Thursday, January 7, 2010

Beauty & the Beast

by Ashley Lister

Is beauty a necessary requirement in erotica? Of course it is. Who wants to shag a fugly? Does this make me sound glib? Of course it does. But the depressing thing is: I’m speaking the absolute truth.

Beauty, it’s claimed, is in the eye of the beholder. But this is only true to a certain extent.

Part of the problem with beauty is that the media have manipulated our interpretation of beauty to a level where it is now an unattainable goal. Models are photoshopped and airbrushed so that they’re unrecognisable. Photographs of an attractive model are tweaked and touched up until the image of the attractive model becomes the epitome of desirability with large, doe-like eyes, porcelain smooth skin and a perfectly proportioned physique. The photographs are tweaked to such an extent that, when the attractive model is placed next to their enhanced image, the model looks like a fugly. This video illustrates the point neatly: Given this state of affairs, what hope do the rest of us have in ever being considered beautiful?

Fortunately, in literature, beauty is a subjective concept – invariably delineated by the perspective of the narrator or an opinionated central character. The protagonist believes the antagonist is attractive therefore the reader sees the antagonist as an attractive character. It might be a minor subplot that the protagonist hankers after a partner with a face like a baboon’s arse but the key issue is that the antagonist is beautiful in the protagonist’s eyes, therefore the antagonist is beautiful.

A reader once complained that I always made my characters flawlessly attractive. She said that this detracted from the story. I considered this as serious criticism and re-read the work that had generated this complaint. I then read it again and decided my critic had been talking shit.

In the novel in question I’d been fairly sketchy with each character’s physical descriptions. It had been written whilst I was recalling the advice given by horror author James Herbert. Mr Herbert (in a TV interview) explained that he tried to keep the characters’ physical descriptions to a minimum so that readers could imprint faces from their own imagination on to each character. He was talking in terms of stories that are plot based action narratives, rather than heavily involved character studies. As a device for erotic fiction, I thought it worked well and allowed the reader to experience a more intimate involvement through their own imagination.

But my critic was a woman so fugly her passport photograph was used as promotional material advertising The Horror Channel. Not surprisingly, she was also a person with exceptionally low self-esteem who believed that everyone else in the world was more attractive than herself. Admittedly, she was probably justified in having that opinion, but with her low self-esteem she had imprinted the images of beautiful people on the characters in my story and blamed me for creating a cast who reinforced her negative self-image.

All of which, is my longwinded way of saying: whether we create beautiful characters or bland faceless ones, there will be readers who see these characters the way they want to see them. And, if the reader wants beautiful characters, who am I to not give them what they want?

(NB ‘fugly’ is a derogatory neologistic noun formed from an expletive and the adjectivial ‘ugly’).


  1. Hi, Ash,

    Very interesting points here. When I write erotica, I rarely describe the characters much. They reveal themselves through their words and actions as well as through the other characters' reactions to them.

    Romance readers seem to really crave character descriptions. At least, this is what readers and authors tell me. I've read authors who say that they sit down and write a full physical profile of their heroine and their hero before they even begin, not just their hair color, complexion, and build but their eye color and their shoe size...

    I personally prefer characters who are distinctive as opposed to perfect. So in my own work I may focus on the most unusual or prominent physical traits.

    You're also right, though -- readers will impose their own visions, prejudices and insecurities on the people they meet in our books.

    Thanks for yet another excellent post.


  2. Hi Ashley.

    I have about two minutes here before I run out the door to work.

    That's interesting what you say about whether to describe acharacter in detail or not. That's also interesting the concept of what beauty is when it is generically standardised. I watched your youtube link.

    On the first, I usually don;t describe characters in detail. Hemingway usually never described his characters in much detail at all. In "Hills Like White Elephants", the woman thinking about an abortion is never described at all, other than that she's wearing a hat. In stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez they're described in ways that integrate personality, such as a woman with "elusive eyes" and so on. What in the world do elusive eyes look like? Who knows, but it sounds great.

    If you've ever followed the evolution of Playboy playmates, up until the late '90s the idea was the "girl next door" and the playmates derived a great deal of their erotic power from the fact that they looked so real but better. They looked like women you might actually meet if you were that lucky, showing off what their mothers gave them. After the '90s when the editorial leadership of Playboy changed, the Playmates became formulaic and relied on artificial enhancement until they've become almost parodies of male fantasy more than women. These days I really DO read Playboy just for the articles and fiction.

    Very interesting post. Interesting ideas there. I'm going to share that link too.


  3. It's more important if there's any light in the room at all!

  4. Lisabet,

    I wouldn't want to describe a character in too much detail. The reader has to react to the character's personality and the consequences of their actions, not whether they have blonde hair, big boobs or a retrousse nose.

    I like your idea of focusing on a single, which is what we do in real life when talking about Mary with the big lips, or John with the crew cut, but again, this is invariably a detail that matches the character's psychological makeup rather than just their physical makeup.



  5. Garce,

    I can't remember when I last picked up a copy of Playboy, but I've seen many contemporary magazines where the images are so anodyne they cease to be attractive and instead become a living caricature of stereotyped attractiveness.

    In some ways I suppose written fiction has always allowed the reader to interpret physical description to suit their own preferences. Although, if it was a choice between the realism of the girl/boy next door, or some super-attractive monstrosity devoid of human blemishes, I think I know which one I would prefer.



  6. Secretia,

    Sex with the lights on? Now that is kinky :-)



  7. Hi Ash,

    I had to think about this awhile before commenting. We all have our idea of what's beautiful. The skeletal thin models might sell clothing, but in all honesty, I can't remember anyone every saying how sexy they think one of them is. Apparently the US models are skinnier than the Brit version.

    As for writing romance or erotica. I give readers a little something to work with. Hair color and length, maybe their height, possibly I'll add the woman is a little more 'well-padded' than is fashionable. But, I can't remember ever getting into details too much. What I think of as wildly sexy, someone else might find fugly. LOL I like that word.

    So far, it's worked.


  8. Jude,

    Personally, I have never understood the attraction for models who are super-skinny. I would have thought it was like having sex with a bag of a knitting needles.



  9. Ash,

    I too find myself leaning towards the side of not too much descirption. I give hair and eye color, some other clues as the physical characteristics, such as if they are tall or short, maybe some about body shape, and I leave it at that.

    As for body shape, models and actresses, I love Marilyn Monroe. She was a classy, sexy lady, flaws and all. Hell, it was the flaws that make her seem more sexy to me. And attitude matters too. I look at Queen Latifah, and I can honestly say she is sexy too. She just has a presence. It is that presence that I find much more attractive than any set body image.


  10. Michelle,

    You're absolutely right. I know it's a cliche but it's what's on the inside that counts - and in the real world and fiction - personality scores way higher than appearance.




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