The Limits of Beauty

You can find romance novels that utilize the plain heroine trope, but let’s face it, beautiful heroes and heroines are the norm. It’s not hard to understand why. Humans are hard-wired to feel pleasure when we look at beautiful things, whether it’s a sparkly stone, brightly colored flower or perfectly symmetrical human face.

This natural attraction to beauty is reinforced and amplified by social conditioning that tells us the best and most important thing you can be is beautiful. Especially if you’re a women. As a result, most women go through life spending stupid amounts of time and money trying to be more beautiful, and if we don’t go through life chasing beauty we’re considered radical.

So with a starting point like that, is it any wonder we’re obsessed with beauty? Of course we want to read stories about gorgeous, powerful men falling in love with staggeringly beautiful women.

But in real life, how much does beauty really matter? I’m not talking about hygiene or basic grooming – they may be related to beauty, but they’re also related to health and confidence. I mean straight-up, what-you’re-born-with looks. Do you have to be beautiful to be attractive? To attract love?

A look around at people in the real world suggests no, you don’t. I have known more than a few men and women of below-average looks who are happily married or in loving, long-term relationships. Most of them had other qualities to recommend them – good humor, charm, kindness, a certain quirky je ne sais quoi.

In fact, scientific studies of such things seem to indicate that the better looking you are, the more likely you are to end up divorced. Some interpret that to mean that ugly people don’t have as many options when it comes to dating, so they don’t cheat or divorce. Pretty people, on the other hand, always know they can do just as good or better, so they don’t commit.

That could be the right explanation. Or it could be that when you’re beautiful, it’s more difficult for a potential partner to really see your character, your humanity. You’re like a sparkly stone – desirable for your sparkle alone. It’s only after your beauty has become mundane to someone that they can actually know you, and once the spell has worn off they may realize they don’t actually like you very much. Beauty is a distraction, a decoy, an obstacle to love rather than a precondition for it.

This is a dynamic I’ve seen up close. I’m rather average in the looks department, but I have had some extraordinarily beautiful friends, both male and female. The way they were objectified and their beauty fetishized cured me of any envy I might have felt early on in the relationship. It may seem like a wonderful fantasy to have every man fawning over you, but in fact it can be quite dehumanizing when you realize your boyfriend doesn’t see you as a person at all, but as an accessory and status symbol. A toy to show off.

At least when you’re average-looking, when someone likes you, you can be fairly sure they really like you, not just your prettiness.

I learned this lesson for myself, the hard way, in my early twenties. It’s a rather brief episode in my life, but one that left a lasting impression on my ideas about beauty and attraction.

I was traveling around India, and had just spent three days on a passenger ship to get to the Andaman Islands off the coast of Myanmar. While I was in the main town, Port Blair, I met two young men traveling together named Echo and Ono.

They were both ridiculously tall, in the 6’5-ish range (a weakness of mine), but that was where the similarity ended. Ono was skinny as a rail, with a big nose and brown eyes set too close together. He was also incredibly funny and clever, and the moment we met we clicked like a key in a lock. At dinner we couldn’t stop riffing off each other and laughing. The attraction between us was palpable.

On the other hand, Echo was quiet and soft-spoken. Where Ono crackled with intensity, Echo was gentle and dreamy. He was also unbelievably beautiful. Blonde, square-jawed and broad-chested, and with eyes the pale blue of glacial melt waters. To look at him was to be breathless and mesmerized.

Both of them were interested in getting in my pants. Not because I’m any great beauty, but probably because there was a shortage of young, available women on the island, and young men traveling are always interested in a quick fling when they can get it. The point is, I had my choice, and I chose Echo. It was the wrong choice.

Although I was  attracted to Ono, when I realized Echo was also an option, it was like I couldn’t say no. I even remember thinking to myself, ‘I’ll never have the chance to sleep with anyone this beautiful again.’ And so I chose beauty over everything else: charm, humor, wit, intelligence and natural attraction.

The sex, needless to say, was totally unmemorable. I realized my mistake almost instantly.

I have, since then, fallen in love and out of love and joyfully back in love, so I can’t say I’ve spent my life pining over some skinny Dutch boy I met once on the other side of the world. But I have always regretted that choice. Always. And it has made me very leery of beauty. Beauty hijacks our senses, but ultimately that sensation of being overwhelmed by beauty is not real attraction, it’s not true love. It’s just beauty, doing to our senses what beauty does. It’s like being under the influence of a drug; the experience may feel profound, but really, it’s just chemicals in your brain.

It might also be one of the reasons that I love a romance with a plain hero or heroine. It’s hard to write a character who is alluring for reasons other than beauty, but, I think, truer to life. The people we fall in lust with, in love with, often attract us for reasons besides looks. The way they smell, the way they laugh, a certain look they get in their eyes. These things are subjective, personal; they create beauty where others see none.

