I think about this question a lot when I create characters. It write romance novels, so the hero and heroine have to be attractive and there’s the rub. I have to decide what’s attractive and that’s totally subjective. Also, depending on who’s reading the novels they may have a totally different definition of pretty.
Part of it is age and part of it is culture. We are shaped by what we see. When I was growing up, my curly hair was not attractive and to this day I cringe when it’s humid and spend way too much money on straightening products.
I think in many ways our ideas about pretty are set in our teenaged years, like our musical tastes. That’s when we are most vulnerable to new experiences and also to peer pressure. My pretty were the cheerleaders with their perfect hair and teeth and never a blemish. Of course they weren’t perfect, but they appeared that way through the lens of my own insecurities.
My definition has changed over the years thank goodness. Now my pretty is someone comfortable in their own skin. I cringe when I see someone constantly tugging at the bodice of a dress or unable to walk in too high heels. Fashion victims are not my pretty but at the same time you understand and empathize. Heck, we’ve all been there. Yearbook pictures are living proof.
So how do you craft romance characters who aren’t cliches? I get a mental image of the heroine first and then match her with the hero. Actors and actresses, models, next door neighbours, the cute guy in the cubicle next to me all go in the mix. In my St. Barts series the heroine was inspired by my neice who literally is one of the nicest people on the planet. I wanted to pay homage to nice so Sunny O’Hara is pretty inside and out.
Sven, the kinda sorta hero, is a Viking come to life–and just as clumsy when it comes to feelings and relationships. He’s gorgeous outside, a mess inside. Oddly, as he ages through the series he becomes much nicer with each wrinkle and grey hair.
So I guess my pretty is niceness. Civility. Humour. Generosity. Pretty was easier to achieve when I just wanted to straighten my hair.
Anyway, here’s a cool link to pretty around the world.