In Fiction AND Real Life, Looks Can Thrill

By Katherine Sharma

TS-112124384 Couple in WaterWhether to describe, how to describe and when to describe a character’s physical traits are among the conundrums of fiction writers. Many great writers have provided only minimal clues to a protagonist’s appearance and thus freed the imaginations of readers–who are more interested in a character’s, well, character than eye and hair color–to conjure up images that satisfy personal tastes and experiences.

On the other hand, sometimes it is important to plot or character development to describe physical attributes. Especially for romantic protagonists, any description needs to be one that most opposite-sex readers find appealing and most same-sex readers respect/emulate. Luckily, research provides some guidance on physical looks generally rated as most attractive.

Consider just facial appearance: Scientific studies show that women across cultures prefer male faces in the middle of a range from a “masculine” look, with wide smiles, strong jaws, large noses and smaller eyes, to “feminine” features, such as a small nose, narrow chin and large eyes. Men, on the other hand, find women with high cheek bones, big eyes and thin jaws more attractive–consistently preferring facial features characteristic of women aged about 25 (a hard-wired age bias). Some men even prefer the more childlike face typical of preteen girls (hello, Lolita).

TS-57279561 Couple-LooksHowever, men also have different standards for sexy vs. competent women’s looks. For example, an Elmhurst College study found that, in job interviews of women, men awarded mature women, with smaller eyes and larger noses, more respect. Take a look at 2014′s top five actors (Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Robert Pattinson) and top five actresses (Angelina Jolie, Marion Cotillard, Charlize Theron, Julia Roberts, Mila Kunis) to see how well study results fit popular beauty tastes.

For more on appearance and its implications, read By the way, if you shrug off the importance of looks in fiction or real life, you may get a shock; in the life-ain’t-fair category, studies show that attractive people earn more salary and get more promotions than average-looking people, for example.


Katherine Sharma’s family roots are in Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas. But after her early childhood in Texas, she has moved around the country and lived in seven other states, from Virginia to Hawaii. She currently resides in California with her husband and three children. She has also traveled extensively in Europe, Africa and Asia, and makes regular visits to family in India. After receiving her bachelor’s degree. in economics and her master’s degree in journalism from the University of Michigan, Katherine worked as a newspaper and magazine writer and editor for more than 15 years. She then shifted into management and marketing roles for firms in industries ranging from outdoor recreation to insurance to direct marketing. Although Katherine still works as a marketing consultant, she is now focused on creative writing.

Leave a Reply