Q&A

How Do I Portray a Woman Who Invests in Her Appearance?

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I’m interested in writing a female character who is “vain” (i.e. she knows she’s attractive and she spends a lot of effort and money maintaining that), but I want to portray it as a neutral trait or as only a mild flaw (e.g. maybe she’s stressing herself out too much about aging which makes her unhappy, or maybe she sometimes regrets how much time she spent getting ready).

The problem is, it feels like in mainstream literature vanity is short for “evil”, and it seems like it instantly makes a female character unlikable. How do I portray a very likable but vain character?

-Ajeya

Hi Ajeya,

I think this will work out fine if you are careful to break stereotypes and you help your readers understand her. (And of course, if you don’t use the word “vanity,” since that’s explicitly a negative trait.)

For stereotypes, you want to avoid the sense that she’s narcissistic, attention-seeking, manipulative, shallow, stuck-up, promiscuous, or frivolous. I also recommend making her cool-headed under pressure and generally hard to rattle, since women who cultivate a nice appearance are more likely to be thought of as hysterical damsels. Because working on her appearance will code her as very feminine, it’s just extra important to avoid negative personality traits associated with women.

Then you’ll want to supply a reason why she has this trait that helps readers empathize with her. You have a variety of reasons to choose from. She might just feel incredibly self-conscious when anything about her appearance isn’t right. Maybe this stems from a time when her appearance was policed a lot by the people around her. Or on the other hand, it might be a hobby that brings her a lot of joy. Maybe when she’s had a hard day, she takes out her favorite cosmetics set and experiments with a new look. Whatever the reason, it should be about how she feels, not about other people or her effect on them.

I don’t recommend framing this trait as a flaw, but it could be a quirk that helps her in some situations and hinders her in others. By careful about how other characters treat her passion for cultivating her appearance. While it might be productive to address the stigma women can face, it would be really easy for your readers to simply agree with those characters. Unfortunately, our culture has taught people to mock and shame women. When given the opportunity, many people do it without thinking. So err on the side of letting other characters accept it without criticism unless depicting stigma is something you feel passionate about.

If you haven’t already seen this blog post on describing women, I have more relevant info there.

It’s wonderful you’re taking this on.

Happy writing,

Chris

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Comments

  1. AK Nephtali

    Thank you! This is very applicable advice for my own character Lumin — a high ranking royal who takes joy and pride in her appearance. I’ll be careful and considerate in her portrayal, and I’ll need to be, since she is an ambitious anti-hero who readers could easily peg into the “cold and power hungry b***” stereotype if I’m not careful. But an anti-hero she will remain, since I really want to see more female antiheros who are ruthless without an overly traumatic backstory or ‘justification’. Sadly, she’s going to fit into some stereotypes no matter what I do, because so many aspects of femininity have been stereotyped at some point in history. It’s making sure she breaks a few stereotypes without that breakage being the entire point of her character that is needed, though.

    Lumin works on her looks so that she feels in control and because the process is relaxing, not to manipulate. To her, manipulation means you’re too cowardly to directly face your opposition, and if you do win via manipulation, you’ve not won fairly. (She believes in a false meritocracy where people in power have rightly earned their power.) In fact, her refusal to manipulate and participate in back-handed politics results in her banishment.

    She is strongly coded as both masculine and feminine (long talons for sparring, but long talons are painted and varnished, for example!)

    Thank you for listening to me ramble. Does anyone else want to talk about their character? I would love to hear about them! (Rambling both permitted and encouraged.)

    • Cay Reet

      To break stereotypes, it helps to mix and match traits. If your character loves to care for her appearance, but never uses her looks to manipulate others, you have already subverted the trope – since a lot of ‘vain’ women in stories are also manipulative, using their looks to control others.

      I’ve got a lot of characters I write (I write several series).

      The one I’ve written longest is Jane (who has two different last names, depending on which of the two series we’re talking about). In the Knight Agency series, she’s an agent and has learned to use her looks to her advantage,when necessary, but she’s usually not dressing up – I didn’t want for her to be a seductress or ‘honey pot’ character, because that’s so common in espionage stories, I wanted to set her up like a male agent instead. In the Black Knight Agency, she’s been raised as a criminal mastermind’s right hand. Again, she can dress up and she’s very good at it (having done cons in her life), but she usually doesn’t go for it.

