Always already perfect: beauty and female characters in fantasy books

What makes a fantasy book? The Wikipedia page contains not so much a definition as a list of the genre’s most common features: magic and other supernatural phenomena, imaginary settings, magical creatures, elements of mythology and folklore.

But there’s another feature that’s missing from this list, at least when it comes to the major female characters in fantasy. I’ve written about this before, but today I felt a Need to Vent, and in any case I think this is a topic that deserves a post of its own. It’s time to talk about beauty – or more specifically, the way that beauty is pretty much compulsory for the major female characters in a fantasy novel.

All too often, you don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to work out who’s who in a fantasy book almost as soon as they are introduced.

“She was beautiful” = enter Main Female Character.

“She would never be pretty, but…[insert actual important thing about her – a thing that has nothing to do with her appearance]” = enter Minor Female Character.

“…” = enter Main Male Character and Main Female Character. Silence will fall when he meets her and sees how beautiful she is.

It’s bad enough that so many writers can’t seem to help pigeonholing the entire appearance of their female characters, whether they’re major or not. Yet on its own, as annoying as it might be to hear the word “beautiful” used to describe every main female character, the word itself could be glossed over. On its own, the word “beautiful” has potential to leave appearance up to the imagination.

But beauty in fantasy is anything but in the eyes of the beholder. For it’s only a certain kind of beauty that has become the standard for what a fantasy heroine is allowed to look like.

The first requirement for the main female characters of a fantasy book is an appearance that I can only describe as conventionally “feminine”. A slim yet curvy body. Medium height. Long hair (it may be braided for practical purposes, but never cut short, let alone shaved off altogether). Unblemished skin. Did I mention the curves? And the slimness? It is important that the female heroine have breasts, but heaven forbid that her curves extend into a “plus size”.

All these things leave little room for diversity. Many Western fantasy writers in particular have little interest in main characters who are not of Caucasian appearance (unless we’re talking about the villains. It is depressing how many fantasy worlds continue to divide personifications of “good” and “evil” along colour lines). The standard for what constitutes “beauty” marginalises characters whose skin is ‘too’ dark, whose hair is ‘too’ curly or kinky, who choose not to wear dresses and riding skirts. And let’s not even start on the age of the average fantasy heroine (the world of fantasy is probably the only one where the fate of empires is best decided by people in their early twenties, and first-time-perfect, never-awkward sex is had by people still in their teens).

Yet beauty, on its own, is not enough, unless that beauty is natural. Female fantasy heroine will rarely spend time modifying her appearance to achieve “beauty” in the eyes of her fellows. But her nonchalance about her appearance is no sacrifice in the name of liberation, for she conforms to the Western standard for “beauty” without even trying. She also never plays with or changes her appearance in any way – or does any of the things that real-world women do to get closer to the beauty ideal. She does not dye her hair or wear make-up…let alone get a tattoo, or cosmetic surgery, or piercings other than in her ears.

The invisibility of women actively altering their looks in fantasy books also stems from the fact that female characters’ relationship with their appearance tends to lack any personal dimension. That is, it’s a relationship that is entirely mediated by the way that others – and particularly men – perceive them. If men think a character is beautiful (and if she’s the main character, and if she’s portrayed as sexually active in the book, then they usually do), then that is good enough. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! If the female heroine knows she is beautiful, it’s because men tell her so.

I know, I know. Part of this is a matter of priorities. Between magic, imaginary worlds and mythical creatures, a typical fantasy adventure just doesn’t have room to also explore the heroine’s fashion sense, or her body image issues. Although it could! Having thoughts about aspects of your appearance and actively experimenting with changing it doesn’t equate to an inability to do anything but prance in front of a mirror.

But I just want to put it out there that writers who think their stories have no room for dealing with these issues shouldn’t deal with them at all.

That means not signposting that a female character is “beautiful”, “pretty”, “stunning” or “attractive” as soon as she enters the scene. That means not regurgitating the same stale stereotypes about a woman’s relationship with her body – the hatred of new breasts and other budding signs of femaleness (until a chance to “use” them — i.e. the main male protagonist — comes ambling by)… The (um, unlikely) obliviousness to her own conformity to the beauty standard, regardless of its recognition by everyone around her. The unconvincing insistence that she too has flaws! — through remarks about her hating her “perfectly straight, silver hair” that “refuses to take a curl”, or the shape of her “nose” — although there’s nothing to suggest that her body might actually deviate from the ideal.

