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Historical Romance Deal Breaker #6: Heroes With Mistresses or Who Sleep With Servants

Originally posted on Susana's Parlour:

Literally decades of reading historical romances have led me to develop strong opinions of what defines a truly satisfying story, so the other day I set about making a list of characteristics that turn a potential five-star read into a one- or two-star. Admittedly, there are some skillful authors who manage to successfully incorporate one or more of these scenarios in their books; however, I have run across quite a few more who in my opinion haven’t quite managed it.

These are what I call “deal breakers”—characteristics that make a book a wall-banger instead of a pleasurable diversion. Not surprisingly, many involve character, particularly, the character of the hero and heroine. They have to be likable. They have to be three-dimensional, i.e., well-drawn-out characters with flaws, not fairy princesses. And they have to be able to fall in love, convincingly, the head-over-heels kind of love.

Overview of Susana’s Historical Romance Deal…

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Historical Romance Deal Breaker #5: Unattractive or Drop-Dead Gorgeous Heroines

Blast From the Past: Susana has been busy traveling in Scotland and attending the RWA Conference this month, and she thought some of you might enjoy revisiting some of her previous posts on Susana’s Parlour.

Decades of reading historical romances have led me to develop strong opinions of what defines a truly satisfying story, so the other day I set about making a list of characteristics that turn a potential five-star read into a one- or two-star. Admittedly, there are some skillful authors who manage to successfully incorporate one or more of these scenarios in their books; however, I have run across quite a few more who in my opinion haven’t quite managed it.

These are what I call “deal breakers”—characteristics that make a book a wall-banger. Not surprisingly, many involve character, particularly, the character of the hero and heroine. They have to be likable. They have to be three-dimensional, i.e., well-drawn-out characters with flaws, not fairy princesses. And they have to be able to fall in love, convincingly, the head-over-heels kind of love.

Overview of Susana’s Historical Romance Deal-Breakers

  1. Reluctant Heroes
  2. Adultery
  3. Anachronistic Behavior and Historical Inaccuracies
  4. Cliffhanger Endings
  5. Unattractive or Drop-Dead Gorgeous Heroines
  6. Heroes With Mistresses or Who Sleep With Servants
  7. Drop-Dead Gorgeous Heroes
  8. Promiscuous Heroines
  9. Contrived Endings
  10. Waifs and Silly Heroines
  11. Long Separations
  12. Excessively Cruel Heroes and Heroines
  13. Breaking the Rules: Why Some Authors Get Away With It

 

Historical Romance Deal Breaker #5: Unattractive or Drop-Dead Gorgeous Heroines

  • Heroines who are fat and/or described as “plain” or unattractive

Like the majority of readers, I am not the most attractive person out there. I’m middle-aged, struggle with weight issues, and use artificial means to enhance my hair and facial features. I consider myself “average.”

Also like the majority of readers, I like to fantasize about being more attractive and irresistible than I am. When I read, I’m picturing myself as the heroine; her experiences are mine, right up to the HEA at the end.

It just doesn’t do it for me when the heroine seems to have virtually *no* physical attractions. Especially when this is paired with too many psychological issues stemming from her doubts about her physical appearance. A little of this goes a long way, for me. I want the story to be about the characters falling in love. If I wanted to read a story that is more psychological drama than romance, I wouldn’t read romance.

While the heroine does not have to be drop-dead gorgeous (see below), she absolutely must have some attractive qualities. She might have mousy brown hair, but her figure should be unobjectionable and she might have the most intriguing grey eyes.  Maybe her breasts aren’t voluminous, but she has a small waist and neat ankles (whatever that is). She may be considered plain by many, but we get to see from the beginning that the hero finds some things about her attractive, which become even more appealing once he becomes better acquainted with her.

You get the drift.

Considering the growing number of books featuring fat and unattractive heroines—and the readers who seem to rave over them—I wonder if I’m in the minority here.

