Where Romances Go Wrong

I believe that the main reason romances are so often criticized is because they are too often convenient. I've been reading Christian romances lately. Christian romances have their own particular motifs, but they also follow the traditional romance format. And part of the traditional romance format is to create odds that the couple must overcome. And sometimes the overcoming is a bit too easy.

The particular Christian romances I am reading are evangelical, meaning that divorce of the unhappy couple (so that the happy couple can get married) is frowned upon. This type of solution is rather distasteful, and most romances avoid it. However, the alternative is so outrageously convenient, it becomes hilarious after awhile.

The alternative? All the inconvenient people die. Slews of them! They drop dead like insects in one of those zapper things. Horrible husband--zap! Horrible wife--zap! Watch out: there goes another one.

Jane Austen never did that. And she lived in a time when it was far more likely for people to die at the literal drop of a literal hat. But she doesn't kill off the dastardly Wickham. She doesn't even kill off the flightly Lydia. She doesn't kill off the horrible father in Persuasion. She doesn't kill off the snide chick in Mansfield Park. She doesn't kill off anyone in Northanger Abbey (who isn't already dead before the book begins). I believe someone conveniently dies in Sense & Sensibility, but it was her first book, and she doesn't kill off the real villainness, Lucy Sharp (although she does marry her off conveniently; again, it was her first published book). Nobody dies in Emma or in Pride & Prejudice. People are left unhappily breathing to work their way out of their problems.

Jane Austen also didn't create wholly bad characters. Most of her "bad" guys are weak, silly, intrusive, greedy, self-serving, but rarely evil personified. Evil personified is a convenience of too many romance books. The Christian romances attempt to solve this by occasionally having bad guys get saved. True to form, Jane Austen rarely did this. Wickham may be sorry that he married Lydia, but he goes right on trying to charm everybody in sight despite the fact that everybody in sight knows what he did. The bad-tempered father and daughter in Persuasion never really grasp what happened. General Tilney in Northanger doesn't change one wit. Willoughby in Sense & Sensibility is only sorry that he couldn't marry for both money and love. All the unhappy people in Mansfield Park stay unhappy. (And the ambiguous people stay ambiguous. It isn't my favorite of Austen's books, but I do think it is her best.) And Emma only contains self-serving people, not bad ones.

For Jane Austen, change always centers on the hero and heroine. They are the ones who react, change, grow, learn from the experiences around them. In real life, of course, everyone else would be reacting, changing, growing, learning, but one of the conventions (not conveniences) of fiction is that we watch the world through a few eyes, not through the experience of humanity as a mass (no, not even Tolstoy could do that).

This business of change, however, brings us to another romantic convenience: instant change. In romances, the change is often a moment of recognition: the hero or heroine recognizes his/her true feelings. Darcy undergoes this when Elizabeth taunts him, saying that a "gentleman" would not have proposed to her by criticizing her family.

However, Darcy DOES NOT have that moment of revelation, and then, hey, presto, everything is okay. In fact, Darcy writes his "angry" letter to Elizabeth first. (Darcy later apologizes to Elizabeth for the letter, but she responds that although it started out angryish, it ended graciously). His pride is hurt. He has to process his reaction to Elizabeth before he can admit that he behaved badly.

In too many romances, the moment of revelation is instant, unprecedented by any believable set-up and resulting in almost immediate pay-off. The Christian romances I'm reading are particularly annoying here. The moment of recognition often occurs when the hero or heroine is saved (therefore, making said hero or heroine worthy of love). Now, I will admit that my "eerk" reaction is not just due to the convenience. As a Mormon, I don't believe in one single moment of grace, prior to which a person did not accept the Savior and after which, did. I think people just struggle along and that one's life is an accumulation of choices. I don't really buy into the idea that everything leads up to one moment in time, before which a person would go to hell, after which the person would not.

However, that's my personal philosophical reaction. Instant revelation also bothers me as a writer and a reader. Based on my brother Eugene's comments concerning Mormon romance novels (see his review of The Last Promise at his blog), this business of the instant fix/snap-judgment is not just an evangelical problem. I doubt it is just a religious problem. I would guess that it comes down mostly to bad writing. It's HARD to be constructive. It's HARD to work out problems intelligently. It's HARD to set up change and then pay it off effectively. That's why we Janites worship Jane Austen. She went for the happy ending, but she didn't do it easily!

