August 21, 2006 - Issue #235

From the Desk of Leigh Thomas:

Good Girls (And Boys) Don't

I've been thinking about this issue for a while now, so even though a discussion that rose up after Laurie's August 7th column kind of stole my thunder, I'm going to say my piece anyway.

There's a lot of great television on the airwaves these days, and one thing that makes so many shows so rich and complex is their willingness to present their characters as flawed, complicated people, without necessarily feeling the need to make the viewer like them. This is true of just about everything on HBO. Lost's island is populated by a cast of characters who've made bad choices in the past and continue to do so in the present. The Housewives' desperation usually leads to bad behavior. On House, the outlandish title character isn't the only dysfunctional one, and on ER, Maura Tierney's screwed up Abby has been frustrating and challenging audiences for years.

The writers of Grey's Anatomy have shown a willingness to test audience sympathy by having nearly all of its characters, particularly its female ones, display an unlikable side and do bad things. In an interview with L.A. Weekly, series creator Shonda Rhimes admitted, "In the beginning, even before we made the pilot, some executive would write this sentence in the script every once in a while: 'Can the women be nicer?'. My answer was always, 'No, that's who they are.'. I think there's a fear of not-nice women. I think our characters are always very nice and they're all caring. But they're also selfish and they're also competitive and they also have bad days and they also do bad things and they're also all flawed. What I like about that is it gives you some place to go. It's very hard to deal with somebody who's nothing but nice."

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Perhaps none of them is as flawed as the lead character, Meredith Grey, who has taken a lot of flack in reviews and on message boards for being whiny and needy and promiscuous. She spent much of last season acting like an open wound, her issues bleeding all over the place and manifesting in behavior for which many would (and have) judge her harshly. After being dumped by her boyfriend who A) Didn't tell her he was married; B) Left her to go back to his wife; and C) Continued to flirt with her while she tried to put her life back together and dealt with the father who abandoned her, she went through a series of one-night stands, culminating in a disastrous encounter with her roommate, who had harbored a crush on her all along. And just when she managed to get to a good place and was starting a new, real relationship, her former lover reacted jealously and lashed out at her for "sleeping around." In her best moment of the season, she told him off thusly:

"You don't get to call me a whore. When I met you, I thought I had found the person that I was going to spend the rest of my life with. I was done. So all the boys and all the bars and all the obvious daddy issues - who cared? Because I was done. You left me. You chose Addison. I'm all glued back together now. I make no apologies for how I chose to repair what you broke. You don't get to call me a whore."

What I particularly loved about this speech is the "no apologies" line. She doesn't crumble into tears, bemoan what a slut she is in the face of his anger and beg for understanding and forgiveness. Heck, she knows her behavior has been unhealthy (as a no-sex vow she imposed on herself earlier demonstrated). But she's also screwed up and hurting and doing whatever she can to cope, which is messy and real and, most of all, human. I'm usually impressed with how willing the writers are to make their lead so complicated and imperfect.

That's what makes all of the above mentioned shows, among others, compelling. Visit any television-related message board and the discussion over these characters can get heated, with different viewers seeing the characters and their actions in differing ways. The characters are interesting precisely because they aren't good or bad. They're both, as actual people tend to be. They are allowed to make mistakes and do bad things, because that's what people do.

I was reminded of this when I recently read a Blaze by Julie Elizabeth Leto, The Domino Effect, which featured a subplot involving a married man and a seductive young woman. He's clearly attracted to her but tries to resist, and she makes it clear she will do anything to have him. The storyline made me uncomfortable, which ultimately was exactly what I appreciated about it. The reason I was uncomfortable is that it was more real than usual, not as simple and clear-cut the way things usually are in romances. I wasn't sure where it was going to be go. I couldn't count on the characters to do the right thing, which made for a much more gripping and unpredictable read than I was used to in a romance novel.

Of course, these were secondary characters, who don't have to necessarily play by the same rules as leads. But that just made me think about those rules that romance heroes and especially heroines typically have to play by. They don't have the same freedom to fall, to fail, to be human that the characters in any of the above mentioned TV shows have. For that matter, they don't have the freedom that the characters that in any other genre have. For the most part behavior in romance novels is cleanly divided between good and bad, with the protagonists taking the former and the antagonists taking the latter. The antagonists may surprise and display a good side, but it's far less common for the so-called hero and heroine to show an unflattering side and give in to their baser instincts, or give any indication they have any.

