Friday, October 30, 2009

You Have Something On Your Face

I'm reading J.R. Ward's newest book, Covet. Despite all of my issues with the Black Dagger Brotherhood series, I find Ward endlessly readable. Affected dialogue patterns and her habit of turning nouns into verbs aside, her characters really appeal to my love of uber-protective alpha heroes.

I am having one tiny issue, however. One of the secondary characters (who, I suspect, is in line to become a primary character in a future book) has been described as having several face piercings. I'm only about eight chapters in, but I already know he has a ring in his lip. And it's been made clear this isn't the only place on his face that he's poked holes into.

I personally find face piercing a disgusting from of self-mutilation. I've been desensitized to it enough that I can handle a teeny chip of jewel pierced discretely through the corner of a nose, (although for the life of me I cannot figure out how you get the backing onto the end of the post via a nostril, and the unsanitary-ness of such a thing when mixed with a cold squicks me out). But any other form of metal-through-face makes my skin crawl. Eyebrows, cheekbones, lips, the space half-way between chin and mouth? Eewww times a million.

(Sidebar: I do see the hypocrisy in my feelings since I'm perfectly fine with pierced ears. I don't have a good answer for it, so I'll ignore it for now.)

Anyway, this character Adrian has multiple face piercings and so he's immediately marked as unattractive in my head. I don't care if he looks like the magical love child of Brad Pitt, Taylor Kitsch and Jensen Ackles. Stick metal through his face - more than once - and I can't see anything else but that. Best case is that I can try to pretend I never read this fact about the character and live in denial that kissing him would be most uncomfortable with that cold, gold hoop getting in the way. Or thinking about the noticeable holes that would be left behind if he ever decided to give up the face jewelry. Or how much it must have hurt to get it done in the first place.

Which leads me to wonder if it is ever wise to describe a character as having some aspect that a decent sized group of people might find unattractive. I'm not talking about a hero who's going bald or maybe isn't sporting perfect six-pack abs. But things such as full-coverage tattoos or non-traditional hair cuts (mohawks?) or body piercings are extremely...extreme. Those features appeal to some, but I'd wager those "some" folks make up the tiniest sliver of the pie chart.

So why would a writer risk turning off a good hunk of her readership?

I suppose it's a matter of what she hopes to accomplish. If the goal is to convey some specific character trait, then maybe specificity about some fringe form of self-expression is in order even if it alienates readers. If it's important that Joe Hero got that sleeve tattoo to honor his father who was killed in the War, maybe that trumps the prospect of what that artwork will look like on an 80 year old man with wrinkled arm skin and less-toned biceps.

Too, it says something profound about a hero that he would go for any form of extreme look. A guy who has a pierced eyebrow as a form of self-expression is a different guy than the one who works out constantly to maintain a buff body or one who finds wearing anything other than faded jeans and a white tee shirt to be too restrictive.

But if she's writing a hero who she wants everyone to think of as extremely attractive, she's probably better off leaving the descriptives very vague. If you go into too much detail about a hero's exact specs, you will only appeal to a certain percentage of readers, while if you keep it a bit vague, they can fill in the blanks to meet their own specific criteria of what floats their personal boat. By my three examples of male perfection listed above, you can tell what kind of guy I find attractive. But for every one of my sighs over Jensen Ackles, someone else can match me swoon for swoon over Zachary Quinto whom I don't find attractive in the least.

Worst possible reason is the writer short cut. The word-equivalent of movie characters who smoke in these days of Smoking = un-PC, giving a character an envelope-pushing physical style as a way to convey "bad boy" or "dangerous" or "possibly evil" is a real cop-out. It's as lazy as giving a heroine red hair so readers will automatically think she's a spitfire or making the villain a pedophile to make sure people agree he's truly eeevil.

Plus, it doesn't work. I don't see a guy with a bar through his cheek and think to myself, wow, that's a guy who walks on the edge and who just needs the love of the right woman to tame him. I see a guy with a bar through his cheek and think, wow, some day he's going to grow up and realize he looks really stupid but now he's stuck with a permanent scar to remind him of this unfortunate attempt to be a rebel.

I have no idea why Ward has chosen to give Adrian facial piercings. Maybe it's character-driven. Maybe the fact that Adrian feels he needs to suffer pain as some form of self-punishment which has led him to stick large needles into his face is really, really crucial to his particular story. So important that it doesn't matter if readers (read: me) will never understand how any woman would ever find him attractive enough to stop staring at the metal hoops and bars protruding out of his face.

Maybe it's just that Ward herself has a thing for guys with facial piercings. Maybe she creates heroes that float her own personal boat, regardless of how those guys will play in the larger world. I suppose when you reach her level of success, you can afford to indulge in your own fantasies of what constitutes perfection.

In the end, I need an extreme aspect of a character's appearance to be there for a reason, otherwise I'll never get past it. If Adrian just thinks he looks hot with bars in his face, then he's not the guy for me, and I'll never be able to fall in love with him the way I need to as a reader in order to enjoy his story.

No comments: