I wrote a while ago about the Big Misunderstanding – that romance trope by which identities are mistaken, kisses are seen and misunderstood, words are overheard out of context, etc. Any circumstance, basically, which could be rectified with a conversation, and isn’t.
I’ve thought more about it since then, and decided unequivocally: Give me characters who talk, any day.
That’s kinda an obvious thing to say – the whole romance community groans when a Big Mis just makes the characters look stupid. But I also mean – give me characters who go into a difficult circumstance, eyes open, and come out the other end changed.
The idea that birthed my novel was this: imagine a man hidden in a gaggle of women – made to sleep in their beds and gossip with them and become intimately acquainted with their female world. Not an entirely traditional Big Mis, because my hero was doing it on purpose, but certainly a circumstance that could have been rectified with one (very embarrassing) conversation.
In my original draft the big reveal – “I was the woman who shared your bed!” – was the thing that broke my couple apart, before they had to make their way back to each other. The closer I came to this moment in my second draft the worse I felt about it. It felt so disingenuous somehow – not to mention, as a reader I could feel it coming from miles off, which is a particular kind of awful. It made my hero look like a dick, and my heroine had to forgive a lot, for their Happily Ever After to be convincing.
Around the time I was considering getting rid of the big reveal, I read Julie Anne Long’s amazing What I Did For a Duke. It starts out with a revenge plot, then about a third of the way in the hero and heroine have a really honest discussion that not only outs the revenge plot, but makes their relationship about a hundred times more interesting.
I went well into despair, and started rewriting the whole book without the cross-dressing. Then Valerie, fairy-godmother extraordinaire, suggested my heroine could be in on my hero’s secret the whole time.
It left me without that one central source of angst between them – and gave them a whole world of crazy to navigate together. In draft one, my heroine captures a duke’s heart by accident, because she doesn’t know his real identity and can therefore be honest and genuine with him. How much more interesting is it though, to have a woman who knows exactly what he is, and speaks directly anyway? Who sees clearly the kind of man she’s dealing with – the kind of man who would shatter himself just to get what he wants from her – and finds her way to understanding him anyway?
The answer you’re looking for is “much”.
The best, most concise illustration I’ve seen of this idea was in a Vampire Diaries episode recap on iO9. One of the only solid, dependable adult characters on the show had just begun manifesting a dark side. He has no control over it, and it wants to kill the vampires who have become like family to him.
Charlie Jane Anders pin-points exactly why this isn’t interesting:
Alaric didn’t get to decide to start taking matters into his own hands, which would have been an interesting character arc. Instead, he just got controlled/possessed by a magic ring that already turned Elena’s ancestor into a serial killer. Seeing Alaric actually make a choice would have been way more interesting.
If someone chooses the difficult path, eyes open, there’s a whole internal world of choice and consequence that is endlessly fascinating. If someone is walking a difficult path unaware that they’re doing so, all you get is the annoyance of waiting for them to fall, and the one heart-stopping moment when they do.