Is This Love?

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Since Kalayna opened the door last week, let’s talk about love today.  Or rather, the hindrance thereof.

I don’t write romance, but I used to read it, a long, long time ago.  I started with Harlequins when I was twelve, took a baby step into Barbara Cartland historicals, then accelerated straight into the familiar bodice-rippers of the late seventies.   Somewhere around fifteen I remembered that I liked fantasy much better, and never looked back.  I don’t mind a little romance in my fantasy, almost as much as I like peppermint with my chocolate.  I just don’t care to read a book that’s nothing but romance.  So I don’t write it. 

I do know how it goes in fiction, though, and lately that’s been bothering me.  You see, whether you’re writing romance or fantasy or Westerns or whatever, it seems that romances between characters have come to follow a certain structure.  (Please forgive me a short disclaimer – I’m going to be talking about the male-female romantic interaction.  I haven’t read enough gay romantic pairings to know whether their authors are following the same patterns, although I suspect it’s so.  Those of you who are better-read than I are more than welcome to comment and let me know.  *smile*

That structure seems to go like this:

Woman meets man.

Woman finds man intriguing.

Man seems to find woman intriguing as well.

They begin to enjoy each other’s company, and it looks like happily-ever-after is on its way.

Man does something to anger woman.

Instead of telling man what has upset her, woman refuses to take his calls/changes her email address/moves to a hotel in Colorado to be the winter caretaker.

They spend the next two hundred pages (or sometimes the next three books) dancing around what happened, having conversations that never get to the point and driving the reader bug-nuts. 

Fiction doesn’t have to reflect real life, but in this case, I wish it did, just a little bit.  I can’t think that everyone except me spent years flirting and dancing around with their eventual love interest before, at last, admitting how they felt.   I’m one of those people who, when someone says, “I have something important to talk to you about.  I’ll tell you tomorrow,” will go absolutely out of my mind waiting and wondering what the important thing might be.  By the time the someone gets around to telling me, I’ve built it into such an apocalyptic catastrophe that nothing the person says could possibly compare.  If I thought the man I love has done something terrible, and decided I can’t talk to him about it.  I’d be in a strait jacket inside of a week.   This extends to my reading life, too.  I can’t bear for two characters to keep something important like their feelings from each other.  I know that it’s not realistic to expect a character to declare love and have it be requited immediately, but dragging it out over numerous books makes me tired. 

So what’s the right time frame?  Well, I can’t really say.  It depends on the characters and the story you’re telling and what you hope to convey with your story.  It also depends on your genre, because some genres have come to be represented by the “will-they-won’t-they”, and readers don’t want to see true love declared before the seventh book.  Quite a few of us chimed in on Kalayna’s post the other day saying we hated that indecision, but someone is buying the books, so someone wants it that way.  And that’s a point we have to remember – complain all we want, but sales don’t lie.  If we want something different from the stories we read, the only way to make the point is with our dollars.

I’m currently working on revising Kestrel’s Dance.  Among other thrilling events in the book, Kestrel and Philip finally get together.  It happens about halfway through, which I thought was more than enough, but my editor didn’t like it.  She felt that the romance shouldn’t have happened so soon.  She is, of course, the editor, and therefore privy to an understanding of what will sell that exceeds my own, but I can’t do it her way.  I’m not writing a romance, after all.  It’s a fantasy adventure, with a side helping of smoochies.  So I’m going to fight for the romance to go the way I think it should.   In the meantime, why do you think the common romantic structure has become so popular?  Would you prefer to see it change?  Are things fine the way they are?  Let’s talk.

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17 comments to Is This Love?

  • In my first book the female character instigates the relationship pretty early on but she handles it more as a “let’s have fun for now” sort of thing. Upon reading it my sister stated “I don’t know if that’s really how a girl would act.” As soon as I told her who the character was based off of, she said “It’s perfect. Don’t change a thing.” I think a lot of the opinions on characters / romance is based more on personal expectations/desires rather than real life.

  • I would honestly love to see it change, or at least give a little more freedom or leeway. I do write romance (sci-fi and fantasy) and I have been told off and on that my works don’t always follow the “rules” of writing romance and may be a harder sell because of it. Those you just posted there. I specifically have a novella length piece that completely goes against the rules with wild abandon. I also have a trilogy that follows the same couple through each book, even though I’ve been told that each sequel has to follow different characters and their romance, which would not work for the trilogy. I’ve said a few times that some of my works will probably end up being self-pubbed because I don’t always like to follow the rules or the common tropes, preferring to blaze new trails. That or I’ll have to revamp works and pull a lot of what makes it a romance out and try it in the mainstream market if it’s really that big a deal.

