Sunday, July 29, 2018

Hot Protagonists: How Shallow Is It to Read About Them?

Describing the "hot" protagonists is a motif in romance novels. Some readers like it--that's one reason they read romances.

Some readers dislike it--why does everyone have to be so gorgeous?

Here are three points:

1. Romances are fantasies.

I am not a fan of the Twilight series, books or movies. I find it boring. However, when the first book became popular, I got annoyed at the accompanying hysteria. Far too many people were dumping on the Twilight series for "making" young girls care only about (hot) guys and marriage, not college and careers.

Apparently, none of these hysterical people remembered being teenagers. I read tons of romances when I was a teen. I also read Lord Jim and Cancer Ward (voluntarily) as well as  Shakespeare. Frankly, I was better read--and my friends who loaned me romance novels were better read--than my intellectual friends who insisted on sticking to stuff like Thoreau and discussing Ayn Rand.

So I greatly admire Inside Out for its "tragic vampire romance island" and the melodramatic imaginary boyfriend. Because that's reality: teenage girls like thinking and talking and fantasying about dating.

Get over it.

2. Many times, the "hot-ness" is how protagonists describe each other, not necessarily how they appear to other characters.

In Change of Address by Jordan Brock, the protagonist Josh is obviously, well, Sam (Sean Astin) from The Lord of the Rings.

Okay, not obviously, but his family's business is Bagel End. Plus Josh is blond with shaggy curls, stocky, and winsome. He perceives himself as entirely ordinary and not exactly svelte.

His tall, svelte lover, Michael, sees him from the beginning as attractive and charming.

This is less hopeful thinking than it sounds. Yes, the human brain is wired to find certain looks attractive, but the human brain is also wired to be idiosyncratic about what it finds attractive. I can accept, intellectually, that David James Elliot is a very handsome guy, but it's Peter Falk who makes me go weak at the knees.

And, yes, okay, Sean Astin is adorable.

3. Descriptions in romance books often-times appear to be publisher requirements.

Granted, Simon Baker is very handsome.
One of my favorite traditional romances is Romancing Mr. Bridgerton by Julia Quinn, in large part because it discusses writing. The main male character, Colin, is described as tall, dark-haired, etc. etc. He is slightly shorter than his tall, dark-haired brothers, but still well within the Colin Firth/Darcy wheelhouse.

Except . . . I have read the book about four times now, and every time I forget the description by the time I'm a third of the way through. It's kind of a throw-away description (The Bridgerton brothers are all so handsome!). No matter how he is described initially, I see Colin constantly and consistently as Simon Baker. More Bingley than Darcy. More James Roday than anybody from James Bond.

The author doesn't go out of her way to enforce her own description, so after read-through #2, I began to wonder how much it really mattered.

I've encountered this experience elsewhere--to the point where I often think that the writer doesn't really care about looks or has his/her own ideas about them; the description is for the cover, and sometimes, publishers get even that wrong