The man: a tall, broad-shouldered god with a chiseled face and strong, capable hands.
The woman: a gorgeous, black-haired beauty, slim and toned, with gentle features and a heart-shaped face.
The plot: They meet and fall in love.
Sound familiar? That’s because you’ve seen it before?over and over and over.
we’re visual people, and the description of appearance is one way to create mood and pull your readers into the story. But attraction and attractiveness are a lot more complex than whatever traits will get your characters onto any gossip magazine’s Top 100 list.
Attraction, we know, is only partly based on physical appearance. But even physical attractiveness is relative. In reality, most men don’t have chiseled faces, square jaws, and broad shoulders, and most women aren’t tall, slender, and leggy. Yet they live rich love lives: make connections, fall in love, break each other’s hearts, and engage in steamy, passionate affairs.
Making your romantic leads physically stunning risks them becoming boring, cliche characters?cookie-cutter people whose main claim to romance seems to be good looks. That’s old, and It’s been done. But realism?touched with the brush of romance?can lead to believable, relatable characters that your readers will fall in love with and remember long after the book is finished.
Instead of outlining your characters? overall earth-shattering gorgeousness, focus on a single small detail that makes them stand out?the dimple on their chin, or the way their eyes light up when they talk about their passion for history. One of the authors I work with has made a point not to make her lovers desperately attractive?at least not to the rest of the world. But the two notice each other’s best physical features, and those are what they dwell on. One of the heroines looks pale and tired, but her lover isn’t attracted to someone with rosy cheeks. In fact, to him, her paleness is mysterious and alluring. To the right person, ordinary looks extraordinary; describing that trait through the eyes of a lover is what makes it memorable.
Alternatively, think about what little quirks might be attractive or endearing in their own way. Maybe he loves the way her nose tilts just the tiniest bit upwards. Maybe she thinks his widow’s peak makes him look distinguished. Maybe she likes to rest her head in her partner’s soft lap. Love may be blind, but it can also transform would-be flaws into a source of beauty.
Remember, too, that the physical aspects of a person involve more than static features, like a handsome nose or long black hair. If you picture your own lovers?past or present?what comes to mind? Mannerisms, like a particular swing to a walk or the way a person’s whole body laughs with them, can be one of a character’s most beloved traits. They also add a little variety to physical descriptions and create a fuller image for the reader.
If you still think ordinary-looking characters will kill the romantic mood You’re trying to create, consider Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130.” The poet’s lover is no goddess, he admits, but he also suggests that It’s ridiculous to compare her to one. Watch how the passion simmers off the page:
“My mistress? eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips? red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.”
When building a romance between your characters, don’t be afraid to let love find ordinary people. You might just find that their experience transforms them?and you.
Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.