As I’ve mentioned before, here and elsewhere, I’ve taken a stab or two at writing romance. They’re usually messy affairs, that quickly turn to psychosis and death, but I keep trying. Lately, I’ve been trying to actually do something with Lune de Amant, the suitably dreadful werewolf romance I had conceived of some time ago (almost single-handedly tied to the image of a young man confessing his love for two women to someone… but the kicker is, both women are really the same one. “The woman I love is not one, but two… and one of them is a killer,” as Lune‘s Nicky Reynolds states.) If you’re morbidly curious, you can find it over here on Wattpad, as well as finding your way to Ioudas (which is currently stalled due to technical difficulties and general malaise), Blood and Steel: Vampire 2.0 (which should get an update shortly, once I transcribe handwritten notes into Pages) and a smattering of other randomness.
While pecking at Lune, I determined that I should probably inspect the theoretical competition, in an attempt to get an idea of how these things are supposed to go. In all actuality, I’d probably toss out the manual and do what my characters want to do, anyway, but I suppose it’s at least helpful to see the roadsigns before you plunge off into a dirt trail, cackling and bumping your head on the roof of the car, right? This “educational reading” has led me to question a couple of the standard mechanics of romance novels – at least, those in recent memory, in particular the ones branded as being for YA – so now you get to listen to be puzzle them over.
First, why must our lovers-to-be despise each other on first sight? It seems like every time you open one of these books, you can guess who the male lead is going to be – assuming you didn’t read the back flap, any reviews or any other spoilerish material – just by “who does our female lead appear to hate the most?” Now, I’m not necessarily keen on love at first sight, either, I don’t know why it seems verboten for the future couple to at least be civil with one another, or feel the flame of interest and attraction without turning into a snark-monster almost immediately. Note that there’s almost always asides where they admit to finding the person attractive or interesting, but they’re usually couched as “I was disgusted with myself for thinking he was hot.” Ew. Even typing that sentence made me ache inside. One moment, while I cleanse myself. *takes a few deep breaths and counts to ten.* Okay. I can go on now.
Now, really, I understand that it’s a conflict thing; if there’s no conflict, there’s no story. But why must that conflict always take the form of our wannabe lovebirds bickering with one another for the first half to three-quarters of the book? Is there some unspoken rule that one can’t have other plots or characters provide the conflict, or that the conflict may not be their clashing personalities that drive them to snipe one another but in fact some other important aspect of potential incompatibility?
Second thing, there’s always a love triangle. Okay, again, kind of a necessity given the genre – and handily, a source of conflict other than “I hate you… but you’re hot” – but all too often it seems our handsome beaus aren’t really any kind of choice at all. They’re cardboard cutouts of one another, with minimal differences in characterization. Our plucky coquette isn’t gaining or losing anything in particular by choosing one or the other; 9 times out of ten they stimulate and interest her for the same reasons, and their behavior patterns are almost identical. They’re no more real deliberation or difference in choice than picking from the blue-green crayon or the green-blue crayon. (Yes, I’m aware, there is technically a difference, but I couldn’t think of another analogy. Except for “picking between vanilla and French vanilla ice cream” and that one didn’t work because French vanilla is way better. Obviously. I have issues.) Why can’t our suitors be more drastically different?
Note, this one is particularly grinding my gears at the moment as a local writer’s group had a wee bit of a peeksie at Lune (and got to see things that aren’t up on Wattpad, yet), and then told me “it wasn’t fair.” To which I responded, “What do you mean, fair?” The answer that came was “Making her have to choose. Because ##Redacted## appeals to her animalistic, thrill-seeking side, but ##Redacted## appeals to her emotional, intellectual side. Whichever one she choses, she has to give up that other aspect.” I haven’t responded to that e-mail, yet. The twitching paroxysms it inspires make it too hard to type out an intelligible response. But, internally, I’m thinking “Who said it has to be fair? Life is pain. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something (thank you, Princess Bride) And that’s exactly why there’s a love triangle… because they’re both appealing to different parts of our protagonist’s nature, so it means her choice actually matters! *twitch, twitch.*”
Further note, this also doesn’t seem to apply to the few male-centered romance novels I’ve read – where the man is the protagonist and must choose between two women, anyway – because generally one will be the “bad girl,” slutty, sensual, possibly criminal while the other will be the “girl next door” type, and the consequences of choosing one tend to alienate the other – as well as having additional plot consequences such as jailtime, the possibility of murder charges or having someone you care for suffering the same – rather than “hey, let’s all be pals now, kay!?” more common to the female-centric pieces.
The last thread of commonality that keeps resurfacing, again, primarily in more recent books, is our heroine’s self-loathing. Quite often these things are done in first person, so we get to sit inside their head and listen to them harangue themselves about all the reasons the boys don’t like them. Even by the end, when they’re typically married/soul-bound/transformed-into-inhuman-entities-together or otherwise joined at the metaphorical (or metaphysical) hip, often with Unlucky Suitor #2 standing ably by as a “Dear True Friend(TM),” they still constantly point out their flaws and worry and nag and fret about all the reasons their men will leave them. Supposedly, this is done so the current audience can “connect” to our female lead; that they, as potentially self-loathing people who for some reason view their only value in society as who they’re attached to, will be more interested in a character who’s “just like them.” If I were a late-teens/early 20s girl, I think I might be offended by this logic. (Ironically, I do despise myself and most of my creations, which is exactly why I don’t want to read about other people’s self-loathing when perusing fiction. Hear quite enough of that in my own head, thanks.)
Mind you, I’m not talking about characters who have aspects of themselves they’re unhappy with/want to change. That’s fine. That’s called being a deep character. It’s the ones who self-criticize everything about themselves, constantly. (And furthermore, examples are never given. If the heroine says “I’m ugly,” there’s at least twenty other characters who’ll chime in with a “Nuh-uh, you’re way hot, wanna get with me?” If they state “I’m clumsy,” we’ll never see them drop anything or trip and fall or injure themselves unless it’s a dramatically appropriate isolated incident that allows them a brief flicker of compassion or salvation from their otherwise assholeish Loverboy-2-B.)
Yeah. That’s more what one imagines according to the descriptions in most romance novels. Not the well-built young women they tend to cast. At least, in my head.
Maybe I’m in the wrong, here. Maybe I just, as one individual informed me, “lack the necessary genitalia and orientation” to grasp emotional and romantic work. So what’s your opinion, faithful readers? Are those standards a part of the genre out of necessity? Is there a hidden crime in going against them? Should I invest in low-cost sexual reassignment to better understand my subject matter? Or, if you’ve got a favorite romance book that runs counter to these, or uses them in a new and interesting way, you can share that love in the box below. Until next time!