Pet Peeves About Romance Novels
There are things that drive me crazy about romance novels these days. When I was ready (OK, driven) to write a science fiction/action series that starts with Overload Flux, it came to me, as I outlined the story arc, that all the planned novels involve romantic elements. Along with science fiction, action, and mysteries, I've read a lot of romances over the years, but only casually, and not recently. I decided I needed to understand the structure and reader expectations for the romance genre to get it right. In the last year, I put myself through a course of reading a ton of recent romances, primarily those mixed with other genres – science fiction, action, mystery, fantasy, etc. While it wasn't a hardship to have to read a lot (“I'm not being a slug, I'm doing RESEARCH”), I came away with some pet peeves about romances today. These are entirely my own, idiosyncratic opinions, and you may well disagree.
- I'm annoyed by heroines who impulsively throw themselves into dangerous situations (e.g., a gun battle, mountain climbing, high-speed chase) with no experience, skills, etc., and the hero has to save her, all because she thinks she needs to help, and they both survive with only a scratch or two. All too often, it's a lazy way to put the main characters in peril, instead of a realistic assessment of how that kind of stupid behavior gets people killed, and that the heroine needs to learn from it or lose everything. Conversely, I'm irritated by males who treat their female lovers like play toys, glass figurines, delicate flowers, etc. – if she's worthy of his love (not just lust/pheromones/magic), she's worthy of being allowed to participate in her own destiny.
- I'm bored with perfectly handsome/beautiful main characters, unless it's an integral part of the plot (and preferably an obstacle). Since I and most of my friends, or people I pass on the street, or even see at a glittery opening night (Hollywood award shows notwithstanding), are ordinary, with flaws and quirks, I'm more satisfied when the romantic interests find each other attractive, even when the rest of the world can't see it.
- I think romantic suspense stories (and TV cop shows, while I'm casting stones) rely too much on the “serial killer” trope. They practically grown up on every block, apparently, even though it's an extreme form of human aberration. I have slightly more patience with stalkers, because there are all ranges of that, from uncomfortable over-interest, which is sometimes hard to distinguish from bad social skills, to the insanely murderous (look up actress Teresa Saldana, for example). I once talked to a police homicide detective about premeditated murder, and his personal idea was that the killers simply couldn't see past their internal view of how much better life would be without their victim. Probably anecdotal, but a much more interesting story line than just another violent serial killer or stalker, out for twisted power jollies.
- I am out of patience with the big misunderstanding that could be solved with two minutes of honest conversation. There are flavors of this that work, especially when handled by a master (Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice comes to mind), but if the cause is a simple character flaw (e.g. pride, contrariness, shyness), it gets old fast, and barely sustains a short story, much less an entire novel. I recently read a novella where two vampire leads were apart for decades, all based on the Big Misunderstanding. What, they didn't talk to each other even once in the last 70 years?
- I am completely incensed when the adult male character treats the adult female character like a child. I haven't read very many male/male or female/female romances, so I don't know if this problem appears in those stories as well, but I suspect not. It seems to be a symptom of the M/F dynamic.
I'm irritated when an adult males calls his adult female lover “little one” or “kitten” or “baby” (foreign languages don't improve things — calling her “mon petite” is still calling her “little one” in French). I'll grudgingly tolerate a male lead who starts out treating the female like a child, as long as he soon recognizes he'll lose her if he doesn't change his behavior.
I'm liable to throw the book across the room (or at least angrily stab! the! delete! button! on my e-reader) if the male disciplines the female as if she's a recalcitrant child (e.g., spanking as punishment**, detention, etc.), unless in the very next scene, she guts him and leaves his carcass for the crows. The same goes for when the male simply overpowers the female by slinging her over his shoulder, tying her up, or forcing her hormones to respond until she “admits” she cares/wants him (uh, Stockholm syndrome and dubious consent, anyone?).
