The Jane Eyre Complex: Or, books that aren’t afraid to have average looking main characters.
So lately I’ve been reading a lot of those books where the lead female thinks nothing of her appearance, but everyone else is quick to describe her as “like, ohmygosh, one of the most beautiful creatures that has ever graced the planet, in all time, ever, wow,” while the lead male is the kind of guy that causes heart problems, he’s so hot. Now before I start, let me say this: I don’t have a problem with pretty protagonists. I don’t.
I don’t even have problems with gorgeous characters. Although it’s weird, I actually like when the main character is attractive, because for whatever length of time that I’m reading the book, I am the main character, and I feel the pain, pride, and other emotions of that character. Being sort of shallow, I like feeling desirable and appealing, and I can certainly see why so many authors write beautiful characters. I do. There’s nothing wrong with a character being pretty.
That said, I wish there were more less-than-idealized protagonists out there. Because just like every book is different, and every protagonist is different, shouldn’t their be some diversity in appearance? It’s so refreshing to find a main character that has frizzy hair and a crooked nose, especially in the YA fantasy world. Especially, especially in the werewolf-vampire-witch-o-sphere. I have a whole shelf of YA paranormal books, and although I scanned it twice over for this post, I could not find a single one where the leading lady or leading lad was a bit below average. I’m not talking Hunch Back of Notre Dame or Phantom of the Opera here. I’m just talking chubby cheeks, knobby elbows, or an outcropping of zits. Things that we have all experienced at one point or another.
(what is going on here?!)
Now, I know that these books aren’t meant to be reality. Books are fiction for a reason, yada yada. But with all the books out there, you’d think there be at least a few shelves of books that have gals and guys dealing with appearance issues. I don’t know if I’m searching the wrong library, but in my reading, I’ve really only encountered a handful. But I’ll stop myself there. The point of this post is not to question why there are so many beautiful characters in novels. It’s to take a look at the ones who don’t (in all genres), and give them a shout out for being the diverse,
beautiful er, great, books that they are.
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
It would be a shame not to start with Jane Eyre. Because to me, she represents the original ugly but absolutely fierce protagonist. Jane Eyre is one of my all time favorite novels, and Ms. Eyre proves that you don’t have to be beautiful to be a role model. She ends up with the money, the guy, and her morals, even though she started out with nothing. It’s so refreshing to read Jane Eyre. Jane knows she’s not beautiful, and she accepts it without complaint. She has been dealt her hand of cards and she never once loses her hope or her values. Go Jane! (Also, Mr. Rochester is ugly as well, but he makes my Top 10 list of Fictional Guys ever, so make of that what you will.)
- The Summoning by Kelley Armstrong
The first book in the Darkest Powers series, I commend the Summoning as having a male romantic interest who does not have a “panty-dropping smile” or a beautiful, exotic strangeness about him. Derek is described as having greasy hair, body odor, and a legion of other unappealing traits. He’s also cold and gruff, but still manages to be the guy you end up rooting for. Derek proves that you don’t have to be hot to get the girl.
- Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
Bridget is a thirty something singleton whose book actually revolves around her flaws. She’s overweight, and is convinced that by dropping just a few more pounds she’ll achieve self actualization. I love this book, and I love Bridget Jones. She is the woman in us all. The one who is convinced that by changing your appearance, you can somehow change your self. Going on Bridget Jones’s journey is not only hilarious, it helps you appreciate yourself, and realize that maybe, just maybe, losing that five pounds isn’t the answer to the universe.*
- The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot
Another series on my favorite’s list. (Hmm…I’m noticing a pattern.) Although Mia may be a princess, she’s still going through the awkward stage of growing into herself and her imperfections. Her hair is shaped like a triangle, she bites her nails, and she sees herself as freakishly tall. No, Mia is definitely not perfect, but that makes her even more endearing, more relatable, and more awesome. Cabot is really good at giving her characters flaws. Another one of her books, Airhead, takes a plain character and transplants her mind into the body of a supermodel. It examines how differently people treat you when you’re beautiful, and is a fun book for when you’re in the need of a relaxing read.
- Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire
Although I’m only halfway through this book, I put it on here because the main character, Iris, is, indeed, ugly. And two, because there were so little books with plain characters that I couldn’t find anymore, and thought five was a much more satisfactory number than four. 🙂 In any case, Maguire is known for writing about characters that don’t fit the pretty mold, such as our friend Elphie from Wicked. For writing not one, but two books with homely characters, he and his books deserve to be put on this list. I love how Maguire really digs deep into the old tales that say ugliness is synonyms with being evil, and uncovers the gritty truth.
So, tell me: what do you think? Do you think there should be more average looking people on our reading lists, or do you think we have enough already? And if it’s the latter, please drop off some suggestions! I love hearing from you all.
*No, that would be 42.