This is the second half of an essay I was asked to write for a book (North American Romance Writers) fourteen years ago. Nothing I wrote then about my own writing has changed, except that computers have gotten much faster and eReaders how make it possible for all my earlier books to be discovered by new readers. Right now, “The Rake and the Spinster”–a novella I wrote in the early ’90′s, is selling really well on Amazon. It’s a great time for writers and readers!
From the book:
My own heroines are nearly always outsiders. They were tossed into a world quite different from the one they had known or forced from an early age to fend for themselves. They are scared but unbowed. Often, they must assume personalities and roles totally unlike their real characters in order to survive.
For example, Clare, a vicar’s daughter left with two young stepbrothers to support (Lady in Blue) tries every one of the few options open to her before agreeing to become an earl’s mistress. Glenys (Raven’s Bride) has resorted to highway robbery for equally compelling reasons.
But lucky for Glenys and Clare, they meet the right man at the right time. So does every heroine in every romance novel, even if the “meeting” involves a new awareness of a man she has long known, or reconciliation with a former enemy/husband/lover. One way or another, the hero and heroine come together at a point where each must change course.
This is the essence of the romance fantasy, I believe. The right man for every woman does exist, at least in stories, and the hero and heroine confront circumstances that force them to come to terms with each other. They cannot escape one another, even if they try. Personal flaws and conflicting goals put them into opposition, even as elemental physical attraction and growing mutual respect draw them together.
Of course, encountering the “right man” is not a solution to any but the most superficial problems a heroine confronts. She knows better than to expect happiness to ride up on a white stallion. Indeed, the meeting usually leads to more trouble for both characters.
But once they meet, there is no question that these two individuals will commit to each other. That’s part of our contract with the reader, perhaps the essence of that contract. I’m always amazed when readers (a great many of them!) tell me they skim the last few pages of a romance before buying it, “just to make sure.” They want an optimistic ending, one that comes close to the promise of happy every after, and they don’t quite trust us to deliver it. They check.
Maybe they suspect that we writers sometimes long to deal with the warts and hazards of Real Life, to the point we discuss among ourselves whether our readers are ready to accept an ending where the lovers part (as in the best-selling non-romance Bridges of Madison County.)
“Love ’em and leave ’em is more purely a male fantasy, which women don’t mind sampling now and again. Perhaps they accept that story line more easily when it is written by a man. In any case, few genre romance novels have explored love stories that end with separation, although many more may do so in the future. Authors will always be alert to reader demands and expectations.
But I don’t expect the desire for a happy ending to change any time soon. A more realistic challenge for romance writers in the next couple of decades is to fulfill women’s cherished fantasies, even the most primal and unlikely fantasies, while adapting to the new awareness women have of themselves.
As always, the “luck” factor will be a major component of any romance novel. Women who haven’t met the man of their dreams continue to dream what might happen or what might have been. Women who have found their life-mate appreciate their good fortune and respond to the struggle involved in holding a relationship together.
The public perception is that romance novels are formulaic and therefore dull. In fact, romance authors write to a simple pair of guidelines. One is fairly limited: by the last chapter, the lovers have committed to each other and to sharing the future.
The other guideline allows for nearly infinite variations—homespun rural families, medieval knights and ladies, gunslingers and proper schoolmarms, ghost stories, futuristic worlds, vampires, corporate executives and sexy plumbers (gender ay vary in either directions), murder mysteries, time travel . . . virtually any story line is possible. But always, the focus is on the hero-heroine relationship. All else is secondary and careful woven into the core or what makes a romance a romance—the love story.
As an author, I don’t consider myself the least bit experimental or ground-breaking. True, I enjoy dancing on the edges and prefer slightly off-beat plots and characters. I’m particularly fond of opposites-attract stories: handsome rake/prim spinster (like Lord Keverne and Maggie in “The Rake and the Spinster”)—such an innovative title! Older woman/younger hero, or high-stickler aristocrat/untamed commoner heroine, or two enemies meeting for the first time. Trouble from the start. In Gwen’s Ghost, the physically dead hero and the emotionally dead heroine find redemption and new life with one another.
At heart, though, all my books center on the essential humanity of the characters. Even the dead ones. If I do anything slightly unusual, and I can scarcely claim a distinction because many others do the same, it comes in the mingling of comedy and tragedy in my stories.
I wrote my grad school dissertation on Shakespeare’s tragicomedies and have always been fascinated by the particular emotional interplay between humor and pain. I like the mix of high stakes and folly. Not “comic relief,” which is a whole different thing but the true-to-life interweaving of good and bad, funny and heartbreaking, hope and despair. My goal is to write books that cause readers to laugh aloud at some points and reach for the Kleenex box at others.
Invariably, my heroes and heroines have a sense of humor and an appreciation of life’s absurdities. If they take themselves too seriously, they soon get their comeuppance. But they also suffer, profoundly. They confront formidable obstacles. They may be driven to kill. They may offer to exchange their immortal souls for the beloved’s happiness. Or, they may watch people they love die violent deaths (not a frequent occurrence!). I never plan these torments or deaths. When the moment comes, I know what I have to do. By then, the characters are in control, and I’m just following along, putting what they are doing into words. It is so kewl when that happens, and often scary.
These are the extremes, to be sure, although I’ve written all these scenarios and others like them. A critiquer once asked me, after reading the first few chapters of Raven’s Bride, if the book was supposed to be serious or funny. The answer was—Yes!
Frankly, major characters who lack a sense of humor bore me senseless. Not as a reader, because I enjoy all sorts of stories within the few hours it takes to read a book. A three-hankie angst-ridden story or a love ’n‘ laughter romp both suit me fine. Romance novels are so varied that readers can find books for every mood an inclination.
But as a writer, I spend months, not hours, with my characters. Humor, intelligence, curiosity, a willingness to defy rules, and a deep-seated integrity seem to be hallmarks of the heroes and heroines I admire. Mind you, they have great flaws to match their virtues and a lamentable tendency to get themselves into trouble. They suffer. They care. They never give up.
One line, from a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, is always in my mind when I am creating a hero and a heroine. It is the greatest challenge each one of them faces and the heart of every story I tell:
“You must change your life.”