However, I also have a problem with:

  • Heroines who are so beautiful and sweet that everyone falls in love with them (even birds and wild animals)

I also find it difficult to identify with heroines who are too perfect. (Actually, I want to slap them silly.)

In a romance it is important to create three-dimensional characters because the characters are the story. If the main characters in your story are too good to be believed, you risk your story becoming a Disney movie, with its happy cartoon characters sailing off into the sunset. Even if you enjoy cartoons, surely you have to wonder if Cinderella and her prince really did live happily ever after without ever once clashing over raising the children or the price of glass slippers. You don’t have to be diabetic to suffer from the effects of consuming too much sugar.

A heroine can be beautiful, but she has to have some flaws too. Perhaps she perceives her nose is too long. Or she’s too tall or too short. Or her hair is too dark to be the current trend.

Her flaws can also be emotional. Perhaps she fears that people only like her because of her physical attractions. (I had a roommate like that once; I never thought she was that beautiful. Oh well.) Or she’s plagued with shyness. Or she blurts out things better left unsaid. Or she thinks she is unworthy because of her birth or social class or a past indiscretion.

adore a good HEA. I feel cheated if I don’t get one. But I want them to seem at least somewhat realistic. I want to be convinced that my hero and heroine love each other enough—have survived enough challenges as their romance developed and matured in the story—that their relationship is strong enough to survive the uncertainties of the future.

Am I the only one who feels this way? Have you run across any five-star reads with extremely ugly or extremely attractive heroines? Do tell!

 

Historical Romance Deal Breaker #4: Cliffhanger Endings

Blast From the Past: Susana just got back from traveling in Scotland and she thought some of you might enjoy revisiting some of her previous posts on Susana’s Parlour.

Decades of reading historical romances have led me to develop strong opinions of what defines a truly satisfying story, so the other day I set about making a list of characteristics that turn a potential five-star read into a one- or two-star. Admittedly, there are some skillful authors who manage to successfully incorporate one or more of these scenarios in their books; however, I have run across quite a few more who in my opinion haven’t quite managed it.

These are what I call “deal breakers”—characteristics that make a book a wall-banger. Not surprisingly, many involve character, particularly, the character of the hero and heroine. They have to be likable. They have to be three-dimensional, i.e., well-drawn-out characters with flaws, not fairy princesses. And they have to be able to fall in love, convincingly, the head-over-heels kind of love.

Overview of Susana’s Historical Romance Deal-Breakers

  1. Reluctant Heroes
  2. Adultery
  3. Anachronistic Behavior and Historical Inaccuracies
  4. Cliffhanger Endings
  5. Unattractive or Drop-Dead Gorgeous Heroines
  6. Heroes With Mistresses or Who Sleep With Servants
  7. Drop-Dead Gorgeous Heroes
  8. Promiscuous Heroines
  9. Contrived Endings
  10. Waifs and Silly Heroines
  11. Long Separations
  12. Excessively Cruel Heroes and Heroines
  13. Breaking the Rules: Why Some Authors Get Away With It

The fourth deal breaker is cliffhanger endings.

There’s nothing more annoying than to get to the last chapter of a book and discover that it’s not the end. That you have to buy another book to find out how your protagonists fared.

If I really care about the characters, I may buy the sequel. But I am seething inside, and any chance I will ever trust that author again is virtually gone. Even if it’s a favorite author.

If the sequel isn’t even available yet, there is no chance I will buy it. Because months later, I won’t likely care about those characters anymore.

Why do authors cheat their readers this way? If it’s meant as a technique to promote books, it’s a misguided one indeed. Nobody likes to be teased or manipulated. Eventually, readers will get disgusted and move on.

I adore a good romance series, with cameo appearances by protagonists from previous books. I love it when secondary characters from a previous book become the protagonists in the sequel. If the books aren’t spaced too far apart (i.e., I haven’t had time to forget all about them), I will buy all of them just to make sure my old friends are still doing well.

