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.