Attractiveness in characters works like attractiveness in general: it’s what stands out that pulls you in. But can you do that when everyone is beautiful ‘top-model’ material? How can your characters captivate your readers?
I like clichés. All clichés have some truth behind them. That’s why they are clichés. And so they are useful. But they are not interesting. Because everybody has seen them at one time or another. So how to avoid clichés when you’re building the characters you want to be attractive?
Let me use a cliché: there’s nothing sexier in a woman than her brain. No, this is not a line, it’s actually what I think/feel. I’m a heterosexual man so I like tits and ass (yes, we are all vulgar). But I have seen perfectly beautiful women I didn’t find attractive in any way and didn’t move me at all, and I have known ugly ones who were extremely attractive and made me shiver. Physical attraction, for me, is not only about physical attributes but other things as well: the way a woman enters a room, the way she treats other people, what she finds funny, how she smiles, the curiosity in her eyes, the expressions of her hands, and yes, if she is clever or not, a remark she made, an intelligent observation, a polite nod. It’s all about the little things.
So how does that translate into character development? You need to start with physical attributes. I’m serious. It’s a ‘need’, not a ‘want’. The readers need to start imagining the scene immediately. When you want to physically describe a character do it as soon as you can. I hate it when I’m imagining a tall brunette seducing the protagonist and 20 pages later the author decides to drop in that she is actually short and blonde. It’s irritating, and it’s sloppy. If you don’t want to physically describe a character in the first few pages she shows up, then don’t describe her at all! Leave her physical attributes to the imagination of the reader. He/she will do a good job.
If you want your character to be physically attractive in a particular way, find a particular trait to focus the attention. I remember when I was young and I was reading «The Three Musketeers» (I think it was that book, I’m not certain), I remember Dumas describing Constance (was it her?) as having ugly hands. I could never find her attractive after that. I could only think of her ugly hands. Today I do exactly the opposite. If I want to make a character attractive, I give her/him a particularly remarkable positive trait: maybe shining eyes, a beautiful small nose, an elegant neck, lovely hands. And I will mention it several times.
But now that we’ve gotten the physical attributes out of the way, let’s start working on the broad attractiveness. Here, again, it’s all about the little things. I usually identify with my male characters and fall in love with my female characters. So I find I pick one trait of mine I like (often my analytical capabilities), or a trait I find attractive in others. From there, I expand the trait to build the character.
For instance: Mirany Cavo, from ‘The Dark Sea War Chronicles’. I wanted her to be relaxed and nice. These seem obvious traits, but they are not. Many people find it difficult to be relaxed and nice. What kind of person is relaxed and nice? And strong and clever? I built the whole character of Mirany around these attributes. Meaning: everything she does conveys a relaxed manner, being nice, strong and clever. I wrote several details that show this. The way she walked with her hands in the pockets of her overalls. The way people respected and loved her. The way she talked to people. The way she smiled. And I stuck with that until the character herself changed.
In Alex 9, from ‘The Alex 9 Saga’, I had another problem. Alex was a hard woman, a warrior, very physical and mostly quiet. I tried to make her attractive by what she noticed. By the things she paid attention to. And then I went further and showed her in her childhood, when she had become tough, as an orphan adopted by a corporation. Punching someone in the throat is already brutal. But when it’s a little girl that does it, intentionally, it’s even more violent. Alex punches some boy in the throat and sends him to the hospital. She needs to survive and we can see how hard she has become already at a young age (actually, that punch in the throat will become her signature strike). And when her new master, Kaoru, invites her to have private lessons, she is surprised. She asks in expectation: «Alone?» This scene shows finally how vulnerable and so alone she feels. She never thought someone could care for her enough to pay her that kind of attention. That flashback of Alex as a child makes her more human, a little bit more fragile, and that makes her more attractive. We suddenly realize that she does care what other people think and feel. And so, when she starts responding with tenderness to a family that helps her, trying to fit in, we understand where she’s coming from, and we like her for it. She’s not just an empty shell.
And after the little things come the big things.
For instance, Byllard Iddo, from ‘The Dark Sea War Chronicles’. For some time he seems to be a ‘yes-man’, dull and obedient. A Navy lieutenant who follows orders. And he is not very interesting. But then we find he can and will disobey direct orders to protect the ones around him. He thinks for himself. He innovates. He is a step ahead of the rest of the officers. And that’s when we start to like him, to find him interesting. And now that we care for the protagonist, the story can really begin.
It’s important in the first 15% of the book, or at the very least in the 1st Act, to ‘Save the Cat’ or ‘Kill the Cat’, as Blake Snyder would put it. Imagine a movie featuring a corrupt violent cop. He’s at a stake-out. He’s not very likable. But then he notices an old woman in trouble: her cat is stuck up a tree. So, risking his cover, the cop goes out of his way to help that woman and save that cat. And then suddenly, he’s a good guy. He can be guilty of murder later on, but he saved that cat, so we helped the audience or the reader to like him enough to identify with him — and we have a protagonist. Or we could have a perfectly nice cop that when the old woman is not watching, manages to kill the cat. And from then on, we’ll hate him — and we have an antagonist. You give the reader reasons to love or hate a character. And that’s how you build attractive ones.