Romance, Part One
Romances are defined as a lot of different things, all vaguely related to one another. A strong, sometimes short-lived fascination or enthusiasm for something. A mysterious quality or appeal, as of something adventurous, heroic, or strangely beautiful. An artistic work, such as a novel, story, or film, that deals with sexual love, especially in an idealized form.
There are a lot of negative connotations that come along with the word romance, at least as concerns the genre in the eyes of a larger audience; you walk between the rows of paperbacks in any bookstore and you’ll see covers with bodices being ripped, hair being swept back in the wind, at least a dozen well-tanned vampires and a good half-dozen fallen angels taking their lovers in their arms. Maybe a few with a woman in the foreground, staring with a passionately vapid expression off into the distance. Of course, you don’t have to walk down the aisles of a bookstore to see all of this. Go to your local grocery store. Souvenir and travel stop. Heck, walk to the nearest gas station and chances are you’ll find at least one small rack dedicated to the desperately dramatic covers of what are oftentimes very well-written books.
Why do romances get so much play in so many places when so many people dedicate so much time to mocking them relentlessly? Because they’re easy to sell. Why? Because just about everyone loves romance in one form or another. From the Arthurian legends to the Ramayana to Jane Austen and her contemporaries, romance has always been part of our worldwide cultural mindset.
All this to say, while it’s not strictly necessary and sometimes it’s nice to have a break from it in fiction, romantic subplots are as consistent a staple in almost every genre. Granted, since the advent of certain vampiric bestsellers, there’s been an absolute flood of paranormal romance deluging the shelves, but much of it is so formula as to be laughable and just as often romantically tedious.
We’ll talk about how to write a good a romantic subplot in part two of this little exercise – for what remains of this entry I’m going to talk a little bit about the aggravations, missteps and faux pas that seem particularly common when authors and script and screenplay writers try for an amorous relationship to spice their stories.
Pride and Prejudice has been called ‘the perfect romance’, and it’s true that the popularity of the book has been fairly steady in the twentieth (and twenty-first) century, before there were zombies and “found” chapters jammed in-between tantrums and repartee. Like Tolkien’s works, it’s spawned its own flood of copies and adaptations, and there are a few that just get the thing wrong. Elizabeth and Darcy, as aggravating as they both can be to the reader and each other, share a mutual physical attraction and intellectual companionship – even if they don’t at first realize it. If you swap their positions (make Elizabeth the wealthy one and a friend to Jane instead of a sister, make Darcy into Bingley’s brother and turn him into a younger son of a penniless family), I would argue you could pretty much write the same story and have it be just as engaging.
Part of what makes Darcy and Elizabeth so fun to read is the way they tangle with each other verbally, antagonizing and double-talking and flirting without realizing they’re doing so. Some writers see this initially antagonistic relationship and think the way to make a romance blossom is to set two people on a collision course and watch them hate each other all the way to the bedroom.
There are more than a few problems with this. While attraction, lust, love, and hate all share a similar component in passion, in a story with two people constantly ranking out on each other for no reason, there’s not going to be a whole lot of desire for them to live happily ever after. Readers have to believe these people can stand being together beyond the end of the story.
More than that, the reason the Pride and Prejudice model works is because Elizabeth and Darcy are wrong about each other. Darcy isn’t a complete jerk, just a social failure with self-importance issues. Elizabeth, while penniless, isn’t a grasper or a gold digger, and ultimately is herself worth more than her connections. If you take two people who have good reason to dislike each other and stick them together without either one of them being different than the other expects, the only thing that’s going to happen is dislike will turn in to hate. Sometimes a jerk is just a jerk, and pure creeps make poor romantic heroes.
There also seems to be this idea that you can’t have a ‘sexy’ story without… well, sex. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I don’t know how many of you have ever seen a Bollywood film, but if you want to learn about subtlety in romantic physical interaction, they’re the place to go. When Westerners think ‘Bollywood’, the images that usually come to mind are all brightly colored costumes and dances three hours long (Broadway, anyone?). The fact of it is, they tell some of the best love stories in film. Not because they’re all fantastically written, choreographed, acted, or translated, but because traditional Bollywood films were not allowed until very recently to show couples kissing on screen. Instead they had to draw out the tiniest physical contacts, show their characters’ desire to touch and be touched without actually giving it to them or the audience. We want what we can’t have – and so viewers become invested in every brush of fingertips against skin and every lonely look. That investment gives those small moments power. Less becomes more. You don’t need sex. In point of fact, much of the time, stories are better without it.
And then there’s that whole ‘if they get together it’ll ruin the romantic tension’ thing. No-Can-Has-Relationship Syndrome is a particular affliction in television, especially long-running shows. It’s my own biggest pet peeve with romantic subplots and I know I’m not alone. When writers contrive to keep two characters apart year after year or story after story despite their chemistry and mutual affection, it drives me crazy and oftentimes destroys the ‘romantic tension’ that was the motivation for keeping those characters apart.
You can have your characters end up together without losing the spark that made you want them to get together in the first place. I’ll talk a bit about how to do it, and writers who’ve done it well, in the next post. Here I just want to take the chance to point out one very important word that differentiates this particular peeve from the enjoyment of a longstanding, unresolved relationship – contrive. When writers contrive a means of keeping characters apart. If their distance evolves naturally from the story, it’s one thing, but throwing in a random element just to drive a wedge between romantic interests is sloppy writing and more frustrating to the reader than anything else.
I’m sure you have your own list of peeves, common and uncommon, with romantic fiction. Think about why they bother you. Look at the fictional relationships you’ve found unsatisfying and try to figure out why they didn’t do anything for you.
Next entry, I’ll talk more about what works and what doesn’t and why, complete with references and historical examples.