Nov 8 2012 2:00pm

Eye of the Beholder: Ugly Heroines and the Heroes Who Love Them

Charlotte Lucas from Pride and Prejudice (2005)“Once upon a time, there was a beautiful young lady...”

More often than not, romance celebrates the beautiful heroine. Her beauty is what enchants and draws her Prince Charming to her side. Even if she is awkward and unattractive as a child, it is almost a requirement that she metamorphosize from gangly caterpillar to blooming butterfly as she grows into womanhood.

But what about the ugly heroine who stays ugly? She doesn't bloom from a weed to a rose, but stays a weed. Our hero isn't instantly smitten with her. Often, the heroine becomes sport for the hero and his friends. Or the hero is forced to marry the ugly heroine, treating the heroine with indifference, reassuring himself that they he is indeed a “hero” because he has offered her what no one else would: Marriage.

At some delicious, romantic moment, however, the hero really sees the heroine and gets a priceless look of befuddlement and confusion on his face. We know why he loves her but it takes him awhile to figure it out. We instinctively know that the hero’s love rings true because he sees beyond the heroine’s looks and deep into her soul. It also makes for a more interesting storyline as the author must firmly convince the readers as to why the hero falls in love with her. We must be assured that the relationship is more than just a means to a convenient HEA.

Courting Miss Hattie by Pamela MorsiThere seem to be three main tropes that revolve around an ugly heroine; there's the friend to lovers trope perhaps best represented in Courting Miss Hattie by Pamela Morsi. Not only is the heroine unattractive, but she’s older then her hero, and they are best friends.

The news spread like brush fire through the whole county when widower Ancil Drayton announced his intention to start courting Miss Hattie Colfax. She was certainly spirited and delightfully sweet natured, and she'd managed to run her family farm almost single-handedly. But wasn't a twenty-nine-year-old lady farmer too old to catch a husband?

All his life handsome, black-haired Reed Tyler had worked Miss Hattie's farm—and dreamed of one day settling down on his own piece of land with the pretty young woman he'd sworn to marry. Hattie was someone he could tell his hopes and troubles to—someone he looked on as a sister. So he thought, until the idea of Ancil Drayton calling on her made him seethe. Until the night a brotherly peck became a scorching kiss... and Reed knew nothing would bank the blaze—and that his best friend was the only woman he would ever love.

Hattie is a delightful heroine, full of life with no pretentiousness. She accepts her flaws and doesn't let them weigh her down. Reed, our hero, doesn’t join in the public gossip about Hattie’s looks though he thinks, like everyone else, she will forever remain a spinster. When another man begins to court her, Reed begins to see Hattie in a new light. Watching him deal with his new feelings is hilarious. He tries to be happy for her finally having a suitor and even offers to teach her different ways to kiss, using peaches as examples, until he realises that she will be using his lessons on another man. He tries to backtrack and convince Hattie that she should stick to giving her suitor only pecks.

“Why would you peck when you can peach?”

In Nalini Singh’s Lord Of The Abyss, Singh rewrites Beauty and the Beast with a few subtle changes and we see the second trope—the hero who never sees the heroine’s ugliness but needs to convince her of that.

Lord of the Abyss by Nalini SinghOnce upon a time…the Blood Sorcerer vanquished the kingdom of Elden. To save their children, the queen scattered them to safety and the king filled them with vengeance. Only a magical timepiece connects the four royal heirs…and time is running out.…

As the dark Lord who condemns souls to damnation in the Abyss, Micah is nothing but a feared monster wrapped in impenetrable black armor. He has no idea he is the last heir of Elden, its last hope. Only one woman knows—the daughter of his enemy.

Liliana is nothing like her father, the Blood Sorcerer who’d cursed Micah. She sees past Micah’s armor to the prince inside, whose sinful touch she craves. But first she has to brave his dark, dangerous lair and help him remember. Because they only have till midnight to save Elden.

I loved this story for so many reasons. We never really know which is the beauty and which is the beast. Singh gives us beauty filled with ugliness and ugliness who is pure beauty. Our heroine is honest to god ugly with her small breasts, large booty, a long nose, straw textured hair, and one leg shorter than the other. Our hero is beautiful, yet an arse due to his upbringing. When these two meet, they balance each other perfectly. Lillian has lived her whole life with evil, so honestly, Micah is a piece of cake to deal with. She uses her intelligence and innate stubbornness to break through his barriers. I love the fact that Micah never sees Lillian’s ugliness. To him, she is simply beautiful. Micah being a virgin helps facilitate his affections for her. We have a beautiful hero who must rely on the heroine's “expertise,” and in doing so is transported to a whole new world.

I admit to being disappointed in the ending. I honestly felt there was no reason to change Lillian. I suppose since this is a remake of Beauty and the Beast, Ms. Singh works it in the original ending , though it’s almost as an afterthought because it has no bearing of Micah’s feeling for Lillian in the least bit.

