Category Archives: True Romance

The Case for Ugly Romantic Interests

 

Beauty and the Beast - original painting by Walter Crane. {{PD-US}}

Good-looking romantic interests can be fun (and too-good-looking-for-their-own-good romantic interests can be even more fun). But I’d like to suggest an ugly romantic interest for a change of pace.

This post was inspired when I recently read a book describing the romantic interest as having “mushroom-coloured skin.” The book didn’t turn out to be all that good, but I was intrigued how the author unflinchingly faced the fact that her romantic interest was ugly. Then I started thinking about how uncommon that was. The closest thing I could think of was Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre – “colourless, olive face, square, massive brow, broad and jetty eyebrows, deep eyes, strong features, firm, grim mouth…” Of course, once Jane Eyre falls in love with him she doesn’t think he’s ugly, but that is something quite different. The conventional idea of being in love is that you don’t care if the one you love is ugly or not.

The other example I could think of was the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. The whole point of that fairy-tale is whether someone can fall in love with someone who is ugly. In fact, the villain in the Disney movie just happens to be conventionally good-looking! Unfortunately, this is rather ruined when the Beast transforms into a handsome prince at the end. Belle might love him as a beast, but the author(s) have no confidence the readers/viewers will, so they manage to turn him into the expected version of the romantic interest.

Disney tried this again in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, except it’s obvious from the start the girl’s going to end up with handsome Phoebus, and not the hunchback. It’s slightly different in the actual novel, but in both of them the poor hunchback loses out.

And beyond that, I can’t really think of any more… Edward Cullen is nauseatingly, gush-inducingly good-looking. Rhett Butler is a dashing black sheep. Everyone agrees Mr Darcy is handsome (even if Jane Austen doesn’t exactly describe him in detail). And as for Romeo… who knows what Romeo looks like?

Okay, I guess I don’t just mean ‘ugly,’ I mean different too. I’ve read far too many books about well-muscled guys with a cleft in their chin (unfortunately, their personalities tend to be about as interesting to read about as their looks – as if being good-looking makes up for it somehow for both the heroine and the reader). In real-life, being conventionally good-looking isn’t necessarily all that interesting either. You know, if he has a big scar down his face, you wonder why. If he looks like a young Brad Pitt, there’s not much to wonder about, except if he gets sick of having females hang all over him all the time.

 

Would you read a story with an ugly romantic interest, or do you demand good looks at all costs? Come to think of it, does it make a difference if it’s a book, or a movie? And can you think of any better examples than I can?

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Tolkien’s Take On True Love

Edith Tolkien (PD-US)

Since we’ve been talking about romance, here’s Tolkien’s take on the subject. He actually wrote an astoundingly long letter on the marriage to his son, in typical Tolkien style:

 “But…  only the rarest good fortune brings together the man and woman who are really as it were ‘destined’ for one another, and capable of a very great and splendid love. The idea still dazzles us, catches us by the throat: poems and stories in multitudes have been written on the theme, more, probably, than the total of such loves in real life (yet the greatest of these tales do not tell of the happy marriage of such great lovers, but of their tragic separation; as if even in this sphere the truly great and splendid in this fallen world is more nearly achieved by ‘failure’ and suffering). In such great inevitable love, often love at first sight, we catch a vision, I suppose, of marriage as it should have been in an unfallen world. In this fallen world we have as our only guides, prudence, wisdom (rare in youth, too late in age), a clean heart, and fidelity of will …”

– Letter to Michael Tolkien (March 1941)

He goes on to say,

“Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might be found more suitable mates. But the real soul-mate is the one you are actually married to.”

 There’s got to be some truth to that – we read romance because we want a glimpse of true love, yet this true love seems impossible to achieve because we all have flaws (and whoever we get involved with has flaws too). Tolkien’s conclusion is that true love involves commitment, and doing your best by the other as well as you can.

The full version of the letter is very interesting. He actually goes on to relate his whole tumultuous love affair with Edith Mary Bratt (for Tolkien fans out there, the rumour is he based the characters of Arwen and Luthien on her).

There’s a shorter excerpt to be found here, and a longer version (Letter #43) to be found here.

 Thoughts?

