Name a fantasy novel, particularly a fantasy novel with a female POV. Picture that female the way she is described in the story. She’s beautiful, isn’t she? Maybe she’s not as beautiful as other women in the story, but it’s okay because enough people find her beautiful that she gets to claim the epithet. Maybe she doesn’t find herself beautiful, but she’s lucky enough that other characters will make sure she knows they find her beautiful.
It’s easy enough to understand why this is: fantasy is fantasy. We have magical, magnificent worlds and we might as well fill them with pretty people. And by “pretty,” here, I’m referring to people who are described using adjectives such as “pretty,” “beautiful,” or “lovely.” What this looks like to authors varies considerably, but the important part is their use of those identifiers. No matter how else the character is described, when the author uses these adjectives, the assumption is that the character is objectively attractive.
What I find interesting is the persistence of characters identified as beautiful, even in modern fantasy where the genre has taken a dark turn. Worlds have become grotesque, often horrifying. Sometimes heroes aren’t heroes, sometimes stories are dark and tragic. And yet, despite this, beautiful women seem to persist in the vast majority of fantasy literature. So much so that when the main female character is described as “ugly” or (horror of horrors) “fat,” it stands out. So I’d like to take a moment to think about two such characters — Kelsea from the Tearling series and Elisa from The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy — and what I especially enjoyed about their portrayals.
The discussion that follows will contain minor spoilers for these series. I will not include any plot spoilers or major story arc spoilers, but I will discuss a bit of character development, so if you have not read either of these series, proceed with caution.
My interest is always piqued when the main female character in a fantasy story is not supposed to fit a general beauty ideal, sometimes because she is described as “fat” or “ugly” or both. Erika Johansen, Tearling‘s author, wrote a phenomenal post on why it’s important to have ugly heroines. In essence, the reminder is that people need to have characters to connect with, and not all women in the world have the luxury of being called beautiful, while many women have the experience of being called fat. When heroines reflect us and our experiences, it helps to engage with the characters and worlds more fully. I believe there is inherent value in reminding people that they don’t have to be beautiful or fit a standard ideal of what their body should look like in order to contribute something important to the world. When “fat” and “ugly” heroines take the main stage, it is a subtle but powerful reminder of this.
While I may have several issues with the way beauty and image are dealt with in Erika Johansen’s Tearling series, I will say that Kelsea is a strong and fascinating character and a very capable woman, while also an “ugly” one. As BWP’s very own Madeleine Cassier pointed out to me, what is really interesting about the way Johansen handled Kelsea is that Kelsea is very much an insecure teenager, and there is nothing in the world that most teenage girls could connect with more than a girl who is constantly battling with her own self-image. I may not be the biggest fan of how this plays out in the narrative at times, but I can’t argue that it isn’t realistic. Kelsea’s mother was beautiful, something Kelsea is constantly reminded of; usually as someone despairs about Kelsea’s own lack of beauty. Kelsea, as queen, is surrounded by a court of women who prize their image and appearance above all else, and even as she finds this distasteful she is not immune to the effect it has on her own self-image.
It is a real struggle, and not an artificial one like you find in so many books, where the beautiful main character just needs to be told she’s beautiful enough times until she finally believes it. Heartwarming though that is, not all women get to feel beautiful. Not all women are described as beautiful or reassured of their beauty. Many women struggle as Kelsea does, to find their worth in a world filled with people who are called beautiful while they labor under the knowledge that they themselves do not get to be. Kelsea spends a lot of time wallowing in this knowledge, resenting her mother for being so admired for her beauty, and finding ways to convince herself that it is good that she herself is not beautiful. She struggles with finding the non-physical aspects of herself worthwhile, with defining herself as intelligent and powerful — a queen that will do the right thing by her people and be worth her throne. And while, obviously, a beautiful woman could also be a good queen, Kelsea is the embodiment of the everywoman in the real world that struggles with defining themselves and their worth outside of their own image.
The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy approaches the subject of image in a slightly different manner. Elisa, the trilogy’s protagonist, shares quite a bit in common with Kelsea: she is forced into queenship at the outset to lead a country at war with a magically-powerful foe, she is fat and ugly, and feels that she is in the shadow of her much more beautiful, much more capable older relative (in this case a sister). Like Kelsea, Elisa both self-identifies as fat and is publicly identified as such by children on more than one occasion. Unlike Kelsea, however, after her self-image struggles in the first third of the book, she more or less accepts this about herself and moves on. While her weight is more of a focus than I would have liked it to be, Elisa has a certain self-acceptance that is encouraging, and when her weight and looks come up, it is normally in situations where it may actually matter.
For example, while on a long trek through the desert in The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Elisa struggles. While not all overweight humans are sedentary, Elisa is, and her size and inactivity make it difficult for her to keep up with her companions, at least at first. Elisa never becomes skinny, but she does become more active. She loses some weight in the process, but not a lot. The readers are reminded every now and again that, while Elisa has become physically capable, she is still a very large woman and can never be called thin.
She is called beautiful. By many people, in many different situations. And it is wonderful to have a larger female character that is found beautiful by so many people, but there is a moment in The Bitter Kingdom, the final book of the trilogy, that absolutely stole my heart. As Elisa is preparing for a big event, she for the first time chooses to wear a dress that fits her. She decides that she’s done trying to fit into things that don’t fit, to make her body look like something it doesn’t look like. Instead she wants to wear something that actually works, that actually fits, that accentuates what she loves about herself instead of what other people might like to see. And when she has dressed herself in this beautifully empowering garment, her maid compliments her.
“You look beautiful,” Alodia says.
I startle at the compliment. Then I smile. “I’m beautiful to the one person who matters.”
She nods. “[Lover’s] mouth will drop open when he sees you.”
“I hope so. But I meant me. I’m beautiful to me.” (The Bitter Kingdom, 428)
It is a brief exchange, just a few lines in a relatively long trilogy, but it comes at the end, at the conclusion of the journey, and it is absolutely wonderful in its simple way. Beautiful though others might see her, Elisa is entirely unconcerned. She doesn’t want external validation. She sees herself as beautiful, possibly for the first time, and she understands that this is absolutely the key.
And yes, even though the point is that beauty is not the point and that our bodies are critical to us and their appearance is absolutely irrelevant, it is still important for young people, especially young women, to read stories where the main character might struggle with image issues and come out at the end loving themselves. Defining themselves. Calling themselves beautiful.
I know I, as a reader, would love to see more of this in books. I’d love to see acceptance, to see unconventional people embrace themselves. It is a big step, and an important one. Ugly heroines who find themselves beautiful, even if someone calls them ugly. Fat heroines who let themselves be fat and kick butt anyway. Real people dealing with real issues and managing to be the champion of their own stories in the process.
What do you think, readers?
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