Tag Archives: romance novels

Let’s Just Blame the Plot on Someone’s Sex Drive

The Problems with Leaving Romance up to “Overwhelming Attraction”

The Kiss

‘The Kiss,’ by Francesco Hayez

You know what I hate? I hate when romantic comedies or romance novels set up a perfectly good antagonistic relationship between two main characters (you know, where they take an instant dislike to each other, like in the beginning of Pride and Prejudice), and then easily overcome this obstacle by making them realize their mad attraction for each other. The characters go from screaming at each other from across the room, to climbing all over each other and unable to tear themselves away. Okay, I’m not going to argue it’s unrealistic. I know hormones can make people do crazy and unbelievable things (whether that’s a unjustifiable excuse for anything is another topic, but hey, I’m saying I know it happens). But I hate it when an author makes a sex drive over-rule everything that came before. The author spent half the book showing us how the characters can’t get along. And now we’re supposed to believe it’s all solved because the two had one make-out session in some deserted hallway or something?

I hate it because it’s lazy. I don’t care how realistic it is, it’s like the author realized they did their job a little too well and it seems impossible to justify that their two characters ever will get together. In Pride and Prejudice, it takes Elizabeth chapters and chapters for her to realize she’s misjudged Mr. Darcy. But if you don’t want to write chapters and chapters of someone’s internal thoughts, struggling to make them seem believable, you can just throw hormones into the mix, because isn’t that reality? I guess for me the problem is, in this case, that reality is unrealistic. And I want to read about how people process their changing opinions. Good fiction, for me, is opening a window into characters’ minds, not having characters jerked about by uncontrollable urges, random environmental events (like an earthquake from nowhere), or deus ex machinas. It just feels lazy. Real life doesn’t have a plot either, but fiction is pretty boring without one.

I guess it also doesn’t tell me anything about the characters, other than the fact they have a sex drive like everyone else. Part of the reason I enjoy well-written­ romance is because the interaction between two characters reveal more and more what the characters are like. For better or worse, they can’t hide who they are, and the other has to decide if they’re up for putting up with that or not. If you short-cut the process by throwing in “overwhelming attraction,” you end up with the kind of romance novels people laugh – cookie-cutter, cliché, with the main characters indistinguishable from the main characters of every cookie-cutter novel.

This is even worse in fanfiction. It’s shooting fish in a barrel to complain about fanfiction, because most writers are clearly amateur, but I have to bring it up anyway. (And yes, sometimes I do have to spend more time with characters after a book or movie is over, and passably written fanfiction is one way to do it. That, or write fanfiction myself – see my one-shots of Jane Austen). The basis of too much fanfiction is romantic relationships between characters that had no romantic relationship in the original work. So the antagonistic relationship, or even a lack of any relationship at all, is already set up for the would-be fanfiction writer. The problem now is to write the characters into an understanding. But what reason can you give to make enemies overcome their differences? Oh, just throw in a sex drive and everything will work itself out.

It’s even worse with characters that are supposed to be pretty emotionless already, like Sherlock Holmes or Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. I’m not saying you can’t write a pretty convincing story about them falling in love. It’s just going to take a lot of effort. A lot of believable plot events that make the characters re-evaluate everything they thought they knew about themselves. If Sherlock Holmes finds himself kissing Irene Adler or something, he’s not going to throw himself into a passionate relationship with her. He’s going to freak out. After all, Doctor Watson clearly says, “[Holmes] never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer — excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results.” Don’t you see – if such a thing were to happen, Sherlock Holmes would be in danger of no longer being Sherlock Holmes. It would throw his whole mental processes in doubt, and his mental processes are the basis of the Sherlock Holmes character.

And yes, I’ve read a few too many novels that have had this problem. Have you? Agree or disagree? Thoughts?

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Why Some Girls Like Mr. Darcy

Mr Darcy {{PD-US}}

Maybe this post should actually be called ‘why I like Mr. Darcy,’ but I flatter myself these reasons might be shared by other females.

Mr. Darcy gets a lot of flak from guys. He’s just some woman’s imagination of the perfect guy, no real guy acts like that, women in general should just grow up and settle for reality (etc., etc.) And, well, some reasons for liking him are a little flimsy. He’s good-looking? Well, he’s a literary character, so you get to imagine him as good-looking as you like (and while the novel does describe him as handsome, the bad boy of the book, Wickham, is called more handsome). You could point out he’s rich, or that he’s well-mannered, but run the risk of being called mercenary, or looking like you want every guy to throw his coat over a puddle for you. No, there’s several very good reasons for enjoying Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, and I shall list them below.

He’s Bad at Talking to People

When I first read Pride and Prejudice, I really had no idea what it was about or what exactly was going to happen, but this part is what first gave me some fellow feeling for Mr. Darcy in the novel. Elizabeth is teasing him for being so quiet at the dance she first met him at (she accuses him of pride, which was partly the reason.) And he replies, “I certainly have not the talent which some people possess, of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.”

Oh, Mr. Darcy, you too? A man described as handsome and rich, who still fumbles around in conversations with strangers? Well, then, I feel a bit better at possessing this flaw myself. If you can’t think of anything to talk about, why should someone so much less interesting as myself, ever be good at it? You don’t know how many times I’ve stood across from someone for many long, awkward minutes, with my mind going a mile a minute and still not having a word to say. While everyone around me can strike up a conversation without any effort at all.

I’m afraid I come off rude sometimes too, without meaning to be. Hopefully I don’t come off as proud. That’s what everyone Elizabeth knows first thinks of Darcy.

Yes, Jane Austen gave me something to relate to in her hero, and this is one big reason I can get on board with the whole Pride and Prejudice fan bandwagon.

