Monday, November 17, 2014

Intolerable Extremes (or How to write the genders without making me want to kill you in your sleep.)

I am not a romance novel reader.  One book I read because it was written by a very close friend and I've read all of her other books.  One I read because my coworker swore that it was the best historical romance ever written.  (It wasn't and not just because the time-traveling heroine made it back to her own world, only to grab her walkman and go back to her Scottish hunk of a 16th-century laird so she could play him some really kicking Chopin.  I kid you not.  But that's a different topic.)  Many I read because the excerpt of the beginning was good and it wasn't until I got through Chapter 6 that the ugly beasts reared their heads.  One I read because my mother got me a copy of a book which shares a name with a Mark Twain novel, but is about a very different prince and pauper.

It's not that I, by and large, look down on romance novel.  My favorite work of literature is Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and that has a lot of romance, courtly and otherwise, in some of the tales.  I love a well-written love story.  While I am a fan of Steven King and William Peter Blatty and while I approved of my sister's boyfriend first after he rented Saw for us to watch together, both of my current finished manuscripts involve at least some elements of a love story.

Why I'm talking about this tonight is that I have a massive pet peeve where romance novels are concerned.  Over and over again, I find that the girl meets boy, girl falls for boy, something gets in the way, they end up having wild monkey sex anyways, end of story.  The reason I have issues is not because of the wild monkey sex, though I have literally thrown books across a room while trying to get through these things and you really shouldn't ask me for details of how hard I laughed while trying to read Fifty Shades of Grey.

Here's my basic premise for this post: Dear Romance Writers of The World, STOP MAKING YOUR CHARACTER THE ONLY WORTHY PERSON IN THE WORLD.  I'm not talking about Mary Sues, though one of the aforementioned flung books featured one of those.  I'm not talking about personal worthiness, where the point of the book is for the nice Christian girl to marry a nice Christian boy.  I'm talking about the wholesale demonization of every member of each gender.

Last night, I started reading a retelling of Cinderella set in modern times.  There's a stepmother who is trying to sell the failing family business and offers her two daughters to a character nicknamed Prince Charming in exchange for his purchase of the business.  He falls for the stepdaughter who isn't trying to get anything out of him and they get married.  It's a fairly straightforward plot and not all that bad as far as adaptations go.

Where I just shut off my reader and went to bed in disgust was with the stepsisters, the stepmother and even the fat, flirtatious cook best friend which is what you get when you ditch the fairy godmother.  (That's even true in Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted.)  The stepsisters appear at the beginning of the book in identical black dresses with identical lank blonde hair and overstated makeup.  They only speak in sighs.  When they do finally get dialogue, we come to this:

"Standing before her were visions of beauty.  Gone were the usual black, dreary, and do-nothing-for-them dresses.  The bridesmaids' gowns were similar in fashion, yet Dolly had done wonders at sculpting the fabric ever so slightly here and there to bring out the girls' best features.  'I, oh, I can't believe...'  Only nonsensical things emerged from Charlie.

The sisters cried out in unison, 'We're so beautiful, don't you think?'"

I'm sorry, but what drively crap was that?  We'll get back to that.

If you want a litmus test of whether your character will piss me off, let me go over the salient details.

1)  Is your character as eloquent as everyone else or does she quote Shakespeare while her roommates drool and quote Barney?

2)  Is your character the only one who knows how to wear clothes in a flattering fashion?

3)  Are all other characters worthless individuals until your main character says differently?

4)  Is your main character the one with curves while the (to borrow a Fat Amyism here) twig-b****es are built like Keira Knightley and only eat lettuce?

5)  Is your character the only one with real convictions?

6)  What is your character's response to someone flirting with the significant other?

Why do I ask these questions?

1)  I remember one of my first "I-hate-romance" novel experiences, with Jane Green's Jemima J.  She was a witty journalist who engaged in sexy banter with coworkers and her roommates were secretaries at a PR firm who spoke in quotes from Cosmo, referred to everyone as "mutton dressed as lamb" and said on a regular basis, "Mimey, be a dear and make us a cuppa!"  Of course the only one who was going to get a boyfriend in the end was the journalist who had to lie about her personality and develop exercise bulimia to do so.

2)  Speaking of mutton dressed as lamb, bad books are rife with the girls who have curves in all the right places and, as a result, know how to wear flattering clothes.  The rest are tottering around in shoes that were so expensive they had to pay their rent late and wearing little black dresses.  This may be just to illustrate that real romance is what happens when you don't dress to go clubbing, but it's another intolerable extreme.

3)  Remember my quote from above about "We're so beautiful, don't you think?"  I'm going to leave that alone for a while and turn to an LDS author named Cheri Crane.  She wrote a series that started with Kate's Turn.  Once Kate, the drug-using, necking-in-public, parent-disobeying teenager came around and found Christ (not exaggerating here), she was an inspiration to all.  I do like that reformation.  What I had a problem with was that everyone in that book had a crisis of confidence or values that only Kate would be able to heal.  She would take the fat returned sister missionary who hated all men since her South American slut of a roommate married her fiance and make her a body-loving confident woman who opened up to men on the first date.  Unless your main character is a licensed psychotherapist, I don't advise this kind of characterization.  I also don't approve of your character being the only one who can convince someone that they're beautiful/intelligent/worth loving.

