Friday, November 14, 2008

Romance problems

If a romance novel is light-hearted and cheerful, either a comedy of manners or a sweet story set in some Little Town on the Prairie, I’ll kick back and enjoy the setting or the style or the witty banter. Those will often compensate for a lack of major conflict. Romance novels don’t always have to have sturm und drang.

On the other hand, if there’s potential for fireworks of the wrong kind between the hero and heroine, there are a few things I’d like not to see.

1. Characters from very different races/cultures/societies fall in love and live happily ever after

Shouldn’t there be some problems caused by the fact that they may look different, behave differently, have varying expectations and customs and behavior? I’m highly Westernized, for instance, but I love spicy food. If I ever made Sri Lankan sambol for a man who’d been eating poutine and perogies all his life, he might end up in the emergency room.

Especially in the romantic subplots of speculative fiction novels, this consideration applies. Star Trek played fast and loose with genetics; anyone could breed with anyone else, and I expected to see Klingon/Tribble hybrids at any moment. If two characters are from very different races, their offspring could well be sterile, and their cultures shouldn’t seamlessly mesh either.

2. Characters meet and they’re soul mates.

The soul mate trope is either loved or loathed. I like it when the writer does something different with it – for instance, uses it to start a realistic relationship rather than using it to bring a happy happy ending to the search. Often it seems as though once you’ve found a soul mate, all your emotional troubles are over.

There’s also the free will issue. Is there any real difference between the powerful alpha hero abducting the heroine and insisting that she’s now his forever, and the powerful alpha hero abducting the heroine and insisting that she’s now his forever because the soul-star on her forehead lit up when he met her? I’d like to feel that the heroine spends the rest of her life with the hero because that’s the best possible choice for her, not because it’s the only choice she was given.

3. Unbalanced love triangles

In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett is caught between Ashley and Rhett. It's obvious to the reader that Rhett is the best partner for her, but at the same time, Ashley's not a stupid lout who beats her up. He's attractive in his own way, intelligent, respected in society, treats her courteously and compliments her. So it's also obvious to the reader that there's some basis to her infatuation with Ashley.

A lot of love triangles aren’t like this. Instead, it’s very clear that the writer favors one pairing, and the left-out person is therefore painted in unflattering colors. This doesn’t make whoever’s in the middle seem very smart – can’t they see that one of their suitors is roast evil with ugly sauce on the side? And, of course, there’s no conflict. Why should there be, when it’s clear to the readers that there’s only one possible choice the person in the middle can make?

Pamela Morsi’s Simple Jess gets around this very well. Althea isn’t interested in either of her suitors (who are both decent men in their own ways). Instead she grows steadily closer to Jesse, whom no one seriously considers a candidate for her affections because he’s “feeble-minded”.

4. Characters forced into a romance

By the author, rather than by other characters or circumstances. I once read a romance where, in the epilogue, the souls of the hero and heroine end up in two characters who meet for the first time, feel an instant connection and know that they will be blissfully happy together. There was no indication of why they would be happy – just that Fate or Destiny (AKA the author) had decreed it.

Even in fantasies of mine where there’s no overt romance, I like to have sexual tension between characters. That worked in every manuscript except Dracolytes. There was simply no way to engender romance between an aggressive fundamentalist soldier of one race and a sarcastic atheist psychologist of another. There was also nowhere a romance could go, considering that their homes were about three thousand miles apart.

They didn’t hate each other at the end, and that was all I could realistically expect from them.


Mary B said...

Excellent post. I have a strong aversion to the ones who rely on the "Big Misunderstanding" to keep them apart and the second it is resolved, everything is "I love you forever" and there is no more conflict. about the lack of trust you've shown in each other so far? The lack of honesty? The lack of communication? I'm supposed to believe you two are well matched?

Nope. 300 pages of conflict cannot be forever resolved with a single paragraph of happy.

Anonymous said...

Well said!

I also hate the romances where the characters have an instant and inexplicable aversion to one another that borders on a violent allergy, complicated by their inability to keep from groping each other at odd moments. Heat can take all sorts of forms, yes, but strangers rarely have wild monkey sex because they're incredibly pissed off, IMO.

Or maybe I've led a sheltered, gentle life, I dunno. :)

Marian Perera said...

300 pages of conflict cannot be forever resolved with a single paragraph of happy.

Quoted for truth and succinctness (if that's a word).

I wonder how the Big Misunderstanding began, and why some writers prefer it to real conflict. Is it because a misunderstanding is easier to clear up (once the people involved actually talk to each other) than a real problem?

Kami said...

I think the Big Misunderstanding may have been fueled by classics like Pride and Prejudice, but unfortunately a lot of the writers who use the Big Misunderstanding don't know the true reason why it works in Pride and Prejudice. It wasn't just a lack of communication, although there was a lot of that. There were outright lies circulating to maintain the fiction, for example, and real social pressure. And the leading man really could be a total ass, and he needed a big case of humble pie in the form of a rejection before he could examine himself honestly and rethink how he viewed himself and others. In fact both characters needed to change before they could be together, and once they did, they showed the promise of being able to change and compromise for each other in the future on other matters.
In a lot of romances all this push/pull/discovery never happens. It's often a minor misunderstanding that could be fixed with a single question or comment that drags on and on. Ugh.
BTW, I'm a new reader of this blog, thanks to Victoria Strauss' link. I'm glad! Great blog.

Anonymous said...

Hi Marian,

Regarding ST- There was an episode on TNG where it was discovered that humans, Klingons, Cadassians, and Romulans all sprang from the same planet. The original beings knew they would one day die out so they spread their DNA around the universe to develop on new planets. (I feel totally geeky right now)

Anyhow, maybe that's why they are able to still breed with each other after all this time.

I agree completely about the whole unbalanced romance triangle thing. What makes Casablanca so great is it's 3 good people caught in a very painful situation. Whereas, I dislike films like Titanic where one guy is poor/wonderful and the other dude is rich/jerk. Gee- hard choice!

Marian Perera said...

Hey Tasha,

I remember that episode - The Next Generation, "The Chase" - but it still doesn't make much sense. If the species have diverged to the point where they not only have very different appearances but humans have iron-based blood while Romulans have copper-based blood (assuming they have that in common with Vulcans), it would take a feat of genetic engineering to produce viable and fertile offspring.

Who's the geek now? :D

Marian Perera said...

Hi kami, and thank you. :)

It’s been a while since I read Pride and Prejudice, but from what I recall, you’re right. Elizabeth and Darcy didn’t just clash over a misunderstanding. He was a snob, and Elizabeth was understandably more inclined to sympathize with a man who behaved nicely to her. The story works because of the characters of the people involved, not because they jump to unfounded conclusions about each other – and the mistakes they make aren’t swept under the rug, either.

That’s way, way above the kind of Big Misunderstanding where the hero assumes the heroine is a slut or responsible for ill-treating his family, which means he has to seduce or abuse her. There’s flawed-but-appealing, and there’s jerk.

Anonymous said...

Who's the geek now? :D

LMAO. I crown thee. :)

Jewel Allen said...

I have a love triangle in my YA romance, and I admit, I am biased towards one of the characters. I don't know how the story is going to end, though, because the other guy is certainly coming to his own.

May the best man win.

Marian Perera said...

I think that's the best kind of triangle, Pink.

Even if one guy loses, the readers know that it's because the other guy was better, not because the writer was making sure things could only happen one particular way.