“Arms wrapped around him, she kissed him, halting the flow of his words. He decided he would allow the kiss, but since he couldn’t make her naked here, he had to stop it. “Why did you change your face, Lily?”

Liliana lifted her hands to her face at that quizzical question, terrified her father had cast a final vengeful spell. “Is it very bad?” she whispered to the man who held her in arms of steel.

“I suppose I’ll get used to it,” he muttered, then kissed her again using his tongue and squeezing her bottom—as if his brothers and sister, and other people, weren’t standing right there.

Never a Gentleman by Eileen DreyerOne book I both liked and despised is Eileen Dreyer’s Never A Gentleman, an example of the third trope: The marriage of convenience where the hero is forced to marry the ugly heroine. In this book, the hero's actions more than reflect that he is unhappy with the situation, often in ways I feel are unforgivable.

Miss Grace Fairchild is under no illusions about her charms. Painfully plain, she is a soldier's daughter who has spent her life being useful, not learning the treacherous ways of the ton. She may have been caught in a scandal with society's favorite rogue, but how can she marry him when it means losing herself?

Diccan Hilliard doesn't know which of his enemies drugged him and dumped him in Grace's bed, but he does know the outcome. He and Grace must marry. To his surprise, a wild, heady passion flares between them. Yet Diccan is trapped in a deadly game of intrigue Grace knows nothing about. Will his lies destroy Grace just as he realizes how desperately he needs her? And how can he hope for a future with her, when an old enemy has set his murderous sights on them both?

Misunderstandings run rampant through the story. Our hero, Diccan, is a spy and does things for his country that are quite despicable when you see how they affect his wife, Grace. Grace, tall, plain, and crippled, knows someone like the gorgeous Diccan should and would never love someone like her but she loves him and proves it throughout, often at the risk of her self-esteem. Unfortunately, Diccan stays true to character and we are forced to listen to him disparage Grace in his thoughts and out loud.

Minette fingered the damp curls at his neck. “What about your wife?”

“That cripple?”

Grace blinked, sure she’d heard wrong. Her heart had surely gone silent as she waited. But he sounded completely indifferent. “She has nothing to object to,” he was saying, his focus on Minette’s breast. “I married her. I’ll be damned if I have to fuck her.”

Diccan, of course, comes to realize just how extraordinary Grace is towards the end, but can that excuse his behavior? I was hard-pressed to like him, and only when he is faced with the possibility he may lose her permanently do his true feelings emerge and we get out HEA.

He’d been trying to pretend it wasn’t so bad, because if it was, he wouldn’t be able to continue being such a bastard. He would be consumed by the pain he was causing her.

What got me to continue reading were the very things that annoyed me: Ms. Dreyer’s unapologetic storyline, character makeups, and emotional upheavals. We are taken through the gauntlet and made to experience every heartbreak and tremulous moment with our main characters. Neither of our characters are perfect and Ms. Dreyer makes sure we see and understand that.

Are ugly heroines an appealing storyline for you? What makes or breaks the ugly heroine romance for you as a reader?


Tori Benson, Smexybooks and at Twitter.

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Heather Waters
1. HeatherWaters
Great post, Tori! A few of my favorite examples of romances with "ugly" heroines are The Ugly Duchess by Eloisa James, Blind Curve by Annie Solomon, and Heat of the Moment by Jessica Hall.

I think I like this trope because you know good character and emotion rather than looks are going to be key to the story, which is always aces in my book.
Megan Frampton
2. MFrampton
I love this trope. I really liked Never a Gentleman, and there's a Mary Balogh--Ideal Wife, maybe? that has an ugly heroine.
3. Torifl
redline_ Thanks. I liked the The Ugly Duchess by Eloisa James but I never really felt she was ugly. Rather she wasn't what was considered ideal in that time. I haven't read the other two but I'm going to go take a look at them.
4. The Mighty Buzzard
Honestly, I never understood this trope. Beauty is only skin deep and the thoughts it inspires in men are only penis deep.

It works like this:
1) Oh look, she's hot. I'd like to see her naked.
2) Oooh, naked woman. I'd like to have sex.
3) End.

Nowhere in there is there even a consideration of anything deeper. Why? Because you can't even remotely tell if someone is going to be enjoyable to be around by their appearance. She could watch reality TV and demand the toilet seat be left down for all we know. Barring a severe hormonal imbalance, there is just no such thing as love at first sight for men.

Love? Love's something that only comes from spending enough time with someone that you appreciate them for their intangibles. Well, or from being young or dumb enough to mistake a flood of hormones for genuine affection.

