Tag Archives: romance

the ugly hero

I’m not sure when exactly the trend tipped, but at some point in the past couple of decades, romance heroines started to become more…normal looking. More like the kinds of ugly ducklings most of us are: we’re not gonna turn into a swan or anything (that would just be weird), but we will become more interesting, more self-possessed, more sexy and intelligent.

The traditional “ugly” heroine in Romancelandia has – gasp! – red hair and freckles, or a too wide, too generous mouth, or luscious, sexy lips that she hates because she doesn’t have the fragile beauty that’s so in right now. You know, beautiful ugly.

But now there’s room for heroines female readers could recognise themselves in. Not ugly, but not front-page material. Plump heroines, short heroines, big noses, flat chests. I’ve yet to see anyone attempt the monobrow, which Georgette Heyer pulled off so flawlessly in The Convenient Marriage.

One thing, however, remains constant. The heroes are, to a man, gorgeous. They may be nondescript at first sight – but trust me, there are a nice set of muscles lurking beneath that shirt!

It makes sense, of course. Romance novels are a variety of female fantasy, and a fantasy doesn’t get much more basic than this: I would never make the cover of a magazine, but a hot, wonderful man will see that I am more than my looks and love me. And did I mention how hot he is?

As Loretta Chase put it: If you have the power to make all your heroes tall and gorgeous, why on earth wouldn’t you?

Being the perverse creature that I am, once I realised this, my first thought was writing an “ugly” hero. Someone with a bit of flab around the middle, or less height than is to be desired, or no bum to speak of. But every time I pick the idea up, I discard it again. I can’t think how to make the reader fall in love with that kind of hero.

It’s shallow – so shallow, now that I’m typing it out – but that’s my reaction.

And then, ladies and gentlemen, I watched this movie trailer and thought – Oh the French are so cool:

Not only is it just stupendously brave to pair Audrey Tatou with a bald, weird-looking, pudgy hero, it works. The first love interest is young, gorgeous, cheeky. They obviously have something great. So when she looks up, and the cheesy voiceover has made it clear she’s about to meet her second chance at love, I was thinking, “Okay, so this guy’s going to have to be even more gorgeous and charming,” and I already had charm fatigue. I didn’t care. I felt the kind of despair that comes from consuming Hollywood fairytales (and I love me a Hollywood fairytale).

So when the man stepped into frame I was first surprised – and then delighted, and shocked, and intrigued. I sat up and paid attention. I could see, just from the preview, what this man might have to offer her that other men wouldn’t, and I wanted to see more.

So if the hero is a product of female fantasy, here are some things to consider: In this one life, as me, I’d rather be surprised and challenged and admired than have something pretty to look at. If I truly believe that, then it’s worth writing. It certainly wouldn’t be easy, but I think it would make a stupendous love story.

Happily Ever After

Watching so much Joss Whedon-created tv recently, I have, naturally, been thinking about the nature of happy endings.

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, Joss doesn’t exactly believe in things ending well. Actually, the earth gets saved from a couple of apocalypses a year, so I should qualify that by saying that he doesn’t believe in relationships ending well.

“The Thin Red Line” was probably the most controversial Buffy episode in this sense, and the A.V. Club’s review has some interesting discussion in the comments. One comment that made me start thinking was along these lines: Every relationship eventually ends in either misery or death.

How depressing. But, I guess, true.

And considering that Buffy is largely metaphorical, I think this aspect of love fits effortlessly into the larger picture of the show. The war against evil is never going to be won or lost. It simply is. And you simply keep striving. When you enter into relationship you are going up against impossible odds – misery or death. And you simply keep striving.

Of course, exploring this doesn’t necessarily have to be soul-crushingly depressing.

Happily Ever After is key to the romance genre. Obviously. But it’s no longer an ideal moment at which all of life is suspended, forever. It’s more commonly a moment at which the lovers have strength and faith and trust in each other to head into an unknown future together.  The journey of the book is each character becoming a person who can support and stick with the other through anything.

We acknowledge that life is not going to end at Happily Ever After – but we have faith that they’ll make it. To death, that is. (Never forget this is war.)

Probably the best exploration of a strong relationship on tv is Mr and Mrs Coach in Friday Night Lights. We’re never asked to worry that their marriage will end – but they are endlessly fascinating to watch. And not a little inspiring. Theirs is the daily battle against the odds, and though it can get tough, by god are they winning.

