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Archive for January, 2010

Predictable

Note: This post was supposed to have been published in The Samhellion yesterday. For reasons that aren’t clear to me, it never made it up there. So here it is today where I can make sure it gets posted!

From time to time, I like to examine the criticisms that are aimed at romance by non-romance readers (most frequently, although not always, male). I’ve talked about the whole happy ending requirement. But there’s another one that I hear all too often from the anti-romance guys—“Romance novels [and/or movies] are so predictable. You know from the beginning they’ll end up together. Why bother?”

Well…yeah. That’s sort of the whole point of the romance—it’s about a couple falling in love. So, yes, they’ll end up together. That’s a given. The interest in the story always comes in how they end up together, because no romance writer worth her salt will make it easy for them. Maybe they don’t like each other at first. Maybe one of them thinks he/she is in love with somebody else. Maybe they come from different classes, races, age or ethnic groups and have trouble seeing how they can have a relationship. Maybe one or the other is being threatened by some kind of crisis (anything from a financial problem to a serial killer) that makes any relationship dicey. Within the basic frame of a couple in love who end up together are dozens of possible variations and plot twists that must be overcome before the couple can achieve their goal.

But, says the critic, they’re still going to end up together. You know they will. So what’s the point? It’s too predictable.

Okay, let’s put it this way—when you saw the J.J. Abrams version of Star Trek, were you ever in any doubt that Kirk and Spock would survive? It was predictable, right? Did that make the movie less enjoyable for you? When you read the last Kathy Reichs, did you think the villain was going to kill Temperance before the end? You know she’d triumph. Did that ruin the book for you? When you watched the most recent episode of 24, did you have any doubt that Jack would emerge unscathed? Were you disappointed when he did? Of course not.

Most popular fiction, movies, and television shows are predictable. They work within conventions. Some are more inventive than others, but the conventions are always there. So why should romance be any different—why does romance take a hit that other genres don’t? Yeah, we’re predictable. And most of us wouldn’t have it any other way.

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I first read Gone With the Wind when I was in middle school. One of the girls in my English class recommended it, and I got a copy from the library. Like a lot of readers, I was totally engrossed—I remember not wanting to put the book down for about a week as I read it.

I liked Margaret Mitchell, and I was fascinated by her retelling of the Civil War (although even then I suspected it was a bit biased in terms of the good old days in the south). But I’ve gotta say it—I really didn’t like Scarlett O’Hara.

Now granted, I was growing up in the Midwest, where people prize level-headedness and where snotty behavior doesn’t get a lot of sympathy. And one of my grandmothers was a self-anointed Southern Belle, so I saw some eye-batting and hissy fits as I was growing up. But Scarlett didn’t strike me as fascinating. She was just annoying.

A lot of people seem to assume Gone With the Wind is a romance, and Scarlett is an archetypal romance heroine. I think they’re wrong on both counts. Gone With the Wind doesn’t count as a romance, first of all, because it doesn’t have a happy ending (although you might think it’s fairly happy for Rhett since he finally gets away from Scarlett and her campaign to make him miserable). But more importantly, I don’t think it counts because Scarlett really isn’t an archetypal heroine.

Why not? Because she doesn’t learn anything. Oh, she gets more ruthless and more rich, but she’s just as selfish and self-absorbed at the end as she was at the beginning (no, I’m sorry, that last-minute revelation that she loves Rhett is really a day late and a dollar short). Now I can think of some romance heroines who start off unlikeable. But they don’t stay that way. Even if they begin as bitches on wheels, by the end of the book they will have learned to care about someone other than themselves.

The reasons for this are, I think, twofold. First, as readers we usually want to identify with the heroine. If she’s a thoroughgoing bitch, that’s going to be hard, unless she wises up at some point in the story. Second, the hero has to care about her or there’s no romance. And, again, if she’s a thoroughgoing bitch, the hero would have to be a dunce to get involved with her. For reasons I’ve never understood, Rhett seems to think Scarlett’s ruthless character is endearing. One can only assume that she’s very good in bed.

While Scarlett isn’t a romance heroine, she does show up regularly in modern romances nonetheless. She’s the irritating younger sister, or the coworker the heroine can’t abide, or even the woman the hero thinks he loves until he gets a better idea of her true character. In other words, she’s a villainess. And, I’d argue, that’s where she really belongs. While Mitchell is willing to indulge Scarlett’s nastiness, Romance writers, in contrast, are not. And I think that’s all to the good.

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I just stopped reading a novel by an author I like a lot because the heroine got a disastrous dye job. Now that may not mean much in itself, but let me give you some context. She’d also discovered her boyfriend had cheated on her, her sister had moved in with her and made a mess of her house, her job was quickly going south, and she desperately needed to win an upcoming competition. Into this roiling stew of misery, the author gave her a bad peroxide job that left her hair looking like over-processed hay. And I stopped reading.

Look, I know, only too well, that characters have to suffer in the course of a novel. I’ve had to come up with some believable loads of suffering for my own heroines. If you like your characters, this is sometimes difficult to do since you don’t like hurting them. But do it you must since otherwise your book will have all the conflict of a limp noodle. But there’s suffering and there’s suffering. And if the heroine seems to be dragged through too many crummy experiences through the course of the story simply for the sake of prolonging her misery, I may toss the book aside.

There are a couple of ways that heroines can be led into disaster. First, the heroine’s suffering may be the result of her own ineptitude. Maybe she has unrealistic expectations and gets herself into painful situations because she refuses to face the facts about How Things Work (e.g., “I will become a successful interior designer even though I have the design sense of a head of lettuce”). I usually don’t make it past the blurb on these because I hate spending time with clueless people. If the heroine actually does have talent and simply needs to be recognized, that’s one thing. But if your heroine doesn’t have any idea about what she can do as opposed to what she wants to do, she loses a lot of my sympathy.

However, the heroine’s problems may also be the result of the universe being against her.  Pipes burst in her store, ruining her merchandise. The dog tips over the bowl containing her last three eggs and she doesn’t have time to get any more before the beginning of the cooking competition. The dress she needed for the big interview comes back from the cleaners with a huge stain. I can accept this kind of humiliation because it’s necessary to the plot, but only to a point. If the heroine is being hit with too many whammies, I may either start skimming until her luck improves or return the book to the “back to the library” basket.

Stephanie Plum, Janet Evanovich’s intrepid heroine, is a case in point. Because these novels are comic, Stephanie usually has a couple of extended slapstick interludes in which she’s knocked around and covered in goo—that’s pretty much a given in the series. But sometimes I find myself wondering why. By now, Stephanie’s been a bounty hunter for a lot of years (even though those years apparently count as months in her world)—shouldn’t she be a little more expert at this point? And does she always have to take Lula or Granny with her for some crucial meeting? Shouldn’t she be smart enough to know by now that’s not a good idea? Okay, it’s comedy. I get it. But just once I’d like to see Stephanie get through a novel without being turned into Lucy Ricardo.

Coming up with the heroine’s (and/or hero’s) angst is part of plotting. But I don’t think any author should make her heroine seem like a total loser, somebody so clueless that she doesn’t seem capable of being a heroine. Nor should she be so star-crossed by fate that it seems she’ll never get out from under that last load of crap. As a reader, I’ll put up with a little humiliation and some losses, but at some point she needs to start winning. Or I’ll be strolling on to the next book on my list.

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