A Tribute to Plain Heroines

I was going through reviews from my readers three years ago when I came across something that inspired this entry on The Plain Jane.

“…why are ALL your GIRL characters ugly??”

Why indeed?

I tried to write a beautiful heroine once….and failed. With this gorgeous heroine, I became skeptical about the male protagonist. Was he bewitched  by her beauty or by her wonderful personality?

I could never resolve this question in my head.

Plain heroines, however, are so much more easier for me to write about. I don’t have to worry about the hero’s affection being superficial.

In other words, I love writing about plain heroines because I know that a woman’s appearance “becomes” the mirror to her inner self. If beauty is within, beauty is reflected.

So with the female protagonists, it’s almost as if they are carrying a secret hidden behind an unremarkable mask. She is dismissed by the hero because he cannot see past her appearance. And I find this idea so intriguing—secrets waiting to be revealed, which also builds the tension in the story (will he see the beauty within her? Or will some other beautiful woman turn his head?).

Depend upon it, you would gain unspeakably if you would learn with me to see some of the poetry and the pathos, the tragedy and the comedy, lying in the experience of a human soul that looks out through dull grey eyes, and that speaks in a voice of quite ordinary tones.
—George Elliot’s “The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton” Ch. 5

In two of my all-time favorite books — Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Austen’s Persuasion — the plain chick wins the heart of the hero. And I think this is the dream for many who aren’t super models – not just in romance, but with life in general.

We want to be defined by more than our looks.

Dear Readers
Tell me about your main character and why you chose to design his/her appearance and personality the way you did.

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26 Comments

Filed under The Runaway Courtesan, Writing

26 responses to “A Tribute to Plain Heroines

  1. Interesting post. =D I`ve read a few books with plain heroines, and I like how the male character falls in love with her and sees her as beautiful after she has done something remarkable–like challenging him or being kind to some poor person.

    I`ve also noticed that in a lot of romance novels, the plain girls have nice figures to make up for their faces. I dunno. Maybe I`m just imagining that?

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  2. Wow, I’m the first to post today…usually I’m like two days late.

    Anyways, on to the topic at hand…

    I’m a huge fan of the “Plain Jane,” which you sometimes forget is supposed to be plain because her personality is so vibrant. “Plain Janes” that are done right (not the kind that continually lament on there lack of beauty, though a little is to be expected, but the kind that can SHOW the reader what they have to offer–intelligence, etc) can be so much fun to read and way more relatable than reading about a gorgeous heroine, because frankly what girl hasn’t been insecure about her looks at one point.

    And frankly isn’t beauty supposed to be in the eye of the beholder! I sometimes get the impression that a girl that is described as “plain” is actually pretty, but maybe not considered so in her time (if we’re talking about historicals) and others times maybe she’s attractive in an unconventional way (as some of Amanda Quick’s heroines are).

    Honestly, I like reading about “Plain Janes” a lot more than a beautiful heroine, because it feels like the writer has to really work to create a relationship between the hero (whose usually handsome)and heroine (who isn’t). Rather than reading about two beautiful people whose romance, if not developed properly, can sometimes seem shallow.

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    • Beauty is in the eye of the beholder! The women who were considered raving beauties 1,000 years ago in Japan would be ridiculed and called ogres today.

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      • @Angela: A really good point. Beauty is so subjective. Society’s standard of beauty changes, like in the example you gave us. So…this just proves that there’s not such thing as beauty. Because it all depends on interpretation. In fact, it’s almost like the post-modernistic take on “The Truth”–that truth does not exist, because everyone has their own interpretation of what the truth is

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    • “..plain because her personality is so vibrant” I love when an author succeeds in making her Plain Jane vibrant in character.

      Like you said, many women have felt insecure in their appearance once or often in their lifetime. So there’s this affinity we feel with Plain Janes. Well, IMO.

