So, tomorrow is the big day! St. Valentine’s Day, when we can indulge in all sorts of sentiment about love and loving: soppy poetry, vinegary commentary, a wistful look at what was or could have been, and a belly-laugh about what silly old things we humans can be when under the domination of love.
I met up with a friend this week for tea, and she pointed me to “The Ideal Marriage According to Novels” by Adelle Waldman in The New Yorker which talks about the different ways men and women write about romance. Basically, Waldman says that women like Jane Austen or Elena Ferrante have an ideal partner in mind who is the woman’s match in intellect and feeling towards the world. And men tend to describe romance as a mysterious thing, and the ideal partner provokes feelings in the male breast. She’s pretty, and her intelligence is a crowning glory (but what she says isn’t really the point; it’s her fitness to be his partner that is the important thing).
It’s a very interesting article, and you should go read it if you write romance, or read it. I do think she cherry-picks her examples a little bit. I can think of a few books I’ve read where the heroine does prize the man’s handsomeness and fitness (Susan Elizabeth Phillips, for example, and maybe Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels to some extent). I can’t, off the top of my head, think of any books by male writers where the man prizes his darling’s opinions – and states those opinions explicitly. But I’m sure they are out there.
What does come to mind is David Bowie. Oh, sure, he can sing about “Oh, You Pretty Things” with a lot of gusto and insinuation. But his song, “Life on Mars”, contains the line, “She could spit in the eyes of fools” — fools who expect the heroine to be a consumer of mass-produced violence and pap. I’ve read that the song’s “girl with the mousey hair” was a former girlfriend who was an actress. (OK, I read it in The Sun, so take it with a grain of salt. All this paragraph is speculation, really.) It would make sense that she’d have strong opinions about popular culture and the consumption of it, and this could be proof that Bowie was listening to what she had to say.
I don’t know. What I do know is that one of the most romantic things I’ve seen in 2015 was this 3:16 video of novelist Neil Gaiman and musician Amanda Palmer in the early days of being acquainted. They’ve since married and had a child, so maybe something was in the air already. In this clip, it’s 4 a.m. and she’s practicing Radiohead’s “Creep” on the ukulele after a show. I adore the way he listens to her and only has eyes for her. And I love the way that she expresses herself and asserts herself. If only I could capture this vibe, and set it to words on a page . . . .
I suspect that any two individuals are going to bring differing expectations to a partnership. That’s a big part of what any romantic story is about: discovering that the other person is The One, and then altering and adjusting expectations until they can form a partnership that lasts. One of my favorite romantic memes is when the gruff, brusque hero turns out to have a soft side that he feels safe enough (strong enough) to show to the heroine. And the soft, not-so-confident heroine discovers her own inner strength, and the power to show that to the man she loves. I love it when the genders are flipped, too. This sort of romantic trope is not the only game in town, of course, but it’s an important one.
I think that’s what we’re all aiming for in our writing – two people who find each other beautiful, and suitable, and who listen to each other and get each other. A meeting of both minds and hearts.
I watched the video (I’m fascinated by the Amanda Palmer/Neil Gaiman story because I liked them both individually before I realized they were a couple) and plan to go search out the article. Thanks for this!
Jenny Crusie’s been talking some lately, on her Romance Writing blog, about the easy way and the hard way to write a romance. The easy way is to have the h/h partner up to fight the Big Bad. In the hard way, they’re the antagonist and protagonist. It’s hard because one, possibly both, of them will have to change signficantly, maybe even drastically, for the romance to work. It’s tough to do that without making them betray everything they are or believe in.
After ruminating, I realized I much prefer romances in the second category. They feel like the conflict is much more embedded in the romance. The possibilities for romantic failure are higher, which creates more intensity. I think this is one reason I used to read a lot of Regencies, The “Arrogant Duke/saucy wench” trope works for me. When I think about the novels we read in class, Lord of Scoundrels and Heaven, Texas were my favorites. Both fall into this category.