But if there’s no satisfactory HEA at the end of the book—if I discover that instead of being rewarded for their suffering, my hero and heroine have more tribulations in store for them in the next book—I’m seriously wanting my money—and my time—back.

What do you think? Are there some authors who can get away with teasing their readers with cliffhangers?

Historical Romance Deal Breaker #3: Anachronistic Behavior and Historical Inaccuracies

Blast From the Past: Susana is traveling in Scotland this week and she thought some of you might enjoy revisiting some of her previous posts on Susana’s Parlour.

Decades of reading historical romances have led me to develop strong opinions of what defines a truly satisfying story, so the other day I set about making a list of characteristics that turn a potential five-star read into a one- or two-star. Admittedly, there are some skillful authors who manage to successfully incorporate one or more of these scenarios in their books; however, I have run across quite a few more who in my opinion haven’t quite managed it.

These are what I call “deal breakers”—characteristics that make a book a wall-banger. Not surprisingly, many involve character, particularly, the character of the hero and heroine. They have to be likable. They have to be three-dimensional, i.e., well-drawn-out characters with flaws, not fairy princesses. And they have to be able to fall in love, convincingly, the head-over-heels kind of love.

Overview of Susana’s Historical Romance Deal Breakers

  1. Reluctant Heroes
  2. Adultery
  3. Anachronistic Behavior and Historical Inaccuracies
  4. Cliffhanger Endings
  5. Unattractive or Drop-Dead Gorgeous Heroines
  6. Heroes With Mistresses or Who Sleep With Servants
  7. Drop-Dead Gorgeous Heroes
  8. Promiscuous Heroines
  9. Contrived Endings
  10. Waifs and Silly Heroines
  11. Long Separations
  12. Excessively Cruel Heroes and Heroines
  13. Breaking the Rules: Why Some Authors Get Away With It

Deal breaker #3 is: anachronistic behavior and historical inaccuracies.

So many of the newer historical authors seem to be turning out what I consider contemporary stories in historical settings, and it seems as though many readers don’t care. The curvy girl on the cover wears a beautiful gown, and the novel is full of balls and handsome dukes, and if the girl sneaks out to the garden and engages in steamy sex with someone, reviewers praise it to the heavens for being “hot.” Am I the only one who questions the assumption that a gently-born young woman would be allowed to accompany a gentleman on the terrace for more than five minutes without her chaperone coming to look for her?

While I have to acknowledge that readers new to this genre may not recognize these problems, too many indications of the author’s ignorance of the time period can ruin a book for those of us who know better. And it may well be that the author doesn’t care. If all she is looking for are a few extra dollars and some temporary éclat, the ease of self-publishing can give her the platform, and her devoted friends and family can shower her work with favorable reviews until she moves on with her life.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the self-published stories that feature egregious historical inaccuracies. It seems as though the editors—if they still exist—are also unfamiliar with the time periods of the books they handle. Either that or they are so over-worked they hope the readers will be too engrossed in the story to balk at a few “minor” issues. And it’s true: I find I can ignore a problem or two in an otherwise wonderful read. However, if there are too many, or if the entire plot is dependent upon some unlikely scenario, that’s when the book ceases to be a pleasurable experience and becomes a wall-banger for me.

Here are some anachronisms and historical inaccuracies I have encountered just within the past five months in books considered historical romances (not erotica*), all involving young, innocent heroines:

