Friday, September 6, 2013

Female Archetypes We Haven't Talked About: Dark vs. Pale Beauties

There has been a lot of discussion lately on the subject of female characters, particularly in YA circles, and it brought to my mind two archetypes we often discussed in my college English lit classes--but which I haven't seen mentioned in relation to the current female characters of YA Fiction.

I'm surprised we don't talk more about the subject of Dark vs. Pale Beauties in YA literature today (or has this discussion been strictly confined to undergrad literary criticism classes? I wouldn't be surprised.) Sure, we talk an awful lot about Strong Female Characters vs. Manic Pixie Dream Girls and a host of other hot, controversial catchphrases--but that of Dark and Pale Beauties is such an interesting dichotomy that I think it would really add to our discussion of female characters in general, especially now, when Female Leads are gaining popularity not only in literature but in film. So if I may, I'll drag out this old topic, dust it off, and try to glean some relevant discussion out of it.

Basics first. Let's all get on the same page here, in case we're not all Lit-Crit majors. Google is no help at all--search these terms and all it can offer is results on skin color, which is so not what these terms mean. I repeat: THESE TERMS DO NOT REFER TO SKIN TONE. Nor does the term "beauty" here mean the characters are necessarily physically attractive (I think it was originally coined to be more ironic than anything else, indicating the classical idealized female characters often portrayed in pre-20th-century literature).

So here are some brief definitions:

Dark Beauty

Does not mean: dark-haired, dark-skinned, or anything else to do with physical appearance.

Does mean: A female character who is "experienced," either in worldly matters, sexuality, violence, etc. She is independent, knowledgeable, jaded, often older (than a corresponding pale beauty), with some degree of power or at least semblance of power. She's likely to be strong-natured. She prefers to hide her weaknesses and exert authority over others. Her power is achieved through various means: physical ability, sexuality, manipulation, strength of character, vision, or will. Though she is often perceived to be the more villainous of these two archetypes, this is very often untrue of her. She's "street-smart." She will either disdain or envy the pale beauty, and in some cases seek to either "rescue" her from her innocence or protect her from becoming like herself.

Some examples of Dark Beauties:

- Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins) (though arguably with some Pale characteristics)
- Isabelle Lightwood (The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare)
- Genya (Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo)
- Ridley Duchannes (Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl)
- Maela (Crewel by Gennifer Albin)
- Fire (Fire by Kristin Cashore)
- Katsa (Graceling by Kristin Cashore)
- Meg (Disney's Hercules)
- Scarlett O'Hara (Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell)
- River Song (Doctor Who)

Pale Beauty

Does not mean: fair-haired, fair-skinned, or anything else to do with physical appearance

Does mean: A female character who is primarily naive, inexperienced, sheltered, perhaps idealistic. She is dependent on others, though she may seek to break free and establish her autonomy. She may be a daydreamer, and if often mistaken to be meek and mild, or is pushed to be so. She is the "caged bird," often pressured to remain innocent and childlike. Seen as the embodiment of purity and sweetness, conflict often arises if she attempts to "grow up," or to shed her innocence. Many stories are built around a Pale Beauty attempting and either succeeding or failing to exchange her innocence for experience. Those around her who wish for her to remain pure will often speak for her, thus the Pale Beauty is often depicted without a voice--this does not mean she is weak, but rather that someone is attempting to press her into the Pale Beauty mold (interestingly, often they do so out of love, like the Elinor/Merida relationship in Pixar's Brave). This is the crux of "coming-of-age" stories. She will often either envy, despise, or attempt to emulate the Dark Beauty.


- Primrose Everdeen (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins)
- Elisa (The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson) (though she does evolve as the story progresses)
- Clary Fray (The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare) (another dynamic character!)
- Tris (Divergent) (yet another dynamic character--she is an example of a Pale Beauty attempting to exert the Dark Beauty she believes herself to be)
- Cassia (The Matched Trilogy by Ally Condie)
- Kathy (Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro)
- Bitterblue (Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore) (another dynamic character--there are a lot of these in today's YA!)
- Rapunzel (Disney's Tangled)
- Christine (The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux)
- Dorothy Gale (The Wizard of Oz)

Something I love about current YA fiction is that the lines between these two types of characters are often blurred. I've seen many female characters who are experienced in survival but innocent in love (Katniss) or who might only appear to be innocent Pale Beauties until the story conflict cracks open their shell and releases the Dark Beauty inside. Many times this is the result of the character herself striving to break free of the Pale Beauty archetype (Tris or Bitterblue), but other times this transformation is made reluctantly, and they must be pushed by outside forces to achieve independence and experience (Elisa from The Girl of Fire and Thorns).