He Actually Makes a Move

Mr. Darcy does not wait around ninety percent of the book, too scared to find out what the heroine thinks of him (which too many romance novels do). Jane Austen is not fumbling around for some device to drag out her plot, and does not decide to make him get this close to saying something to Elizabeth, before being frustratingly interrupted. No, he actually gets up and walks over to where Elizabeth is staying, and asks her to marry him. (Okay, it’s be a bit strange if a guy who liked you just straight-up proposed to you nowadays, but at least Elizabeth isn’t in the dark about how he feels). And – take note of this, guys – he does get brutally shot down. But at least he took the risk. And the plot moves on!

When females try to explain to males what Mr. Darcy’s attraction is, they don’t often explain this, but I think it plays a role. None of this ‘secret admirer for years’ stuff. He’ll actually tell you to your face how he’s feeling.

He’s Flawed

This might be a point for the writer in me, but I love how Mr. Darcy is not a perfect paragon of virtue, and it is his very flaws that separate him from Elizabeth for most of the novel. They always tell writers that heroes that are too perfect are boring to read about. Yet, for some reason, romance novels still keep pulling out endlessly romantic and caring dudes with rippling abs. Even when the heroine gives the guy ample reason to throw in the towel! But no, this guy is sincere and loves the girl for who she is… blah, blah, blah.

Anyway, this point directly contradicts the charge that Mr. Darcy is “too unrealistic.” I’ll admit finding a good-looking, virtuous guy who also happens to be rich is stretching things a little far, but the fact he has flaws makes him more believable. He can’t quite take a joke, not even by the end of the novel. And he is proud. He tones it down a bit by the end, but he has pride in spades. This gets toned down a bit in the movie adaptions, I think (at least in the Keira Knightley one), but for a long time he was not ashamed at all for breaking up Jane and Bingley because he really thought Jane was beneath Bingley. He actually, while proposing to Elizabeth, spends a long chunk of time describing how he’s lowering himself to do so (you wonder why she shot him down, huh?) In his letter to her, he still insists he did right by Bingley. And by the end, he still can’t quite take all of Elizabeth’s teasing, as I mentioned before.

At least he’s consistent. “Love” doesn’t turn him into the opposite of everything he’d been throughout the book before – unfortunately, I’ve seen this happen in too many novels before too.

Anyway, there’s my two cents on that. Are there any more reasons you can add?

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The Missing Ingredient in Too Many Romance Novels

 

True medieval love

True medieval love.

The Over-stated Role of Attraction

There are a couple typical plots for romance novels, but most of them go something like this: Girl is frustrated at being single/sick of dating jerks/doesn’t have time for romance. Girl and Guy meet cute. Girl and Guy hate each other for some contrived reason (usually one of them is arrogant). Somehow they’re attracted anyway. They fall in love. Something happens to separate them (Lies! Misunderstandings! He’s actually a reporter in disguise! She spies him having dinner with a beautiful women who turns out to be his sister!) And once this simple barrier is overturned, after many, many pages of anguished heart-searching on the part of both of the Guy and the Girl, they realize that they are each other’s True Love and they get together. Forever, unless it’s a more modern, more cynical work.

My problem is that so often books skip over why they are attracted to each other in the first place.

Usually if they start by hating each other, the author explicitly points out that they are irrationally attracted to each other anyway, and at some point this irrational attraction overrules their better judgement and they get closer to each other. So, pretty much these romances are based on the fact that one character is a guy and one character is a girl, and thus they must be inherently attracted. The flaw in this plan, I think, is that not every girl and guy is attracted to each other. Especially if they’ve given each other good reason to hate each other. After all, I don’t fall in love with every arrogant jerk I run into. To me, using random irrational forces of attraction to get a couple together is a cop-out for the author. It was magic, I swear! 

I get the feeling that often the authors are not very committed to making their characters truly dislike each other. Because the author is pretty much in love with one character or another anyway, so of course their destined romantic partner will be too. Unfortunately, in real life, if you don’t like someone you usually need pretty strong evidence before you change your mind. Otherwise this dislike is merely a formality the romance novel has to get over – a puny little barrier that can be knocked over with one hand.

Honestly, I’ve read far too many books where once the ‘meet cute’ and ‘initial dislike’ is over, the plot grinds to a complete halt. I read one novel where the couple got together in the exact middle, and nothing else happened until the second-last chapter! Really, chapter after chapter of idyllic romantic scenes, when you haven’t given me any insight into what these two characters like about each other (other than ‘she’s beautiful,’ and he’s ‘confidant and handsome’), is less than enthralling.

So, tell me again why Romeo and Juliet like each other? Is it just because they can both make silly rhymes? (Says Romeo: My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand/To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss. Quoth Juliet: Well, saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.) Or because it’s just thrilling that one is a Montague and the other is a Capulet? Sorry to harp on this particular couple so often, but they’ve been held up as the epitome of romantic love for so long, and I can’t understand why.

To beat another dead horse, in Pride and Prejudice both Darcy and Elizabeth find each other somewhat attractive at first (she is “tolerable,” and he is a “fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien”). Yet that does not prevent them from developing an intense dislike for each other – a dislike that takes the whole book to get over. That is character development. That is an obstacle to a romantic relationship that is not minimized by saying, “love conquers all,” (which is not true, anyway), but by treating it realistically.

Okay, so sometimes people are irrationally attracted, and sometimes they are stupid and get together with someone against their better judgement. Unfortunately, this usually ends in tragedy, not the run-of-the-mill happy endings applied to every romance novel.

 

Maybe I’ve just been reading really bad novels. Have you read any that were better than this?

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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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