Archive for June, 2010

Bitch, Bitch, Bitch

In a recent film review, one critic pointed out that a particular movie had all the standard rom com elements, including the fact that the hero and heroine spent the first third of the movie bickering. That sort of startled me, because it’s absolutely true. Think about it—just about every romantic comedy of the last couple of years begins with instant dislike. The heroine thinks the hero’s a clod. The hero thinks the heroine’s a snotty bitch. They trade wisecracks and dirty looks until some outside force throws them together and forces them to re-evaluate each other. This, in turn, made me stop and think—why is this true? Why must rom coms all begin with the couple disliking each other?

I suppose on the one hand we could blame When Harry Met Sally, which is sort of the standard for the contemporary rom com. Harry and Sally are famously antagonistic at first, but what makes them come around isn’t any outside force, it’s maturity: they both grow out of their earlier prickliness. And when they start fighting again, it’s over something serious—the fact that their friendship has moved into love and they’re both freaked out about it. Most current rom coms feature bickering for no particular reason. And in many cases both hero and heroine are absolutely right: he is a clod and she is a snotty bitch, neither of whom you feel like spending a lot of time around.

So why can’t we have a hero and heroine who are instantly attracted rather than annoyed? Well, one might argue, you need some kind of conflict and being attracted to each other doesn’t allow for that. But the external force that acts to keep the lovers apart could be the source of that conflict rather than antagonism. In Four Weddings and a Funeral, hero and heroine are immediately smitten, but her commitment to another man keeps them apart. In The American President, it’s his job (i.e., being POTUS) that makes their romance unworkable. In Victor/Victoria, it’s her job (i.e., being, well, Victor/Victoria). In Bull Durham, it’s her neurosis (sorry, but she’s a nutcase) and the fact that, once committed to Nuke, she’s sort of stuck. In The Holiday, both heroines are only in place for a short time and feel they can’t really commit themselves because of that. In the Colin Firth story-line of Love, Actually it’s the fact that he doesn’t speak Portuguese.

My point is that hero and heroine don’t have to be obnoxious jerks to have a rom com with bite. It’s possible to have obstacles even if hero and heroine are both likeable and attracted to one another. Unfortunately, those obstacles can also be insurmountable (see 500 Days of Summer and Annie Hall). The problem, as I see it, comes down to laziness. It’s so much easier to begin with heroes and heroines who snipe at each other since that’s the kind of groove rom coms have fallen into.

On the other hand, how many of these formulaic rom coms have been successful lately? Wouldn’t it be easier if just once Kate Hudson or Jennifer Anniston could fall for the guy right out of the starting gate instead of spending thirty minutes being snippy? If they did, maybe we’d all be more willing to go see these movies than we are at the moment. I know I would!

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Romance authors have it easy, at least in one sense. Even if we do a series, we rarely have the same hero or heroine more than once. The characters who hook up in book one may drop in to advise the characters in book two (as Cal and Docia do in Wedding Bell Blues), but they stay hooked. And we romance writers can move on to the next couple secure in the knowledge that we don’t have to worry about couple one anymore.

Mystery writers, on the other hand, frequently have the same hero or heroine throughout the series—Gregor Demarkian is still around to solve crimes fifteen years after Jane Haddam introduced him in Not a Creature Was Stirring. Likewise Kate Shugak for Dana Stabenow, Deborah Knott for Margaret Maron, and, of course, Stephanie Plum for Janet Evanovich. The problem for these writers comes in giving the hero/heroine a romantic relationship that can endure through several books without becoming boring or pushing the main character into a dead end. And when that romantic relationship seems to have run its course, what do you do next?

The easiest way to deal with the flagging relationship is simply to break the couple up. Maron did that with Deborah’s game warden boyfriend who went back to his ex-wife, and poor Temperance Brennan had a double break-up in Bones To Ashes. It’s painful, and it leads to a couple of books where the hero/heroine mopes around, but unless the Significant Other was actually a stand-up guy or gal, a break-up makes it easier for the author (and the character) to move on.

If the SO is interesting or well-liked, getting rid of him or her is a lot tougher. Stabenow (in Hunter’s Moon) and Charlaine Harris (in A Fool and His Honey) went the distance—they actually killed off the SO. And in both cases, the authors ended up being pilloried for it by their fans. Stabenow in particular took a very heavy hit for killing off a character her readers liked a lot, but she’d clearly hit the wall with the relationship between Kate and her lover—marriage was in the offing, and Kate really wasn’t the type.

Some writers take the plunge and marry the heroine/hero off. Gregor married Bennis in Haddam’s last book. Maron married Deborah to her long-time friend Dwight, much to the delight of her readers. But marriage can mean the end of the series if the author doesn’t really want to carry on with a married heroine. This happened for Harris in two separate serires. Once she’d actually married Aurora Teagarden off to husband number two, that ended Aurora’s adventures. Similarly, Harris’s Shakespeare series ended once Lily Bard found her Jack. I don’t know what Harris plans for Harper Connelly, but since she’s finally found her true love, it doesn’t look good.

Some writers deal with the problem by leaving the whole question unanswered. Thus you have Stephanie Plum’s perpetual ping-pong between Joe Morelli and Ranger, to say nothing of the way Laurell Hamilton’s Anita Blake bounces from Jean-Claude to Richard to, well, whoever this year’s creature turns out to be. There’s a real question, though, as to how long this kind of suspended relationship can keep going. At some point, Stephanie’s going to have to go one way or the other, or the series loses its spark (I’m pulling for Morelli, myself).

Frankly, I’m glad I don’t have to deal with any of this. Cal and Docia are together, period. Similarly, Pete and Janie and Lars and Jess. There’s something to be said for not carrying your hero through for book after book. At least you don’t have to worry about how to get rid of a character you may have grown to like, and how to tend with another character’s heartbreak after that.

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