I’ve been thinking about how it’s possible to keep a couple so interesting without threatening their relationship, and this’s what I’ve come up with: Most of the drama we see them deal with is external to their relationship. This means that they’re not static, but instead of battling each other they’re supporting each other against external drama. And if you’ve ever been in a relationship, you know that’s not as easy as it sounds. But it sure is interesting to watch.

You know that one point on which you and your partner simply do not see eye-to-eye? We also watch them navigating those fundamental disagreements – attempting to balance being true to themselves and supporting the person they’ve vowed to support. It’s a paradox that’s only really possible because a human being is so complex. Again, interesting to watch.

But even with the changing emphasis of a happy ending – when that moment of perfect understanding is reached in a romance novel, there’s completion. It’s the moment that finishes the book inside you, and allows you to let it go. It’s the thing we continue to imagine will happen when we fall in love in real life, and never does.

Joss Whedon’s romances simply will not let me go. And I think it’s because they refuse to resolve themselves. They are not finished, and never will be. It’s the thing that happens when we fall in love in real life, despite all our expectations. There are moments of perfect contentment, and it can be unutterably exhausting, but it will never stop. Until misery or death.

(Okay, that’s an entirely depressing place to finish! So let me take a highlighter to my subtext: it’s not the ending that’s happy – it’s the being brave enough to go to war.)

some thoughts on the romance in Buffy

I never watched Buffy as a teenager, but I’ve spent the past couple of weeks righting that wrong. There may be an upcoming post on the old Angel v Spike issue, but all you need to know for now is: Spike. Always.

There are some very distinct romances throughout the show, and they work in really different ways. So here, briefly, are some observations:

1. The classic star-crossed lovers trope really does work. I went into the show pretty ready not to care about Angel one way or the other, because what is he but your broody alpha hero? But the angsty soulmate love ended up getting to me.

2. The show does something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and which I’ll write a post on soon. It turns Buffy’s first “I love you” into an unpleasant thing. This is amazing if you can pull it off.

3. Riley is the most boring love interest of all time. When he first appeared I actually thought he would be fantastic, because he seemed to exist in a grown up, academic world that, for all her superpowers, Buffy had no entry into. This would have challenged her in a whole new way and contrasted the Angel romance, which nothing at that stage could live up to. When it turned out that Riley was just another undercover demon killer he immediately became same-old (or rather, he became always just-less than Angel).

4. As soon as the writers realised there was no fizz they used it to their advantage. Riley’s disproportionate feelings for Buffy started turning him into a psychopath. That was cool.

5. Second-string males always become the more compelling love interest; Pacey, Barney, Chuck Bass, Damon Salvatore… and Spike.

6. As difficult as it is on my romance sensibilities, I love the way that Joss Whedon’s romances refuse to resolve themselves into any one thing. This is particularly true of the Buffy/Spike romance. At times it’s impossible to even say whether they like each other or not, much less whether they’re morally black or white.

7. There’s so, so much to say about Spike as a romantic hero.

8. There’s was an amazing moment in a recent Vampire Diaries episode. Caroline, the ditzy blonde who was turned into a vampire and proceeded to become very cool, has just semi-made-up with her dad. She says to him, “I’m going to be okay, Dad.” and he says back, “Sweetheart, you’re a vampire. You’re never going to be okay again.” (That’s all paraphrased, but is true enough to the text.) Joss Whedon de-romanticises vampires in the same way through romance. As intense and delicious as these romances are, they simply do not have good endings in them. Because being a vampire is not okay.

I’m thinking I’ll look into some of the relationships in more depth and figure out on a writing level what’s going on – why some of them are working despite myself, why others couldn’t work to save themselves and, yes, why Spike is so amazing.

Until then, happy holidays!

the simple truth

Cat and I talk a lot about why Romance is at the bottom of the genre pile. Why does it ick people out so much? Why does it strike such an uncomfortable chord, that in turn creates such antagonism? Yes, some of it’s written really badly, but so is some of every kind of fiction.

What we’ve come to so far is this: Romance is a more direct expression of the Id than other forms of fiction. Those things that make us tick, and that create strong emotional reactions in us – Romance doesn’t dilute them, or add irony and scepticism to them.