    I rarely like the artificial feeling “man does something stupid to anger woman” bit, what they call the romantic conflict. Quite often it feels contrived, as does their reasons for getting back together, and if there’s plenty of other conflict going on, I just don’t see a need for it. Not all romances are rocky ones.

    So what’s the right time frame? Well, I can’t really say. It depends on the characters and the story you’re telling and what you hope to convey with your story.

    And this is so true. If it fits the characters, then it’s the way it is.

  • Jamie

    While I am not necessarily a fan of it myself I kind of understand where the popularity comes from. There are two things I think are at work. The first is that lots of people like the thrill of early relationships, the chase, the sparks flying, the rush that comes from falling in love. And in fiction the whole will-they/won’t-they mimics that emotionally. It’s tense and exciting and you just have to know *how* they finally get together. Then they do and you know and suddenly it’s not about the falling in love but about making it last–and that’s work. Plus, for lots of people a whole lot less exciting.

    The other point goes back to a previous discussion. Readers are often to some extent also shippers. We decide who we relate to and unless the writer does a fantastic job of setting the relationship up there are always going to be people that prefer different pairings.

    For example, a couple people talked about Jane Yellowrock and Leo together. For me this makes absolutely no sense. But I’m only halfway through DEATH’S RIVAL. Maybe there is something that happens past what I have read that makes it more likely. Or, maybe there are just people that would rather be with the hot vampire and so put that desire on Jane. Or think it really would work. The possibilities are endless.

    Long drawn out relationships allow for other possibilities to be considered, for people to hope that their personal favorite ship will happen.

    Given that no matter what you do someone is going to be disappointed once you lock down a relationship there is some reason in not doing so until you have to.

    Granted, since you can’t please anyone and some choices are going to alienate readers regardless (The Walker Papers is my favorite series but I HATE Morrison and Joanne together because I felt like I was railroaded into believing they were meant to be when other than visions of futures being dictated to me they never clicked for me as a couple –but I loved her and Cyrano together.) you might as well take the leap and see what happens.

    Just my thoughts on the matter.

  • I totally agree about disliking the refusal to actually cope with an issue. That said, if you’re writing a romance (generic you) then that has to be the major conflict (or at least A major conflict) and hence take a majority of the book to solve (or series), right? Like Lord of the Rings would have been a silly title if, in Chapter 3 of Fellowship they’d destroyed the ring and spent the rest of the time helping Sam woo Rosie. Conversely if the title had been “the Romance of Sam and Rosie” the whole plot of LotR now wouldn’t have been right.

    I’m all for real life obstacles. And, in fact, it does kind of bug me when the opposite of delay happens. “Look! A HUGE SCARY BAD THING! Let’s have sex RIGHT NOW instead of dealing with the thing.” The trick is getting real life obstacles. Casablanca, for example. She’s supposed to meet him on the platform, on the train to escape Paris, and her I-thought-you-were-dead husband turns out to be alive, so she misses the train. Years later when Rick and Ilsa meet again, it takes a while before he says “what the hell?” because he’s terribly hurt and, you know, one of the strong silent types. And once he understands, well, he has to give her up, even when she wants to be with him. Those are real obstacles, real reasons to defer.

    In Sarah’s and my work, our MC has no desire to have a relationship or fall in love when she’s in Faerie. She’s perfectly happy, on the other hand, to have a fling with a hot guy. Sexy fling? Sure. Love? No thanks. Is this the best idea for her? Not really–not particularly healthy emotionally, but hey, broken characters are what fiction’s about. And the romance is secondary to the rest of plot. And when she does finally fall in love, there are some serious obstacles.

  • I agree with Jamie’s thoughts on the influence shippers have. They tend to be a vocal and loyal group–until their preferred pairing is tossed aside, when they sometimes lose the loyalty while remaining vocal. I can understand a writer not wanting to alienate a huge part of his/her audience.

    Another factor I think comes into play is a sort of cyclical self-fulfilling prophecy. Writers and/or editors think readers want these type of relationships so that’s what they give the readers, who then come to see this as the “right” way to portray relationships so that is what they want to see and so the writers/editors give it to them until someday, eventually, someone protrays it differently in a hit book and the pendulum swings back the other way.

    I also think Tolstoy is partly responsible for this. When he said in Anna Karenina that “all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” he set off a “rule” for writing that said it’s boring to read about families or couples who are happy together. As we talked about recently, most books seem to be series now, so the easy way to avoid the “boredom” of happiness is to keep the couples apart and delay their happy ever after until the series is ready to end.

