Sunday, October 28, 2012

They’re Not Very Good Looking, Are They? by Ellen O'Connell

 Have you ever sat at a traffic light and watched pedestrians cross in front of you and looked for that one guy who could be a romance hero? How about when you’re waiting in line at the grocery store? He doesn’t show up very often, does he? So far as I’ve heard no one has ever done a survey to see what percentage of the human race is blessed with the kind of looks that abound in romance novels, but my guess is it’s not a high percentage.

So when one of my first readers for Dancing on Coals was so intrigued by the story she surfed the web, looked at photos of Apaches from those days, and called me and said, “They’re not very good looking, are they?” she made me laugh.

My guess is the percentage of knock your socks off good-looking people in every group is about the same—and never very high. In an Author’s Note at the end of Dancing, I mentioned that what inspired the story was a sketch of Victorio, Chief of the Warm Springs or Mimbreño Apaches. The image here is the one I originally saw. This sketch, drawn in pencil from life, is the only image of Victorio ever made, but several different versions of it can be found on the Internet.

When I was researching for Dancing, I came across one version that had the light gone from the eyes. Everything that attracted me disappeared with that light. When Regan Walker posted a review of Dancing on her blog, she found a colorized version of the sketch, and it too killed everything that originally appealed to me. The version here is the one I first saw and never forgot, and I believe it’s a true copy of the original sketch.

However, during my research, I also came across several photos of Cochise’s son, Naiche. Victorio was killed by the Mexican army in 1880, although he did spend time on a reservation before that, which is when the sketch was done. Naiche lived to surrender to the U.S. Army and then lived through the 27 years the U.S. Government imprisoned the Chiricahua as prisoners of war in Florida, Alabama and Oklahoma, so there are quite a few photos of him. It’s hard to believe a grown woman could have a crush on someone who has been dead almost a hundred years because of an old photo, but that’s the effect those photos of Naiche had on me.

In my research I came across a sentence that slapped me with the reality of the depth of racial prejudice of the times. I didn’t write it down exactly, but from memory: “This is a photo of Naiche, the son of Cochise the Apaches consider handsome.” I don’t know about you, but while someone could certainly say, "I prefer blonds," or pug noses or whatever, anyone being honest would have to admit Naiche was handsome—very handsome—and like his father, he was that romance hero 6 feet tall.

Little Wolf
Last, here is a reservation-era photo of Little Wolf of the Cheyenne. He was one of the chiefs portrayed in the movie, Cheyenne Autumn. I can’t say that when I wrote Eyes of Silver, Eyes of Gold, I pictured Cord Bennett, who is half-Cheyenne, as looking like this, but I did picture him as having ancestors on his mother’s side who did.

These photographs and the sketch are all in the public domain.


mmolivesong said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Caroline Clemmons said...

I'd definitely call Naiche handsome. But we just by our standards, not by the standards of another ethnic group. If you pulled Vittorio's hair back, I believe it would make him appear more handsome by our standards. I also have a half-Indian hero in a book, but he's Cherokee.

Ellen O'Connell said...

Yes, Naiche was handsome, and obviously his own ethnic group thought so, but there's something I find very compelling about Victorio's face and expression. I think I've read studies that have found similarities in all ethnic groups over what we consider beautiful (handsome) and it has to do with proportions of the face and features.

Paty Jager said...

I agree it is rare to see someone in the real world that we, as writers, envision and describe in our books. My daughter made the comment once that no one could live up to the standards in the romance books and why do I make my characters all so good looking. AS I told her, "Love is blind. When in love you see qualities in the other person others may not. And that includes their physical appearance. Because the heroine thinks the hero has piercing eyes or beautiful curly hair doesn't mean the net woman will see him that way. It is all in the eyes of the beholder. I've found several photos of handsome Native American men. but once in a while after I've learned more about them that handsomeness faded, or I might see one that was average and after reading about them I found more to them. It's the same with any photo or male I've met. It's digging deeper that makes a man attractive, not just the surface, even if that is what initially attracts me.

Paty Jager said...

Great photos by the way! ;)

Ellen O'Connell said...

Paty - You are right on the money about how perception of beauty changes once you get to know someone. I've only once in my life reacted to a man the way typical romance heroines do to first sight of the hero. He turned out to be a jerk, and the effect he had on me disappeared instantly. That's at least one reason my stories don't hang on that kind of instant physical attraction.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Same goes with all the 19th Century pictures. Many men who were known as attractive to the ladies either didn't photograph well, or our criteria has changed. Sometimes fashion is part of the problem. E.g., those high-waisted britches.

I agree with Paty on how we perceive attractiveness in real life, and how that translates to fiction.

Meg said...

I think Naiches is very handsome! I guess it's the cultural thing. I did research on Alice Roosevelt and thought her husband was plug ugly! But he was a political powerhouse, like her father, and probably had lots of money.

Regan said...

You know I loved DANCING and yes, I picturd him more handsome than Victorio...more like Naiche. I think that is one reason women read romances...not just for the happy ending and the great stories but to imagine themselves with a handsome hunk. And you are right. It's a small percentage of the population who are "beautiful" and the men who are very handsome I've known can be superficial and arrogant in their looks, sad to say. Thanks for your insightful post!

mesadallas said...

I've seen that picture of Victorio many times and always thought it was a photo. Wow! The artist did an amazing job.

And yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I can't tell you how many times I've read about historical personages who were described as handsome or beautiful then rushed to find photos or paintings only to come away thinking their physical attractiveness was overstrated- even taking the fashion styles and poor photography into consideration.