  • The heroine is allowed to leave her home and walk around London without any sort of chaperone, in some cases even going to call on a single gentleman alone.
  • The heroine attends a house party hosted by a gentleman known for his scandalous house parties—which is enough in itself to ruin her reputation—but she is so loosely chaperoned that she and her lover can easily sneak into each other’s rooms at night.
  • In a medieval, the hero and heroine cannot marry because their siblings are married to each other, which by church law makes them siblings as well. So they run off and pretend to be married. Really? While our 21st century wisdom tells us this law is ridiculous, these characters lived with medieval cultural and religious mores; the guilt over time would eventually take its toll, even if their deception were never uncovered. NOT a satisfactory HEA.
  • The heroine attends a ball and inadvertently has sex with a stranger in a library so dark they cannot see each other’s faces.
  • The heroine’s father wants her to marry an old lecher and tells her to allow him whatever liberties he wants.
  • The heroine is allowed to remain alone in the family home with no supervision.
  • The heroine is allowed to host her brother’s scandalous house parties.
  • The heroine goes shopping for a gown to wear at a ball that very evening. (I suppose she dropped in at Harrod’s to look through the dresses on the rack?)
  • Waffles are served for breakfast.
  • The heroine is allowed to entertain gentleman callers and ride in a closed carriage with a gentleman with no supervision.
  • The hero is a male prostitute in a brothel where aristocrats bring their daughters to be “breached” prior to the wedding night. (!!!)
  • The author doesn’t understand British titles and refers to a young girl as Lady Davenport instead of Lady Camilla. (HINT: before writing a historical novel set in England, read up on the proper use of titles. It’s really not something you can just guess at.)
  • An illegitimate son is the heir to his legitimate half-brother’s title and estate.
  • A man is allowed to marry his father’s or brother’s widow, or a woman is allowed to marry her deceased sister’s widower.

What anachronisms and historical inaccuracies make a book a wall-banger for you?

 

Historical Romance Deal Breaker #2: Adultery

Blast From the Past: Susana is traveling in Scotland this week and she thought some of you might enjoy revisiting some of her previous posts on Susana’s Parlour.

Decades of reading historical romances have led me to develop strong opinions of what defines a truly satisfying story, so the other day I set about making a list of characteristics that turn a potential five-star read into a one- or two-star. Admittedly, there are some skillful authors who manage to successfully incorporate one or more of these scenarios in their books; however, I have run across quite a few more who in my opinion haven’t quite managed it.

These are what I call “deal breakers”—characteristics that make a book a wall-banger. Not surprisingly, many involve character, particularly, the character of the hero and heroine. They have to be likable. They have to be three-dimensional, i.e., well-drawn-out characters with flaws, not fairy princesses. And they have to be able to fall in love, convincingly, the head-over-heels kind of love.

Overview of Susana’s Historical Romance Deal Breakers

  1. Reluctant Heroes
  2. Adultery
  3. Anachronistic Behavior and Historical Inaccuracies
  4. Cliffhanger Endings
  5. Unattractive or Drop-Dead Gorgeous Heroines
  6. Heroes With Mistresses or Who Sleep With Servants
  7. Drop-Dead Gorgeous Heroes
  8. Promiscuous Heroines
  9. Contrived Endings
  10. Waifs and Silly Heroines
  11. Long Separations
  12. Excessively Cruel Heroes and Heroines
  13. Breaking the Rules: Why Some Authors Get Away With It

The second one is adultery involving the hero or heroine.

I’ve seen scenarios where the non-hero husband is cruel and abusive, even threatening to kill the heroine (especially in medievals), but I don’t find that a good enough excuse for adultery. I wouldn’t tell a 21st century abused woman that she either has to go back to her husband or go to a nunnery (perhaps the closest thing to a medieval equivalent of a shelter for battered women), but in medieval times there weren’t many other options. In one story I read recently, the abused wife ran away to a distant town with her lover and they pretended to be married. But the guilt of their deceit had already started to tarnish their relationship before the book’s conclusion, leaving the reader with a very unsatisfactory HEA. (In fact, the story was set up in such a way as to make a satisfactory HEA impossible.) I know this isn’t fair by 21st century standards, but you really should not write a novel set in medieval times and then proceed to ignore the social and religious mores of the time. Less knowledgeable readers might not notice, but those of us who have read widely in the genre will recognize an amateur when we see it. [Historical inaccuracy, another deal breaker, will be discussed in a later post.]