So it’s exposed, and exposing. Think about how you feel when you make a direct emotional request of someone. A friend and I were talking recently about her boyfriend’s reluctance to get married. We talked about the difference between her bringing the topic up with him in conversation, and actually asking him a simple, direct question.

Really, the ‘ick’ factor of Romance is biological. From a very young age we learn to hide our genuine desires, reactions, emotions. Every psychological defence in us is fighting against the kind of exposure that an un-ironic statement of emotion brings.

I was listening to a WTF podcast today, and the presenter Marc Maron put it perfectly. They were talking about a book called Humiliation (it sounds really interesting), and expanding on the idea that scripted media is distancing the human voice from the visceral risk that is a live performance of voice. Marc mused that “edgy” concepts have had their time, and are therefore not really edgy or risky any more.

Then he said: “There is nothing you can do that is really edgy other than be honest.”

And something else Cat and I talk a lot about is that it takes a lot of work – and courage – to expose the thing that you really want to write about. It takes a lot of work to be honest.

my adoration of E M Forster has a new context

I just had quite a delicious, enlightening moment.

My sister recently put out a call for book recommendations, “Beautiful novels, not too heavy”. People responded, to my mystification, with suggestions like White Oleander and Love in the Time of Cholera. Guess they didn’t get the “not too heavy” caveat.

I recommended Room With a View, by E M Forster, which has always been one of my favourite books. We were just skyping, so I decided to get it out and read the blurb to her.

Reading it was like getting struck on the head, if my head was a bell. If I had to condense my ultimate romance premise – the heart of romance I’m always trying to find as I write – this would be it:

On her first day in Florence, Miss Lucy Honeychurch, a well-bred tourist from Surrey, meets a passionate young Englishman in her pension who soon introduces her to an honest and reckless new outlook on life. Though Lucy attempts to maintain her safe facade and becomes engaged to an English gentleman with an overdeveloped intellect and an underdeveloped heart, the desires she has held in check for so long come unbound, bringing her face to face with the disorienting possibility of a life free from paralysing precaution.

the book that cured all ills (ill-thoughts, at least)

Okay, I forgive Julie Anne Long everything. You’re in for another (much longer) rant, but at least this one’s almost all joy.

Yesterday I read the fifth book in the Pennyroyal Green series, What I Did For a Duke. I will use every adjective in my vocabulary (okay, I probably won’t, but superlatives will be thick on the ground, too) to try and express how much I loved this book.

It has been a long, long time since a historical romance got me like this.

Let’s get the premise out of the way first: The Duke of Moncrieffe has a bad reputation for serving revenge cold, even years after the fact. He has just found his fiancee in bed with Ian Eversea. He’s not happy. He’s also almost forty (this is often expressed in italics in the characters’ thoughts. I’m not entirely sure what the emphasis is getting at, but it feels cheeky, and I like it). He decides to seduce Ian’s youngest sister, then break her heart and leave her.

He just happens to catch her at a really bad time.

Genevieve’s best friend, Harry, has just told her that he plans to propose to her other best friend, Millicent. This breaks her heart rather severely, as she’d always assumed she would marry Harry. So when the Duke comes along, demanding her attention, she’s really not in the mood. She does everything she can to get rid of him, he does everything he can to get a response from her, and pretty soon they’re head-over-heels in fascination with each other.

The things I love about this book:

1. The Duke is an amazing hero. Ten out of ten.

He gradually unfolds as a character, so that we get to know him as Genevieve does. This is such a difficult, subtle piece of craft, and I applaud JAL for having the trust and patience to do it. He’s certainly magnetic right from the get-go, but he’s not an obvious choice. Characters are very often represented in this light, but only in-so-far as we’re told “He wasn’t an obvious choice” whilst seeing all the ways he obviously is. The slow reveal meant I could get to know him and fall in love with him piece by piece, too.

He’s also truly smart. The “hypothesis” of the book seems to be Experience Makes For Interesting People (you have to break eggs to make an omelet), and the Duke proves it every step of the way. He’s not just smart in the wordy way of Regency heroes – his conversation is challenging, and tough, and he doesn’t let up. He’s mature and experienced enough to push for answers even when Genevieve’s hugely reluctant, or embarrassed, or defensive. He allows those feelings to be present and demands something of her anyway. Which is how transformation really does happen, in my experience.

