can’t I just lock it away on my hard drive, never to be seen by another pair of eyes? Well, I suppose I could do that, although it seems a little self-defeating. After all, isn’t this what I want, isn’t this the whole point – not just to write, but to be read?
Well, yes. But. Handing over the book to someone else can be pretty nerve-wracking, even if it’s someone you trust. The essential problem for the amateur scribbler, of course, is that anyone you can cajole/bribe/emotionally blackmail into reading your book will inevitably have a vested interest in keeping you happy, and so there’s always a doubt that they will be entirely honest. My husband – long after the fact – confessed that when he started reading my first book, he was terrified that he’d hate it and not know how to tell me. Luckily, either he enjoyed it, or he’s a remarkably good liar playing a very long game. This time round, there’s more confidence, on both sides: he’s confident I can deliver a decent read, and I’m confident he’ll give me his honest opinions on anything he doesn’t like.
Oh dear. Honest opinions. Every writer’s greatest desire, and greatest fear. We want absolute honesty, but only if you loved it. The writing process is a very solipsistic one, and after spending many hours locked away in your own very carefully constructed castle in the air, it can be difficult to come back down to earth and be told that your character motivations are unclear and your chapter transitions too abrupt – and by the way you’ve used dashes when you should have used commas, and vice-versa.
How should the writer respond to criticism? Well, there’s any number of possible options. Crying uncontrollably. Sulking. Arguing with your reader – ‘I think you’ll find if you read more carefully you’ll see that was foreshadowed near the beginning of Chapter 3’. Ignoring the criticism – after all, what do they know, they’re not an artist! – and listening only to your muse. These options are all possible, but none of them is remotely constructive, and some may result in permanently falling out with your long-suffering reader. If you want to derive something helpful from the process, there is only one way to deal with criticism.
Suck it.
That’s right, suck it all up, take it on the chin and get over yourself. Listen carefully to everything the reader has to say, and don’t try to argue with them. So they didn’t appreciate your plot twist? So they didn’t much like your main character? Well, so be it. Maybe your plot twist is stupid and your character is insufferable. Maybe not. But the point is, you’ve got an opportunity here: your reader has given you the precious gift of an honest opinion, before the book is unleashed on the world, and you still have the chance to make some changes.
And of course, if they say nice things, you can bask in the smug joy of having created a thing of beauty. And, if someone is prepared to tell you the bad things, you know that when they say good things, they mean them. Honest praise – the most precious thing of all.
I’ve also found that my latest read, Misery by Stephen King, has been very good at putting things in perspective. Hey, so my husband found fault with some parts of my book! At least [SPOILERS] I’m not being held prisoner by a raving psychopath who’ll burn my manuscript and amputate assorted body parts if she doesn’t like what I’ve written.
Now to start thinking about that third draft…