The Cultural Gutter

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For Worse And For Better. But Mostly Worse.

Chris Szego
Posted July 3, 2014

xcircleNow is the summer of our discontent…

We’ve finally gotten down to actual summer weather in the last two weeks. So of course I spent the last two weeks without AC as I dealt with a series of cascading electrical problems. One complete power shut-down later, things are finally back on the level… just in time for the humidity to drop to a bearable level.

Argh, argh, argh.

Since I’ve pretty much hit peak Crabby, I’m believe I’m in a good place to write my annual complaints piece.  This is the column in which I enumerate the things I dislike about the Romance genre. As usually, I won’t single out specific titles — rather, I’ll talk about the larger trends and habits across the genre that make me go “”@#$%!”

But since I didn’t manage to burn every good feeling out of my heart (because the AC came back on before I actually had to sacrifice the contractor to the dread gods of the humidex), this time I’ll also add  counterexamples, writers who manage to do whatever-it-is well instead of poorly.

 

Work It. Please.

I got my first official job at the age of fourteen. My SIN card preserves my careful teenaged signature, all loopy and awkward. I have been employed ever since, whether part- or full-time, through school and afterwards, in this country and in many others. It’s one of the prime markers of adulthood: adults work.

Consequently, I get annoyed when the main characters of a Romance don’t seem to work at all. I don’t mean because the characters are rich or unemployed: that’s a valid though tricky authorial choice. No, what bugs me is being told that the character works but seeing no real evidence it. Let’s face it, work tends to take up the largest chunk of time we spend awake. Probably too much time, but that’s a whole different column. We do our work, we talk about it, we worry about it. We interact with people because of work: colleagues, bosses, subordinates, suppliers, customers. We think about it, complain about it, tell our friends and families about our successes and failures… all the time.fail2

So it really grinds my gears when authors skip over all that and simply tell us that a character went to/returned from work. I mean, what the hell is that? Who does that, just go to work and come home, and never think about it in-between? My automatic response is: someone very dull, and that makes me instantly less interested in both the character and the book she lives in.

Adults work. They don’t need to draw the entirety of their self-esteem from their jobs; they can even hate what they do. But they work, and that should inform their characters to some small extent at least. Heck, it can even inform the plot, though it doesn’t have to. It’s possible to do that well, and without making the job rather than the romance the main attraction.

Julie James certainly does. At least one of her characters is always a lawyer, and the practice of law is always visible in her books. It’s usually because her characters work so damn hard that they meet at all, and their drive is an innate part of who they are. That doesn’t mean we need all the tedious details, though. Every job has its boring bits: we all know that very well. Unless it’s particularly germane to plot or character, we don’t need to read those parts. Linda Howard does this well, giving us the flavour of different jobs (payroll supervisor, wedding planner, etc.) without drowning us in the details (checking and double-checking lines of numbers; endless phone calls and missed meetings, etc.).

 

The Same but Same

One of the most common complaints about the Romance genre is that all the books are the same. I’ve never quite understood that: from a broader perspective, all lives are the same. We’re born, stuff happens, we die. It’s that middle bit where stuff happens that makes things interesting. Romance has a general pattern, yes. So does the Mystery genre. So does Science Fiction, Fantasy, Thrillers, etc. There are always outliers, but genre fiction generally plays on underlying narrative archetypes — and readers are happy for it to do so.

When the patterns are that strong and run that deep, we want more and more of them. We just don’t want them to be exactly the same. I’m not going to pretend it’s easy to write something that’s the same but different, but it’s definitely possible. Baobabs and sequoias and elms are each distinct from one another, but all of them are trees. When writers don’t make the ‘stuff ‘ unique, the end result is a list full of tick marks rather than a story — and it’s as aggravating as a bathing suit full of sand.

poppingballoonLisa Kleypas never seems to fall into that trap. Take, for instance, her series about the Hathaway family. Each member grew up with the same parents, with same general environment, and the same outlook. They are close to and care about one another. But each main character is entirely different from the next, with different hopes and fears, and different ways of dealing with the various problems they might encounter. Each book is its own delightful thing, spruce, or willow, or oak, even though each story is about two people who meet and somehow or other manage to fall in love.

When a series focuses on one character, the challenge is even tougher. But it’s doable. One way to make it work is to change up the structure of the plot. Nora Roberts’ ‘In Death’ series starring Eve Dallas is a good example. They’re more Mysteries-with-Romance than Romances-with-Mysteries, but the principle is the same. Sometimes Eve’s case involves a single death; other times, many. The victim might be utterly abhorrent, or the murderer highly sympathetic. Roberts has written an entire forest around Dallas, but has managed to make each book its own tree. Which sounds weird. You know what I mean.

 

Out of Stock

wrongI’d like to take this opportunity to thoroughly trash the use of stock characters.  Enough already with the wise older neighbour / gay best friend / spoiled younger sibling. Or rather: enough with using chalk outlines instead of creating actual characters.

Obviously there’s nothing wrong with neighbours being older, best friends being gay, or younger siblings being spoiled — as long as they’re also allowed to be actual characters. If they’re in the text just to provide the writer with a shortcut, forget it. Just as the setting needs to be more than mere set dressing, all characters, even those without starring roles, need to be more than props.

Jennifer Crusie is excellent at this. She’s written all of the above examples and made them both noteworthy and real, probably because she knows where the emphasis lies. Wise older neighbour. Gay best friend. Spoiled younger sibling. Since she concentrates on the person rather than the descriptor, she creates real characters, rather than cheap cardboard cutouts.

Joanna Bourne is another who does this beautifully. She can paint  in a minor character’s background with just a few interactions. From then on everything that character says has depth and breadth. Not only does that adds resonance to the main characters, it makes every bit of the book feel more worthwhile.

And in the end, isn’t that the point?

 

Chris Szego went swimming on the long weekend and feels a little less hateful.

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