Literally decades of reading historical romances have led me to develop strong opinions of what defines a truly satisfying story, so the other day I set about making a list of characteristics that turn a potential five-star read into a one- or two-star. Admittedly, there are some skillful authors who manage to successfully incorporate one or more of these scenarios in their books; however, I have run across quite a few more who in my opinion haven’t quite managed it.
These are what I call “deal breakers”—characteristics that make a book a wall-banger instead of a pleasurable diversion. Not surprisingly, many involve character, particularly, the character of the hero and heroine. They have to be likable. They have to be three-dimensional, i.e., well-drawn-out characters with flaws, not fairy princesses. And they have to be able to fall in love, convincingly, the head-over-heels kind of love.
Historical Romance Deal Breaker #5: Unattractive or Drop-Dead Gorgeous Heroines
- Heroines who are fat and/or described as “plain” or unattractive
Like the majority of readers, I am not the most attractive person out there. I’m middle-aged, struggle with weight issues, and use artificial means to enhance my hair and facial features. I consider myself “average.”
Also like the majority of readers, I like to fantasize about being more attractive and irresistible than I am. When I read, I’m picturing myself as the heroine; her experiences are mine, right up to the HEA at the end.
It just doesn’t do it for me when the heroine seems to have virtually *no* physical attractions. Especially when this is paired with too many psychological issues stemming from her doubts about her physical appearance. A little of this goes a long way, for me. I want the story to be about the characters falling in love. If I wanted to read a story that is more psychological drama than romance, I wouldn’t read romance.
While the heroine does not have to be drop-dead gorgeous (see below), she absolutely must have some attractive qualities. She might have mousy brown hair, but her figure should be unobjectionable and she might have the most intriguing grey eyes. Maybe her breasts aren’t voluminous, but she has a small waist and neat ankles (whatever that is). She may be considered plain by many, but we get to see from the beginning that the hero finds some things about her attractive, which become even more appealing once he becomes better acquainted with her.
You get the drift.
Considering the growing number of books featuring fat and unattractive heroines—and the readers who seem to rave over them—I wonder if I’m in the minority here.
However, I also have a problem with:
- Heroines who are so beautiful and sweet that everyone falls in love with them (even birds and wild animals)
I also find it difficult to identify with heroines who are too perfect. (Actually, I want to slap them silly.)
In a romance it is important to create three-dimensional characters because the characters are the story. If the main characters in your story are too good to be believed, you risk your story becoming a Disney movie, with its happy cartoon characters sailing off into the sunset. Even if you enjoy cartoons, surely you have to wonder if Cinderella and her prince really did live happily ever after without ever once clashing over raising the children or the price of glass slippers. You don’t have to be diabetic to suffer from the effects of consuming too much sugar.
A heroine can be beautiful, but she has to have some flaws too. Perhaps she perceives her nose is too long. Or she’s too tall or too short. Or her hair is too dark to be the current trend.
Her flaws can also be emotional. Perhaps she fears that people only like her because of her physical attractions. (I had a roommate like that once; I never thought she was that beautiful. Oh well.) Or she’s plagued with shyness. Or she blurts out things better left unsaid. Or she thinks she is unworthy because of her birth or social class or a past indiscretion.
I adore a good HEA. I feel cheated if I don’t get one. But I want them to seem at least somewhat realistic. I want to be convinced that my hero and heroine love each other enough—have survived enough challenges as their romance developed and matured in the story—that their relationship is strong enough to survive the uncertainties of the future.
Am I the only one who feels this way? Have you run across any five-star reads with extremely ugly or extremely attractive heroines? Do tell!
*Disclaimer: This series of “deal breakers” is meant to refer to books labeled historical romances, and not to erotica, which is a completely separate sub-genre and has an entirely different purpose.
Great points, Susana. While a woman (and the heroine of a romance novel) wants to be judged and loved for more than her physical attributes, it’s unlikely she will attract a lover if she has seriously low self-esteem for being ugly or fat, or if the potential hero views her as ugly or fat. I like imperfect but still attractive heroines who know their worth as human beings. Isn’t that what most women are anyway? In the real world, few women are either completely repulsive hags or irresistibly seductive sirens. This is an area of romance fiction that best mirrors life at a point slightly better than average reality.