The reason I'm bringing these two archetypes up at all is because I think they shed an interesting and useful light on character development and, since characters drive stories, plot development. While not all female characters fit into these archetypes, they can be useful in discovering the personal motivation and plot line for our girls.

Is your character a Pale Beauty attempting to break free of her girlhood and establish herself as an autonomous Dark Beauty?
Does your character wish to remain a Pale Beauty, but is forced by circumstances to put her innocence and purity aside and become a Dark Beauty in order to survive? 
Is your character a Dark Beauty who has committed some wrong, sacrificing her innocence, and does she seek to somehow redeem herself? Is she envious of the Pale Beauty's purity? 
Does your story contain both? Do you have a Pale Beauty striving to remain pure while set against a Dark Beauty who strives to either control or destroy her? (Like in the classic Snow White story) 
Are you taking a story which classically focused on a Pale Beauty and retelling it with the character recast as a Dark Beauty? (This often happens in fairy-tale retellings, such as Cinder by Marissa Meyer).

There are so many fascinating conflicts that can arise out of the juxtaposition of these stereotypes, whether those stereotypes occur in the same character or whether they arise between two opposite ones. It brings up some intriguing questions:

Will Pale Beauties always eventually become Dark, or can purity be retained through adulthood? 
Is there room for both archetypes to exist simultaneously in one character?
Can a Pale Beauty be strong and independent without sacrificing her innocence?
What characteristics can be found with both archetypes? 
What characteristics of these archetypes are true attributes, and which are projected onto the character by others?

These aren't questions I necessarily have answers to, but I'm fascinated by them and by stories that deal with them. Being conscious of these archetypes and applying them to our characters can help us achieve a strong level of emotional development.

These archetypes are particularly relevant to Young Adult literature, I feel, because so much of YA is about coming-of-age, the loss of innocence, the quest for autonomy, and the reinvention of one's self. If you look at all of the YA character examples above, you'll find that most of them don't begin and end as the same type of character. Elisa (A Girl of Fire and Thorns), Clary (TMI), and Triss (Divergent) are all prime examples of girls who start out sheltered, innocent, and dependent but who through the course of their stories become independent, experienced characters more in line with the Dark Beauty archetype than the Pale Beauty they started as.

Something I do not want to suggest is that Dark Beauties are synonymous with "Strong" female characters while Pale Beauties are synonymous with "Weak" ones. That is a different discussion altogether, and though Pale-to-Dark character transformations do often coincide with "weak-to-strong," this isn't always true and these transformations are not mutually requisite. For example, giving Snow White a sword and armor does not turn her from a Pale Beauty to a Dark One, though it does (to some degree) turn her from a weak character to a strong one. She retains her purity and idealism despite becoming strong--which goes to show that a character need not be a Dark Beauty in order to display strength of will and character. Pale Beauties can have these traits, though others may attempt to strip them away.

Nor do I suggest that either archetype is more or less morally "good" than the other, though the semblance of goodness is attributed more to the Pale Beauty by other characters in her society (whether or not it is true, it is nevertheless inherent in the archetype and can provide an interesting source of drama if you have a Pale Beauty who is not quite as good as everything thinks she is). For example, one of my favorite pairings in pop culture: Galinda and Elphaba from Wicked. Galinda embodies the innocent purity of the Pale Beauty while Elphaba's Dark Beauty-like autonomy earns her the hatred of Oz's populace--yet if you are familiar with their story, you'll know that these archetypes have little bearing on each girl's actual morality (other than to provide delicious irony).

Pushing these two archetypes to the extreme results in stereotypes and caricatures of the Disney variety, which, though is acceptable to a degree in children's cartoons, is to be avoided in literature. What proves to be far more realistic and interesting is the blends created by these two archetypes rather than the black-and-white contrast of the Good Pale Beauty vs. the Evil Dark Beauty as in, say, Cinderella vs. The Wicked Stepmother.

Sorry for how ridiculously long this post is! I could probably go on another yard of blog-space before running out of steam on this topic. What I hope you take away from this is a character development tool you can apply to your own writing--particularly the questions I list above, and others like them.

If you're interested, I have two Pinterest boards dedicated to these two archetypes!
Dark Beauties Board
Pale Beauties Board

In the comments, I'd love to hear your thoughts! 

  • Can you apply these archetypes to any other characters in YA literature? 
  • What are some books you've enjoyed which contain the juxtaposition of the Dark vs. Pale Beauties?
  •  Do you think these archetypes are relevant to YA today?