2. Genevieve is a gorgeous heroine – very much in the same vein as Beatrix Hathaway. A truly likeable heroine, which is a hard thing to pull off.

This is, in a sense, an ugly duckling story. Genevieve is “the quiet, sensible one” of the reckless Eversea family, but that’s not what she thinks she is, and that’s not what the Duke sees. But JAL – thank God! – never gave her a look-where-being-good-got-me,-I’m-going-to-do-something-crazy moment. No matter how well those moments are constructed, something always rings false about them to me. Genevieve never breaks character because she doesn’t perceive herself as others see her, so she continues to act according to her own nature – the difference being that she now has an audience and antagonist who also sees her truly. This is, again, fantastic writing.

3. The characters’ physicality is built over time as well, as an expression of how they come to see each other. One of my favourite moments in the whole book is when the Duke thinks: He’d never known a more clawing hunger for a woman’s body, and it shocked him, and he was clever enough to know it had only a little to do with her body.

Yes! Finally! I think so few romance writers think this connection through deeply enough – that all the heaving bosoms and luscious curves and pillow-like lips are an expression of attraction to a person, not a body.

4. I can’t say too much on this point without spoilers, and as I encourage all of you to read this book, I don’t want to indulge in those. All I’ll say is: JAL deals with the Big Misunderstanding that gets the plot rolling (i.e. the Duke is out to seduce Genevieve for his own, bad reasons) in such a brilliant way. She makes the BM work a lot harder than it would if she had dealt with it in a traditional “I’m keeping a secret that could destroy you” way.

What didn’t work for me:

1. By two-thirds of the way through, the plot rested too heavily on Harry’s thin shoulders. We’re reminded over and over how much Genevieve loves him – even when it’s become jarringly evident she doesn’t. That works. We can see the trajectory of her self-discovery through it. But there wasn’t enough of why she loved him in the first place – he was too thin and insubstantial – for this to hold up its end of Genevieve’s motivations for as long as it had to. She’s a smart chicken. She would have figured it out before then.

2. JAL really needs to get a new editor. Whenever I read her stuff my enjoyment is continually interrupted by bad grammatical errors and bad word repetitions (by this I mean: the repetition isn’t there to create a lyrical effect, it’s just lazy writing. A relief that was hugely relieving, for example). She also has a tendency to overwrite, which mostly pays off and occasionally doesn’t. A good editor should be on the lookout for all these things.

This Julie Anne Long book makes my top five. Go read it.

End rant.

books and Brad Pitt

two things about my Easter weekend away:

1. My godmother, who we were staying with, also reads romance. A lot of romance. She let me rifle through the boxes of books she’s finished with, and take whatever I fancied. She is, officially, a champion.

The books:

I took home 32 books. But seriously, what would you have done?

There were many I’ve already read and wanted for my collection but couldn’t justify buying right now. I got the whole of Eloisa James‘s Essex Sisters quartet, and Meredith Duran‘s entire backlist.

I also picked up a few I’ve been meaning to try, but haven’t gotten around to reading, like Nalini Singh‘s Psy/Changeling series and Anne Stuart‘s House of Rohan trilogy.

2. Then there was Legends of the Fall. It was revoltingly appropriate that we rewatched this Brad Pitt classic, because we watched it together too many times to be healthy as teens. This is Brad back in the day when he still had more than a whiff of tv soap about him and his grin was of the cocky “I’m hot and I know it” variety.

I had the same sensation watching it as I had last year when I listened to Alanis Morisette’s album Jagged Little Pill and realised I knew the words to every song.

I had a groundless sense of fear or premonition at apparently harmless moments, just before tragedy fell. Certain images were so familiar to my senses, that I must have stared for hours at posters of them, freeze-framed on my bedroom wall.

My memory was correct at least in this: Julia Ormond cries more or less the whole way through the film.

It also clicked that this was why all my heroes used to be called Tristan.

Here’s the funny thing, though: Watching this movie as an adult, I couldn’t help thinking that Tristan (Brad Pitt) is exactly the kind of character who incites my rage – and the last person you would want to fall in love with.

He is, as per the voice-over, the rock that all the people who love him break themselves against.

He is the man who would leave those who love and depend on him to answer the call of his inner beast. He is unhaveable and wild and wildly selfish.