    Interesting post–I honestly didn’t think I’d have this much to say about it!

  • I couldn’t agree more. The “I can’t talk to you for 200 pages about a fairly trivial misunderstanding” irritates me almost as much as the “you’re an abusive, manipulative jerk. This MUST be true love” plot. I think the key isn’t time line, but validity of obstacles. If the MC and her love interest have a real and difficult to overcome reason not to go on with their romance – if they ever meet again her little brother will be executed, she’s a spy for the other side and knows getting involved with him will lead to his death, one of them is cursed so that physical contact will harm the other person – then you have real plot tension. Otherwise the tension is all internal immaturity and teenage drama which gets old fast if the characters aren’t trying to grow. (I don’t mean that YA is necessarily bad – some of it’s great, but Hunger Games would be dreadful if Katniss’ only conflict was 200 pages of two guys sighing about her.)

  • The problem is that we have a way of telling the audience that everything is fine now that the couple is together, which really takes the energy out of the story. Perhaps, after getting together, a couple still has much work to do in order to be happy. Maybe we can write stories where starting a relationship doesn’t feel like the end of a narrative.

  • I want the rules to change. Shesh. Either they take forever to get together (over stupid crappy reasons) or there are reasons why they can’t be together. And once they are together, most series take a nose dive as far as tension. I don’t want to write a romance, and so, internally, subconsciously, I am keeping my characters apart. They never seem to get together.

    And if they do, they’ll die.

    Note to self: Find a way past that last part. Jane Yellowrock should have a partner.
    Yes. The rules should change. I have spoken. Make it so. You have the power, Misty.

  • I think Ilona Andrews has done a good job of drawing the romance out and then making it last once Kate and Curran are together. What makes them work for me is that the reasons they are apart seem integral to the characters, not stupid (like they won’t talk). They do have moments where they don’t talk, but it feels real, rather than constructed.

    I like certain romances (like regencies), but they do get old fast, sometimes. With the stuff I’ve written, I frequently include romance, because avoiding it seems artificial–people have romances. Whether they work or not, whether they find forever or not, they still feel lust and love and so on. But again, I try really hard not to think about the formula, but how things work for those particular characters. With Max and Alexander, she’s been hurt and betrayed, and not by any man, but she has a hard time getting around to the idea of feeling something for anyone. And once she does, things don’t go smoothly, because she’s totally inept at her own feelings. I feel–and I hope I’m right–that she acts as only she would, given her past and life. Same for Alexander.

    I think that the traditional formula isn’t always the way its done and that authors are finding ways to change it up. Personally I think that in non-romance novels, you can do far more. There isn’t the same expectation of the formula and with other equally or more important plot elements, readers aren’t focusing on the romance usually, except in as much as they care about the characters and want to see them find happiness, even if it’s only temporary (Faith, get Jane a boytoy?)

    Do you think your editor’s concerns are about the formula? Or is she keying into something but has the wrong fix?

  • You have the power, Misty.

    I am She-Ra!!! *laughs*

    Wow, what great thoughts you’ve all had! Sorry I’m so late coming back to the conversation – I’ve been sick for the last few days, and I spent most of today sleeping.

    Daniel mentioned ‘romantic conflict’ as the reason for two people never coming together. And in a romance, I suppose that’s the easiest way to handle the conflict necessary to make it a story instead of a vignette. But I think in fantasy, we have the room to let characters love each other and still experience conflict. If Kellaria is from a magic-phobic society and she falls in love with Pergo, who’s from a wizard’s commune, their conflict doesn’t have to be their forbidden love so much as them learning to understand each other’s philosophies. Lots of room for all sorts of conflict without denying their feelings.

    “Look! A HUGE SCARY BAD THING! Let’s have sex RIGHT NOW instead of dealing with the thing.”

    Seriously, is that not the craziest reaction? I got fussed at by a few readers when Mad Kestrel came out, because there wasn’t any sex. I tried to point out that there wasn’t time for such shenanigans, but they were unhappy just the same. Which makes me think that the way we read and write romance has much to do with our own experiences and feelings as well. I’m not a “fling” type of person, so the idea of throwing a sex scene into the book just because never occurred to me. 😀

    …everything is fine now that the couple is together…Maybe we can write stories where starting a relationship doesn’t feel like the end of a narrative.

    Yes! This is where we run into complications between romance as a genre and fantasy or SF with romantic storylines. In a romance, of course the goal of the story is true love everlasting. But in fantasy, one hopes it’s not just the smoochies that the reader is sticking around for.

