The Beautiful Scientist Problem, Pt I: Three Tips for Describing Female Characters

Indie authorship seems to have exacerbated my penchant for masochism: I can’t help looking at the bestseller lists, even though it only leaves me sad that my books aren’t on them! Browsing the top titles a few weeks ago, the blurb for Dan Brown’s latest novel Origin caught my eye.

After reconnecting with one of his first students, who is now a billionaire futurist, symbology professor Robert Langdon must go on a perilous quest with a beautiful museum director.

I ground my teeth. As a teenager, I’d gone through a pulp fiction phase where I devoured adventure novels of this sort, where experts unravel ancient mysteries or track crypto-zoological beasts through the jungle. Their book jackets almost invariably chose the word “beautiful” to describe the female lead: “a beautiful scientist/journalist/detective.” Publishers’ obsession with this adjective made it feel like a code word. “A brilliant scientist,” “an ambitious journalist”, or “a wisecracking detective” could be anyone, but since “beautiful” is generally reserved for females, it implied the character’s gender…and that comeliness was her most notable trait. This demeans not only the character in question, but the other characters (and readers) who are presumed to value aesthetics above all else. It bothered me then. Almost twenty years later, it still does.

A few weeks after the Brown Book Blurb Brouhaha–in one of those eerily well-timed coincidences that seem to characterize my life–my social media feed exploded with opinion pieces about how some male authors describe women in superficial, over-sexualized language. Writer and podcaster Whitney Reynolds invited Twitter users to describe themselves as they thought a male author would, with results both hilarious and disturbingly familiar.

While I hesitate to vilify male authors universally, I have read an unsettling number of books—usually by men—that demonstrate this worrisome treatment of female characters. Books are a non-visual medium, and describing the cast plays an important part in crafting an immersive imaginary world. So how can we approach physical description of female characters in a healthier, more creative way?

Don’t over-sexualize.

  • Excessive focus on a female character’s sex appeal or anatomy–often referred to as the “male gaze”–comes across as objectifying. Unless your character’s quest is shopping for the perfect sports bra or applying for a job as an NFL cheerleader, her cup size probably holds little relevance to the narrative. (If you think first-person narration by a heroine can skirt this issue, I regret to inform you that women do not pause at every reflective surface to describe our own hotness. In fact, when we’re caught up in dire events, we rarely spare attention for our looks at all. Who’s got time to fuss over their hair when they’re saving the world?) Rather than emphasizing allure, try describing female characters from the perspective of…

Facts, not fetishes.

  • Authors can provide ample physical description without passing judgment. For example, nowhere in Syzygy is heroine Skye’s attractiveness quantified (even her would-be love interest doesn’t comment on whether he thinks she’s pretty), but I provide plenty of objective facts about her appearance. Blue eyes, pale hair, too thin for her height: all these data points help readers visualize her without being forced to regard her as a sex object. More importantly, these details also…

Reveal personality and plot.

  • Attractiveness is so subjective that labeling a character as “beautiful” doesn’t tell us anything useful about them. Instead, combine descriptions with clues about the character. In Skye’s case, her coloration marks her as an outsider in the genetically homogeneous Colony, while her leanness testifies to the starvation in her own community and the physiological consequences of life in low gravity.  Insightful descriptions can even develop plot, such as how the protagonist in my current manuscript uses her hairstyle to hide a scar that’s a souvenir of her tragic backstory. I can describe her ‘do and build some suspense in the same sentence. Hints like these engage readers in solving a puzzle rather than just staring at a pin-up.

Whatever the author’s personal stance on gender, superficially sexual characters are just poor story craft. Discovering someone’s admirable qualities and forging a bond with them creates a much more satisfying relationship arc than the hero spotting a supermodel and thinking “sure, I’ll hit that at the end of the book.” I’m a sucker for a good ship, and those require substance. Don’t settle for making your female characters merely decorative. Give them personality traits that your protagonist—and your audience—will fall for. We’ll discuss how to write complex female characters in part II of this series.

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