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 Breakers
- Reluctant Heroes
- Anachronistic Behavior and Historical Inaccuracies
- Cliffhanger Endings
- Unattractive or Drop-Dead Gorgeous Heroines
- Heroes With Mistresses or Who Sleep With Servants
- Drop-Dead Gorgeous Heroes
- Promiscuous Heroines
- Contrived Endings
- Waifs and Silly Heroines
- Long Separations
- Excessively Cruel Heroes and Heroines
- Breaking the Rules: Why Some Authors Get Away With It
Historical Romance Deal Breaker #9: Contrived Endings
And this means fairy godmothers (or the equivalent), surprise inheritances, hidden treasure.
I have to confess that sometimes when I plot a story, I set up a situation that is so impossible that I can’t find a way out of it.
That happened to me with the novella I am currently writing. Fortunately, I offered it up to fellow writers’ group members at our annual Brainstorming Weekend, and after about 20 minutes of intense brainstorming by 11 of us, it was obvious that what I needed to do was make a slight change in the parameters of the story. Which was quite easily done.
In real life, people did (and do) face impossible situations. And it’s quite possible that one or two did get help from relatives and friends, and maybe even discovered buried treasure in the back yard. But when these things happen in a novel, I usually feel cheated. Because I want to know that my characters either managed to extricate themselves from their difficulties, or that they had the strength of character to survive in spite of them.
For example, I read a novel once where the hero and heroine were dirt poor, since the heroine’s guardian refused to approve their marriage. They made the courageous choice to live together in poverty. So far, so good. The extent of their poverty, however, was such that it began to pull them apart. The hero was seriously considering leaving the heroine for her own good when suddenly the guardian changed his mind and released her inheritance. Suddenly everything is all rosy again. But I’m left with a feeling that this pair really doesn’t have what it takes to survive a lifetime together, and that’s just not a satisfactory HEA.
Now, I think the guardian’s change of heart might actually have worked, had the author given us some preparation ahead of time. Was he starting to regret his ultimatum? Why? And had the author not shown us clearly that this couple’s relationship was too shaky to survive even a few weeks of hardship.
In real life, these things happened to people sometimes, but for me, a proper HEA leaves me with a feeling of certainty that my hero and heroine have what it takes to survive—happily—the challenges that will face them in the future.
That may be why I’m such an obsessive fan of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Jamie and Claire live in a hazardous world and undergo one crisis after another, with barely a single serene moment in between. And yet that single moment is so deeply meaningful that it gives them the perseverance they need to survive the next catastrophe. I seriously doubt I will ever get enough of Jamie and Claire. I love them.
What do you think about HEAs dependent on lucky circumstances?
*Disclaimer: This series of “deal breakers” is meant to refer to books labeled historical romances, and not to erotica, which is a completely separate sub-genre and has an entirely different purpose.