Monday, August 14, 2006

Beauty and the (Alien) Beast

I recently was pointed to a rather demeaning article about the romance genre as seen from the viewpoint of a visitor to a recent Romantic Times convention. Trashing the romance genre is nothing new; in fact, it seems to be the sport du jour of certain male types who are--strictly arm-chair psychoanalysis here--less than secure in their masculinity. Real men don't cry, fall in love or eat quiche.

But I'm not posting today to talk about crying or quiche. I'm talking about something in the article that caught my eye: the erroneous belief that all heroines in romance (and SF romance) novels are beautiful and unrealistically so.

That may have been true twenty years ago. I can't say for sure because although I was reading romances twenty years ago, I can't quote them chapter and verse and I don't own any of that era. But I vaguely remember that yes, the heroines were always portrayed to be head-turners--if not at the beginning of the book (in the case of those Regencies I loved to inhale where the heroine was often in disguise as a servant or stable boy), then at least by the half way mark.

But I've noticed less and less this devotion by authors to the perfectly beautiful heroine and am rather seeing the simple notation that the hero finds the female in question to be beautiful. That doesn't mean she's a head-turner. That doesn't mean that when she walks into a room all conversation ceases. It just means what I wrote: the hero finds the heroine beautiful. His best friends view her as plain as white bread. But when she's around, his heart beats a tad faster.

I'd like to take that concept into the genre of SFR because we like to talk about characterization here, and we like to talk about falling in love with an alien (and I don't want to get into the technical aspects of breeding--Margaret did that wonderfully in her blog. Suffice it to say, in my books, my main characters never start a nursery so it's not an issue).

Granted, most of our alien heroes and heroines are humanoid, human-like. Two arms, two legs, two eyes, a nose and a mouth. (We won't get into genitalia, either.) But I suspect that's because we are still very aware that our audience is human (at least, as far as we know). But writing SFR permits us to explore the -oid part of humanoid a bit more. And makes us think of how we define--if not beauty--then physical attraction between two characters.

In Gabriel’s Ghost I have a secondary character (who may yet get his own book) named Ren, who is distinctly alien, a Stolorth. His skin is a pale silvery blue, he has gill slits on the side of his neck and there's webbing between his fingers and toes.

Ren gets a lot of fan mail. Women love him. They adore him. And he's a blue-skinned alien.

I don't believe any where in the book do I define Ren as drop-dead gorgeous. I don't think anywhere in the book do I state that women fall in a swoon when he walks in a room. What I do let the reader experience in the book is Ren's personality, his compassion, his gentleness, his strength, his loyalty.

These are the same qualities that make other characters in the book (most notably, Dorcie, the ship's cook) find Ren very attractive. Okay, he's tall and buffed out. But he's not cover model handsome and nowhere do I typecast him as such. But I do typecast him as noted above: strong, gentle, loyal.

This type of characterization--whether with human male/female characters or alien male/female characters--is what I think is being misread by certain people as indidcative of characters possessing unrealistic beauty. That tells me they're skimming the book(s), not reading.

Yes, Dorcie thinks Ren is hot. But Berri Solaria finds him hideous (in fact, I do believe she refers to him exactly that way: "Hideous Stolorth!").

Whether or not Ren is attractive to a human female depends on the beholder. And that's how I like to craft my characters. Not unattainably perfect in face or form, but perhaps inexplicably but undeniably attractive, alienness and all. A contradiction in terms, for sure.

But--especially when crafting SFR--it makes for a better read.



  1. Oooh, neat post.

    I think that's it exactly. Chemistry is more than just her heavy breasts and supple thighs, more than his bulging muscles that gleamed like oiled snakes (yes, I really read that in a book recently). I was like, WTF? Of course the heroine's breasts were also likened to two puppies squirming in a sack so...

    Anyway, I digress.

    Chemistry, more than the sum of one's parts, private or otherwise. It's a glance, a scent, a laugh, the way she tilts her chin, or the way he leans down a little to listen to her. It's the way he watches her leave a room.

    None of that says either one of them is gorgeous. It just says they find each other all but irresistible. And that's the goal.

  2. Thanks, Annie. I think we all want to be wanted for who we are, not for the size, shape or color of our [fill in the blank]. That's where--to me--SFR can be so much fun because the very alien-ness of an alien can remove the 'beauty' aspect from the romance equation. Or at least, make the reader reconsider the true definition of true beauty.

    It's a shame--to me--that the naysayer who wrote the anti-romance genre article didn't "get it". ~Linnea