      Inez Crowe, on the other hand, loves fashion and makes sure to keep her rainbow-coloured hair in shape, having it redone in time whenever it is possible. She’s a jewel thief and does photography in her spare time. Inez isn’t as ‘tough’ as Jane is in both versions, but she’s still a strong character who isn’t afraid to stand up for herself.

      Maddison Dempsey, aka ‘the Eye’, is a journalist and vigilante (her stories are pulpish on purpose) who knows how to dress to look her best, but also goes around looking like an average, easy to forget guy when she’s out as the Eye, solving crimes and catching criminals.

      Gabrielle Munson, whose first set of novellas has just been published last month, is dressing male and keeping a male identity as Gabriel Munson for several reasons. First of all, she lives in a Steampunk world where quite some Victorian rules still apply and she’s simply more versatile and independent as a man. In addition, Gabrielle is a lesbian and can promenade with her girlfriend whenever she wants, as long as they’re taken for a regular couple. She also simply finds the clothes more comfortable than a woman’s getup. It’s also useful for her on her adventures as a theoretical necromancer who gets into trouble regularly.

      Isadora Goode, another necromance I write, dresses male and has an androgynous body as part of a life choice she made early. She didn’t want to follow her mother into the career of a damsel (in this world, superheroes and supervillains exist and ‘damsel’ is actually something akin of a job, since every hero has a damsel assigned to them), so she took the chance when being taught a potion to keep herself from developing a female body. She’s accepting the female pronoun, but doesn’t mind being taken for a man, either.

      • AK Nephtali

        They all sound like complex intriguing characters! What you said about ‘mixing and matching traits’ is a great advice. Taking one part of a stereotype and leaving the rest tends to breaks it, as does combining aspects of (or all of) some stereotypes which are meant to be mutually exclusive.

        Thing number one: where are your stories and can you please take my money? From just the summaries of your characters (and their relation to one aspect of themselves) I can tell they’re complex humans. I need complex characterisation to counter the bucket-loads of litRPG I’ve been inhaling. ( LitRPG is a genre where the plot revolves around video game mechanics. No further explanation required.)

        Second thing: Isadora Goode sounds fascinating, and as an enby myself I’m eager to have more representation! I’ve just found your books on Amazon, and it would be good if you could tell me which books Goode lives in.

        That is all, have a great day!

        • Cay Reet

          Isadora is currently unpublished (I just finished the first set of her stories recently and she’s scheduled for publishing in February next year – Maddie will go before her).

          I’m not sure whether Isadora is 100% enby representation, but I can tell you that, in addition to keeping her body androgynous and dressing male, but with a female pronoun, she’s also pansexual, choosing case by case, not being set on one gender.

          • AK Nephtali

            Ah — sorry for the very late response! Life stuffs occurred.

            February is now bookmarked in my calendar as the month of Isadora If you see someone called ‘Shoshana’ or ‘Sasha’ buy it — know that it’s me as I have a shared kindle account.

            It’s pretty funny, you see LitRPG books by the name of ‘Murderhobo’, deeply scientific books, queer YA contemporaries, stuff on the microbiome, and high fantasy all jumbled together. Oh, and the odd guide on table-tennis and knife-throwing. (I share it with my mom and dad.)

  2. Arix

    One method I’ve received some great feedback for with regards to portraying pride without it becoming arrogance or vanity is to add a healthy dose of supportiveness. My main character is a pretty typical “proud warrior guy” – loud, proud, loves a good punch-up, you know the sort. But to avoid the stereotype of the “warrior who judges everyone by strength/skill in battle”, I also made him genuinely supportive of everyone, regardless of what they do. He sees himself as awesome, but he wants everyone to see themselves as awesome.

    I can see something similar working for this – she makes herself look good because it makes her feel good, and that’s a feeling she wants to spread. Caution would need to be taken to avoid her come off as judgemental, but I could see it helping.

    • AK Nephtali

      It’s not pride, it’s infectious self-love and positivity!

    • LazerRobot

      This is a good idea. If there’s ever a way to work in a conversation with, for example, a woman character who doesn’t give a damn about her appearance at all, and the two of them treat it very neutral about each other (i.e. “you like pickles? I’m not a fan.” “To each their own.”) that would be good!

      By the way, Arix, your “proud warrior guy” sounds like a great character that I would enjoy reading about!

