Despite my almost-thirties reading-taste crisis I borrowed a couple of Mary Balogh books at the library last week. It’s been a while since I last attempted a romance novel (okay, it’s been about 2 weeks – but that’s an age in book-years), so I thought I might be ready to enjoy one.
I didn’t. And here’s why:
The heroine of Simply Magic is beautiful but destitute. The beautiful part doesn’t bother me too much – a woman doesn’t have to be plain-until-you-know-her to deserve true love. But I had an epiphany about the destitute part.
Being destitute is not a character flaw – it’s a circumstance. This is huge for me. For such a long time, as I developed my heroine, I threw worse and worse circumstances at her – made her have to endure more and more. But in light of this I realise: It doesn’t matter how many circumstances I throw at her – unless she develops some highly interesting character traits, in reaction. Traits that hinder her in other ways, preferably.
We all know now that a romance can’t be based on two people being really hot (my writing teacher Toni Jordan likes to quote someone (McKee, I think?) as saying, ‘At the end of Pretty Woman Richard Gere could have said to Julia Roberts, I love you because we’re in a movie together.’) so now all romantic heroes and heroines have to have flaws. Flaws are all-important.
But writers are so anxious to keep their characters likeable that their flaws tend to be things like how poor they are (see above epiphany), how they’ve been treated by others, or – yes – how kind they are to old ladies.
See when I really stopped reading the book was when the heroine gladly – because that’s just the kind of gal she is – went to read to a poor old woman who was losing her eyesight. The hero had just been talking to the poor old woman earlier, because one must talk to poor old women, and the heroine of the previous novel (you can always tell a previous heroine because she exists in a kind of Happily Ever After stasis and has good-natured “arguments” with her husband, just to show that they’re happy but human) had intended to be kind to the poor old woman, but someone or other was holding her up.
I should say here that I have nothing against poor old women. Except when they’re nothing more than a plot device. If the heroine had shown some of Emma‘s qualities – some reluctance to spend an afternoon with a rambling acquaintance because she is expected to “do good” – I would feel so much more sympathy for her overcoming herself and doing it anyway. Or finding some actual good in a situation that grated on her.
Cat and I were recently discussing this and I think she nailed it when she said that these shiny-smooth characters lacks depth because they know themselves too well. There is no variation from their internal world to the external.
We weren’t talking the kind of self-misunderstanding where a heroine thinks things like, “My reaction to him just doesn’t make any sense! I hate him!” That kind of wilful misunderstanding is a bit boring. We were talking the kind of variations that come of never fully knowing yourself – thoughts and reactions to situations that arise before you have time to rationalise or consider.
This ambiguity of human nature is what makes Meredith Duran a great romance writer. Her characters have the ability to feel embarrassed by themselves, and to know themselves as vain, and to acknowledge how onerous it would be to read to a poor old woman, but find it within themselves to do it anyway.