Friday, January 30, 2015


Othello is a well-made, well-acted and incredibly frustrating film.

I didn’t realize I’d have such a strong reaction to it. I’d read the play, so I knew how the story went, but watching events unfold was much more visceral an experience. And quite frankly, not one I want to repeat.

To start with the good: the acting is great. Lawrence Fishburne has immense presence as Othello, and I like the passion and spirit of Irene Jacob’s Desdemona. Kenneth Branagh stole the show, but then again, that’s what Iago usually does. I especially like the motif of the chess pieces, and how his tipping them into the well foreshadows what happens at the end of the film. Beautiful sets, costumes, music, the works.

No, what made me not want to watch the film again was the story.

It was easy to see the roots of Othello’s jealousy. Set apart by virtue of his race, he holds on to his position among the upper-class Venetians because of his value as a general. But once he goes to Cyprus, the Turkish fleet has already been destroyed. That’s a joyous event, but it also means there’s nothing more for Othello to do there, no way to keep proving his worth. As far as insecurity goes, that’s enough of a breeding ground for Iago.

I kept wondering, though: what does Iago really want? If it’s to be Othello’s lieutenant, Iago gets that after he plies Cassio with drink and instigates a brawl. He could stop there, but instead he goes on to poison Othello’s mind against Desdemona. “I hate the Moor”, he says at one point, but later, he engages in a blood-brother ritual with Othello and tearfully embraces him.

The power of Branagh’s acting is to make these disparate elements seem different facets of the same complex character, rather than inconsistencies. I’m not sure what Iago hoped to end up with eventually—everyone dead except for himself? Maybe. But I didn’t need to know that to be fascinated by his personality, not to mention his ability to keep half a dozen puppets dancing at the same time.

The frustrating part of the film isn’t just to see how Othello swallows everything hook, line and sinker, because a lot of people would succumb to expert manipulation. It’s everything that happens after that. He could question Desdemona openly and try to trust her. Failing that, he could leave her.

Failing even that, he could, if he felt justified in murdering her, do so quickly and painlessly.

Instead he puts her through hell. He insults her, humiliates her, hits her and finally forces her to endure a terrifying ordeal and a long-drawn-out death. It was nothing short of domestic abuse. And no matter how many glycerine tears Othello himself cries in the process, I couldn’t help feeling this wasn’t so much a good, decent man giving in to his fatal flaw as a wolf who was finally getting to take his sheep suit off.

So to sum it up: a very well-done film that, because of the subject matter, I found too depressing to watch again.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

First impressions of heroes

Among the many warnings in How Not to Write a Novel is that the first thing the character does shouldn’t be off-putting (e.g. ogling a stranger, going to the bathroom) unless the author wants that impression of the character to be firmly fixed in the reader’s mind.

That was made clear in a couple of romances I critiqued recently. In one, the hero was at an extremely low ebb at the start—depressed, lonely and drunk. In another, the hero was much younger than the heroine, to the point where I thought he was about ten years old. When he noticed her breasts, it was a massive turn-off.

Romance revolves on the hero. He doesn’t have to be a former SEAL billionaire who now runs a BDSM club when he isn’t racing with his biker buddies. But he does have to be someone readers can find attractive or interesting.

Some of the keepers on my romance shelf have unconventional heroes. A mortician. A near-sociopathic assassin. A man who’s developmentally disabled. But all of them were assertive in their different ways, able to hold their own among their peers. Even if they were younger than the heroine, or less intelligent, they didn’t give me the impression of being weak and powerless.

So what’s to be done, if the story begins with the hero helpless or broken in some way?

Change the start

In one of my keepers, Pamela Morsi’s Wild Oats, the first time Jedwin Sparrow sees Cora Briggs, he’s perhaps fourteen or fifteen, while she’s twenty—not just a mature woman, but a divorcee. He’s intensely aroused both by her reputation (or lack thereof) and her beauty.

But if the story had started with a teenager getting an erection over an older woman, it would have reminded me of Mary Kay Letourneau. I might not have read further.

Instead, though, the story begins ten years later, when he’s an adult and a professional man, making enough money to offer Mrs. Briggs an indecent proposal. Although he’s younger and less experienced than she is, they’re on a much more equal footing from the start, because he knows what he wants and is going after it, rather than being a tongue-tied, sweaty schoolboy. That flashback comes later, once the first impression of him is clearly cemented.

Make it clear he’s more than the sum of his problems

This was an issue in the story where the hero was drunk and depressed at the start. There wasn’t much to his personality other than “sad boozer”.

Whereas there are tons of romances which begin with a hero in jail or in an asylum or chained to an oar as a galley slave (I’m guessing here), and which are great reads because the hero is intriguing. He doesn’t have to be innocent of the crime which landed him in prison, and he can be in Bedlam for what people of that time thought were good reasons (e.g. Summer Devon’s and Bonnie Dee’s The Gentleman's Madness).

But if he’s strong and intelligent, and if he fights back in even a small way, that will be part of the readers’ first impression too. And believe me, a lot of people love a Hurt-Comfort read. They just need to know that your Hurt hero is worth Comforting. :)

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Romance vs. love story

This is a summary of a discussion on the Absolute Write forums, where—not for the first time—a love story was confused with a romance.

“Is my love story a romance?”

How does the story end?

“They’re very much in love, and he dies. But from the afterlife, he watches over her and is happy when she finally finds someone else whom she’ll love just as much, in a different way.”

Not a romance. Sorry.

“But I believe in love that lasts beyond death. That’s romantic.”

It is. But you haven’t written something that fits into the romance genre.

“But the characters are happy in the end. She finds someone else and he loves her so much that what he wants most is for her to be cared about.”

In a romance, readers expect the characters to be together at the end. It’s not a romance if they’re apart, even if they’re both happy that way.

“People found Ghost very romantic.”

Of course they did, but movies can’t be classified the same way as books. Besides, people find Wuthering Heights and Gone with the Wind romantic too. That doesn’t make them genre romances. The story needs to focus on the development of a relationship and the characters have to be together in the end.

“Isn’t it predictable if readers know at the start that the characters will be together?”

Yes, but sometimes that’s what readers are looking for. The same way that readers of mysteries expect the mystery to be solved in the end. What keeps people reading romance is the how of the story, the ways the characters resolve the problems that keep them from getting to their happy ending.

“I heard a romance publisher releases occasional books where the characters go their separate ways in the end.”

Some publishers may have certain imprints where a happily-ever-after isn’t required. For instance, Dreamspinner Press makes it clear that stories in the Bittersweet Dreams imprint don't have the traditional ending of a romance. But such books will be designated as part of that imprint, so readers know what they’re getting.

“Would readers really mind so much if one of the characters died? I could foreshadow this and it could be an inevitable part of the story.”

Romance readers aren’t looking for a gut punch where the hero they’ve been cheering for dies in the end.

Romance readers can also be picky because it’s not unusual for writers of other genres to mistake love stories for romance. Sometimes, writers even try to reclassify their books because romance sells better than love stories in other genres. But this isn’t the way to please readers.

If the character dies an inevitable, foreshadowed death, you might have written a wrenching, compelling love story—but you haven’t written a romance.

“There’s an established author who has a romance where the hero and heroine don’t end up together.”

When you’re an established author, you might be able to get away with this too.