I’m not saying you can’t enjoy your gorgeous characters. But I think it’s good to remember that in romance novels, beauty serves as a kind of stand-in or short-hand for the deeper, truer things that attract people to each other in real life. You don’t need to be beautiful to be sexually desirable or loveable, no matter what you may have been lead to believe. In fact, your chances for true love may be better if you aren’t quite so sparkly.

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Why Dean Winchester Is A Great Alpha Hero

For those who don’t know, Dean Winchester is one of the lead characters on Supernatural, a TV show that is in its … 12th season? I don’t know – I can’t keep track anymore. It’s been on forever. The show was originally written to end after the 5th season, and even I admit it probably should have. Since then the story lines have gotten goofier and goofier, and yet like many diehard fans I continue to watch it, season after season. Why? Well, mostly because of Dean Winchester.

Let’s go ahead and acknowledge upfront that Dean is played by the obscenely good-looking Jensen Ackles. You might be tempted to think it’s the actor’s pretty face that makes Dean such a hit with fans, but you’d be mostly wrong. Being hot never hurt anyone’s popularity, but a show about two brothers who fight monsters could not possibly survive so many seasons, or inspire such rabid fan loyalty, based on looks alone.

It’s great characters that have carried this show so far, and the complex relationships between those characters. The fact that the three main characters, Sam, Dean and Castiel, have managed to avoid becoming caricatures of themselves after so many seasons is evidence the writing for this show is top notch. Not every episode hits it out of the park, but with so many seasons that’s to be expected. The miracle is that after so many years, characters continue to grow and change, even secondary and tertiary characters, and their relationships continue to evolve.

But it’s primarily Dean’s story, I would argue, that we care about most. For anyone who watches the show, you might think it doesn’t make sense to talk about Dean as an alpha hero since the show is so definitely not about romantic relationships. But as Ilona Andrews points out in her fantastic analysis of the alphahole in romance, the alpha hero is an archetype that shows up in many stories, not just the romantic ones (hello, Batman). And we can learn from him, wherever he lives.

So Dean has all the trademarks of a classic alpha hero: he survived a traumatic and neglectful childhood, he is intensely effective and efficient at what he does (saving people, hunting things, the family business), he’s bossy, decisive, protective, and he doesn’t like to be disobeyed. And yes, he’s entirely capable of being a murderous a-hole. Yet none of those things really account for his appeal. Yes, we admire him for being a good hunter and a good brother, but they don’t explain why we fall in love with him.

What makes Dean so remarkable in part, is that he has all the key elements of a stock character, but he isn’t one. Dean is complicated, flawed, multi-dimensional. He always tries to do the right thing, because he is fundamentally heroic, but sometimes he fails, and that makes him human. That makes him lovable.

I think it’s in season four where Dean goes to hell in exchange for his little brother’s life. While he’s there, he is torn to pieces each day, only to be made whole so he can be torn apart again the next day. Most genre writers would leave it at that, and let Dean be an unsullied martyr. But in fact, Dean eventually agrees to torture others in hell, rather than endure more torture himself. Why? Because he’s only human. And the scene where Dean admits this to his brother, breaking down in tears as he does, has to be four of the most heart-rending minutes of television ever aired. Even more impressive, the show’s writers don’t let TV amnesia erase that experience from Dean’s psychological make-up. The character is never again quite as light-hearted as he was in the earliest seasons, before he went to hell.

The secret to Dean’s long-lasting appeal as an alpha hero can be summed up in one word: vulnerability. Sure, he’s a complete badass. He hunts down bad guys, rescues good guys, makes monumental sacrifices for the people he loves, and all of those things make him worthy of admiration. But it’s when he fails, when he hurts, when his vulnerability is shown to us, that we begin to really care. It inspires our compassion and our tenderness; it makes us feel connection to this character.

This isn’t just great script writing, this is life. There’s a terrific TED talk by a researcher named Brene Brown called “The Power of Vulnerability,” in which she explores the idea that vulnerability is what allows us to make connections with other people. Her research led her to conclude that it’s our most excruciating shame and our ability to share it that allows us to ultimately connect, love, and find happiness.

And this, I believe, is the power of Dean Winchester. The actors on the show have been known to joke about how much fans love it when Dean cries, but there’s something true and real going on there. We do love to see Dean cry. We love it because it allows us to feel connection with him much the way we connect with people in real life. It also makes his heroics seem all the more heroic, because it puts his bravery and sacrifice in the context of his humanity. He isn’t just some impervious superhero winning at everything; he’s a man, with all the complexities and doubts of a real man, and he’s doing some very difficult shit to make the world a better place for other people. Now that is a hero.