  1. I've never thought of it in these terms but I have definitely noticed these archetypes. Recently I read Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers and did notice that the main character was very different than a lot of YA heroines. She kills people and enjoys it and she is not a virgin. I would definitely say she is a Dark Beauty while the heroine in the first book, Ismae, is a Pale Beauty. very interesting topic.

    1. Great point! I think Ismae definitely starts off as a Pale Beauty, and maybe picks up a lot of Dark Beauty attributes as the story progresses. Haven't read DT yet--though it's moving higher and higher on my TBR list! I'll be interested to see the differences between the characters.

  2. I found this post very interesting. I have written both Dark Beauties and Pale Beauties, although I wasn't thinking about it at the time. I actually have one with a dark beauty, and the male could almost be considered a pale beauty, far more idealistic, hopeful, etc.

    1. You bring up a great point, Rachel! We could go into a whole other discussion about applying these archetypes to male characters. Really, there shouldn't be any difference between a male or female Dark or Pale Beauty; I think the terms have been traditionally applied to literature which did portray a marked difference in its treatment of male vs, female characters. Expanding these stereotypes to both genders would be a great study.

  3. Wow! This post was seriously AMAZING! I have been noticing a bit of a trend in YA characters recently but I could never really put a name to it!
    There are so many characters that fall into a category but slowly they begin to evolve and change to fall out of their stereotypical role!
    Personally I really like reading about Dark Beauties. I find them much more facinating and mysterious and really just plain old interesting!!
    I loved this post!! Thank you so much for writing it!! :-)

  4. I loved this post! I had a discussion like this in a AP high school English class. I'm going to be thinking about this for days again now that you've brought it up! My favorite thing is you talked about the gray area that exists between the two definitions and that you specified one over the other does not imply goodness or strength/weakness. I'm also super excited to read your book Origin now too and hopefully do a review of it for my book blog on Tumblr. I'm curious how you would see your own characters fitting into this Dark v. Pale beauty discussion.

  5. This is a great post! Thanks for sharing. I definitely think this is a great trope to use in discussions of YA. I'm glad you dusted off the trope. :)

    I like what you said about pale beauties not necessarily being weak. I think a lot of time we think about it that way because autonomy is something that we associate with strength. I can't help but think about Melanie from Gone with The Wind, whose reliance on Scarlet makes her come off as weak, but her undying loyalty to those who she loves in some ways makes her a stronger and braver character than Scarlet.

  6. This post is fantastic, Jessica! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and being taken back to English lit class. :) I think it may have been while reading Blithedale Romance that I first learned this comparison!

    I guess this may be a discussion for another time, but do you feel that Pia is a Pale Beauty who retains her purity, though she gains autonomy and strength? And would Harriet be a Dark Beauty? And would Pia's mom be considered a Dark Beauty as well? This is fascinating stuff.

    I love that you brought this back up. I'm going to be seeing it everywhere for a while. :)

  7. I've never heard of these archetypes before now and I did an English Lit degree. Perhaps it's something you study in the US but not the UK? It was interesting to read your perspective. I may have dismissed Pale Beauties as being 'weak' but I see now that they don't have to be. I agree with MaryAnn that there can be a certain strength in retaining your innocence/idealism in a harsh, pessimistic world. I also see now that Dark Beauties don't have to be immoral characters just because they are experienced.

    To the Dark Beauties list I would also add: Grace Bisbane from The Wolves of Mercy Falls series (and her boyfriend Sam could be classed as a Pale Beauty), Karou from Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Lady Macbeth, Hermione Granger (though innocent in romance she is very wise and exerts authority over others).

    The Pale Beauties that came to mind were: Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Ophelia from Hamlet, Juliet from Romeo and Juliet, Luna Lovegood (because she's idealistic, naive and a daydreamer-though still a 'strong' person), Bella Swan from Twilight (interestingly I would place Edward in this category too!).

    I would say the majority of women in the Game of Thrones/Song of Fire and Ice series are dark beauties-usually very experienced in love, fighting, manipulating people etc, with the exception of Sansa Stark who is a Pale Beauty at the moment, and Danaerys who starts as Pale and changes to Dark. In The Host by Stephanie Meyer, you have an interesting juxtaposition between Melanie Stryder (Dark Beauty) and the being she shares her body with, Wanderer (Pale Beauty).

    I like to read novels with a good mix of both characters, or characters that start as Pale and transition to Dark like Tris from Divergent, and maybe Ginny Weasley from Harry Potter. I'd be interested to know where you put Pia? I agree with Jeanne that she starts as Pale and transitions somewhat when she gains independence.

    Also, are there any novels in which the character starts out as a Dark Beauty and transitions to a Pale Beauty?

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