Bottom line: If the male wouldn't treat his best friend or trusted colleague that way, he shouldn't do it to the love interest, especially the woman he supposedly respects and may want to spend his life with. If I read a story where blurb leads me to believe the female character is powerful/respected, but in the story itself, the hero treats the heroine like a 10-year-old and she figures it's OK, because she knows she was “bad,” or it's OK, because it means he truly loves her, or it's OK, because that's how all women are treated in this time period/society/universe, I'll probably never, ever buy that author's books again, because the author has irrevocably lost my trust.
** Note that I'm not talking about erotica, consensual BDSM, spanking books, etc. — readers of those genres know what they're getting into and expect exactly that.
One of the things I enjoy about Bujold’s Vorkosigan books is that Miles is the polar opposite of all those hunky romance heroes. Personality counts for way more in books. 🙂
Honestly, though, I find drop-dead heroines more annoying than handsome heroes, especially the red-haired green-eyed ingénue. 😛
@Lindsay: Agreed on Vorkosigan; Lois created a great character. I’m with you on the annoyance with the red-haired, green-eyed, voluptuous-yet-innocent heroine. Sort of like my serial killer argument, really — if you based your demographic estimates on novel heroines, every third female would have red hair, green eyes, and huge tracts of land (to steal from Monty Python). I suspect males with generously sized naughty bits would be an equally high percentage.
I’ve already told Lindsay on Twitter that it sounds as if you’re picking the wrong kinds of books, esp. in regard to the depiction of the heroine. 🙂
Perfect people in romance are a bit of a problem, indeed, though there are also authors who are writing against that trope. A classic example would be Georgette Heyer: her adventurous heroines (several of them imperfect, several of them v. strong – Venetia, Bath Tangle, & The Grand Sophy come to mind here) are even more striking when you compare them to Barbara Cartland’s (started writing around the same time as Heyer) much more passive female characters, who constantly have to be saved by the hero. (Heyer & Cartland wrote historical romances, so obviously, I’m reading slightly different subgenres than you have.)
When it comes to paranormals, I really, really enjoyed Kresley Cole’s A Hunger Like No Other (werewolves, vamps & bubble-gum chewing valkyries – yay!) when it came out a few years ago. V. domineering, intense hero (werewolfie, has been tortured for a few decades, poor thing), who is somewhat driven mad by the rather unconventional heroine (and her valkyrie aunties).
In my self-education quest, I tended to pick the books based on blurbs, largely because I hadn’t read any romance-category books in, like, forever, and had no idea what authors to read. I do remember vastly enjoying Heyer’s heroines and deeply detesting Cartland’s innocent noobs who had the power to reform rakes with a mere bat of eyelashes. I’ll definitely check out Cole’s work — sounds like fun.
If you enjoy historicals, you might want to check out Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels – it still regularly appears on Top 100 Romances lists. It’s loads of fun, the dynamics between hero & heroine are great, and there’s also a subtle underlying Cinderella theme (inverted – because it’s the hero who has been told he isn’t worth anything). One of the love scenes contains a wonderful dig at the bodice ripper cliché (it’s not the *heroine’s* bodice which gets ripped *ggg*) (as I said: great fun! 🙂 ).
For rummaging around the genre the Top 100 Romances at All About Romance might be a good place to start (though it is rather heavy on historicals & contemporaries): http://www.likesbooks.com/top1002013results.html
Under “Readers’ Choice” you can find more lists on their site.
The review & reader recs at Smart Bitches might also be helpful. They recently had a post about strong heroines: http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/blog/the-rec-league-a-family-of-strong-heroine-loving-series-readers
And Dear Author also has some great recommendations posts. Like these: http://dearauthor.com/category/need-a-rec/if-you-like-misc/
I hope this helps. 🙂
Sandra, “Lord of Scoundrels” sounds like a fun read — I’ll add it to the TBR pile. I like both the Dear Author and SBTB articles — thanks for the recommendations.
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