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Lookin' Good

cover 1

Prince.CharmingDid that get you in the mood from some romantic reading? I’ve got a few great stories for you: Lookin’ Good, Spring Fever and Prince Charming. Enjoy!

 

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The Top Literary Couples as Bad Examples

Juliet Awakes {PD-US}

Healthy Romance Makes Bad Novels, Part II

Last week, I argued that healthy, functioning romances (which we’d probably all enjoy in real life) have trouble generating the kind of conflict that drives romance novels. Logically, the next step would be for me to look at some famous literary romances and see if they were healthy or not. Here goes:

 Romeo and Juliet

First of all, they’re teenagers. Juliet is thirteen. Teenagers aren’t exactly known for being clear-headed, or having well-thought-out romances with each other. Besides that, the two of them get married after knowing each other for a day. A day, and they’re supposed to be desperately in love with each other. Let’s examine their conversation before they tie the knot:

– a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet

– Oh no, you’re a Capulet/Montague!

– Parting is such a sweet sorrow

Does Juliet know Romeo’s strategy for dealing with a crisis is to bawl his eyes out in the friar’s cell? Or run through her cousin with a sword? Wouldn’t you kind of want to know how your husband acts in a tough spot before you marry him?

She doesn’t know him well enough to realize he’ll lose his head if he thinks she’s actually dead, and agrees to a plan where absolutely everything can (and does) go wrong. Which is why the story ends in tragedy.

 Wuthering Heights

Yeah, I’m kicking a book when it’s down here, because NO ONE’s going to argue Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship is healthy. But their destructive conflict certainly drives the plot. On one hand, Catherine marries another man because to marry the one she loves would be ‘degrading.’ In other words, pride trumps treating another person well. Of course, Catherine claims she’s marrying for money in order to better Heathcliff’s life, not bothering to think maybe it’d be downright humiliating to be rescued by the husband of the girl you love. On the other, Heathcliff marries another woman to spite her, holds a grudge, and gets revenge any way he can. In other words, he doesn’t exactly follow the “keep no record of wrongs” part of loving… Well, that’s enough about that.

 Gone With the Wind

Scarlett O’Hara is selfish and pretty blind (it takes her till Chapter 63 of a sixty-three chapter book for her to realize she loves Rhett, and she’d been married to him since Chapter 47!) Of course, Rhett never tells her he loves her until he’s quit loving her… that lack of communication again. The central problem is that she is so self-absorbed that if he’d told her, she would have cast him away like an old rag. But in spite of it all, he’s the old who sees her as she really is – “hard and greedy and unscrupulous, like me.” This dysfunctional romance is truly a result of two self-centered people loving each other.

 

So that’s that for three of the most famous literary romances I can think of. Any other novels you want to throw out there?

By the way, yes, I did run out of quotes to post this Wednesday.

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Healthy Romance Makes Bad Novels

Teen Romance, by Oteo. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

What’s a Novelist to Do?

 I come up against this problem all the time when I try to write a romance about two healthy, well-adjusted people – what on earth should come between them and prevent happily ever after? This is related to ‘The Trouble with Modern Romance.’ In the good old days, the couple could be threatened with disinheritance by an evil old uncle. Nowadays, that’s a stupid reason not to marry someone.

This probably relates to the fact that my idea of real-life “healthy” romance is rather prosaic and matter-of-fact. The guy likes a girl? He tells her so. She says yes if she likes him, and no if she doesn’t. Sensibly, either they connect and it should work, or they don’t and it doesn’t. I’m not in favour of prolonging drama if it’s never going to work. Not much of a story there.

Romance novels irritate me to no end when the guy and the girl spend the whole time staring at each other and worrying, and refuse to take the risk of actually communicating (one mark of “healthy” romance). She’s jealous of the girl she saw him sitting with in the coffee-shop the other day? Why doesn’t she just ask him who it was (and find out it was his sister, or something equally cliché), instead of giving him the silent treatment, making him think she doesn’t like him, making him ask out her best friend in order to get close to her…

Sigh.

So I concluded conflict in romance novels should come from internal forces, not external ones, in ‘The Trouble with Modern Romance.’ Logically, authors could assume unbalanced people create more conflict, and thus more drama. Which may make for better books, but it might get to the point where pop culture doesn’t know what a functioning relationship looks like anymore.