So it’s not surprising that most of my own works tend to follow this pattern. (Someone once told me I always write “asshole guy has to figure it out” stories.) And this week I realized that I’ve been trying to force The Demon’s in the Details into the same mold, only it’s not working. So I’m now going back and rewriting to turn my h/h into two lovers fighting the Big Bad. Geez, no wonder it’s such a struggle.
Thanks for the clarity!
If it’s convincingly done, Jeanne, I prefer the h/h as protagonist and antagonist, for the reasons you give, but I enjoy two lovers fighting the Big Bad as long as they also have significant personal differences to overcome. If they’re working together in spite of themselves, and that’s most romantic suspense, many historicals (spies!) and paranormals (cultural/species differences) then their voyage of discovery can be a lot of fun.
Nothing wrong with “asshole guy has to figure it out” stories. I was just thinking about this in the context of my Valentine’s Day post tomorrow and it struck me that most of SEP’s (excellent) books would fall into that category 😉 .
I’m not a big fan of alpha guys, unless they show redeeming qualities right away, and do manage to figure it out. SEP does this pretty well. I wonder, though, if that deep-dark-moment when Alpha Male pulls some incredibly dumb shit is intrinsic to this type of story?
Jenny wasn’t a big fan of my heroes because they weren’t alphas who were doing things, per se. (I think that’s what I read into it.) But to me, they aren’t doormats. They are rocks. Bedrocks. (-: Of course, she had a thing against mountains, too, IIRC (man vs. mountain is not a conflict), so there’s that.
My current guy is an alpha who has lost his magic. He’s been an alpha long enough to know that being an asshole isn’t the best way to move a situation forward, so he’s constantly struggling with that aspect of himself. He’s actually quite a charming son of a bitch, and building up the heroine is going to be good for him in the long run, he knows, so he’s whole-heartedly into giving her room to grow. As long as it doesn’t destroy him (and it could, so that’s the conflict in the first scene of Story 2 of this thing). So, maybe I’m figuring this hero thing out, slowly but surely.
Oh, interesting! Well, my problem is that when I fight the Big Bad, it takes over the main plot, and the romance is secondary. Which is fine in many cases, but not if I want to write a romance.
I think fighting the Big Bad gives the h/h a chance to show off their stuff without directly confronting one another about attitudes, who is going to give up what in order to be together, that sort of thing. That kind of stuff can be so boring, too. “Your place or mine?” Traditionally, the biggest issue with that conflict has been: “Who has a roommate waiting at home?” But, there have always been a lot of other issues — where do you feel safe? How much do you want this relationship to intrude on your life? Did you leave three days worth of laundry all over the living room floor? (IE: is it too soon to show my true self?)
With a Big Bad, then sometimes the hero and heroine can immediately go to, “YES. This is the one, and I think I can manage to vacuum once a week if that’s what it takes to be with him.” Although, of course, the relationship is never that simple (and neither is the vow to vacuum.
I’ve written myself into unfixable corners many times with the h/h as protagonist/antagonist. I’ve never been able to figure out to my satisfaction how to have one of them be vanquished for the relationship to succeed. If the vanquished one was so bad, why was the other involved in the first place? I can enjoy books by others who do manage this, however! But there’s no movie better than Charade, so I can’t say that I prefer one setup over another. It just all depends on the author’s treatment of the details.
The ones that work for me are about vanquishing bad habits from childhood. The guy (or the gal) is basically good. But they have to kill some annoying habit from childhood (distancing from love in order not to get hurt, or being the control freak so the outcome is at least something they can take responsibility for even if it’s not happy ((gosh, that’s hard to explain))).
I’m not such a huge fan of Master of the Universe meets his match and reforms (I think the SEP novel we read follows that form), but if everything else along the way is fun (handsome men, saucy women, community built, goals achieved), I can enjoy it.
I suspect 50 Shades is along these lines (I’ve only read the first novel). I can respect the thematic concerns, even though the two sequels have sat on my TBR stack for several years, and probably won’t be read any time soon. Now there’s a struggle — can Christian kill off his sadist? Can Anna kill off her ego? One of them will have to give. (I’m just not sure there’s two more books of interesting events in that struggle. One day, I’ll have to finish the series.)