Romance, Part One-Point-Five (B-B-B-Bad Romance)
I realized between this post and the last that I left out something extremely important when it comes to how not to write romance. I mentioned a few common tropes that drive me crazy. I didn’t go into any of the larger implications of certain types of “romance” or our responsibility as contributors to popular culture, as far as understanding those implications and their effects is concerned.
Popularized by E.M. Hull’s novel The Sheik in the early twentieth century, rape-fantasy and stalker “romance” novels still enjoy a broad audience today. Case in point, Twilight, where a vampire hundreds of years old follows and isolates a teenage girl until she can’t properly function without him in her life. These kinds of stories share a common thread, one that seems to be accepted as unexamined truth in modern culture; that being, absence of a yes does not mean no. Before the feminist movement became a common institution, the world at large would only accept rape as an excuse for a woman to have sex outside of marriage. Romance writers, using their new editorial freedom to follow their couples into the bedroom, would use rape as a way to get characters together physically. Her virginity stolen, the woman would meditate on the man and his motivations until she came to love him for his abuse. Rape became a tool in fiction in much the same way hate is sometimes used; to force one character to think about another, in this case warping trauma into a sort of Stockholm affection.
While the stigma of sex outside of marriage has lessened, the legacy established by loving-rape fiction is still going strong. Stories of women who completely reject a suitor – only to change their minds after said man pursues them against their will for most of the story -are a common staple on bookstore shelves.
I don’t know about you, but when I tell a guy no and he follows me anyway, I either get annoyed or severely creeped out.
Let me stop for a second to say there’s a big difference between writing glorified disempowerment and a girl saying no because of outside influences. There are any number of successful romances that start with a woman saying no – but it’s not because she doesn’t want to be with the man involved. It can be because of a fear of intimacy (Alanna and George in The Song of the Lioness books), social implications or misunderstandings (Pride and Prejudice), differences in commitment level (Karrin Murphy and Harry Dresden in The Dresden Files), et cetera et cetera. But these are all external influences leading to a negative, not the woman actually wanting the man to keep his distance.
There is a way to turn the trope of stalker romance on its head; writing a person overcoming and escaping an abusive relationship can make for a compelling and uplifting read. You don’t have to avoid abuse, as long as you recognize it for what it is. Don’t use it as shorthand trauma, give it the weight it deserves, and know that there are people out there who have suffered through rape, physical or mental abuse, stalking, et cetera, and how you treat it in fiction – how you treat your main character, your reader’s avatar – has an emotional effect on those people and the ones who know them.
I guess the main thing I’m trying to say is think about the message you’re sending through your relationships. I’m going to get to this more later, but as romance writer Sarah Eden put it during a podcast about this very subject, both parties need to fulfill a need in each other. Each one needs to complete their romantic counterpart in some way. It could be as simple as a serious-minded individual finding someone who makes him or her laugh, or as complex as the child of an abusive relationship finding someone who makes them feel safe and loved. A guy hounding a woman or victimizing her until she breaks into the shape of his affection isn’t fulfillment; it’s abuse.
While we’re on the subject of emotional fulfillment, there’s the question of whether or not a story needs a romantic subplotline at all. A little ironic to talk about this right in the middle of a tutorial on writing romance, but it’s important to think about. What would serve your story best? Do you necessarily need to have a romantic relationship? Would your character’s development be better served by friendship, mentorship, rediscovering a frayed connection with family or creating a new family in the midst of whatever they’re going through?
To use the example of my own work, I’m currently writing a story about a young girl who, coming out of an abusive relationship, couldn’t possibly fall straight into a romantic entanglement without either hurting herself or the one she got involved with. She needed to learn to trust again, but finding her a romantic partner wasn’t the way to do it; she wasn’t wired in a way that romance would heal. Instead, I introduced an older man as a friend and father figure, to build a bridge between her and the world she wasn’t sure she trusted any more. There may be romance in her future with someone else, but most definitely not with him and not now; she just needed someone to confide in, someone who’d been through the wringer himself and had the patience to bear the brunt of her anger and distrust.
These aren’t all things you’ll look at in a first draft, necessarily. But they’re good things to think about as you figure out what your character’s main relationships will be and what emotional developments you want your protagonist to have throughout the story. Remember that art is a facet of life, and while romance is nice, it’s not always necessary – and what the world finds romantic in fiction is often disturbing and traumatic in fact.
September 8, 2011 @ 5:21 pm
I recommend the book Beyond Heaving Bosoms by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan for a discussion of rape in romance. I think it helps to know what, in general, a genre has done with a trope, especially one like this. There’s at least one book that I’ve held up as an example of a well-thought-out examination of a problem that doesn’t work because of the genre’s history.
As for examining whether or not you need the romance– oh please do! I am always sad when I find that two characters I’d enjoyed as friends turn out to be romantic interests. Not everyone needs to be married. But try finding female characters who don’t have a romantic subplot at some point….
November 2, 2011 @ 7:08 pm
I, personally, feel that when a woman has tossed you overboard her floating ship into a mob of zombies, it’s safe to say that she’s not interested (eh-hem, Meljean Brook).
So many times, what is portrayed as romantic should have the girl calling the cops, especially in YA. Being creeped on is not an indicator of Twoo-Wuv, but that’s the message that’s going to teenage girls, who are already the group most statistically likely to get in an abusive relationship. It’s really sad.
I never understood that trope, or where it came from. I didn’t know the old reason behind rape as a physical tool. Thanks for clearing that one up for me.