You Know It is a Character-Driven Romance If . . .

Judge Hardcastle renders his decision in the last installment of Mr. B Speaks! Will Mr. B and Pamela be reunited? The books ends where a good romance always ends: with the characters.

A few years ago, I posted a few thoughts on romances: Why Romances are Good and Where Romances Go Wrong. In the later post, I spend several minutes discussing the difference between "world romances" and "character-driven" romances.

To recap:
Romances fall into two 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.
You may notice a bias here: I dislike chick-lit. This isn't an intellectual-snobbery thing. I read paperback historical romances and even some paranormal romances that would--ten years ago--have been looked at as so much rubbish.

But I have NO interest in reading about shopping expeditions or the heroine's problems with her dog, sister, girlfriends, ex-boyfriends, platonic boyfriends, (platonic girlfriends). I don't really care about her need for a new dress, her thoughts on home furnishings, her work worries, her medical worries, her gardening worries. And I SO don't care about shoes. 

I want to read about her growing relationship with the hero. If the above things enter into that relationship, fine. If historical background enters in, great. But I want to see the hero and heroine interacting 90% of the time.

However, posting Mr. B Speaks! installments and reflecting on Pamela has led me to the conclusion that Pamela is a character-driven romance while Jane Austen's novels--of which I am a fan--are not.

Here's the argument broken down, with the caveat that not everyone agrees on what constitutes a romance or even a character-driven romance. Also, I am not criticizing Austen but trying to establish where exactly her novels fall genre-wise.


1. You meet the hero and heroine at almost the same time.

This is true of Pamela and of Pride & Prejudice (THE romance of Austen's novels).

2. You hear both the hero and the heroine's thoughts. 

This is not true of either novel. Pamela rarely steps into Mr. B's head (hence Mr. B Speaks!) and P & P does only through the omniscient narrator.

In general, modern romance novels (even the historical ones) are far more likely to give you the hero's thoughts.

3. The hero and heroine spend the majority of the book in each other's pockets.

This is radically less true of P & P than it is of Pamela.

A Man of Few Words, my tribute to Pride & Prejudice, concentrates on the Darcy-Elizabeth relationship, meaning I focus almost exclusively on the scenes where they are together. For the second edition, I added more analysis and events from Darcy's point of view (as well as smoothed out the transitions), but the book is still considerably less lengthy than the original.

Mr. B Speaks!, on the other hand, while still not as lengthy as the original (all that exposition!) was surprisingly difficult in sections since even when Mr. B is off-stage, he is still doing stuff that directly involves Pamela. (Austen is a better writer than Richardson but Richardson's ability to keep his chronology straight is impressive). All of Pamela's letters discuss/reflect on Mr. B, even when he is not present (her first few weeks in Lincolnshire). While Mr. B stalks Pamela physically, Pamela stalks Mr. B psychologically, emotionally, and intellectually throughout the book.

4. The external problem facing the hero and heroine involves them directly. 

In Pamela, the external problem is Mr. B kidnapping Pamela and his plans to seduce her. Later, the external problem includes Mr. B's nutty sister who wants to break up the marriage.

In P & P, the external problems include Mr. Collins, Elizabeth's embarrassing relations, Darcy's embarrassing relations, Darcy's first marriage proposal, plus Wickham &; Lydia. The first marriage proposal causes a rift between Elizabeth and Darcy, and Darcy gets involved with the Wickham & Lydia debacle. But the problems are often solved apart and, in some cases, have only an indirect bearing on the hero-heroine relationship (Elizabeth rejecting Mr. Collins establishes her personal integrity and makes her free to be wooed elsewhere; however, it is difficult to imagine Elizabeth accepting Mr. Collins even if Darcy hadn't been around).

5. The internal problems facing the hero and heroine are solved jointly.  

In Pamela, the internal problems are Pamela's fear of being ruined and Mr. B's fear of marriage. Both fears are addressed in conversation between the hero and heroine after the engagement and during the first week of their marriage.

In P & P, the internal problems are Elizabeth's pride at being snubbed as well as her prejudice against Darcy while Darcy's internal problem is his extreme reticence (causing him to appear and occasionally act proud) and his prejudice against Elizabeth's family (can you blame him?). Both problems begin to be solved with Darcy's letter but are largely solved by Elizabeth and Darcy facing their demons on their own before they come together (although Rosings--where they come together after having faced those demons--is a huge turning point).


Pride & Prejudice is an amazing book; it is also far better written than Pamela which stumbles between a character-driven story and a polemic on . . . pick a topic! Yet, while Pride & Prejudice is definitely a great romance (and Richardson's ponderous language is difficult to decipher), Pamela is closer in its goals to the modern supermarket romance (which are often character-driven) than to Austen's novels.