4)  I am a Real Woman With Curves.  My pediatrician knew it from my early childhood on.  I was a C cup in 8th grade.  I have curves in the wrong places, too.  Take that and compare it to my sister, who is my ideal weight, but several inches taller than me.  She can and does wear skinny jeans without looking ridiculous.  And she's one of the nicest people I will ever know.  Real Women have whatever frigging body type they have.  Being a 38DD doesn't make me or your character a better human being.

5)  Everyone has convictions.  Some of them are dumb convictions, but they're entitled to them.  This Cinderella retelling features a character who is the only one to get off her curvy butt and have a vision to save the family business.  She's the only one who can stand up to someone who wants to use her.

6)  This is a pet peeve for a whole other blog post entitled "WHAT THE HECK IS THIS CHARACTER DOING IN ROMANCE?"  Most times, I can't tell if a writer is a virgin or not, but there are some things that make me absolutely sure that the person's most smutty moment has been writing a NSFW fanfic.  A big red flag is the response to this question.  Obviously, these characters should be put on a pedestal for how awesome they are compared to everyone else, so why are they threatened by any other person interacting with their significant other?  Half of my problem with this is a matter of confidence.  It's incredibly inconsistent for the visionary 36E-wearing PETA member who just saved someone from suicide by quoting Twelfth Night to have to assert her dominance.  I have issues with these characters up to this point in the story, but the moment that the person has to drag their man off to screw his brains out because his gay assistant made a crack about his bulging biceps, I want to stop reading the book altogether and warn everyone else away from it.  I will not believe for a second that marking your territory at the first sign of any interest will make for a lasting relationship.

1)  Is your character reformed entirely by his singular lust for the opposite sex?

2)  Has your character only dated either twig-b****es or social climbers until now?

3)  Does your man see every single tic as something that triggers his need to prove his manliness?

4)  What are the other men in this book like?

5)  How tight are his jeans?

6)  How tolerant is this man of the woman's psychosis?

1)  Sure, this worked sort of once in The Breakfast Club, but that was a reformation that, as far as we know, never lasted until Monday.  If, after 30 years, the man can go from being a womanizing misogynist to someone who borrowed his rules of chivalry from actual chivachye, there has to be more than one catalyst.  I recently read, "She bit her lip.  His middle tightened; it made him want to kiss it better.  Everything about her made him want to be a better man."  No.  No way, no how.  No.  When I was a missionary, I worked with a lot of people who had to give up alcohol or smoking or other bad habits.  Not a single one of the success stories had a single motivation to keep them going.  It would be like having a girl look at a dating profile picture and that alone gives her the strength to go from morbidly obese to a size 2 in the remaining 200 pages of the book.  (And yes, we already talked about Jemima J.)

2)  If your character has dated only these types, there's a reason for this.  He finds something about that desirable and beautiful and fascinating.  It doesn't mean that none of those people was right for him.  And by extension, the thing that attracts him to the polar opposite can't be that she is a soft, curvy, girl-next-door type who only uses a straightener on her wedding day.

3)  This is a response to men getting hot in response to hair being tucked behind ears, lips being bitten, etc.  Invariably, the man sees that the girl has an issue with herself and that makes him want to take her into his Fabio arms and make sure she never has a moment of doubt again.  Or he wants to protect her from the perverts out there.  That can't be picked up by body language that tries to make up for the fact that the female sucks at flirting (in a charming, disarming way, of course).

4)  I recently read a book in which a girl fell for a guy who was a bit of a mama's boy, with good manners and a love of the nobility of women.  That was sweet and cute and really belonged in a General Conference talk about dating.  But then the female lead went to a business lunch, was sexually harassed by her boss and groped publicly by a business partner and that's why she fell in love with the boy next door.  No, the world doesn't work like that.  Don't make every character but the love interest a child pornographer with a foot fetish.

5)  There were many problems (as you can tell) with this book I read recently, but one arrived in the incomparably named form of Dexter Snodgrass.  He wears his lab coat everywhere, has thick glasses, hasn't washed his hair in a week and thought that the main character's support of his perfume line meant that she wanted to be his sex kitten.  All of those are sins in their own characterization right, but it's no surprise that he doesn't know how to dress himself?  Baggy khakis, ill-fitting lab coat..  "The shaggy hair, the slight stubble and wrinkled jacket all bore the fact that Dexter Snodgrass never gave a hoot about appearances."  The main character fell in love with the guy wearing tight jeans and a button-down white shirt.  Big surprise.

6)  This is fundamental for me.  I remember a great episode of my guilty pleasure, Sex and the City, in which Miranda is feeling great and accepts a date offer from a guy at the gym.  She is self-absorbed because it's so rare that she feels this good.  And the guy never calls her again.  She obsesses over the reasons why until she gets up the courage to ask what went wrong.  He politely tells her that she seemed a little full of herself.  I had such respect for that man right there, knowing that it's okay to be turned off by something that rubs you the wrong way. Personally, when women mark their territory by either having a public smack-down or having dominance-establishing wild monkey sex immediately after an interaction, I think a lot of men would find that problematic.  Deal with the reason this does or does not cause a problem.

So, there you have it.  If you ever want to know what I expect of romance, you now have the litmus tests.  And if you catch me committing a sin, you can quote me on this.