Romance Problems

I prefer characters to have what I call an internal identity arc. That is, I like a character's problem to be located in his or her personal integrity or self-knowledge rather than in how others treat that character. Below are common romance problems with examples of internal identity struggles;  these struggles create a more interesting story overall.

Czech translation: I love the play on
Loretta Chase's name.
Common romance problem: The person I loved years ago has changed; is our relationship still possible?

This problem is interesting. It is more interesting if the characters take responsibility for their changes. Sometimes, the characters regret their own mutability. Sometimes, they feel a sense of inevitability. Whatever the case, the characters are always more interesting if they desire to go forward rather than wallow in the past--we can't reclaim the past; maybe, we can remake the future.

A variation on this problem is when a character realizes that the type he or she always fell for in the past is not, in fact, the best type for that character to grow old with. Emma tackles this variation as does Little Women.

Another variation is for a character to realize that his or her memory of the past no longer applies. In Loretta Chase's Last Night's Scandal, Peregrine is reluctant to become reacquainted with his high-spirited childhood friend, Olivia, because he remembers all the trouble she got him into when they were younger. He wants a "steady" partner. He learns that, well, yes, she will still get him into trouble, but she'll also get him out of it. She isn't "flighty" or even particularly high-maintenance in the way that he remembered. She is reliable and efficient and won't let him down. 

Common romance problem: I don't think this relationship will last. 

Maybe it will. Maybe it won't. By itself, the yes/no possibility is less like Schrodinger's cat and more like a T/F question. Once it is over, it is over. Besides, if one is watching particularly irritating television, it's more or less a given that the relationship won't last (see Ross & Rachel).

Jane Eyre at a crossroads.
What makes this problem more interesting is if the characters tackle it from within their personal philosophies/self-concepts: Why would I want this relationship to last? An even more interesting variation occurs when the character ponders, How much of my self will remain if the relationship does last?

Jane Eyre is sometimes seen as dated because Jane runs away from Rochester rather than agreeing to live in sin with him. I have never understood this objection. I think the text makes clear than even before the crazy-wife-in-the-attic comes to light, Jane is worried that she is being overwhelmed by Rochester's personality. It isn't that he is domineering, per se. It is rather that his energetic, extroverted-to-the-max personality is overloading her circuits. She runs because she can't make a decision with Rochester hovering over her saying, "Pleeeeease stay. Please? Pretty please!!!!" She returns when she realizes that she has enough self-gumption not to disappear into the shadow of her partner's personality (and well, yes, also after events have toned him down just a bit). 

Common problem: "My partner cannot be trusted based on past behavior." 

This problem has almost no self-life. Either the partner can be trusted or not. End of story. (And solving the problem based on luuuvv makes the characters look stupid. If their sense of personal worth is so damaged that they won't take previous bad behaviors as a warning, they aren't worth investing in as characters.)

Common problem: "How do I prevent an external bad thing from happening to me and my partner?"

Clark/Superman is dismayed when he realizes that
even Lois has given in to the Superman hype.
This problem is necessary to most narrative arcs. But without an accompanying internal arc, it gets rather dry. I've never been particularly partial to narratives where more and more and more bad stuff keeps happening--hence, my distaste for television serials that force me to keep watching every week.

Example: Superman stories often stumble because they rest almost exclusively on external hurdles. In Lois & Clark, however, Clark struggles with internal conflicts regarding his personal identity. In a Season 2 episode, he worries that if "Clark" dies, leaving only Superman, he--Clark--will no longer have the same relationship with his co-workers. This legitimate worry dovetails with Clark's ongoing uncertainty of what constitutes his "real" self. The death of his human self isn't simply an external problem; it has an internal component that is tied to the character's personal philosophy: Who am I?

Summing up: internal issues such as confusion or disillusionment or doubt help any arc. But states of mind are often not enough to keep an arc going. Writers do much better if the state of mind goes back to a fundamental need or want--the character's place in the world (identity), not merely the character's temporary feelings.


Joe said...

The problem with Rochester is that he desperately wants to be loved. So do I. The difference is that introverts like me just wallow in our self-pity while super-extroverts, like Rochester, annoy everyone, especially the introverts.

On the other hand, nobody sits around wondering what Rochester really wants. Yet, somehow the women in his life don't see it, which mystified me about the book. (BTW, it is this aspect of Rochester's personality that Orson Welles absolutely nails.)

Joe said...

And though all the movies make a hash of him, St. John is really just Rochester though wanting loyalty instead of love. Unlike Rochester, St. John would give back every much as he sought, but, to me at least, Jane preferred what little love Rochester could give back rather than no love, but an infinite amount of loyalty.

That's my take anyway.

Katherine Woodbury said...

I think Rochester's women don't see the obvious about Rochester because they perceive him first and foremost as an alpha, self-confident guy. And I don't think they are the only ones! So many writers/directors leave out the fortune-telling scene because they perceive Rochester as manipulating Jane while instead, rather, he is trying to wheedle some kind of confession from her (Timothy Dalton doesn't match Rochester's persona but he does capture this scene fairly well).

Because Rochester is so much older and more outgoing, his behavior--such as forcing Jane to come downstairs while his guests are there--is perceived as domineering and mean. How can this confident, worldly man not realize that he is hurting/pressuring this sweet, quiet young woman?

At one point, for instance, he says to Jane, "Why didn't you come and speak to me in the parlor?" Every woman who reads that passage thinks, "Are you some kind of idiot? She would never have the hutzpah, indifference that comes with age, or social prestige to go up to you in front of your rich, uppity friends and start a conversation!"

But Rochester isn't trying to "punish" Jane. He honestly considers her more self-assured than he (her reserve adds to his perception). It's a little daft, but totally in keeping with Rochester's idealistic personality. He always puts the women he loves on pedestals.

In fact, if one stops seeing Rochester as confident and more importantly, realizes that HE doesn't see himself as confident, then all his behavior falls into place.

(And he is right about Jane being tougher--he just needed to give her a few more years and space to mull.)

I agree about St. John, with an emphasis on the "affection" part of "love." Jane wants love in the form of a big, loud, physically affectionate guy. She knows for a fact that St. John can't offer her warmth and affection (however "scrupulous" he is in the "forms of love") and can't bear the idea--this is why she offers to go with him to India as his "sister/cousin," not his wife. She can admire the "frowning giant of a rock" (her description of St. John during his proposal) from afar--she doesn't want to sleep with it. (For Jane, enduring "every endearment St. John bestows [as] a sacrifice made on principle," i.e. being "tolerated" would be utterly humiliating and soul-destroying.)

I think it is probably this aspect of the book that made it somewhat scandalous at the time. Well, that, and the fact that Jane clearly thinks being a missionary is noble but not so much fun. Jane ends the book by praising St. John but she does so after going out of her way to mention that she has a kid and lots of happy friends (my personal feeling is that in her ending, Bronte, knowing her Victorian audience, was trying to temper her celebration of the physical, mundane [old meaning] experience--eh, she only sort of succeeded).