Tag Archive | characterization

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?

Historical Romance Deal Breaker #9: Contrived Endings

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

  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 #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.

Historical Romance Deal Breaker #8: Promiscuous Heroines

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

  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 #8: Promiscuous Heroines

Unmarried women in historicals—especially Regencies—should be virginal, or at least the next thing to it. It’s not fair, but women who slept around were considered sluts in the early 19th century, by the upper and lower classes alike, and gently-bred young ladies were chaperoned so closely that they had little or no opportunity for sexual experimentation.

But you wouldn’t know it by the number of stories I’ve seen lately where young ladies walk out on the terrace and allow their escorts all sorts of liberties that would terrorize any gently-reared Regency innocent. Okay, perhaps a kiss is acceptable, so long as the gentleman has honorable intentions.

One book I read took place at a house party where young ladies and eligible gentlemen were crawling into each other’s bedrooms; there were adulterous liaisons, some involving ladies and male servants. No respectable Regency parent would allow his daughter to attend such a ramshackle houseparty in the first place, let alone leave her unchaperoned long enough to be despoiled by some licentious rake.

Don’t get me wrong: proper young ladies are allowed to have the normal desires and passions of youth; they simply are not allowed to indulge them until after the wedding (or close enough to it). What I mean is, to a Regency young lady, her reputation is of primary importance. Any gentleman who is interested in her must understand that she is not simply another barq of frailty who can be molested and then discarded as he sows his wild oats.

That’s one big difference between historical and contemporary romance. In a historical, the romance must be the focus. Sexual tension: yes. Sexual experimentation: not so much.

Widowed heroines should be virtuous. In other words, they do not take advantage of the freedom allowed by their widowed status to indulge in discreet affairs. At least not with anyone but the hero, and only then when their relationship has deepened into love. “Willing widows,” who have had multiple affairs before the hero comes along, tend to leave me cold.  Reeks of contemporary. Who’s to say the hero isn’t just using her like all the rest? Not romantic.

Now, I’ve seen heroines who were forced into prostitution find love and redemption with an understanding hero. A talented author can do it. The trickier part, however, is dealing with the attitudes of society with such a pairing. While Charles Fox did indeed marry his mistress, she was never accepted in society, and I’m sure many a high-stickler gave her the cut-direct when they crossed paths. Such a situation has the potential of casting doubt on the credibility of the HEA. To pretend that unpleasant scandals of the past can be completely wiped away as though they never existed is just not realistic.

In the more sensual historical romances (and erotica), as opposed to the traditional Regencies, authors can take more license with these social mores. And, as I’ve said in previous posts, there are a few authors who are skillful enough to break the rules and still leave the reader sighing contentedly. But more often than not, when I run across heroines who are allowed to sleep around without parents or chaperones noticing, I just want to throw the book against the wall.

Because if I wanted to read a contemporary romance, I wouldn’t buy a historical one. Jeesh.

What do you think? Am I expecting too much of my passionate heroines?

*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.

Historical Romance Deal Breaker #7: Drop-Dead Gorgeous Heroes

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

  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 #7: Drop-Dead Gorgeous Heroes

Don’t get me wrong: I like an attractive hero as much as anyone else. But I don’t really care for one who is so good-looking that serving maids drop their trays at the sight of him, and women flock to him by the dozens. Because even if the heroine is gorgeous herself, it just seems unlikely that a guy facing that much temptation everywhere he goes would be faithful to one woman forever, no matter how much he wants to. Especially if he’s never even tried to stick to one woman for any length of time. And especially in historical romances, where gentlemen aren’t really expected to be faithful to their wives.

And as much as I’d like to believe otherwise, a gorgeous hero falling for a plain-jane heroine is just not believable either. There has to be something attractive about a woman for a man like that to notice her. Perhaps he is the only one who sees it. But he’s not going to be thinking about her inner beauty during the entire story, at least not enough to prevent him from noticing all the beautiful women throwing themselves in his path.  And speaking for the plain-jane heroine, how happy an ending can it be when she has to face this sort of thing the rest of her life? A very clever author might be able to manage it, but most stories like this leave me unconvinced.

Actually, a hero doesn’t have to be more than moderately attractive, in my opinion, as long as he has the requisite heroic qualities and truly loves the heroine. Perhaps it’s because I am one of the women who does not tend to judge by outside appearance. A hero with a scar or a limp or even a few wrinkles doesn’t phase me, as long as his other qualities measure up.

Judging by the washboard chests of the heroes on the covers of most romance novels, however, I’m thinking perhaps I’m in the minority on this. But then, I was never one to buy a book based on the cover; I’d read the blurb on the back to get a hint of the plot first. Attractive covers are nice, but I always carry an image of the characters in my mind as I read, and often they don’t look at all like those some artist (who may not have even read the book) conceived.

What about you? Do you drool over heroes with ripped chests or prefer them to have more substance?

*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.