      • Arix

        Thanks! Given how I’ve been working on him since the early 2000s I’ve grown quite attached to him myself.

    • silverware

      Oh, thanks to this comment now i know the character arc of my prideful guy from insufferable bastard to supportive friend without losing his pridefulness.

      Thanks!

  3. Kenneth Mackay

    You could describe her attention to her appearance as more of an artform or a hobby than something she does to affect how others see her.

    Possibly you could show her using her using her skills to help someone – a friend who’s lacking in self-confidence about their looks, or really needs to make a good impression for some special occasion, for example.

    Perhaps you could include a scene where she has to choose between appearing in public with no make-up/hairdo to avoid something bad happening to a friend, or taking the time to do her looks – and though it makes her feel uncomfortable, she sacrifices her looks to help?

    Maybe her attention to her appearance could double as a ‘disguise’ skill in a pinch…?

    (These suggestions sound vague, but I don’t know what kind of story you’re writing.)

    • AK Nephtali

      All great suggestions! Mind if I steal some? (You shall be compensated via digital cookies of course.)

      • Kenneth Mackay

        Help yourself – just send the cookies, digital or otherwise, to me. (My computer has more than enough cookies on it already!)

  4. Rose Embolism

    Oh wow. There’s a lot of things to unpack in this question. First of all, that Western, especially male attitudes toward makeup and female oriented activities are heavily invested in misogyny. Feminine coded items tend to be portrayed negatively in media, most especially fantasy literature where there’s the the massively prevalent cliche of “She’s not like the other (shallow, stupid) girls, she doesn’t care about makeup and appearance.” (It doesn’t help that the women I’ve known in real life with that attitude had massive self-esteem and depression issues.) it’s playing along with the “Yes this is a female character, but we know girl things aren’t worthy”)

    All that aside, the number one reason that people focus on their appearance is that it works. Studies have shown that people who make a good physical impression also tend to be regarded as more intelligent, authoritative, and trustworthy. More than that, we look to makeup and dress for signifiers of class and status- we have markedly different inherent reactions to a woman dressed in business formal with her hair and makeup expertly done, then to say, a woman in a sweatsuit with no makeup and her hair a mess. This is not simply a modern thing either- google “Roman Hairstyles” to see some of the care people took back then. Also, non-Western societies may have markedly different attitudes toward makeup use, and as Kenneth Mackay brought up, makeup and hairstyling can be regarded as an artform in and of itself.

    So, for a character who is focused on her attractiveness, it’s worth going into her motives and her attitude toward this art. Her attitude could be purely practical: “I am in this role, and I expect people to treat me as well as possible- this is how I’m expected to dress and look. I will look my best to get as much of an advantage I can.” She may also do it to improve her own confidence in social situations “I look my best, I AM at my best!”.

    And let’s not forget the whole artistic and pleasure aspect as well- looking good and feeling good, being healthy and attractive are positive things in and of themselves! You can also relate her care in appearance to the care she takes in other elements of her life. Her personality can be outwardly examined in the way she relates to people, and inwardly, in quiet moments by herself, such as dressing and putting on makeup. Is she careful and meticulous, or does she wait too long and have to rush at the last minute? Conservative, or bold and daring, willing to push current fashion? Does she struggle to match the makeup with her appearance? Rely on external sources for ideas, or what her friends and relatives have told her? Is she too overconfident and hasty, and then have to start over again? and how does that change between say, going to a formal dress job, or the theater, or going on a special date? There’s a LOT you can do with a makeup scene

  5. Jeppsson

    “It doesn’t help that the women I’ve known in real life with that attitude had massive self-esteem and depression issues.”
    I don’t think you meant this to generalize, but I still felt the need to point out that it’s possible for a woman to just not be interested in her appearance.

    I’ve had female friends and colleagues who did nothing about their appearance; like, semi-long hair a friend cuts from time to time in a low ponytail, no hair products, no make-up at all, simple clothes. As far as I know, there was nothing wrong with them. They just weren’t interested in hair and makeup and stuff.
    For my own part, I’m going through periods of being pretty vain and spending time on hair and make-up, and other periods where I do nothing. Now, I do have a mental illness that’s also up and down, but there’s no correlation with my looks. My looks are just a hobby, basically, that I’m sometimes into, then tire of for a while, pick up again at a later point…

    Of course, neither I nor my non-styled colleagues have that mythical quality of looking absolutely RADIANT even if we don’t care, like not-like-other-girls book heroines often do. We look ordinary and unremarkable non-styled. Still, though. Putting zero effort into your looks doesn’t generally imply that there’s something wrong with you, even if there are some people for which this is a bad sign. (Neither does shaving your hair, for that matter. That’s such a tired old fictional trope. I’ve done that after a failed dye-job and because it was summer and hot – no mental crisis.)