Now, I am not talking to the writers of romances who are just trying to churn out formula, so they can make a living. Hey, more power to ya, folks. I am talking to those people who want to write character-driven romances* and write them well. In a way, I'm calling for the return of the respectable romance.

*Romances fall into too categories: character-driven and "world romance."

I use the term "world romance" to correspond to "world fantasy," novels which are more about the world of the characters than about the characters themselves.

In "world romance," the story centers on the hero and heroine overcoming obstacles in their personal lives before they can meet. In chick-lit, the story centers on the heroine's friends, how often she goes shopping, what she does in her church/work/volunteer group, etc. etc. etc. It's Sleepless in Seattle (don't meet until the end) versus You've Got Mail, While You Were Sleeping, and Lakehouse (ongoing relationship, no matter how strange).

I prefer the character-driven romance (You've Got Mail) to "world romance" (Sleepless in Seattle). I have very little interest in world fiction generally (Tolkien being the huge exception), and so can't comment much on it. Hence, all my comments are directed at the character-driven romance.

Here are some character-driven romances (from all genres):

Monk Downstairs by Tim Farrington
Jane Eyre by Bronte
Jane Austen (debatable: see You Know It is a Character-Driven Romance If . . .)
Pamela by Samuel Richardson
Beauty by Robin McKinley
Queen of Attolia by Megan Turner
Georgette Heyer (though many of her romances are "world romances," Devil's Cub and Venetia are more character-driven)
Fifteen by Beverly Cleary
Blood & Chocolate (THE BOOK!) by Annette Curtis Klause
Serpent of Time by Eugene Woodbury
Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip
Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers (not one of her best mysteries, but one of her under-appreciated novels--Wimsey's character is better delineated here than anywhere else)
Glass Mountain by Cynthia Voigt
"Straw Into Gold" from The Rumplestiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde
Samantha and the Cowboy by Lorraine Heath
Changeover by Margaret Mahy (and kudos to Mahy for subtitling it "a supernatural romance")
The Road Home by Ellen Emerson White
Howl's Moving Castle (the movie) by Diana Wynne Jones
Romances by Lisa Kleypas


Anonymous said...

Tim Farrington has a sequel out to "The Monk Downstairs" called "The Monk Upstairs." The Booklist review says, "Farrington gifts readers with a rare realistic portrait of a romantic relationship between two complicated, funny, loving adults."

Eugene said...

Hey, thanks for listing my book! I recall thumbing through a Mormon romance by a well-known author (well-known in the genre of Mormon romance). The reputation of the protagonist's first husband was first thoroughly sullied, and then killed off. Except, at least to me, he was portrayed as such a reprehensible bounder that he was more interesting than anybody else in the book!

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with you Kate! Haven't talked to you in a loooong while.
--your cousin, Jennie Davis Westenhaver

Cari Hislop said...

Ok...just one more comment and then I'll go away! I can't stand romances that aren't character driven. I once read this romance where the two main characters only met five times in the book and that included the first meeting and the end where she threw herself into his arms (I went back and counted). It was so stupid. The author spent so much time on a pointless subplot it left no time for the main characters relationship to develope. How did that get past the editor? People don't meet three times (spending five or ten minutes together) and then marry without any further ado.
At least not in my regency romance world! :) In my world they all suffer. I have no compunction of killing off characters though I've never had to kill off an unwanted spouse so two illicit lovers could marry. That's pathetic. How could anyone build a happy marriage on that sort of foundation? Sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, though in my present romance I'm writing the hero has been a widow nine years, but he met the heroine seventeen years before...only he can't remember because he's repressed the memories.

I've had one villain who was pure evil...he totally creeps me out, but usually my characters tend to be a mixture of good and bad traits...they're like real people only they all live in my head. A head that's presently full of snot so if I've made no sense...well that's probably a miracle!

Thank you for your lovely posts...they've made me think...