I think Austen was more interested in exploring her characters within their milieu than in moving her hero and heroine together through psychological/physical obstacles. Elizabeth's survival in face of the problem of marriage is radically more important to Austen than answering the question, "How will Elizabeth and Darcy overcome this?" The latter question is answered, but this novel, like Austen's other novels, focuses on the initial problem: survival in society.

And it's great stuff! So "world romance" does have its pointers.

Okay, where's my Lisa Kleypas?


a calvinist preacher said...

I'm not completely in agreement in your assessment of Austen's novels as "world" vice "character" romances.

To be sure, I don't read a lot of romance novels - my wife and daughter do (lately a lot of Georgette Heyer), but I pretty much restrict myself to Austen. And it is precisely because they focus on character that I do so.

There is a marriage at the end of them, so it's fair to call them romances, but the romance is almost secondary to exploration of characters, particularly the female leads. They set the world in which the female lead lives, and then explore that woman's dealing with various relational struggles - to family, to community, to herself, to friends, and ultimately to the men they marry (and don't marry).

P&P doesn't talk much about Darcy because the book is about Elizabeth and told from her perspective, even when the voice is ostensibly the omniscient narrator. Same with Anne and Capt. Wentworth (although the side bit on Mrs. Musgrove's fat sighings is clearly Jane Austen's own voice), with Eleanor and Edward, with Emma and George Knightly, and with Fanny and Edmund.

They're all about the people - the characters - but mostly they're about THE character, the heroine. That's not a bad way to write a romance, even if it does leave one wondering what the man is thinking.

Kate Woodbury said...

I completely agree that Austen focuses on Elizabeth's development!

SO . . . I'm wondering if I should create new labels for my categories: romances-that-are-driven-by-the-heroine's-developing-character-as-she-confronts-the-world-around-her versus romances-that-deal-with-the-heroine's-developing-character-in-reaction-to-the-hero's-character (since most romances are still run by the heroine's main problem/conflict).

"World romance" doesn't precisely work--although it is much shorter than the first label--since "world fantasy" is far more about the world itself (geography, language, inhabitants) than anything else. And Austen does tend to take our knowledge of her world for granted.

Perhaps, "character versus world" in comparison to "character versus character"?

These labels might not work either, but right after I wrote them, I thought, "Yes!" Even with action movies, I often bypass the one-on-many conflict for the one-on-one conflict. (And there's two more labels!)

Ah, the danger of labels. But a distinct break like this seems to run across many genres.

Though maybe this is a reasoning backwards approach: the categories are distinct; Austen is not.

a calvinist preacher said...

There is room for a "world" vs. "character" distinction. As you note, Tolkein carries his story far more by "world" than "character", but then his intention was to write a kind of mythological epic.

But within character driven stories, including romances, there are variations. What first came to mind was mono- vs. bi-polar character romances, but given the other uses of the word "bipolar", that might not work so well. :-)

So how about single vs. dual (or multi) lens? We see the romance in Austen's novels primarily through a single lens - the female lead's. In others, we are treated to multiple lenses, including at times a distinct lens for the narrator.

This gives us two axes for categorization - world/character and single lens/multiple lens. Tolkein would be world-multiple where Austen would be character-single.

Kate Woodbury said...

After much thought, I've come up with two more labels. I actually quite like mono versus bi-polar, though as you point out that isn't very . . . PC.

My current two labels: River versus Bush.

The River narrative starts with a single purpose. Streams and brooks may enter it, but the single purpose remains consistent and carries the narrative.

The Bush narrative has dozens of stories that eventually all lead to one place. It is sometimes told from multiple points of view, but it is also sometimes singular.

It is the difference between a fantasy novel that starts with a problem and continues to solve that problem no matter how many other characters are brought into the mix (River).

Versus a fantasy novel that starts with a character doing something which leads to something else which leads to something else . . . and in the meantime . . . (Bush)

Sometimes, as with Tolkien, the Bush narrative begins AFTER all the various factors have been put into motion--many chick-lit novels are also like this. But the "feel" of bushiness remains: nothing can be accomplished until everything else winds down.

These labels do push Austen's work closer to Richardson's (River plus character-single lens), leaving behind chick-lit books (Bushes).

But of course, I can further categorize the Rivers! Pamela is a single River with few tributaries while P & P is a single River with multiple tributaries.

The lack of multiple tributaries helps explain why Richardson is much easier to imitate than Austen. (Man, that omniscient voice is a doozy!)