Monday, February 13, 2017

The Sins of Romantic Writing

Well, it's Valentine's Day, once again, so I thought I'd write about one of my biggest pet peeves: romantic relationships in writing.
Don't get me wrong; I love a good, well-written swoonfest. I am fond of happy endings and romance. But, as much as I like it, I hate it when it's not done well, and I stop reading books like that. To make a comparison,

So, romance. It's highly sought after; romantic novels are bought in staggering numbers. Other genres, from realistic fiction all the way down to teen fantasy, often include romance in some form or another. With all this romance writing out there, it would make sense that there's a lot of really good stuff out there, and a lot of really bad stuff.

In the spirit of the holiday, I want to talk about the kind of romantic writing that sets my teeth on edge and makes me want to throw the book, so that I and perhaps other writers may steer clear of these tropes. Let's begin:

- Romance where one or both of the couple is abusive and manipulative. 

I'm looking at you, Fifty Shades! This is NOT LOVE! Let's say it again: THIS IS NOT LOVE!

Love is about caring for another person and treating them with respect, putting their needs above your own. This is about power and domination and is super-unhealthy. This can range from physical abuse to controlling behavior, belittling each other, stalking, and generally anything else we would, in real life, distance ourselves from or even call the police over.

When I find this in a book, especially in a teen book (I'm looking at you, too, Twilight and City of Bones), I cringe. I know that I'm supposed to find this romantic, but sitting here, writing this, I can't think of a single reason why physical, emotional, and mental abuse, stalking, and controlling behavior is even sort of romantic. I don't buy it, and I won't buy it.

- Love triangles. 

I see these mostly in teen fiction, and to be honest, I'm sick of them. I pick up a book, and as soon as I'm introduced to the female lead, I'm introduced to her friend, a cute guy who she sees as a brother, and soon after, to the smoldering hottie who makes her blood sizzle. (Guess which one is often the abusive creep?)

The reason I hate these is because they've become so cliche. Going into a love triangle, I know which one the female lead will pick: it's the abusive creep she's attracted to. It's almost never the opposite, though I did find one, Illuminated by Aimee Agresti, in which (SPOILER ALERT!) the good guy wins out. That book was refreshing in so many ways. If the book has a love triangle, I want it to feel real. I want there to either be a clear-cut favorite and a good reason why the protagonist is not cutting the other one off, or I want them to each be such positive choices that she (or he, as it may be) can't make a clear and easy decision. Please don't keep using the above stereotype; there's no drama in it anymore.

- The gay best friend.

Okay, before I get a lot of hate for hating this trope, let me just say I hate it as a trope. I like it when a character's qualities are used to either further the story or because it's an unbreakable part of who that character is, like if a character has red hair just because he does or if she's a math whiz just because she is. I don't like it when it's done to corral the readers' expectations.

Here's what I mean: the female lead has a male best friend to show that she's a "guy's gal" and to add some gender balance to a book. However, the writer doesn't want the reader to ship the protagonist with the best friend, so the best friend is designed to bat for the other team. It doesn't add to the story, and there's no reason for it other than to keep the reader focused on the real love interest.

I dislike this because I see it used so much that I recognize the trope as a trope and not as a real character, and because it assumes that men and women can't just be friends. There are plenty of real, platonic male/female relationships that can happily not lead to love, and I'd like to see those explored more. Let the readers ship whatever they want; you're the one in charge. Keep the characters real.

- Emotional manipulation or melodrama (for the readers).

Can't stand this. I'm reading a book, and the characters are falling in love, and then BAM! One of them is dying. It does nothing for the story other than make the readers cry. It's manipulative to the reader, and it doesn't provide a real kind of tension.

Tension between characters is best when it relates to them and how they see and interact with the world. I'd rather see characters split apart for a time because one wants a career and the other always assumed he'd marry a stay-at-home kind of girl. Then the characters have to work through their own plans and desires for themselves and each other, leading to growth and a more real relationship. It will be more emotional because the emotions will come from how each character would really feel. This can work for fatal illness or injury, or cheating lover or anything else, but it has to feel real to the characters and they have to respond in realistic ways.

Throwing in something huge and weighty and overdramatic that's there only to sock the reader in the heart is not real, and it doesn't feel real, and I put the book down. This goes for all kinds of writing, by the way. Emotions should come out of the characters, not used as a weapon against the reader.

- Relationships that make no darn sense.

We see them. The couple that falls in love in two minutes and would do anything for each other, including die.

 I call this the "Romeo and Juliet Syndrome," and we've been programmed to think it's romantic. But here's the thing:

Why are these characters in love?

What qualities and traits do they admire in each other? How does he help her grow? How does she change the way he sees the world? How do they compliment each other?

Or do they just have a romance based purely on physical attraction?

These romances bug me so much. It's a more harmless version of the "abusive creep" trope, so it gets overlooked, but I think it deserves some discussion. Why do two people fall in love, in real life? Attraction is certainly part of it, but unless you live in isolation or only meet one hot person in your whole life, there has to be another part of it. I think we fall in love because the other person fills some kind of need in us, beyond the physical. Finding this out takes time and effort, and it doesn't just happen in an instant.

Often this insta-love leads me, as the reader, to have no idea why I should care about this romance. Why should I root for them to make it against all odds when I don't even know what they see in each other? Extra credit goes to fictional couples where one or both is so boring or repugnant that I can't see why anyone would want to be with them. As the reader, I have to fall in love with the characters, too. I have to get to know them and see their relationship flower or I won't believe it. I dislike the movie Moulin Rouge for this very reason: I don't like either character as a person, and I don't understand why they're so in love.

 That concludes my list. I want romances, but I want romances where the couple is equally balanced, shows care and affection for each other without abusive habits, where relationships are real (including platonic ones), where the writer doesn't emotionally manipulate the reader, and where readers like and fall in love with the lovers, understanding why they're together. I realize that many people may like the tropes I hate, and that's fine. But, for me, the kind of romance I want to read more of is found in books like this one:

Cinder by Marissa Meyer.

This book and the rest of its series are wonderful romantic reads. They have a lot more than romance; they're science fiction adventures. But, they're also retellings of fairy tales which means ROMANCE!

The romances in these books are as healthy as any I've seen in books; the characters love and respect each other and actually seek the other's happiness over their own. They are well-balanced and it's clear what each one sees in the other. For example, Cress is a character who has been isolated most of her life, and she dreams of experiencing things and traveling. Her love, Thorne, is a captain of a space ship, someone who also likes to travel and can take her to see all the things she wants to see. There are also deeper, more emotional reasons they balance each other, but I won't spoil it for you.

There are no love triangles, and I never wanted one. The platonic relationships feel real and are perfectly acceptable as such.

I highly recommend this book series as a good romance.

Here are the debuts for this week:

Young Adult:
Jamie Meyer - Painless (2/14)
Ibi Zoboi - American Street (2/14)
Jilly Gagnon - #famous (2/14)

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