I tend not think that characters with extraordinary looks are necessary, even (or especially) in fantasy, but there are ways to have them and not make them sound conceited, waifish, or just complete clutter in the story.
1) Don’t introduce your beautiful character from the outside in.
Many fantasies do this. They start out with the panoramic view of, say, a headland or a beach or a castle (tugging a bored Limyaael along for the ride), and descend on a princess or maiden or prince or whoever watching the scene. This is a completely created example, but it should help you get the point:
The Seeing Rocks had stood above the Limori Ocean from time immemorial, perhaps since the Blind King had come over the waves. They rose like wolf’s teeth from the green highland where they had been planted by those unknown, ancient hands, the faces carved on them staring steadily out to sea. In all those unknown centuries, none of them had ever fallen. Rain or sun or snow, they looked out, endlessly, still the same.
Leaning on them now was a beautiful young woman whose golden hair shimmered palely in the falling rain, sobbing as if her heart would break. Her shoulders heaved as she wept, straining the silk of her delicate gown, and when she finally had time to look up at the rain, blinking in confusion, the tears that shimmered in her striking green eyes didn’t look much different from the drops.
It’s getting late, Dimari thought, rubbing at her face with one hand. I should go home.
This is obnoxious. I would be prepared to sympathize with Dimari if she was crying, and the idea that she’s crying hard enough not to notice the rain indicates that her grief is deep. But the writer doesn’t start with her thoughts or her personality, what she’s crying about or what would have caused her to react to it so strongly. Instead, we get a physical description, and not one that will allow the reader to make up her own mind. No, we must know that she is “beautiful,” and has “shimmering” hair and “striking” green eyes, probably emerald ones. (I have never read a fantasy where a good character had pale green eyes. If they’re green, they’re always emerald).
Why do this? It makes looks seem the most important part of your character, and the first impression your reader carries away is of someone blonde and green-eyed—not someone capable, strong, courageous, sarcastic, intelligent, ambitious, proud, or any other trait that might make the character into a distinct person. It’s a pretty cardboard cutout instead, and it remains that way until you make it real.
Make it real, and consider going from the inside out and bringing looks into play later, not right from the beginning.
2) Don’t use the character’s looks to substitute for plot.
I’ve heard some writers claim that of course beautiful characters don’t need to be deep or complex, because what really fascinates readers is that beauty, or that because beautiful people get “everything they want” in our world, they would in the fantasy world, too. Bullshit. I can’t remember reading through a whole book just because the lead character had silver eyes. (I am ashamed now of liking some of the books I liked ten years ago, but even then I found something to emphasize with in the characters themselves). Nor should other characters’ reactions to the beautiful lead consist solely of drooling, hanging tongues, and offers to help him or her with whatever he or she wants.
For one thing, fantasy is often crowded with attractive people, save for the few people jealous of the hero or heroine. Yet they don’t get as many breaks as the protagonist does, just because she’s the protagonist. So much for beauty guaranteeing the same thing for everyone fictional; it’s really the author’s favor that does it. And many people in the fantasy world are usually portrayed as clever, intelligent, subtle, or possessed of some self-control, even if the author only tries to tell and not show that. Would all of them let a solely physical reaction guide their hands? They might be more influenced by beauty than they think they are, but I would give up on a story in disgust if I found the urbane villain fawning at the heroine’s feet and letting her go just because she smiled at him, when he also knew that she had sworn to destroy him.
Your character can be as beautiful as the day is long, but unlike a fairy tale, that should not win her supporters by itself. And if you do have a heroine who’s meant to be in a fairy tale, you’re writing a different subgenre from most others in fantasy. That means that everything else has to be different, too—setting, villains, supporting characters, tone, language—and doesn’t give you license to write supposedly realistic fantasy with a bubbleheaded beauty for a lead.
3) Don’t use the character’s beauty to make a moral statement.
This is surprisingly easy to do, even when the author doesn’t mean to. Beautiful people tend to be good. The only ones with pimples are the bad guys, or the gawky apprentice sighing over the beautiful heroine and realizing he’ll never have her. (If he does become worthy of her, he will have miraculously lost his acne). The only ones with unattractive scars or birthmarks or moles, for that matter, are the bad guys. If a beautiful heroine gets beaten, her wounds will heal to leave scars that makes her more special, or some other nauseatingly sweet statement. Her birthmarks are significant, and not at all ugly. Moles are beauty spots. And so on.