Of course, the protagonists in romances do make mistakes and bad choices, but they usually fall into three categories:

  1. Plot devices. For instance, the heroine makes a choice that puts her in a dangerous situation because the plot requires her to. The action is not something based in the character, but in the demands of the storyline and the hand of the author weighs too heavily on the deed. She's a victim of bad writing, not an impure heart.
  2. The Nobility-Retaining Deeds. The character makes a bad choice for all the right reasons i.e. Because the character doesn't think he/she is good enough for the other person; to keep the other person out of danger; out of love, etc. Basically, the reader knows it's not the right thing to do, but it's something that never leaves any doubt that the character is a good person. The motives are pure, even if the action is not.
  3. Stupidity. The character is an idiot and appears to have no brain. They can't truly be held accountable or judged harshly for their actions because they're operating with a severe handicap. (There used to be a fourth category - Because he's a deranged a-hole - with obvious insanity being the mitigating circumstance, but that has largely been fazed out as the crazy hero became less common.)

I don't mean these types of actions. I mean the kind of choices that are based in character and in believable emotions that are less than lily white. Are the main characters in romance novels, but particularly heroines, allowed to be less than heroic? To challenge us? To frustrate us? To keep us unprepared of what they might do next because we can't be sure the most healthy or moral or good thing will be it? To do the angry thing, the selfish thing, the morally questionable thing - yes, even the foolish thing, if there's a reasonable basis in the person's character that would justify the choice (other than mental deficiency).

There are exceptions of course. Anne Stuart writes the kinds of heroes who frequently cross the line and damaged women who don't always make the best choices. But, well, she's Anne Stuart. She's been at this long enough to get away with things no one else can, and does. Her work is hardly indicative of the rest of the genre. (She also happens to be my favorite romance author.) It's also worth noting that after more than thirty years of publication, while she's big, she's certainly not as big as many other authors who write much safer material with more conventionally good characters.

I have to admit that I've been in a reading slump for a while now. While I love the genre, I've been finding less and less satisfaction with it, and I have to wonder if this hasn't been the reason for it. More and more it occurs to me that romance novels have an inherent predictability, not just because they are guaranteed to have a happy ending, but because the main characters are guaranteed to behave - or not to behave - in certain ways.

In fact, the most interesting romances I've read over the last few years have been ones where, like those TV shows, the characters haven't necessarily been good or made the right choices. In 2004, I reviewed another Blaze, Forbidden by Tori Carrington, where the relationship between the hero and heroine was an extramarital one. I didn't particularly like either character. Frankly, I thought the heroine was a terrible mother (which is one of my hot buttons). Yet the authors convincingly depicted the powerful attraction between the characters and I had no trouble believing they were caught up in an all-consuming passion that defied reason and couldn't be resisted. There was such an undercurrent of desire pulsing through the story that I understood why the heroine would give in to every selfish longing, even if I didn't necessarily like her for it.

Last year I read a Superromance, Jean Brashear's Forgiveness, whose heroine was self-loathing and self-destructive to the extreme. In conversations with her family, there were moments there were almost painfully true, as she lashed out almost in spite of herself, saying the wrong thing and hurting those closest to her without even wanting to. Wracked with pain and guilt (she was driving drunk in the accident that killed her younger brother years earlier), she was flawed and frustrating, often making the wrong choice. Of course, tortured heroines are no stranger to the genre, but most of them tend to suffer more nobly. They don't act out on their pain by going to bars, flirting with dangerous men, and getting into perilous situations - not once, but twice - testing the reader's patience in the process. Yet the author related her pain so vividly that her actions were consistent with who she was. It was easy to see she really was that screwed up. As such, I empathized with her in a way I often don't with tortured characters and felt her emotions more keenly.

As with the Leto book, one reason I enjoyed both of these was the unpredictability of the characters' actions. These were people who weren't behaving by the usual romance novel rules. Whether out of lust or torment, their actions weren't driven by what was smart or good, but out of raw emotion - which happens to be the second reason I enjoyed them. Lust and agony and anger may not be "good" emotions, but they're also fiercer and more powerful than basic niceness. Whereas so much romance is increasingly nice and pleasant and bland, the books mentioned above produced a visceral reaction in me. I experienced the characters emotions with them. There's something thrilling about that, and in the romance genre, this strikes me as only a good thing, whether those emotions are good or bad.

But these are rather isolated cases that certainly aren't the norm. While I enjoyed the characters, the stark difference between them and most romance novel protagonists made me wonder if I was alone and whether most romance readers even want to read about characters that imperfect. Many would claim Meredith Grey isn't a proper romance heroine. Nor would they say Lost's Sawyer, who conspires to have an innocent woman attacked so that he can perform a power play as an act of petty vindictiveness, is fit to be the hero of a romance novel. Both claims may very well be true. But is there such a thing as a proper hero and heroine? Should there be? Being a genre primarily aimed at female readers, it's generally assumed that the male lead must be someone the reader can fall in love with; the female lead must be someone the reader can relate to. We call them the hero and heroine for a reason, don't we? Do most readers have an expectation when picking up a romance novel that the main characters are fundamentally good people, and as such, deserving of love in a way more flawed characters would not be? Is that what they want? Is it enough for romance protagonists to be interesting, or must they be likable as well?

