(November 6, 1998)
Historical romance author Cathy Maxwell was recently in touch after discovering All About Romance. When I discovered she had recently given a lecture at the Smithsonian, my ears were abuzz. Could she share a bit of her discussion with our audience, I asked? The answer, luckily enough, was a resounding yes. Based on what I read, she represented the genre magnificently. Here, without further ado, is:
I was recently honored to speak at the Smithsonian. They sponsored a symposium on the romance novel and I was asked to discuss the topic of character.
I titled my talk "Strong Men, Stronger Women." I chose the theme off the top of my head without much thought . . . but I was surprised by the direction it took me. It became a personal statement on my belief in the value and strength of the romance novel.
Laurie asked for an article, a little something on this genre we all admire. I'd like to share with you the last portion of my speech, the section when I talk about what sets the characters in the romance novel apart from other genres:
So, how does the romance novel differ from other genres when it comes to characterization? Well for one thing we have two protagonists, — we call them the hero and the heroine — and they are both equally important. Even if you write in only one point of view, you must feed in the other character's viewpoint as carefully as you do the POV character.
They each have strong goals, each is highly motivated, each has important separate backstory that must be fed in judiciously.
The reader also has certain expectations that they each should fulfill. The first is that they are both honorable. There is a reason for this. . .in the romance novel, the reader expects the hero and heroine to fall in love — and not just any love. This will be the kind of love that will overcome all obstacles, the kind of love that lasts a lifetime. Dishonorable people cannot make that type of commitment. They could if they changed through the course of the book. . . but I wonder if honor is something that can change. Another characteristic the reader expects is for the hero and heroine to be heroic. Notice I didn't say perfect. Perfect people are boring. I like writing instructor Alicia Rasley's definition of heroism. She says, "Heroism comes not from handily and perpetually surmounting every obstacle, but from overcoming what you're afraid you can't overcome." That's heroic and it has to be built into the character.
I also believe the Relationship between these hero and heroine is almost a character in and of itself. It must exist on every page of the book once the hero and heroine meet. It has to turn their world upside down. It challenges them and serves as a catalysts for further action. It interferes with their original goals and in the end becomes a motivation for the resolution of the book. Not only that, but to resolve the Relationship, the hero and heroine must change. If he was guarded and untrusting — he now believes in the basic goodness of humanity, with caveats of course. If she was destitute and fearful, she is now secure and trusting. Their image of the world expands to include the other person.
I want to focus here a bit more on the heroine. I've listened to arguments that the heroine is more important in the romance novel than the hero. This may be true. These are stories of female empowerment. Stories where she isn't overtaken by loads of laundry and carpools. Or where she isn't so exhausted she can't think beyond today's to do list. She certainly isn't afraid of making major life changes.
I've been reading Kennedy Fraser's book Ornament & Silence, which are essays on women. Wonderful writing. The title comes from a Virginia Woolf passage. "(the history of most women is) hidden either by silence, or by flourishes and ornaments that amount to silence." Fraser's essay on Woolf herself touched me deeply because here is the woman who has been held up to me as the example of the 20th century female novelist and yet she felt powerless so much of her life. Part of this sense of powerlessness came from secrets she hid about her childhood, but another part came from holding herself and her talent up to male approval. Her writing was never accepted just in and of itself, but compared to how a man would have written it.
To me, the essay underscored how powerless so many of us feel at different stages of our lives. How much time we've spent in our lives doing what is expected of us and waiting for approval that often doesn't come. In the romance novel, the heroine is powerful. She does not hide her feelings or her desires. She initiates action. She makes decisions. Even if she is afraid, she goes forward. Her character may be flawed, but she doesn't apologize for it. She is as full and complete as any other character in the book. Nor is she Penelope waiting, waiting, waiting for her husband to return. Or Guinevere who destroys a dream though her adultery. Most important, her relationship to the hero only heightens her sense of self-esteem as an equal partner. This is the Reader's Expectation and must be fed into the character for a satisfactory resolution.
I have a hunch about the reasons behind this strong reader expectation at this point of the book. I believe it is because we are women writing for women about women and edited by women. We have over the years been largely ignored by the male establishment, even ridiculed, and in some ways we are better for it. It has allowed us to create the heroines in the image of what we think they should be. It has allowed us to explore ourselves, our fears, our hopes, and our dreams — and to accept power without hesitation.
It has allowed us to create a diverse genre that knows no boundaries and is limited only by our imaginations and our love for the happy ending. Nowadays people talk about the goddess. She was all but killed by modern literature but now she is back. And this time she is bigger, brighter, and bolder. My friends, I believe it is the popularity of the romance novel with its mythic themes and its brave heroines that has allowed that goddess to reemerge.
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