(crossposted from Dreamwidth)
I’ve written some pieces specifically for publication in erotic collections, with little luck so far, and in all cases I felt I should make my lead beautiful in the conventional sense. It’s always a bit of a challenge. I’d like to start by creating a character I can connect with, not a character that’s coded desirable. It throws a crink; makes it difficult to write a good character rather than a sexy lamp, or a sexy inspiration/reward vending machine. It means your character isn’t allowed to be themselves unless that’s somehow sexy.
Happily there is a lot you can still do to differentiate your character within the steel cage of minimum requirements for attractiveness: thin, able-bodied, with few really unusual features (unless they’re beauty cliches such as “startling emerald eyes”). The one thing that’s usually missing from stories with conventionally attractive leads is their own awareness of their attractiveness.
I think the cliche of the “ordinary-looking girl” who ends up being desired by every hunk in the vicinity arises from the desire to write a desirable lead, but not wanting to deal with the negative traits associated with being aware of one’s own good looks. The gorgeous bitch is a stereotype, from high school cheerleaders to platinum blonde femme fatales. They’re vain, selfish, and expect to be catered to. They’re villains.
And that negative (misogynistic?) stereotype, coupled with our cultural insistence that women be effortlessly beautiful and never vain, is stopping us writing attractive female characters whose attractiveness (whether lucky or hard-won) has influenced the formation of their personalities. And then here I am, struggling to find something to latch on to, and that becomes one of those things. I would be dishonest if I tried to write an attractive character just the same as an unattractive or ordinary-looking one.
I could go on about what “attractive” means, anyway. Attraction is not about attractiveness. If I was writing erotica just for myself, you can bet the characters would be all sorts of chubby or bony, pockmarked or crooked-toothed, with cataracts or wrinkles or splashes of birthmarks down their backs.
“Conventional attractiveness” has its rewards and trials. A woman who works hard to look good and takes joy in her beauty gets attention, including attention she might not like. She gets told to wear less make-up, to smile, gets catcalled by men who find her beauty intimidating, smarmed up by men who think they’ve got a shot, lied to, manipulated; she becomes the object of unwarranted jealousy and gets painted with the “vain bitch” brush, or called a whore just for looking the way she does. Less gorgeous and made-up women might not want to talk to her because they, too, find her glamour intimidating.
A woman who just “happens to be” beautiful but doesn’t work on it gets told to wear more make-up, to smile; gets targeted by men who think she lacks self-esteem, and gets called frigid and a lesbian when she won’t cater to their hungry gaze.
When you think about all of that, it becomes kind of easier to be “ugly”, even if it means you’ll never get that job. At least you’re not a lightning rod for other people’s desires and insecurities.
Of course your life is never made up entirely of reactions to your looks. That doesn’t change the fact that these things help form your self-esteem and what you base your self-esteem on – what you’re proud of and what you’re ashamed of, and what kind of reactions you’ve had to learn to steel yourself against. Did you get that nose-ring to enforce your own aesthetic over the sexiness narrative? Did you stop relaxing your hair because you reject the idea that kinks aren’t beautiful? Is your make-up your shield against the world?
Recently I’ve written several beautiful leads and exactly one character whose job in the story was to be sexy. It was a story for a romance collection in which the sexiness of the male lead was very explicitly required. I tried to do him justice, but I have no interest in him as a character. He is, regretfully, a sexy lamp. The female lead, though, with her shallow attraction to him and the flippant and brusque manner of her sexuality, became really interesting to me. This is someone who has chosen to make herself as physically “attractive” as possible and steeled herself against whatever negative reactions that nets her while gleefully sampling the benefits. There is no core of self-doubt, no self-hatred to drive her desire to look perfect. She knows she’s attractive. She knows that’s no guarantee of a lay, or of preferential treatment, and she will not take any shit from anyone who thinks it means they’re somehow entitled to her. That kind of strength intrigues me.