Friday, August 13, 2010

Romance genre -- The forbidden tropes

Elsewhere, discussing what is forbidden in genre Romance, I came up with a short, tentative list.

I bring this bright and bouncy back to show everybody.
Or at least, everybody who's writing straight genre Romance.  I can't imagine this particular blog has a wider audience.

So.  These are some 'Romance genre rules' I came up with.
This is in random order, not running from more forbidden to less or something. And I'm talking about standard mass market Romance genre.

Which is all very specific and technical and also behind the cut:

What you can't do in Romance genre:

-- unsympathetic heroine

In Romance, the reader has to like the heroine.

That means snarky is okay. Malicious is not. Materialistic is okay. Greedy is not. Unsure and shy is okay. Cowardly is not. Jealous is okay. Cruel is not.

It's all in the shading.

-- Can the heroine kill?

Yes, if she has a good reason.

Killing in defense of somebody else is particularly good reason. While it's not Romance, see Eve Dallas for a precise lesson on when and how killing is done.

UF, (Urban Fantasy which is also not Romance.  I know.  I know.) does killer heroines a lot.
It's part of the whole kick-ass thing.

-- Can the heroine go sexxing around?

Before the book begins, yes. Afterwards, no.

-- Can the hero go sexing around?

Before the book begins, yes.  In fact, it's expected, chasing strange being manly and all that.

Outlander is about unique -- yes, I know it's not Romance genre but it is so nifty I try to sneak it in anyway -- in having a virgin hero.

I was going to say the hero shouldn't go chasing tail after he's met the heroine, but then I remembered Chase's Lord of Scoundrels.  I just hate it when an inconvenient specific goes and messes up a fine generality.

-- What about adultery? 

You need a really strong workaround for this.

Hero lost at sea for three years works.  Hero being a homicidal maniac works.

This all comes back to the need for an HEA.  (HEA = Happily Ever After.)  If marriage is not exclusive, this imperils the HEA.

-- Can you kick the damn puppy? Speaking metaphorically.

Terrible things can happen in Romancelandia.

They are terrible things of two sorts.
There's the suspense/thriller/mystery/action kind of terrible thing where the heroine wades into the crash scene.
Romantic Suspense has a large audience. The book will be clearly marked as what it is.

But 'kicking the puppy' is something else. That's not the crash scene with anonymous dead, it's the heroine's little sister hit by a car. It's her child dying on-stage from leukemia.

That sort of close-up, heart-wrenching tragedy is rare. Possible, but rare.

-- Can you kick the puppy literally?

As to real puppies - -
Can you kill them and cut them up for stew meat and cook them for dinner?

You're going to lose readers right that minute the puppy squeals and dies. Books are going to snap closed.

Readers -- lots of them -- will not buy a book where a child is harmed. Where an animal is hurt. (Or where any serious bad things happen, really.) They check reviews to make sure they're not in for a surprise.

I . . .  ummm . . . I had a villain kick a puppy once.  Inside joke and all that.

-- Rape?

Rape of the, 'he raped me and now I love him' trope, is an automatic, 'put it back on the shelves' for most readers. I wouldn't call it forbidden, but you definitely limit both the editors who will find this acceptable and the reading audience.

The same titillation, without the act itself, will be more marketable.

Rape or being molested as a child, when it is a horrible trauma and in the past, is not uncommon.

-- Child haters?

The heroine not wanting children is okay.

Truly disliking them will probably come across as unsympathetic. I'd call it, not utterly forbidden but another thing that limits the readership.

-- And the many sorts of sexxing.

I will not begin to list the sexual acts people do not perform in Romancelandia.  They are many and varied. Also forbidden are most of the words used to describe these acts.

Say there are 10,000 sexual possibilities for humans.  In Romance genre, there's three or four of these that can be described in detail.  Maybe ten more can be referred to with greater or lesser degrees of coyness.

If sex were food, Romance genre would have a very limted menu, but the hamburgers would be just great.

-- Not wanting to get married

. . . and not ending up wanting to get married. 

You can do this now.  It's part of the HFN, (Happy For Now,) movement.

-- Serial books with the same protagonists.

Because Romance genre is 'courtship' stories, books that deal with the later development of a relationship tend to ease themselves right over to the edge of Romance genre and go swimming off into General Fiction or Historial Fiction or some other fool thing.

That said, this serialization has been done time and again. Readers love to follow a wonderful heroine through book after book of adventures.  Look at Sergeanne Golon.
It may get you moved to another shelf in the bookstore if you keep it up, is all.

-- Multiple POVs

There's supposed to be a rule about Two POVs Only.

In shorter lengths, craft is going to keep you to two or at most three POVs, not some Romance rule. It's technically difficult to develop more than two or three POVs in 60K words.

Longer lengths you can play with more POVs. I think I've used five.

-- Exotic settings?

You can visit exotic worlds in Contemporary and Historical, Category and Single Title.Go wild.

BUT there are expected and familiar settings. If you venture outside the favorite locatiions, it'll be more difficult to sell.

-- the convention of the first male.

This is a very Romance thing.  The first male the reader sees is assumed to be the hero.

If you drop a man into the opening and he isn't the hero, you have to Tell The Reader this.  He has to be too old, too young, too evil, of the wrong social class, related and so on.