To finish, here are two ideas that relate to my idea of “true love” in real life (true love between all people, not just romantic love). I haven’t quite managed to work these ideas into a novel yet, but I have to admit, novels are not a perfect mirror of real life. Authors can only hope to connect to something in other people’s experience.

 

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

 

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

 

Stay tuned – next week I’ll look at literary examples. What are your thoughts on healthy romance, love and conflict?

 

Go to Healthy Romance Makes Bad Novels, Part 2

 

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The Trouble With Modern Romance

Romantic SunSet by Yusri Abd Halim. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

The trouble with modern romance novels is that our culture sees no reason for two people who are in love not to be together. This significantly cuts down on the potential for conflict in the novel. In comparison, Jane Austen had it easy.

I’m going to use Jane Austen as an example for a second, since pretty much everybody knows she wrote romance novels in the 1800s, and I can hardly be blamed for “spoiling the ending” of any of her novels (if a book’s been around for two hundred years, its ending is fair game for discussion – proven by the fact most classic novels are prefaced by an essay by some English professor or another, in which every single plot point of the novel is discussed. Seriously, if you don’t want the novel spoiled, skip those essays. You might want to skip the next two paragraphs of this post too).

Anyway, let’s start with Jane Austen’s most famous – Pride and Prejudice. Central conflict at the end: Lydia runs off with the dastardly Wickham, and Elizabeth thinks Darcy will never want to be seen with her family again because of the shame. Nowadays most guys couldn’t care less who your sister runs off with, so not a major conflict. Also, a major obstacle between Darcy and Elizabeth is that they’re in different classes. In real life, of course, class still effects relationships, but most of us would prefer to pretend we live in a world that doesn’t emphasize social standing anymore – making class struggle a touchy thing to handle in the dream-world of romance novels.

Then take Sense and Sensibility. Central conflict: the man Elinor is in love with is secretly engaged to someone else. Goodness, think of a reason that would cause someone nowadays to keep an engagement secret for four years (far longer than the guy was in love with the girl, too). I used to wonder why there were no modern versions of Sense and Sensibility, like there are of Pride and Prejudice, until I realized how hard the plot would be to update. And then take Northanger Abbey – the hero’s father forbids the match and throws the heroine out of his house. In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth is considered too lowly for Anne Elliot, and she’s persuaded to drop him by her father and her friend. Parents nowadays only wish they had that much influence over their children!!!

Jane Austen got her pick between secret engagements, class struggles, lack of fortune, parental disapproval… all valid reasons in Jane Austen’s day, but harder to make plausible now. A couple in a book or movie can meet cute, hang out, start kissing, and spent the night together before the end of a scene… and where does the story go from that? An “unexplained past” is the cliché solution, though the secret is never shocking enough to deserve being kept secret (because, of course, if the secret past is truly horrible, how will the main character ever be sympathetic? Seriously, the hero’s secret in the last novel I read was that once he’d illustrated romance novels in his spare time.) The other solution is jealousy of past girlfriends/boyfriends, co-workers, etc., which is tiresome and either makes one character look insecure, or makes the other look like a cad.

Which possibly is the reason for the multitudes of anemic chick flicks or novels where the whole plot could be solved in five minutes if the guy and the girl just talked to each other! No other option for conflict, so let’s just make them not talk. Which makes absolutely no sense – if the basis of a good relationship is good communication, how is the reader supposed to believe this couple’s going to last five minutes after “The End,” when they spent the whole time not communicating?

So in modern romance, where’s the conflict? No one’s stopping the couple from getting drunk and running to Vegas, except the couple themselves.

 Maybe that’s the key – the couple themselves. My guess is that romance novels have shifted from external conflict imposed by society, parents, lack of finances and so on, to internal conflict created by the people in the relationship. Certain aspects of character WILL create conflict, and make a good novel. Certain values of hero/heroine may delay progress of relationship, or past experiences may affect it. But a novel needs incredibly strong characterization to pull this off.

No wonder so many romance novels fail then – characterization is a tough thing to pull off. I’m not sure I succeed at it either. But it’s something to aim for.

What do you think – have changes in society made it harder to write romances, or easier?

 

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