Romance Authors Should Never Describe Characters This Way

We live in an age of body positivity and inclusion. For good reason, people are becoming more aware of the harmful standards of beauty that society and advertising have inflicted upon us. Across the globe, people are seeing the value in ditching the airbrushing and Photoshop in favor of a more realistic approach. Models with skin “blemishes,” stretch marks, and larger sizes are getting fair representation. The reality of beauty coming in all shapes and sizes is (thankfully) starting to emerge.

And for the most part, romance is ahead of the curve on this.

The genre has by and large ditched the one-size-fits-all approach that haunted its pulpy, mass-market paperback history. It used to be that only muscle-bound alpha males would be featured as the masculine love interest in romance novels. But not anymore! And no longer are all the female protagonists dainty, sweet, and size zero.

In fact, you can make a case for romance writers being ahead of the curve in these topics.

Except when they’re not.

I was recently reading a contemporary romance novel which has incredibly wide appeal. The book is smart, well-paced, and overall an enjoyable read. 

But there was a specific way the author described multiple characters that rubbed me the wrong way. I’ve seen this same aspect of character description in several other books by other popular romance authors, as well. So much so, in fact, that I thought I’d share my one, easy tip that would solve the problem for all involved:

Tip: Never describe a person’s looks by disparaging someone else’s.

It seems so obvious, right? Why compare your new love interest to your old? But yet, in the novel I reference above, the character repeatedly tears down certain body types in order to make her Main Characters look more attractive.

For instance, the man in the story is interested in the woman because she’s short, unlike the “tall blondes” he’s always dated in the past. He was happy for the change in pace, presumptively.

And the woman in said story couldn’t stop commenting on the body of the man in question, saying that her last boyfriends have all “looked like jockeys” (implying they were short.) At one point, she goes so far as to say that her last love interest was 5’6” and looked like he “probably couldn’t lift her if he tried.”

In another book I read recently, the man compliments our heroine on being full-figured, unlike the “stick-thin” girls he’s dated in the past.

So why is writing physical attraction by way of contrast bad?

Well, three reasons:

1.       It’s lazy writing. A competent writer uses physical description in a way that entices you and fills out the picture in your head. Writing physical description through the use of negative description is about as lazy as saying “She looked exactly like Nicole Kidman.” Sure, we get the picture, but it doesn’t exactly make for powerful prose.

2.       It enforces the notion that there are “bad” body types. Any “stick thin” or “blond” or “5’6” or “non-muscular” readers who have picked up a romance novel are likely to find that their very body types are being described as unfavorable or worse than the current hero or heroine.

3.       If you constantly compared your love interest’s looks to your former partners in real life, your love interest would be totally weirded out. (And rightfully so.) It’s unnatural to compare your significant other to your exes as often as these characters did.

On the one hand, I get it. Preferences exist. And that’s okay! But for the sake of readers and society writ large, can we just retire the trend of comparing people’s physical features to exes?

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