Normally I try to stay away from themed posts that tie into a specific holiday. I’m making an exception this year since Valentine’s Day falls on a Saturday which got me thinking about romance. One of my goals this year is to read more romance novels so that I can learn how to develop one in a story.
Let’s face it, most stories have people meeting and falling in love even if the primary purpose of the novel is that. Love is an emotion that can be wonderful, horrible, terrifying, giddy, depressing, and make us feel young all at the same time. It also comes in so many different forms from parental love to love of one’s friends to romantic to being a diehard fan of a sports team, movie, TV show, book, etc. My focus, though, will be on romantic love in literature and how I see it.
First off I must say I’m not a romantic person. Not in the traditional sense anyway. I can’t be wooed with flowery language about my eyes sparkling like fine cut emeralds or I’ve got a booty like a Cadillac. Nor is my idea of the perfect guy someone who is tall, handsome with chiseled looks, smart, rich, with six-pack abs. Oddly enough my ideal guy resembles my husband: dark hair, dark eyes, sweet, round face, funny, dorky, smart, average height, and puts up with my crap. My perfect date wouldn’t be to frolic about on a beach at sunset whilst being fed lobster.
My idea of romance is…what I have no idea. I know it when I see it. What is genuine and appropriate for my personality and happens on random days not because it’s Valentine’s Day and that’s what you’re supposed to do.
Since I don’t buy into what romance is supposed to be, what I consider romantic in literature doesn’t seem to fit a lot of the romances I’ve read. Unfortunately, what I have read so far has left me angry and wondering who the hell reads this crap. I understand the escapism value of it; romances are pretty easy to read as the language isn’t going to be challenging, you know exactly from the beginning what’s going to happen, and it is a fantasy world without dragon fire although dragon fire would probably make it more awesome.
What rankles me the most is so much of it feels insulting to the reader. That and the tropes the persist. Keep in mind these are just my observations and I know that there are probably many, many authors and sub-genres that don’t follow any or all of these to a T. The tropes within the romance genre I can’t stand are the following:
Female lead: Seems like there are really only about three types of female main characters allowed. One is the insipid, weak woman who becomes strong because of the right mate. She doesn’t believe she’s attractive until a man tells her so and proceeds to spend most of the book doubting his sincerity. She’s a doormat at the beginning of the book and turns into a super woman by the end all because of a man.
Another type is the scorned woman. She swears off men and love until she’s swept off her feet. She’s bitter at the beginning, okay with living the rest of her life as a single person, but by the end she is so grateful she’s found the man of her dreams.
Then there’s the type that sort of doesn’t really bother me too much in theory but in execution drives me nuts. That’s the woman who is legitimately independent, happy with her life, has a career she’s happy with, but who may or may not think she’s missing something in her life. It’s when she meets Mr. Sensitive Alpha Male with the Six Pack Abs that she realizes her whole life has been a sham and she’s been lying to herself about her happiness.
Can’t relate to any of these women at all and pretty much none of the women I know or have met fall into any of these categories. These uninspired and trite female archetypes give the impression all a woman needs to fulfill her life is right person even if she’s thoroughly happy with her life. I’m not saying one cannot become a more confident and stronger person because of love. There’s a reason people refer to their partner as their better half.
Male lead: Oh where to start with these archetypes. Oh, wait, there’s really only one. Okay, maybe two. Baskin Robbins this is not.
The gorgeous, tall, muscular, pelt on a chest, smart, rich, and a fantastically sensitive yet rugged in bed seems to be the most common type. Usually he has dark hair and eye color can vary. He’s moody, mysterious, and kind of an ass. He’s the man with lots of sexual experience thus making him the perfect lover able to give even a virgin an orgasm her first time. And he’s usually…um, ‘gifted’.
He may or may not desire a relationship but once he meets one of the above mentioned women, he can’t get her out of his head yet is reluctant to fall in love. He may or may not have been scorned by a woman in the past and he may or may not be a widower.
Then there’s Mr. Sensitivity with the Six Pack abs who loves furry creatures and wants a gaggle of children and who fully supports your dreams. He’s absolutely perfect in every way. He cooks, cleans, the best psychotherapist ever, and takes care of you when you’re sick. He’s Prince Charming thundering through the cubicles on his trusty steed.
