Tag Archive | heroines

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 #12: Excessively Cruel Heroes/Heroines

This is the last of the series of what I call “deal breakers”—characteristics that make a book a wall-banger instead of a pleasurable diversion. 

In my next post I plan to explore why it is that some of my favorite books are guilty of breaking some of my most heinous rules. Why can some authors get away with it and others not? The author in me wants to know!

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

As fond as I am of happy endings, they have to be convincing happy endings. And although it’s natural for couples to quarrel and subsequently reconcile, I agree with my friend, author Selene Grace Silver, that in cases where a couple has parted due to betrayal or excessive cruelty on the part of one or both, it’s difficult to believe that such a thing would not occur again. It would require a great deal of groveling on the part of the guilty party to satisfy me.

Do such things happen in real life? Of course. But even Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor couldn’t make it work the second time, no matter how much they loved each other. It would be nice if love were enough to ensure a happy ending, but alas, it is not. There has to be trust. And true forgiveness. And whatever separated them the first time needs to be dealt with, whether it be alcoholism or infidelity or out-of-control anger.

Some examples I’ve run into in historical novels:

  • A hero discovers on his wedding night that his wife is not a virgin and repudiates her publicly without allowing her a chance to explain. Hypocritical judge and jury.
  • A hero suspects his wife of sleeping with his best friend, so he divorces her and leaves her penniless. She is forced to marry the best friend to give her child  (the hero’s since she never did commit adultery) a home. Then the hero finds out the child is his and wants her back. (Shaking my head in disgust at this one.) Loser.
  • A husband who has been estranged from his wife decides she needs to give him an heir and forces her to live with him; however, she has to sleep in the nursery because he shares the master bedroom with his mistress. No kidding. Jerk.
What do you think? What examples have you found of excessively cruel heroines? I confess the more memorable ones for me involve cruel heroes.
*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 #10: Waifs and Silly 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 #10: Waifs and Silly Heroines

Okay, I’ll admit to a partiality for feisty heroines who aren’t willing to stand aside and let themselves be walked on. However, a spoiled, selfish, immature heroine who heedlessly seeks out disaster without any concern for the consequences just makes me want to scream.

There’s something about a helpless waif that tugs at my heartstrings. However, a heroine who remains dependent on others—parents, lover, friends, etc.—seems rather gutless to me. I realize that, historically, women were expected to always be dependent, “protected,” by men, but a woman who consistently allows herself to be guided by the will of the others—in spite of her own wishes—can only end up with a satisfactory HEA through luck, i.e., her “protector” turning out to be considerate of her happiness. While waif-like heroines can be acceptable, I always wonder what would have happened if her luck had not been so good and she’d ended up with a bully.

And that’s why I prefer my waif heroines to evolve into spunky kid heroines. From being kind, passive, and insecure in the beginning, she begins to show some spirit, become defiant, and realize that she has the internal strength to make her own way in the world. And even if she ends up with an alpha hero, I know she won’t be a complete pushover, that he will have to respect her opinions in the years ahead.

So yeah, I love a good spunky heroine. But when does “spunk” become foolhardiness? Let’s talk about Lydia Bennet, the ultimate in silly heroines, from one of my favorite classics, Pride and Prejudice.

Lydia is the quintessential hormonal teenager. She drools over the handsome soldiers with her sister, thriving on their attention. To her, it’s a popularity contest, the more attention—whether good or bad—the better. She doesn’t care that she’s making herself look ridiculous or that “her way of getting a husband” may not turn out so well in the long run. If she had not been so fortunate as to have Mr. Darcy—along with her father and uncle—to bribe Wyckham to marry her, what would have become of her (not to mention the stain on her sisters)? Would she have become a courtesan or a prostitute? Starved to death? (There wasn’t any sort of “safety net” for spoiled, willful heroines in the 19th century.)

Her youth is a mitigating circumstance, along with her parents’ indulgence. But she did have older sisters who tried to rein her in, and she not only ignored them, but ridiculed them for not attracting as many beaux as she did. Even fifteen-year-olds have choices in life, and she made all the wrong ones.

Yet it is still possible that she could evolve into a satisfactory heroine. After she matured and repented of her youthful mistakes and put her life back on track. Considering that there was virtually no chance in those days of divorcing her husband, however, it would be a difficult path to take unless he conveniently died, which would also be problematic, since she and any children would undoubtedly be left penniless. So. . . how do you historically redeem a heroine like Lydia Bennet Wyckham without resorting to contrivances such as a sudden inheritance or a chance encounter with the perfect hero? Could she emigrate to America as an indentured servant and redeem herself through hard work? It’s hard for me to see the Lydia I know doing that, but I suppose it is a possibility.

While I have read stories where such deeply-flawed characters have been satisfactorily redeemed, they are few and far between. Most of the time, I end up in a state of disbelief, wanting to throw my Kindle against the wall because the author relied on some form of contrivance to get there, instead of convincing me of the character’s genuine transformation.

What kind of heroines do you prefer?

*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 #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 #1: Reluctant 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.

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!

*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.