I was reminded of this while reading Ellen Micheletti's review A Man of Honor, Linda Barrett's August release. Ellen, my AAR editor, expressed her disgust of a scene where the heroine is reunited with her parents, two abusive drunks who made her childhood a living hell. They now claim to be sober, so the heroine arrives for dinner with a bottle of scotch, pours two glasses in front of them, and leaves the drinks on the table, coldly informing her parents she knows they'll need them. Ellen described this act as "evil," and many of our colleagues were similarly horrified when she shared this with us. Personally, I thought this sounded absolutely delicious and immediately ordered the book. An abused daughter lashing out at the people who were supposed to love her yet who hurt her so grievously, trying to inflict even a small amount of the pain they caused her? Sounded good to me. Frankly, short of dumping the alcohol on them and setting them on fire, I couldn't imagine anything she could do to them that wouldn't have me on her side.

That belief was only cemented when I read the book. It opens with a prologue showing the heroine as a twelve-year-old, running out of the house in tears and cradling her face where her drunk father just punched her. I repeat, her father punched his twelve-year-old daughter in the face, evidently not for the first - or last - time. I immediately rescinded my setting-them-on-fire limitation. If anything, I only grew angrier on her behalf when the parents arrived on the scene, basically acting like everything's fine and they're ready to play happy family now that they're on the wagon. Neither so-called parent, especially her father, shows sufficient remorse or displays enough of a willingness to make amends when they should be on their hands and knees begging for forgiveness. They make some weak protests about how alcoholism is a disease. (Yeah, so's cancer. Nobody gives you a free pass for beating your kids because you have that either.)

I didn't blame her for being bitter, because I was on her behalf. In the lead-up to the pivotal scene, the author describes the character's thought processes:

She shouldn't be putting temptation in the way of a couple who'd been sober for two years. If they were telling the truth, it wouldn't be fair to them.
But, it was a big "if," and she didn't care. She knew exactly what she was doing and why...Simply, her anger still simmered. She'd never confronted them and hadn't forgiven George and Jolene. She'd never made them account for her ravaged childhood that had been no childhood at all. For the beatings and the bruises, for making her ashamed to go to school. But most of all for feeling powerless. For being George's punching bag in the pit.
Ten years away made no difference. Their simple appearance reawakened her resentment. Well, she'd never claimed to be a saint.

How refreshing - a heroine who isn't perfect and makes no pretense to be - not to mention wholly believable. And so she lashes out by throwing the thing they always put ahead of her right back in their faces. I loved it. I agreed with Ellen that the book was fairly mediocre otherwise, but where this scene ruined it for her, it redeemed it for me. It was emotionally honest in a way many romance novels aren't. I especially appreciated that there were no miracle reconciliations in the end. The relationship with her parents is left open and unresolved. Some things just can't be wrapped up realistically in the constraints of a romance novel.

Ah, but then, are romance novels supposed to be real? Some would say that romance is a genre at least partly, if not fully, based in fantasy. The fantasy of happy endings, the fantasy of good always triumphing over evil. Is there perhaps something inherent in the genre that demands the characters be less realistic? Though I may get in trouble for saying so, there is a certain falseness in most romance protagonists compared to characters in other genres. They're slightly less real. And it's safe to say I've read more romance novels than any other genre that have led me to wonder "Who acts like this???" Maybe this isn't necessarily a flaw, but something required by the genre that doesn't allow much room for moral ambiguity.

More specifically, I find it interesting that the rules for heroines are more stringent than those for heroes. There are bad boy heroes (although many are simply poseurs) who get to be angry and selfish and vengeful in a way heroines typically aren't. Is Shonda Rhimes right and "there's a fear of not-nice women?" or are these simply characters that most romance readers don't want to encounter?

There's also the possibility that shrinking page counts might play a role in the lack of complexity allotted to romance characters. TV shows produce a dozen to two dozen episodes a season, which allows plenty of time for the writers to show multiple facets, to rise and fall and rise again. In the increasingly shorter romance world, is that even a possibility? There haven't been many books I've read the last few years where I didn't think the characters could be developed more. The difference between an Anne Stuart hero and heroine who work for me and those that don't usually comes down to whether the characters have the depth and nuance to make their actions interesting and compelling, or whether they're so shallow their deeds are simply tedious and off-putting. Even if we don't agree with their actions, readers have to be able to understand it from the characters' point of view, to understand why they believe this is what they need to do. Otherwise they're simply stick figures going through the motions of the plot. Character development is key, but seems to be less of a priority in romance novels. Could this be a contributing factor to the lack of complexity in romance heroes and heroines, that there simply isn't the room to develop it?

I know that I've posed many questions in this column while providing few concrete answers of my own. That's because I don't have any. I've been thinking about all of this for a while now, and I'm genuinely curious what other readers think about these issues. How real, how flawed, how human, do romance readers want their heroes and especially their heroines to be?

Leigh Thomas

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