      I think there’s also the factor that for me, a rather plain young woman, I feel a tinge of resentment when a heroine is both beautiful and has a stunning personality and gets the hot guy. It’s like…That’s nothing special to me. I see this phenomenon occuring every day in life. But when the plain girl wins The Knight in Shining Armor, it gets you wondering. How did she overcome her other female rivals? What is it about her personality that caught the man’s eye?

      And so I write my story to answer this question.

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  3. Okay, make that second to post…but still beating my personal record. 😀

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  4. Sharmon Gazaway

    I found this very interesting, June. I love the plain heroines. Didn’t Mr.Darcy call Elizabeth Bennett “tolerable” on first meeting, or something equally insulting? I remember as a teen discovering these plain heroines and at first being very disenchanted. I wanted the princess stories. But I was completely won over.
    Up to now all my heroines have been flawed, if not exactly plain. But my next heroine is beautiful, model beautiful. Only she doesn’t completely get that, and her life is a misery because of the way she is treated because of her looks. We forget that there is an ugly side to beautiful and it can be as much a curse as a blessing.
    I have no idea if I can do this subject and character justice, but I’m gonna give a try!

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    • I think he said something like, “she wasn’t handsome enough to tempt”…at least that’s what Matthew MacFayden said in the 2005 movie version.

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    • I love the idea of how your heroine is beautiful–and how this beauty can be both a curse and a blessing. “..her life is a misery because of the way she is treated because of her looks”–fascinating concept!

      Natural beauty is such a complex concept to grasp that I just don’t want to go there. If I’m to write about a beautiful heroine, I’ll need to write a whole book that revolves around the idea of beauty.

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  5. Now, onto the other topic – plain jameses! (Ohoho, coined a term…notreally)
    : P

    I find it interesting that you’re so enthralled with the plain female character when you found it so difficult to read about a plain male lead in that one novel you were reading last year. : ] What do you think the difference is?

    Personally, I like writing about girls with natural beauty – I find that, coming out of the barrel, they have a lot more weaknesses than the plain girls. Because beauty can be an automatic cheat card, and can help them have achievements without too much work. It creates a whole world of developmental possibilities when they start living in the ‘real world’. : D

    Though, I suppose Lucy would be the exception to that rule. o : But she’s following your typical, ‘smart but naive girl is too in love with a handsome Lord who doesn’t notice her, and grows into a strong woman who is able to handle him more capably’ storyline, too. : P Ehehe.

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    • Plain James! haha, love it. I’ll have to write an article on this. But you’re right. While I can love reading about plain woman, I don’t love so much reading about men like the French dude from Villet. I’m actually ok with plain men. In fact, I think I’ll make the hero in BSMH plain looking (Thanks Kerrie hehe!).But yes, the gentleman in Villet was described to be…not just plain…but short, stout, bespectacled and balding. Such a hero runs contrary to the romantic hero I’m accustomed to reading of. I was actually expecting a Mr. Rochestor-esque person…because Bronte wrote Villet…

      Anyway! Yes. Will write an entry on this.

      “Because beauty can be an automatic cheat card, and can help them have achievements without too much work.” As I told Sharmon, this is why I stay away from writing about beautiful women because it takes a lot of work to create a beautiful heroine without making her seem shallow.

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  6. Noelle Pierce

    I’ve seen this debated in the past, and I like how you’ve stated your reasons. In fact, I like your reasons. At the moment, my heroes are handsome because it gives me an excuse to pin up their pictures (Gerard, *drool*) and hubby can’t say a thing about it. hehe. My heroines, I never really thought about in terms of beautiful or plain. I get these pictures in my head and they stick.

    In Gemini, I have twins–one the belle of the Season and beyond, but her sister is hardly looked at. Part of this is the clothing/style I gave her. (Who am I kidding? I didn’t give her anything. She *told* me how to dress her.). I think that times haven’t changed as much as we would hope–clothing and fashion and glasses seem to be the only things people see, rather than the actual face, sometimes. Therefore, my heroine is not looked upon favorably, even though she’s identical in face and form to her fawned-over sister.

