So now we know what kind of person our protagonist is, we know what they’re called, but what do they look like? Does it even matter? Yes and no, would be the answer to that one, it largely depends on context.
If we begin with the cliché of the romantic hero it generally summons up images of handsome, brooding with washboard abs (I’ll repeat I’m not saying that’s all romantic heroes). However, did you know that one of the most famous romantic heroes in English literature has no physical description whatsoever? Mr Darcy.
We know Darcy is arrogant and cold but we don’t know what he actually looks like. He’s a void waiting to be filled by the reader’s idea of an attractive man, though that void is probably going to be filled by a picture of Colin Firth since the adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in 1995. For me I’d find that a more satisfying style than the romantic cliché because it leaves the reader more of a gap to imagine the hero than having an image of an ‘ideal man’ foisted on them. Sticking to the cliché, for me personally, denies the idea that there is a concept of attractiveness beyond washboard abs, a dangerous concept for men and women. Plus it vexes me that they have six-packs yet don’t know what a gym is. But I digress.
This isn’t only a condition that appears with men either. There’s a lot of tall and slim yet miraculously big breasted women, usually beautiful, even if they don’t realise it, in fiction too. Let’s face it you simply have to open a superhero graphic novel to find one. This might simply get on my nerves because I’m not very tall but once again it seems to be homogenisation and fiction can be very influential on people’s self-image so making all heroes and heroines incredibly ‘attractive’ in one particular way grates on me.
This said, there is the concept of perspective. A person could be ‘unattractive’, in the sense they don’t fit the stereotype, but as soon as you look at them through the lens of love they can become that perfect image. It’s one of the reasons I found Victorian Mistress didn’t work from Bran’s perspective because Charlotte became a perfect image in early versions. That said, whether or not other people would think her ‘attractive’ there must be something about her that made Bran’s eyes go cartoony, something he found particularly attractive whether physical or otherwise.
To stay on the subject of Charlotte, I knew when I started writing her she was going to be small (four-foot-eleven) because I was so tired of tall heroines. At this point in the story (1838) she might be slim, skinny might be more accurate, but it’s a lifetime of undernourishment that made her so, and she might be athletic but it’s all the running away and climbing that being a Victorian thief might entail that made her so. I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this but I’ll be clear. When I was envisioning Charlotte, a character I knew the reader would spend a lot of time with so inevitably get some physical description of, I tried to imagine what her life was and what affect that might have on her appearance. I have no objection to a hero or heroine who fits the classic mould as long as it isn’t simply a case of assuming that is what the reader wants. For example, if they have the washboard abs maybe mention that they work out a lot and probably have some kind of special diet, and this would all depend on what sort of exercise they did as well.
My advice would be to think about your character’s appearance in the same terms would consider their personality or anything else about them, use it to show who they are. There are opportunities in physicality that can be utilised beyond tall, dark and handsome. Make the most of them.