Do protagonists have to look great?

Was this ever you? Reading after lights out? Reading something you shouldn’t? Or reading something with a red hot cover?

I’m a sucker for a great cover, but not, typically, a face. Are faces on covers a trend that’s over?Maybe that’s the  publishing world taking a neutral stance on race/beauty. But somehow I doubt that. Covers still tend to be clean, upper middle class or else crazy rich, with abundant clothing and hair, and, when faces are included, great, healthy teeth and lips.

So where are all the unkempt covers? The Cast Away characters? The train-jumpers and illegal immigrants? I’ve seen films about trafficked women (both actresses very sexy) who, if they really were trafficked, wouldn’t have had a shower in the two week kidnapping. These girls remain dewy faced throughout the movie, however. And though most pirates and full time island dwellers  (Tom Hanks, Survivor participants, Pirates of the Caribbean) don’t look runway ready, they do mostly manage to pull off a six pack.

In my own work, protagonists tend toward plain or middling looks. It is their interior life as well as their verbal skill and relationship to others that makes them memorable to me. Still, I hear a fair degree of criticism that I should describe my character more physically. I would . . . but . . . I kind of don’t want to. I worry the details about a left shoulder mole or preference for purple nail polish will somehow diminish the presence of that character.

So, readers, what and how much physical description do you prefer? And for how many characters? I kind of hit a limit when I read fiction in which every character has a ‘look.’ I kind of prefer when they have a sound or a smell or a kind of personality vibration in the scene. Like Kiefer Sutherland, whose entire body demonstrates menace in Stand By Me. I like it that he didn’t have to dress up just so or do his hair any certain way to pull that off. He just chewed a toothpick. And he had only a handful of lines.

Female protagonists do still depend on their looks to be included not a novel’s cover, and, largely, in the narrative at all. Especially in young adult fiction where so much of what the reader is said to expect is wish-fulfillment. I.E., I want to be that girl/look like that girl/have experiences that change me like that girl. For my own part, fictional characters don’t have to look hot. It helps if their love interest does, but she herself, not so important. I’m not sure if I say this now that I’m in my 40s or because I consider myself somewhat plain or because I  have always preferred a life of the mind to a life of the red carpet. But maybe I’m just foisting aside something I’ve forgotten about from my teenage years.

Do your protagonists have to look good? And do they, in your mental landscape, if the author/publisher hasn’t furnished you with a cover image? Tell me tell me! And, btw, if you do make a cover image for yourself, does your beauty tend to be your own age, younger, older, and more or less beautiful?

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