    Speaking of forbidden love…I hates it, precious. But we’ll talk about that next week, just in time for Valentine’s Day! <3

  • If I wanted to read or write Romance, then I would follow the formulaic tropes of the genre. When I’m reading or writing Fantasy, Horror, UF, SF, mysteries, etc., I’d rather read and/or write about relationships. Whether those relationships work or don’t are entirely dependent upon the characters and the events that will impact their lives.
    As a writer, I tend to make my characters’ lives miserable – what’s the fun of reading about sunshine and flowers? If that messes with a potential love interest, it isn’t because I’ve contrived the problems to mess with their budding romance. It’s because sometimes life tosses cherry-bombs instead of cherry blossoms. And if my characters’ lives tend to have thermonuclear cherry bombs, well… that’s conflict. 🙂

  • Di, I honestly don’t know. Her letter wasn’t terribly detailed, so I’m having to guess at a lot of what she hoped for. What she said was that Kestrel and Philip came together too easily, that she was never in any real doubt about their relationship. Since I wasn’t trying to make it a will-they-won’t-they, that comment threw me. We’ll see what happens when I finish revising and she looks at it again. 😀

  • quillet

    Grrrr, I hate characters who are Too Stupid To Live, and in my opinion the ones who won’t talk to each other for no good reason (except that the author wants it that way!) for hundreds of pages fall into that category. Does this plot (so-called) actually happen in romances? Blech! I do read Regency romances, sometimes, but I haven’t come across this particular plot…not that I’d keep reading if I did! /rant

    I much prefer, as others have said, if outside forces keep people apart. Not the silly pride and immaturity of the couple themselves, but life or events or other stuff that they can’t control and/or have to fight. But it has to be organic for the story. Real conflict, not keeping them apart just for the sake of it. Otherwise, they should just get together already. And I’m with Faith in wondering why we can’t have that? Heroes often seem to come in pairs, so why not a romantic pair? Can’t a couple be a dynamic duo? …And no, I’m not talking about slash fan-fic. 😉

  • I do regularly read romance and one of my side projects *is* a set of Harlequins. A trend I’ve noticed with them lately is that sometimes the characters are predisposed to hate each other right off the bat, and gradually thaw, often letting the initial conflict resurface as a cause for doubt near the end.

    I think that a lot of it depends on the characters, because the romance becomes a part of their development. And one argument in favour of them not getting together until later is that the stakes are raised by the uncertainty of what’s going to happen. If they do get together before the climax, it’s right before the climax, so the newfound love is fragile and adds tension, as opposed to it being there for the character to rely upon the whole time. Sort of an “it gets worse before it gets better”. I’m sure it can still be done well before, of course. This is just a pattern I’ve noticed.

  • I’ve never been a fan of the insta love thing, which is really popular in YA fiction nowadays. It’s like noone really understands the beauty of dating. It gives girls the wrong idea about love, esp as tween and teens, when the “love” is soo strong. I prefer the love to build throught out one book. If the series goes longer than that, then your plot should have some gerth to it that the romance will compliment it instead of drive it. I must note that I write urban fiction and romance is usually a 2nd or 3rd priority for me unless the characters came out my head belonging to one another, otherwise kill the romance and lets see some action.

  • Megan B.

    I think everything I would have said has already been mentioned. But I will say that in two novelles I’m working on, I wrote about happy, stable couple who come up against problems (being physically separated, dealing with pregnancy, that sort of thing). It’s fun to write and I hope it will please readers.

    Misty, I was intrigued by what you said about fighting for the plot you want. I’d love to hear about the experience of keeping something in a book despite an agent or editor wanting it changed or removed. That could be a good post (hint hint).

  • I actually don’t think I’ve ever read that storyline. Admittedly, I tend to avoid het romance, (except for a few Shannon Donnelly regency romances, which I only discovered by accident), but I read a lot of pure non-het romance. I think one thing that makes it different is that there are a lot higher stakes in the ‘telling the person that you like them’ act. Essentially, you’re revealing something about yourself that they might react badly to. So there are real reasons to be reticent.

    What I really look for in romance is real characterization that creates its own conflict. Then the romance is part of the plot, and if it pays off too early it feels cheap. That doesn’t mean there should be artificial barriers – which are the worst – but just that the pacing has to work right. If the readers actually care about the relationship, it’s a payoff like any plot resolution. If they don’t, then why is it there? But getting together doesn’t have to be the end of the tension. There are still available stakes, but if they do get together in the middle, having it be too happy, is a put down the book moment, and having it too understated, can feel like a bait and switch.
    But having a moment of joy quickly torn out from under them like a cheap rug? That could work.