What about a spouse who is ill, disabled, or confined to a mental institution? Or a spouse who has run off with another person and disappeared? While I do not expect a hero to remain celibate forever under these circumstances, I cannot like the heroine to be his mistress. Remember Jane Eyre? She knew she couldn’t have a proper HEA with Edward while his wife was living, even if she was a lunatic. I mean, how can you justify stigmatizing your children with the label “bastard”? Somehow, the HEA has to include a legal marriage, and I can’t believe a heroine who starts out as a mistress can have that much confidence that her husband/protector won’t eventually deceive her as well.

Oh, and the plots where the sterile husband invites his best friend to impregnate his wife? NO! Forget it! It doesn’t matter if the husband is good or evil, the whole adultery/deception angle opens up a Pandora’s box of guilt and fear that always manages to tarnish the HEA in some way.

What about you? Do find adultery in a historical romance acceptable in some situations?

 

Historical Romance Deal Breaker #1: Reluctant Heroes

Blast From the Past: Susana is traveling in Scotland this week and she thought some of you might enjoy revisiting some of her previous posts on Susana’s Parlour.

Decades of reading historical romances have led me to develop strong opinions of what defines a truly satisfying story, so the other day I set about making a list of characteristics that turn a potential five-star read into a one- or two-star. Admittedly, there are some skillful authors who manage to successfully incorporate one or more of these scenarios in their books; however, I have run across quite a few more who in my opinion haven’t quite managed it.

Overview of Susana’s Historical Romance Deal Breakers

  1. Reluctant Heroes
  2. Adultery
  3. Anachronistic Behavior and Historical Inaccuracies
  4. Cliffhanger Endings
  5. Unattractive or Drop-Dead Gorgeous Heroines
  6. Heroes With Mistresses or Who Sleep With Servants
  7. Drop-Dead Gorgeous Heroes
  8. Promiscuous Heroines
  9. Contrived Endings
  10. Waifs and Silly Heroines
  11. Long Separations
  12. Excessively Cruel Heroes and Heroines
  13. Breaking the Rules: Why Some Authors Get Away With It

These are what I call “deal breakers”—characteristics that make a book a wall-banger. Not surprisingly, many involve character, particularly the character of the hero and heroine. They have to be likable. They have to be three-dimensional, i.e., well-drawn-out characters with flaws, not fairy princesses. And they have to be able to fall in love, convincingly, the head-over-heels kind of love.

The first deal breaker for me is the reluctant hero.

Nothing is guaranteed to turn me off a book so much as a hero who denies his feelings until the very last chapter. Certainly some initial reluctance is expected; what Regency buck is eager to tie himself down to a leg-shackle before he has sown his wild oats? But the attraction needs to happen fairly soon after he meets the heroine; there must be indications early on that he enjoys her presence, resents it when other men pay her attention, etc. Which doesn’t mean that love at first sight is de rigueur. Instant attractions can be quite wonderful, but ultimately, the feelings between them must be based on something other than physical characteristics.

Below are some examples of reluctant heroes I have encountered recently:

  • The hero was so in love with his deceased wife that he cannot imagine ever risking his heart again, so when he starts falling for the heroine (poor thing), he determines to marry another young lady he doesn’t care as much for instead. Heroes cannot be idiots.
  • The hero recognizes his soulmate, but continually spurns her because childhood traumas make him feel unworthy. Heroes cannot be whiners.
  • The hero is damaged from his experiences in the war, but not too much to fall into bed with his deceased best friend’s sister. When events come to the point where her reputation will be ruined, he refuses point-blank to marry her. Heroes cannot use the heroine and then abandon her.
  • The hero is a notorious rake who has determined never to marry, and when faced with the love of his life, he runs away with another woman, forcing her to marry another man, who abuses her cruelly. Heroes cannot be jerks.
  • The hero and the heroine share a kiss in a moonlit garden and arrange several more meetings. When the heroine, who is being pressured to marry a wealthy old man, begs the hero to marry her, he confesses that he is already married (how could he forget?), and abandons her to a miserable marriage. Heroes cannot be cowardly or adulterers.

