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?