    Even if my heroine is beautiful, though, she has to have more to her. One of my least favorite heroines was a “sequel” using a bitchy (but breathtakingly gorgeous) girl from a previous book and trying to make her sympathetic. It didn’t work.

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    • Noelle Pierce

      Oh, that sequel I didn’t like wasn’t mine. It was a well-known author.

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    • I totally agree with you. How we adorn ourselves influences so much how a person views us. That’s why I loved Selina in Gemini. I love the tension of knowing she is a beauty hiding behind a mask. It’s almost like a symbolic interpretation of what I mentioned in my entry–how I love the idea of a woman whose beautiful personality is hidden behind the plain mask.

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  7. I’ve never really thought about whether or not my characters were physically beautiful… because beauty is in the end so subjective. I can’t see my characters as “stunningly beautiful and perfect” much in the way I don’t want them to be purely good or evil. That’s why, at the same time, I can’t picture them as physically ugly – though it is easier to work with an “ugly” or plain person where their characters can shine through.

    I suppose most of my characters are “distinguished-looking” – I do describe clothing and appearance quite a bit (part of the whole visualization process) – and it simply pertains to the visual way I have of interpreting things. The way I visualize my characters depend on what I want to bring out in them. For instance, Valera (main character in Highwaymen story) isn’t beautiful in the conventional sense, but has unsettling eyes because she’s active and rebellious;the pianist in The Gun and the Piano is “normal” looking, not distinguished, to play against his inner conflicts and violence.
    I am, though, fascinated at the moment though with creating characters who are physically beautiful but inwardly evil…

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    • Beauty is indeed subjective. The standards are always changing. But it’s always there and it’s always measuring and labelling women–women labeled as ugly, as plain, as pretty, as beautiful. By first impression, though. Standards change once you get to know the person especially.

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  8. Wow, I love that video.

    Rika mentioned beauty being in the eye of the beholder–this is definitely something I take into consideration when describing my characters in my own writing. Their physical appearance does not get emphasis, beyond a few things to help the reader get a mental picture–but if every single reader had a different mental image of the character, I’d be happy.

    The character should speak to a certain part of the reader, based on their experiences and the people in their own lives, and that’s going to be different for everyone. I tend to avoid qualitative descriptions of attractiveness, at least when coming from the narrator, just because I want the reader to fall in love with the character based on what they genuinely love about her… not what I tell them to love about her.

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    • Wow. You actually brought up a really good point. I like the idea you’ve presented–of how you keep physical appearance at a minimal so that the readers can create their own picture.

      “I tend to avoid qualitative descriptions of attractiveness, at least when coming from the narrator, just because I want the reader to fall in love with the character based on what they genuinely love about her… not what I tell them to love about her.”

      Brilliant. This technique would be very realistic, because it’s like…learning with the hero to notice the beauty in the heroine-progressively. Info dumps would be the easy way out, I suppose.

      One reason why character description might be essential is if a writer intends to focus on the idea of how first impressions can be deceptive.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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  9. Great post, June!

    But with a beauty there are also many questions one can explore, especially when writing a historical fiction piece.

    You can almost create the same question of her finding someone who will see past her outward appearance. Especially if you have a heroine who is not interested in marriage at the beginning.

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    • more and more, I am coming to see how difficult it is to write about a beautiful person, and to suceed in portraying her in such a way that beauty isn’t merely used as an easy way of attracting the hero.

      “You can almost create the same question of her finding someone who will see past her outward appearance.” You’ve inspired me. I think I might play on this idea for one of my secondary characters!

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  10. I think reading plain heroines is refreshing. it also helps distinguish between good literature and a trashy romance novel.

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  11. Pingback: A Tribute to Plain Heroines (via June H.) « Haunting Serenade

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