Packaging is a good opening line but, honestly, it could be replaced by most any method of getting us to think that we'd like to have sex with her. Pretty low bar there, too.
Heather Waters
5. HeatherWaters
@Torifl -- Agreed, that was more of an ugly duckling-to-swan story, but the heroine does struggle with some self-esteem issues due to her looks, so I figured I'd count it anyway. :)
Lege Artis
6. LegeArtis
Ruthless by Anne Stuart comes in mind... Heroine was plain and she had big nose if I recall corectly, but what stick to my memory was how hero saw her. It wasn't : "You're beautiful to me". It was :" Yes,you're not pretty, but I had pretty. And I hate pretty; it's boring, and you're anything but. " It was interesting view on usual plot....
Never a Genetleman has only 1 or 5 stars reviews. :) Diccan behaved through most of the book in a way that truly justify his name, and I'm still not sure what to think of him... Reading this one was emotinal turmoil for me.
Great post, Tori!
7. Chelle
Tori, Lord of the Abyss is a classic for me...a definite re-read in my future since you got me all excited about it again! ?

Another fav plain heroine for me Scandal by Carolyn Jewel, who rocks my historical world, BTW. The heroine in this book has zilch in commom with the devastatingly handsome hero who also happened to be a wenching and drinking buddy with her late scoundrel of an ass husband. The best part is when the hero realizes she is IT for other will do. Another of her great plain heroine books is Lord Ruin. ?
8. Chelle
Dang it! Those ?? in my post are supposed to be hearts!!!! lol.
Darlene Marshall
9. DarleneMarshall
One of the things I enjoyed about Georgette Heyer's novels were her heroines who weren't beautiful. They might be capable, or interesting, or have great personalities, but they weren't necessarily drop-dead gorgeous.

Another author who did great not-pretty heroines is LaVyrle Spencer. Hummingbird and Morning Glory are two of my favorites.
Heather Rizzuti
10. heatherbartley
In Sherrilyn Kenyon's Night Play (Dark-Hunter Book #6), the full-figured heroine name Bride did not see herself as remotely attractive, mainly due to an ex-boyfriend who was emotionally abusive. Thankfully, the extremely romantic hero Vane Katalakis saw Bride and thought she was the most beautiful, warm-hearted woman in the world! Awwww. He's so sweet! Vane happens to be a were-hunter, a wolf shape-changer with magical powers.
11. Shark with Lasers
I can appreciate this trope. Jane Eyre is one of my all-time favorite classic novels. I also liked it in Robin Schone's The Lover, even though that one had one of the most ridiculous "heroine in peril" moments I've ever read.
12. BananaTricky
How about What A Dragon Should Know by G A Aiken - the heroine is called The Beast by her own family! In later books she is still described as looking like a servant and yet she has totally captivated the most hnadsome dragon of them all
13. goddessani
Night of the Hunter by Jennifer Greene comes to mind. This is an old 90s Harlequin but I read it at least once every 18 months. In this one, Charly knows she's plain and so do we. It's not one of those, oh, she just doesn't recognize her looks.

But she wins over the hero, embittered DEA agent because her soul is so beautiful. And she wins over his bosses too. Our hero, Carson, convinces herself to start referring to herself as beautiful because, really, looks are only skin deep but the soul goes all the way through.

Another old one where the heroine doesn't feel she's beautiful although she may be, we don't really know, is Elizabeth Lowell's Love Song for a Raven. In this one, neither H believes they are attractive and think they're only scratching an itch for the other.
rachel sternberg
14. rae70
first thing i thought of was the book "lord of the abyss" and then the movie "dogfight", 1991. river phoenix and lily taylor...

1963, the night before the 18 years old "Birdlace" Eddie and his friends are shipped to Vietnam. They play a dirty game called 'Dogfight': all of them seek a woman for a party, and who finds the most ugly one, wins a prize. Eddie finds the lonesome pacifist Rose working in a coffee shop. She's happy to accompany him - but then she sees through the game. However by this time he already learned to like her, so he follows her home. Will he manage to win her heart despite their differences?
15. JenM
I love this trope although it's hard to find a book where the heroine really is just plain or ordinary as opposed to one who just didn't know how to dress right or had a bad haircut or something and turns into a swan once she changes a few things about her appearance.

One that I read recently that was really good was one of Susan Mallery's Fool's Gold books, All Summer Long. The heroine, Charlie, is a firefighter who is tall, strong, tomboyish and decent looking, but not considered beautiful and the hero is Clay, a former underwear model. They are friends first and it's really sweet to watch them fall in love. He totally is attracted both to her personality and her physical attributes and the book also explores the theme of how he is treated almost as an object because he's a former model, and how much he hates that. I highly recommend this one.
16. minina62
A favorite of mine is Anne Gracie's "The Perfect Rake". It is the first book in her Merridew sisters' series. I found it utterly charming, particularly since the hero never understood why people insisted on calling Prudence "plain". I have re-read it more than a couple of times.
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