Boring. Where are my cute dorks? Where are the sweet, smart, and funny but perhaps short to average height guys? Where are the averagely ‘gifted’ but still wonderful in bed men in romance? If I met any of the archetypal males in real life I’d walk the other direction.
Sexuality: If there is one area that does disservice to both genders in romance novels it is how sexuality is treated. Keep in mind that many of the romances I’ve read are historical since that makes me feel slightly less embarrassed since I can justify history is going on so my discussion of sexuality is probably skewed.
The female lead is usually a virgin, a widow whose prior experience has only been with her husband, or neither of these but the woman still doesn’t have as much experience as the male lead. Apparently a female lead who is even remotely experienced isn’t allowed.
This to me really reinforces negative societal messages that as a female you’re either a virgin or a whore. Or that sex equals love. If the female is a widow, chances are there’s going to be something in there about how her husband couldn’t satisfy her like her current lover. Or she never realized she was secretly a sex goddess. If she’s a virgin it’s usually because she’s promised to another and must be kept pure. Naturally her intended is not who she winds up having sex with or marrying. If and when she does have sex for the first time, it’s this glorious experience with waves of orgasms.
The male lead is usually experienced and portrayed as The Best Lover Ever or so every one of his partners has led him to believe. He’s virile and can expertly play a woman’s body like a violin. Somehow every woman magically enjoys the same things or he just has psychic abilities knowing exactly what his partner wants even if she doesn’t.
One other thing that bugs me about sexuality in romance novels is why can’t both leads be virgins? Why can’t people be a little bit awkward the first time as they are getting to know each other’s bodies? Why can’t the male be a virgin while the female has the experience? Why can’t sex be pleasant and enjoyable without the earth shattering orgasms? How about the female lead be a Duchess and the male lead be the children’s tutor?
And why the hell do the characters always act so damn surprised when the female discovers she’s pregnant? Even in modern romances I’ve suffered through, the characters still act as if they have no idea how babies are made. Man figured out where babies come from long before he figured out fire.
I also dislike perpetuating the myth that sex equals love especially for women. No, no it does not. Two people who love each other can engage in sex as a way of expressing their love but sometimes sex is just sex, a natural, biological need for anything other to relieve stress or whatever. It’s okay to just have sex for the hell of it. Ask any married person or someone in a committed relationship.
Of course no discussion about sexuality would be complete with the descriptions. Already I’m noticing a lot of the same language used to describe the act of lovemaking. It’s as if authors are just copying and pasting from either their previous works or from everyone else’s works. It doesn’t have to be as explicit as some write the sex act but nor does it need to be as flowery as I’ve often seen. Flowery language is a poor substitutes for emotion.
Story lines: The story lines are pretty much all the same other than differences in time period, places, names, and professions. The man is usually is some higher position is society than the woman. Both parties deny their true feelings for each other until either the middle of the story or even the end. One or both parties have a jilted fiancée, lover, or unrequited love who upon discovering the object of their affection doesn’t want them turns into a cartoon villain. People fall in love upon first sight. The whole goal of many romances, and in fact is demanded, is either HEA (Happily Ever After) or HFN (Happy For Now) endings.
I guess my biggest disappointment and gripe with most of the romance novels I’ve read or attempted to read is that despite the fact that a good chunk of women write romances, they perpetuate the myth women only want a husband and children. Even if the woman states early on her desires are otherwise. That and a woman can have it all if only she has the right man who will take care of everything.
Or that people fall in love at first sight. Call me cold but there is no such thing. Lust at first sight I will give you that because yes, that does happen. But to say you just knew looking at someone, without them saying a word that they were the one for you is bollocks.
These are nothing more than grow-up fairy tales. Disney movies with sex. Unrealistic and I think harmful for people who can’t separate fantasy from reality. It would be nice to see people with flaws that aren’t magically fixed by the end of the book. Real life and real, true romance is far more complex.
What I personally respond to in a romance in a story, regardless if it the novel is straight up classified as a romance or not, is when the leads are on equal footing. They complement each other in honest ways rather than because the author is telling me this is just how things have to be. They have arguments, differing philosophies, compromises, awkward sex sometimes, they laugh, whatever. In other words, the characters aren’t ideals nobody can live up to. Every writer should strive for realism no matter what genre you write in. To do otherwise is just insulting the reader and we need to do better.