Dean Winchester also explains why perfect heroes and heroines are so dull on the page. They’re beautiful, clever, talented, kind, blah, blah, blah. It isn’t just that they aren’t realistic (who knows if a Dean Winchester could ever exist in real life) it’s that we never have the chance to connect with them, because they’re never really vulnerable. Even when bad things happen to them and they suffer, the vulnerability is thrust upon them from the outside. We never see them mess things up, make mistakes, or feel ashamed. We never see their humanity.

If you’ve never seen Supernatural you’ve clearly been living under a rock. But seriously, if you’re a fan of supernatural romance and you’ve some how missed it, it’s definitely worth a watch. I dare you not to fall in love with Dean Winchester. Trust me, once he cries, it’s all over.

 

The Warrior-Hero in Romance

Anyone who browses (erotic) romance titles regularly knows that military romance is a whole subgenre unto itself. You might even be a major fan of it. Along with billionaires and bikers, the soldier/warrior is a permanent fixture in romance novels. In honor of July 4th, let’s spend some time considering the warrior in romance.

I confess that I haven’t read many (okay, any) contemporary military romances, but that’s only because my personal taste runs to the old fashioned. Even though I love writing contemporary, I mostly read historical romances (a la Jo Beverly and Amanda Quick). But even in historical romances the warrior-hero is a common trope, and I love him as much as the next romance reader.

So why do we love the soldier-hero? So many reasons.

Sure, there is, of course, the ‘man in uniform’ obsession some women have. Something about the uniform itself is a mental and/or physical turn on. I think for most though, it’s less about the uniform and more about what that uniform represents.

The modern soldier is the natural descendent of the knight in shining armor. He follows a moral code of ethics. He is loyal, honorable, a defender of the weak. Except of course when he is kicking serious ass, and then he is a paragon of physical and mental power. The soldier is, well, heroic. He makes us feel safe and protected. You know he can fight off the bad guys or rescue you from the villain. He’ll even get your cat out of the tree, because he’s that guy. The one who will always win.

But it isn’t just his heroism that makes the soldier such an evergreen. He is also, often, someone who needs to be saved by the heroine. He is burdened by the things he’s seen and done, scarred emotionally and physically. He may show a cold, even ruthless face to the world, but inside he’s a battered man who can only be healed by a woman’s love and understanding. He will save you, but he needs to be saved too.

Another aspect to the soldier-hero that makes him such an exceptional main character is that he is a taboo breaker, but a legitimized one. A soldiers does the one, most-terrible thing that a human being can do: he kills. Even in the hyper-violent context of popular culture, real killers still fascinate us, as all real taboo-breakers fascinate us. It’s a creepy fascination, so we love the soldier because he only kills when he must. We allow ourselves to believe that the killing he does is always justified, legitimate, necessary, and therefore okay. And if the killing he does is okay, then our fascination with it is some how less creepy. More like admiration than morbid curiosity.

And finally, the soldier-hero appeals on a primal, evolutionary level because he is a survivor. We know he’s strong/fast/clever because he wasn’t killed in the battle. If you get it on with him, your babies are going to be survivors too. Your ovaries love the soldier-hero as much as you do, because there’s cold, hard evidence that he’s packing some prime DNA.

If you love the warrior-hero and you think I’ve missed something, tell us about it in the comments below. Until next time, happy reading!

Hello, World

Testing, testing, 1 2 3 …

just kidding.

Hello there. I’m Sierra True, and I write erotic romance – sometimes with the stress on erotic, and sometimes with the stress on romance. I can’t imagine how you found your way to my humble pages, but now that you’re here let me tell you a little bit about what this blog is not.

It’s not a place where I write about writing. There are so many terrific people already doing this that I’d only be redundant. In fact, here’s a link to Jenna Moreci’s Youtube channel. Her videos are not only full of great advice like how to create believable characters, edit your own work, and find an agent, they’re also pretty damn funny. You’re welcome.

It’s not a place where I review books. Again – so many other great places are doing this. My favorite is Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. If you’re a romance fan and you somehow managed to miss them, get thee there, pronto. I promise you’ll come away laughing, and with some great recommendations.

It’s not a place where I share works in progress. I know a lot of author’s do this, and I admire their courage. I, however, am a neurotic perfectionist, and no one sees a word until it’s all finished, edited, and edited again. And then once more. So forget it – no sneak peeks.

So what the hell is this blog for? The only thing I could think of that no one else can do: my own personal musings on real love, romance, and adventure.

There’s a lot of crazy ideas floating around erotic romance novels about what real love is and what it looks like. Partly that’s because fantasy is not reality (and woohoo! for fantasy), but it’s also partly because popular culture sends women some seriously fucked messages about men and relationships. And to that I say, let’s talk about it!

So stop in every Monday for Ms. True’s thoughts about love, romance, and living an adventurous life. Until next time, happy reading!