    • Cay Reet

      I agree that it shouldn’t be a generalisation.

      Personally, I’m not really interested in fashion and makeup and only had a short time during my teens when I played around with it. These days (at 46), I’ve taken to keep my hair short with on of those hair-trimming sets (started during the pandemic, because there was no other way to get rid of my hair, now I shave down to 16 mm all over and I love it), I usually wear clothes which fit me comfortably, not the new fashion (though by now I have a comfy skirt I love wearing in summer, because it’s mor airy than trousers), and I haven’t used makeup in ages. I’m not depressed and I most certainly have no self-esteem issues.

      Makeup and fashion simply aren’t me – I’m old enough to know it and I work from home, so I don’t have to deal with them because of other people. I might be borderline asexual/aromantic and I might be a bit non-binary (I’ve never felt comfortable fitting myself into the usual picture of femininity), but I’m certainly not suffering from any illness that makes me forsake makeup and fashion.

      On the other hand, I would never call a woman vain or suggest that she’s doing things wrong for wearing makup and liking clothes. I read up on them for my characters, but I’ve never felt the need to get into both personally. A woman can very well take care of her looks and feel great when she’s got the makeup done perfectly and is dressed to the T for the occasion and at the same time be a badass. There are many different ways to be a badass, after all.

      • Rose Embolism

        Sorry, I should have been more specific by what I meant- I was talking about the women I’ve known who specifically use the “I’m not like the other girls, I’M not vain and obsessed with makeup.” Not being concerned about makeup is one thing. Using it as a weapon to denigrate people who do use makeup is another.

        I admit I’m biased because that trope was weaponized by a then friend of mine towards my partner-to-be. Up to and including whispering to me that someone who paints her nails that color can’t be that smart. Of such things personal dislikes are formed.

  6. Kenneth Mackay

    Re: Comments about pride.
    In Pendragon RPG , pagans consider ‘pride’ to be a virtue (as opposed to Christians, who are supposed to value ‘modesty’). Their definition of pride seems to be more based on self-worth and self-confidence – they’d regard someone boastful as lacking in ‘pride’ as they evidently feel that their real achievements aren’t good enough. Conversely, they’d see ‘modesty’ as either hypocritical (claiming that you aren’t as good as you are, in order to get praise from others), or a symptom of low self-esteem.
    At least that’s how I interpret the rules!
    I hope this helps those who want to write ‘prideful’ characters.

    • Bellis

      That’s super interesting, and well put! Thank you

  7. Gwen

    May I suggest the character of miss Fischer? She is an Australian detective in the 1920s, she loves outfits, gets dressed up often, sleeps with several different men, and the show never shamed her for it.

    Her compassion and genuine interest in those around her as well as boldness characterize the lady detective as character traits, while her love of fashion becomes a way to showcase her individuality.

    There is one episode where her maid and right hand who is somewhat shy and traditional feels bound to her usual style of dress, while also feels miss Fischer’s style too outlandish to suit her either and learning to dress how she wants rather than to please others.

    Another character, Mac a lesbian Dr is just as stylish and takes care in her appearance as miss Fischer but adopting a very masculine style.

    I think if you make a character who is into their appearance, it matters and can make the character memorable if the style says something about who they are.

    Bold and Spontaneous?

    Traditional and Proper?

    Gender Defying?

    Because then their “vanity” becomes less about superficial things the reader might not engage with but defying who they are as a character.

    Miss Fischer in a modest suit and skirt/ Her maid in a risqué shiny cocktail dress/ Mac in any dress makes you feel for their discomfort of identity and you understand better why they put in the effort.

    Denying their style changes their persona and pretending to be someone you are not is uncomfortable.

    • Cay Reet

      Good point. Miss Fisher is a perfect example for a woman who is shown caring about her appearance and not being belittled for it.

      I also agree that if she, Dot, or Mac would switch clothes, it would feel weird, because they all have their very distinct style.

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