I've read many books where the main protagonists are described as good looking people with Greek god looks, plenty of sex appeal, the perfect figure and all that. As a reader, how important would it be to portray your main characters as good looking? Does it increase the prospects of people buying your book?
It'll depend pretty heavily on what type of story you're telling and what type of readership you're aiming for. Generic sex appeal does different things in different context:
- In a romance, they can help a love interest feel more appealing -- but, if it's poorly done, the whole romance might feel cookie-cutter and forced by the author.
- In erotica, you're generally assuming the reader is looking for sexiness, and pretty often the characters are mostly reader-inserts and wish-fulfillment -- so sexiness is pretty much a given.
- In mass-market thrillers, good looks are often part of a larger parcel meant to signal competence, heroism, an uncomplicated adventure.
- In literary melodrama, those same tropes may be a source of horror or trauma, or the tropes may be deconstructed into something entirely different.
So there's no one answer; you need to understand what conventions you're working within, what goals you're working towards, and what reader expectations you're up against.
But I will say this: if you don't feel that good, Greek-god looks are what's right for your story, then I wouldn't try to force them in. If your feeling is "Argggh, okay, fine, I guess he's pretty sexy, are you happy now" -- and it well might be! -- that'll probably come across in your writing, and it's hard to imagine how that can be a good thing :P
In short, good looking characters are not important. Not as important as having attractive characters and that's not necessarily the same.
Maybe Harlequin Romance novels should have good looking characters? I'm thinking a lot of them does. However, I don't think that's an explicit requirement in the romance category.
Maybe it's common in your genre? However, I don't think it's enough even if super successful authors have them.
Not if it doesn't make the characters attractive.
What do you think about everybody being, or being required to be, beautiful and having "Greek God Looks"? Should it be a requirement for success? Or the opposite; everyone should be valued for who they are, not what they look like?
You reader will likely sniff out what your intentions are... and they better belong in the right target audience depending on that.
Then there's always satire. Maybe everybody looks like Greek Gods on the outside, but not the inside?
Or the risk that the reader will think it's satire if everyone is too good looking to be true...
Do you need looks at all?
There's always the option to skip descriptions of the character's looks entirely, or mostly. Instead of chiseled chins and batting eyelashes, go for sharp minds and bitter irony. And perhaps eye color and hair color... statute? Fashion choices? Car model? How many different ways do humans express personality?
If the readers find your characters attractive they will fill in the looks and they will likely fill in hotter, sexier details than you could even come up with, so as long as you don't burst their bubble by starting to describe the characters later in the text, you will likely come out on top.
Readers read fiction for an emotional experience. One that they wish for. A sense that they are entering a world larger, scarier, and/or sexier etc, than their ordinary life.
One way to do that, I guess, would be to add out-of-this-world good looking characters... however, that's not the thing they necessarily want.
Readers want attractive characters.
The average reader is a bit more likely to be a woman than a man (depending on genre of course), so a big-boobed, hot blonde, may be exactly the wrong thing to use for attraction.
Making your characters attractive is about making them smart, fun, intriguing, quick, interesting. James Scott Bell describes it as giving them Grit, Wit, and "It".
Attraction by proxy
Another trick sometimes (often?) used is to make one character attractive by having another character finding them attractive.
If you do your job right, your reader will want in on the action just because your characters have this epic love story in the making!
I mean, is Juliet attractive? Why? Because Romeo is completely crazy for her? The same, of course, goes for Romeo and Juliet's passion for him making him attractive as well. Shakespeare doesn't objectively give them good looks... it could just as well be about hormones... or forbidden fruit, for all we know... But they are attractive!
Here's another example by Margaret Mitchell:
"Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm, as the Tarleton twins were."
Mitchell is using the Tarleton twins to make Scarlett O'Hara attractive even though she outright says she's not beautiful... Scarlett O'Hara doesn't have to be beautiful... she has to be attractive. And if the Tarleton twins want her, you'd better get over there and figure out what all the fuss is about, or risk missing out...
All kinds of attraction
This is just love-attraction.
There's also the I-want-to-be-that-person-attraction (a.k.a. envy) that doesn't have to be sexual at all.
Maybe there are even more kinds of attraction you could use to make the reader find your characters attractive...
I'd say good looks are not at all necessary to make that happen.
I don't think it is important at all for main characters to be outstanding in the looks department; if fact it can be a detriment. They can be more sympathetic to readers if they aren't that good looking, and know it. How many movies have you seen where the main character is NOT the best looking member of their gender? Or where some other side actor is clearly intended to be the beautiful one?
Novels are the same. Noticeable physical beauty comes with positive attention and privilege, popularity with both sexes, as friends and potential lovers. Beauty smooths the path to early success in life, it opens doors locked to those that aren't going to be contenders for the crown in any beauty contests.
It is harder for readers to believe a noticeably beautiful or sexually attractive character struggles for success in life. We expect the noticeably beautiful to be given opportunities not available to the rest of us; and to exploit their beauty in subtle ways. It is easier for a beautiful person to get minor favors from strangers, for example.
It is easier for readers to empathize with the guy/girl in the middle of the pack, which is where most self-aware people see themselves. We aren't going to be hired for any jobs because we are sexually attractive, we are going to have to do something more than be fun to look at.
I avoid good looking characters as my main characters and as love interests; the only outstanding beauties in my stories are there as contrast to my main characters: To prove my MCs aren't the most privileged or beautiful or attractive in the world and my MCs know it. Although my MCs do always have something they are extremely good at it, it is never natural beauty or sexual attractiveness. That is too easy and too obvious, and readers know it. Whatever my MCs excel at, it is never outwardly obvious to those that do not know them, and usually something the MC would have to choose to reveal to a stranger. For example, my MC may be a world class chess wizard, a result of both natural talent and training, but you wouldn't know that by looking at her.
I wouldn't use beauty as a shortcut to anything; I consider it clichéd writing, for either gender.
There is a subset of readers who go in, looking for protagonists who can give them that sort of wish-fulfillment. However, there are many other readers who prefer characters with whom they can see themselves represented, 'warts and all.' Please don't feel that you only have to please the first batch ... far too many works (especially Hollywood movies) do so.
In my comic, the main characters are attractive but on a normal scale of attractiveness. I specifically told my artist to make them NOT look my like fashion models (particularly the heroine). The rest of the cast has a variety of body types and degrees of functionality, as well.
The other answers do a good job of describing why characters are described as objectively attractive. I would add that, in a story written in first-person or third-person limited, any love interest of the point of view character should almost certainly be described as attractive, because they are attractive from the perspective of the point of view character. It's fairly common to have two main protagonists who end up together by the end if the book, and to tell the story from the perspective of one of the main protagonists.
There are more important things than physical perfection. It would depend on the genre. As has been stated, romances have handsome love interests. Also, we have been taught that beauty and virtue are somehow paired. The strong and noble hero must be handsome and the villain is ill-favoured.
In Magic Mountain, the MC becomes completely besotted with a Russian princess and I assumed she was beautiful mostly from his reaction. The author then starts describing her features and I realized that she was no looker. Not even a case of the harmony of imperfections.
The reader often assumes beauty as that is the default in the important characters.
In my WiP my main character can’t be remarkably handsome - good looking yes, but not to the degree people would take note.
Choose whatever works in your story. Are your characters beautiful or ordinary? A mixture? Perhaps they have some handsome traits.
I was describing a character to my cousin - barely got started. I told him her hair colour and he told me ‘sounds hot’. Okay - he filled in a few blanks but that is fine. It is part of the fun of reading - creating an image in our minds eye of the characters.