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?
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.