I’m working on some data entry for some non-writing work at the moment. I don’t hate data entry, but I do find it a little tedious because there’s not enough to keep my mind occupied. Since discovering audiobooks a little over a year ago I’ve taken to listening to stories when doing these mindless tasks. Right now I’m re-listening to a favourite of mine, Sunshine by Robin McKinley.
I’m about a quarter of the way in, and finding myself drawn to the male lead again. He’s a vampire, and McKinley takes pains to establish that he’s supposed to be not attractive in the least. He’s described as having gray skin that looks like mushrooms that are weeks past their best-before date, that his hair is long and lank, that he’s tall and angular with spidery limbs and a creepy, non-human way of moving, that his voice is unpleasant to listen to, that he smells bad, of blood and vampire, and most of all, that just his presence feels alien and predatory. This is not someone you should feel attracted to.
And yet, there are a lot of readers – including myself, I admit it – who find him attractive. After thinking about it a bit this afternoon, why I like him so well, I realized it has nothing to do with his appearance and everything to do with his personality. He’s powerful but also intelligent and chivalrous, and it’s clear that he comes to care for Sunshine. When he returns Sunshine to her house the first time, he doesn’t just drop her at the door and take off. No, he brings her inside and lays her on the couch and feeds her by hand because she’s too weak to feed herself and tucks her under a blanket before she falls asleep, and when he leaves he leaves a note saying goodbye.
In novels, the characters are in your head; their appearance is described once usually, in a few sentences or a paragraph early on, and after that it’s left to your mind to maintain the image. Since you’ll probably make all the characters attractive in your mind’s eye (if you even picture them strongly at all, which I don’t), whether you find them hot or not is based on their words and deeds, not how they physically look.
On the silver screen, meanwhile, hotness is determined primarily by physical appearance because we spend the whole two hours staring at their face. The words and deeds can add to the hotness, but mostly they’re not as important in forming our opinion. It’s the appearance we call to mind when remembering, more than the personality.
I had a critique partner tell me my male lead in Magestone was hot. I think at the time I got the feedback I kind of assumed they meant physically, but in retrospect, I understand now that how he looked didn’t matter; it was what he said and did that they found attractive. And that makes me happy. :)