And when it comes to the lack of diversity in body types, skin colour and expressions of gender identity, there is no excuse. That also means aiming for greater diversity in characters whose adventures, friendships and love lives occupy centre stage in your writing.

Ugh. I feel a little shallower writing this post, which is kinda funny, because that’s the exact kind of circular thinking that the beauty standard is meant to engender. We are supposed to be always already perfect, striving to look the way we always already looked. Being seen as caring too much about that imperative to improve ourselves – for example, by writing an entire post about the appearance of characters in genre fiction! – that’s just vanity talking.

But I don’t think it makes one vain (whatever that means), to be annoyed by things like this. And no, I’m not just jealous of the “naturally beautiful” fantasy heroine with her long hair and her supposedly imperfect nose (I like my nose. It is perfect — for making scrunched-up faces when I read about another “beautiful” woman in a fantasy book).

But sometimes she kind of exhausts me. I mean, I know I’m dropping a bombshell here, but WOMEN READ FANTASY BOOKS. All kinds of women. Fat women, thin women, women with breasts and without. Women with long hair and buzz cuts. Women who see beauty in themselves without waiting for its confirmation by anyone else. Women who will hopefully get to the point of seeing it one day. And I don’t know about all of these women, but I do struggle to relate to fantasy heroines to whom amazing things happen as long as they are always already perfect (and have long hair, flawless figures and big boobs).

So maybe, just maybe, we could cut out the lazy (and by all means not universal) pretense that only a (conventionally) “beautiful” woman can be worthy of a fantasy narrative – have special gifts, grapple with political dilemmas, have hot sex, meet the love of her life and, you know, do magic and make friends with mythical creatures. Of course, many writers are already doing that. But maybe one day labelling female characters as “beautiful” will be no more than an instance of bad writing. It will no longer be something that remains almost compulsory in a genre that’s supposed to be about escaping these things, if only for a little while.


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11 Responses to Always already perfect: beauty and female characters in fantasy books

  1. bluebec says:

    Just before I include this in the DUFC, now that I’ve finally had a chance to read the entire post, I am curious as to whether you’ve ready any NK Jemisin (for non-white main characters), Rae Carson’s Fire and Thorns (for a not-slim initially character), or Kirsten Britten’s Green Rider series (for a series where the character’s skills, flaws and exploits are more of a focus than her looks – though that’s from memory, it’s been a while)

    • zhenya says:

      Hello, sorry, it took me a while to figure out how to reply to the first comment on this blog 😉 I’ve only read one of the authors you mention (just got started on Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy!) but there are definitely many other examples of authors who don’t confine their main characters to the kinds of tropes I talk about in my post (or who, like you say, focus on the character’s skills, flaws and exploits rather than their appearance…) E.g. Le Guin’s one of my favourite examples, and her books definitely don’t normalise whiteness or rank female characters on the basis of their beauty…

      • bluebec says:

        I certainly plan to read more Le Guin, I read the Wizard of Earthsea trilogy as a teenager, and never really revisited her work. Once I’m through my amazing book stack of shame, I will move onto that 🙂

        Oh, and NK Jemisin is probably my favourite author, at least in the top 5. So many great authors, so little time

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  3. Julia says:

    Super late to the party, but have you ever read any book by Tamora Pierce? Song of the Lioness subverts this quite a lot, and I think you may like it.

  4. Hildana Abamegal says:

    I was going to write about this issue, but it’s well thought out and written about already.

  5. Okay, girl, you just won me with “I like my nose. It is perfect — for making scrunched-up faces when I read about another “beautiful” woman in a fantasy book” because that is so true! And I couldn’t agree more on this subject, one of the main reasons I avoid reading young adult fantasy books is because of how women are depicted, seeing that the majority are created and built according to veritable Western standards, and sometimes unrealistic standards.

    • Jessica says:

      I absolutely agree! I now hate reading a lot of books in general where the female characters are stunningly beautiful and yet have underdeveloped characteristics and are mostly major bores. As a woman of colour, how am I able to relate to their situations and experiences if every single time all I’m bombarded with is “This woman is an absolute beauty”, “This woman mesmerises all living, breathing organic matter”, and “She is an absolute saint”. Is diversity and unique characteristics too much to ask for from authors nowadays?

  6. Allie says:

    My first thoughts when reading this were “wow this is so right” and then “Has she read ‘And I Darken’ by Kiersten White?” You may find issues with it, but I enjoyed it for the non-heterosexual romance, the non-traditional female MC, and the historical setting. Also there’s some great fight scenes. I’d strongly recommend it.

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