# of literary mags submitted to: 0
# of agents queried: 0
Side Note: I have finished my first round of revisions on my novel. Huzzah! Now I think I will put it aside for a bit, work on some other things, and then go back and do another round of revisions. Also, I’m going to start querying agents as soon as I write a good query letter and do some research on agents. Scary. Advice?
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My mom read the first three chapters of my novel the other day. It’s a middle-grade juvenile fiction novel, set in the middle ages, and one of her comments was, “does the heroine have to be so ugly?”
It’s true that I gave Brigitta a pointy chin, thin lips, a crippled leg, and acne. Plus she’s missing a front tooth. And her hair is greasy, and she probably has lice. But come on, people, this was the middle ages! Everyone was looking pretty rough back then. I could have given her boils or a lazy eye, but I didn’t.
My mom says, “I think to be the heroine, she has to have the potential at least to be good looking.”
Is that true? Or is it true because she’s a girl?
Do we only want to read about pretty people?
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As part of my research, I have been reading young adult and juvenile fiction novels. At the beginning of every novel, the author has to somehow let you know what the main character looks like, and often it’s something trite like, “I look at myself in the mirror and tuck my long, chestnut brown hair behind my ears. I glance into my sky blue eyes and notice the freckles sprinkling my nose.”
When I was getting my MFA, I think one of my professors had a rule that our characters could not look in the mirror, or a window reflection, and comment on their own appearances. But how else can you convey what the protagonist looks like, especially with a first-person narrator? (And what do you do when your first-person narrator lives in the middle ages and doesn’t have a mirror?)
Currently I’m reading the YA novel Matched by Ally Condie, which I think has a great premise, but I’m finding it a bit cheesy and melodramatic. Here is the narrator describing herself:
The rounded lid of the compact distorts my features a little, bit it’s still me. My green eyes. My coppery-brown hair, which looks more golden in the compact than it does in real life. My straight small nose. My chin with a trace of a dimple like my grandfather’s.
So, obviously, she’s pretty. Not drop-dead gorgeous, but nice-looking and modest.
I think, in a lot of these books, the goal is to make the heroine likeable – someone young girls can relate to. So the protagonist is attractive, but not overly-so. We can’t relate to someone who’s model gorgeous. And we don’t want to relate to someone who is butt-ugly.
We want to read about a girl who is pretty, but not so much so that we hate her.
Is that true?
I recently read a young adult book I really enjoyed called When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. In the book, the heroine is obsessed with the novel A Wrinkle in Time. I started thinking about Meg, the main character from A Wrinkle in Time. Ah-ha, I thought. She’s an example of a non-pretty female protagonist! I scrounged up my copy of the book and here’s what I found:
Mrs. Murray’s [beauty] seemed even more spectacular in comparison with Meg’s outrageous plainness. Meg’s hair had been passable as long as she wore it tidily in braids. When she went into high school it was cut, and now she and her mother struggled with putting it up, but one side would come out curly and the other straight, so that she looked even plainer than before.
Meg wears glasses and braces, and, in a fit of teenage angst, she calls herself repulsive, but it’s clear to me that she’s not ugly after all. She’s simply going through an awkward phase. She, as my mother said, has the potential to be good-looking.
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One of my favorite juvenile fiction books in all the world is Holes by Louis Saacher. In the book, the hero, Stanely, is an overweight, sad-sack sort of kid, and there is definitely no indication given that he is good-looking. In fact, I think his chubbiness and lack of good looks adds a lot to his character. When he has to dig holes at the juvenile detention camp, he jumps onto his shovel and realizes with a sad sort of smile that for once his weight is an advantage. When the movie version of Holes came out, I was really annoyed that they cast a skinny boy (Shia LeBouf) as Stanely. Were they afraid that an overweight protagonist wouldn’t be likeable?
At the end of Holes, Stanely has lost weight and gotten fit from all the digging. In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg takes off her glasses and Calvin tells her she’s got “gorgeous,” “dreamboat” eyes.
It’s just like that part in the movie She’s All That when they take the glasses off the “ugly” girl, put her in a tight dress, and all of a sudden, everyone realizes that she was beautiful all along.
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I’d like to seek out some books where the heroine is ugly. And truly ugly, not just wearing glasses and braces. I’m sure there are some out there, but I can’t think of any besides Wicked. I wonder if my mom is right. Does my main heroine need to have at least the potential to be attractive in order for people to care about her?
What does that say about people?