He’s a flake.

I couldn’t help thinking, as well, that Susannah (Julia Ormond) is the antithesis of a romantic heroine. The tragedy of that appealed to my teen sensibilities and just irritates the hell out of my adult ones.

THIS is why I read romance

I love Jennifer Crusie. She is so many of those words that don’t mean much one after the other, like wise, funny, insightful, sympathetic, sexy and incredibly human. Or rather, her writing is. I don’t know the woman personally.

I just read Bet Me, which Crusie says she wrote in ’92, but couldn’t get anyone to publish till ’04. “Editors were universally unenthusiastic about it, which was just inexplicable to me.” To me too. I loved this book, and I see people calling it their favourite Crusie all the time.

I don’t really want to do a review so much as say: This book is an affirmation. And not in a new agey way, where you’re saying something over and over, like “I am a successful writer” and feeling more fearful every time you say it, because someone somewhere is sure to notice how unconvinced you are.

This book is affirming in the kind of way that makes me feel braver about being alive.

Not a feeling I get when I read Peter Temple and I’m stuck in a car with his displaced detective who’s looking at the grey gobs of fat on the cold hamburger he’s about to eat. Truth did grow on me more the more I read, but it never once made me feel this internal glow.

My aversion to reading gritty “realist” fiction has given me hours of introspection. Do I read romance just to escape, is that a bad thing, and is it wrong to look to fiction for this feeling of encouragement and hope? (And is that feeling synonymous with escape? And is that just about the most depressing thing in the world if it is?)

I don’t want to give the impression that Bet Me is all sunshine and rainbows. Funny thing, but when characters and their surroundings are too peachy, a romance novel just leaves me with a hollow, itchy feeling. I think it portrays love in just about the most realistic way possible: the terror when you face actual love, and the courage it takes to believe in it. (You can go here for my impassioned argument that romance novels depict a realistic experience of love. Ah, bless.)

I’ve been brainstorming the second half of my novel, and am completely daunted by the task of making sure my characters’ potential pays off. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is: Why romance? What am I actually trying to say about love? I’ve come to a general conclusion which is that, for me, love gives life meaning.

The more specific expression of this is starting to come through in my heroine’s emotional evolution. She goes from: life = surviving to: even though life is all about surviving I will live as though it’s not.

“would they really do that, in a romance novel?”


Last year was chockers with questions like that, for me. Most of my workshopping time had to be used defending or explaining paragraph lengths, word choice, POV, character traits…

I did my first workshop of the year, the other day, and I still had those kinds of questions. Only this time, my teacher stepped in and answered on my behalf. And then asked the class if they knew who the most successful Melbourne writer was – by miles.

Stephanie Laurens, of course.

Ah! My work has ears that understand its conventions! Still, it also made me realise that hard as last year was, it improved my work immeasurably to be always writing beyond myself.

while the husband sleeps…

it’s one of those magical times – an expanding moment of independence within marriage. He gets the rest he needs, I get the time to follow my solitary pursuits and look at naughty comics online.

I’ve just finished reading Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert. Two things are lingering:

1. She and her finace had performed their own private vows to each other, which for them sufficed. I definitely stand on the same side of this line as her friend, who said in frustration, “Marriage is not prayer”.

To her, their private vows sufficed, and it was coming to terms with what society demanded that she found so hard.

To me, her very reluctance to get married makes it clear that speaking your own vows to each other and speaking them legally, with witnesses, are very different things. They had already vowed fidelity to each other, to love each other always, to be kind and true. But something about making those vows legal and official absolutely terrified her.

(I don’t blame her. It is terrifying.)

It’s different for everyone, of course, but I know a lot of people who have experienced the same as me – that getting engaged/married (for me it was really the engagement) changes everything. People tell themselves all the time, “We’re practically married anyway, it’ll just be like a big party to celebrate that”.

But having someone with the authority to do so declare your union official is something else altogether. And there’s something about that particular cultural ceremony that allows vows to really happen. That’s what’s so moving about weddings, right? In that moment, they really are going to love each other forever.

2. It was a long time and a lot of panic before she came across the idea that marriage can be subversive – that it’s a cultural reaction to the human insistence on intimacy, in the face of anything.

This is what romance novels say. It’s what people so often miss about them.