Of course, the above cases are extreme; many times the reluctant hero is simply…reluctant. Not mean or cruel or particularly stupid. . . just there. While he may not get my dander up, he’s also…boring. And frankly, heroes cannot be boring either.

What do you think? Can you add some examples of reluctant heroes that you have encountered lately? Or can you think of stories where an initially reluctant hero successfully makes the transition into delightfully besotted hero? I’d love to hear about them!

Breaking the Rules: Why Some Authors Get Away With It

Rules are made to be broken.

If every historical romance author took notice of my twelve “historical romance deal breakers” and endeavored to avoid them all, would their books be better…or just boring?

I think probably both would happen.

Many of my favorite books use a well-worn plot and make it unique and different by creating lovable, memorable characters and settings that draw me into the story with them. The author doesn’t need to break a rule to keep me turning the pages. Even though I know there’s going to be a Happy-Ever-After ending—that’s why I read romance novels, after all—I am still eagerly anticipating the scene where the hero and heroine discover their feelings are returned and anticipate a long life together.

On the other hand, some of my favorite books break some of the rules—and I love them just as much! Does this make me schizophrenic? Indecisive? Hypocritical? Maybe. Maybe not.

So what’s the difference? Why will I rant over one book with a ditzy heroine, and rave over another with a similar problem? My intuition tells me it’s the skill of the author that makes the difference.

If the ditzy heroine stays ditzy and gets the hero anyway, I’m disappointed with both—the heroine because she hasn’t grown or matured during the story, and the hero because he is stupid enough to fall for a ditzy heroine who will probably be ditzy her whole life. Yeah, I know—it happens. But not in the romance stories I enjoy. I want my hero and heroine to be worthy of each other. Not perfect, but moving in that direction, at least.

Most heroines aren’t ditzy, but they still have much potential for growth. I read a story recently where the heroine started out being very superficial and unsympathetic. To be frank, I almost couldn’t believe she was the heroine and kept looking for someone more worthy to come along. It seemed to get worse before it got better. But with the right man, she gradually began to evolve into a mature, caring woman, and I found myself applauding for her. Doesn’t everyone like to see an underdog win in the end?

Character is the key.

Diana Gabaldon is a case in point. There are many things in her books that I don’t particularly care for, such as violence, long separations, rape, infidelity (although I still can’t decide if it’s infidelity if your husband hasn’t been born yet—or died 200 years ago), and lots of information about 18th century medicine that I never really thought I wanted to know. But instead of wanting to throw the book against the wall—and if I did it would probably damage the wall—I lap it all up. Why? It’s the characters. I love Jamie and Claire. They seem like real people to me. I want to read everything about them, even the not-so-pretty aspects of life. Diana can put them through the wringer—and she does—and they still emerge victorious, together, and stronger than ever. After the first book in the series, they are middle-aged, soon-to-become grandparents. And we readers love them more than ever!

Characterization is important in any novel, but in romance novels it is particularly important. Who wants to read a romance between unlikable and/or cardboard characters? If the reader doesn’t care about them, she won’t be motivated to finish the story. The author has to make me care whether or not the prince proposes to Cinderella. If I think Cinderella is going to turn out to be nag or the prince is going to be a tyrant, well, the whole “sailing into the sunset” thing doesn’t seem quite believable.

Authors: whether you decide to follow or ignore my twelve “deal breakers,” make sure your characters are compelling and readers will buy your book in droves.

That’s my opinion…and I’m sticking to it.

What do you think about rule-breaking? Do you have some favorite authors who can get away with it? Or do you have some rules of your own not mentioned here?