Very rarely, you do have a handsome villain or beautiful villainess, but that tends to last only until the lose, at which point “his face twisted, and she suddenly became aware of the rage inside.” Beauty cannot possibly really be evil, runs the idea, so it gets spoiled when the villain loses his cool.
Come on. If your heroine has been told she’s beautiful from birth, spoiled and pampered and received every kindness, and especially if she’s of a high social class, what are the chances that she’s also the epitome of kindness and compassion? At the very least, she’s probably a bit of a snob and not above fishing for compliments. If she does get in a fight and takes a scar on her shoulder, what are the odds that it ends up looking like a star or a heart? Try to picture the character as concretely in your mind as you can, and not just with eyes that look like contact lenses and hair that looks washed with Pantene. See her face. Now imagine it flushed in anger, twisted in lust, crumpled in sorrow. For that matter, go through your writing and look for descriptions like that.
If you can’t find them, or you find them but they apply only to the villains, tone your beauty down a little. She should get tired and hungry and frustrated, too. If she cries for long enough, her eyes should puff up. If she washes dishes for long enough, her fingers should look like prunes. Don’t exempt her from niggling little consequences just because she’s pretty.
4) Make beauty an invitation in, not a barrier.
One consequence you might risk if you continually emphasize that the protagonist is a tall, moon-pale, silver-haired, violet-eyed, slender elf is to discourage a reader who looks distinctly different. It doesn’t have to be that way, as long as your character is well-developed enough. I’ve ridden in the minds of many different characters, and enjoyed the way they think. But if the author seems to think that violet eyes are the most important feature of the character, instead of her mind and soul, then what’s my link to her? I don’t have violet eyes. I’m going to find it harder to recognize any similarity in her, and get past the barrier.
Don’t make your beautiful characters untouchable and place them on a pedestal above the reader. Instead, invite the reader in through the descriptions. Record the expressions on the characters’ faces. Record the way they look in a moment of wild exaltation or celebration (something I think would show most heroic fantasy characters off to better advantage than the quiet contemplation you usually get instead). Have other characters describe them with unusual metaphors and similes, so that you get away from clichés like “sparkling eyes” and “hair like a raven’s wing.” If you’re writing from the viewpoint of a character making love to this beautiful person, then emphasize how they respond in bed and how they make their partner feel, not just what they look like naked.
Cut all access to the character’s mind, and your readers are left looking at a statue. Bring that statue to life, and then you can have the beauty and the admiration, too.
5) Realize that beauty is highly subjective, and has its own consequences.
I’m always puzzled when a heroine can travel from culture to culture and still be considered beautiful. It appears that every person’s ideal matches her. (Or, rather, the ideals of every author’s creations match the author’s, which is perhaps less of a surprise). If she’s blonde and travels among dark-haired people, they all admire her and call her hair sunlight. If she’s blonde and among blonde people, then she still is more beautiful than anyone else, probably because she has unique eyes. If she’s waifishly thin, that’s the popular body type absolutely everywhere. The people who do look at her strangely are 95% of the time jealous of that beauty.
If you want to be realistic, it can’t work that way. I’m sorry. An elf shining with light might be beautiful among her own people, but plop her down among ordinary humans and I would imagine they might be mildly freaked out. Would a dwarf consider a woman half again his height to be the epitome of desirability? (And don’t haul out Gimli and Galadriel. Given that she made some attempt to understand him and actually spoke to him in his own language, probably the ultimate concessionary gesture in Tolkien’s world, it can’t be argued that she just enchanted him with her beauty). Would a land where it’s absolutely necessary for a woman to live through lots of childbearing prize a woman who was delicate enough to have bones pressing through her skin?
About those waifish, delicate maidens. I would imagine that they would be the most useless people on the quest if their party got stranded among snow, had to work aboard ship to pay passage, or found a blocked trail and had to move the stones aside. She wouldn’t be able to do much physical work, couldn’t draw on reserves of energy in her body, and would take a long time to toughen up. Also, she wouldn’t be able to swing a broadsword around. Sorry, but those things are freaking heavy. Any woman who wants to wield them has to have some muscle. All the acrobat or Ally McBeal clones that authors seem to favor for their fantasy heroines need not apply.
Keep all this in mind. Your character shouldn’t be the perfect physical type for every culture and every situation. If you really want her to be only five feet tall, with long, silky hair and bright eyes, remember that that small frame won’t let her carry heavy packs, that that silky hair will get tangled in branches, and that those bright eyes might be the color that the culture in the next valley considers the height of ugliness.
I’m actually more of a champion for average-looking people, not beautiful ones, but fantasy authors could at least stop writing them as if only the exterior mattered.