In the beginning of My Lord and Spymaster, I had to take some care and effort to do this, eliminating both Doyle, (who shows up early,) and Adrian.  Putting the reader's eye on Sebastian.

-- the providing male

The hero of a Romance is almost always desireable in terms of money, earning potential, power, and status.

Look.  Lots of women out-earn their husbands.   I don't see Romances where there's a presumption the woman will be providing economically for the man.
Maybe because I mostly read Historicals.

I suspect this is not forbidden, but just seen as removing some of the glam from the HEA


  1. Anonymous8:56 PM

    I would add: HEA cannot be adulterous. There are so many books which come thiiisss close, but then something happens. (Its not an issue in contemporaries, but think of the many situations in historicals where the couples are unhappily married and an adulterous HEA would make sense, but no. The other person has to die.)
    And I think abortion is absolutely a no. Even giving up a child for some kind of adoption is pretty much a no.
    I would also suggest that one increasing taboo is young teenager heroine with adult her, Heyer and Kelly had heroines who were really young--16, 17--but no more.
    Will continue to ponder other taboos.
    I also think its interesting that prostitution by heroine out of need is NOT a taboo (and I can think of some books where that is true during the first part of the book--not just before it begins.)

  2. Very interesting, indeed. I just recently re-read Mary Balogh's classing 'Dancing With Clara' which does indeed feature an adulterous hero. It's interesting because even in the end, after they have declared their love, he tells his wife that he doesn't know if he can change completely. She promises that she will always forgive him. So there is a sort-of implied not very happy ending in which Freddie gets to go off sleeping with other women while Clara waits at home to forgive him. I think Balogh just about manages to pull this off, but I can imagine a lot of Romance readers not liking this at all.

  3. Hi DLS --

    Yes indeed. The HEA, or HFN, has to include the possibility of marriage somewhere in the future. The Romance genre book must end with a hopeful resolution. One or the other protagonist committed to an existing spouse is a problem unresolved.

    In a Historical, an inconvenient, pre-existing spouse might as well have a red shirt on. He's that doomed.

    Having given up a child for adoption -- I think I've seen this more than once. But it's played out in the past. There are sad stories and horrible events that feed into backstory but cannot so much be played out 'on stage'.

    Romance genre, as a matter of commercial realities, generally avoids polarizing political stands. My take on this is that publishing companies don't want to come out with a 'house political policy.'

    Romance genre is, at its heart, humanist and benevolent. I think editors concentrate on that great agreement, rather than divisive specifics.

    Young, young heroine + older male?

    I'd say this is not forbidden, but -- yes -- it's becoming shaded and disapproved.

    The age difference has the merit of historical authenticity. (May we all pause for a moment to think kind thoughts about historical authenticity.)
    But people want to read the stories they want to read. Sensibilities change. We write for a modern audience that is offended by much of what people actually felt and did in the past.

    You want to write truly authentic, you write straight Historical Lit.

    OTOH, the notion that women were 'Old Maids' at 20 is not so much true, especially for those with substantial doweries. Especially for parts of the middle class. Lots of women in the Regency period married for the first time in their mid-twenties.

    I am right now uneasily wavering between my Justine having sex at fifteen or sixteen. I feel like this is a borderline to squick territory for some of the readers.

    I never know with Americans. My instincts are good about this. I'll have to ask the betas.

    Prostitution shows up once in a while. Balogh does this in Precious Jewel.
    I'll keep on-stage female promiscuity on the Forbidden list, though. It would take a Balogh to pull off the exception.

  4. Anonymous8:50 AM

    Hi Joanna,
    I loved this post and thought I'd add one interesting thought of my own. Though this doesn't directly have to do with historicals, my agent informed me that British editors wouldn't look at my modern romance set in London because the heroine is British but I (the author) am American. And potential American editors wouldn't want it because American audiences want American heroines for their British heroes. This had never occurred to me before, considering so many Americans write amazing historicals and YA with British h/h. So, I thought I'd pass it along in case it saves anyone else the trouble. Right now I'm making my heroine a New Yorker. Arghhhh.

  5. Hi Ros --

    I agree with you about Dancing With Clara. Not so much the HEA I come to Romance genre for.

    But, y'know . . . It's Balogh. If anyone can make it work, she can.

  6. Hi Anon --

    Yes. I've heard elsewhere that editors are reluctant to look at Contemporaries where British heroines are written by Americans. Especially in Single Title.

    I guess the presumption is that Americans, or any non-Brit, are going to get the details and the sensibility wrong.

    Because any mistakes are going to be 'subtle wrong stuff', editors don't want the responsibility of catching all the mistakes. Lots of fact checking and hundreds of aspects that just can't be easily checked. I see their reasoning.

    OTOH, this is somewhat like saying YAs should only be written by kids.
    (Le sigh)

  7. A few more prostitute / "courtesan" heroines: in Anna Campbell's Tempt the Devil, Mary Balogh's No Man's Mistress, and Loretta Chase's Your Scandalous Ways. All of them have actually had sex with multiple men for money (though off screen, and before the book begins), and not in all cases because they were forced into it to survive.

    But the crucial detail in all cases is that they don't ENJOY sex until it's with the hero.

    I think Smart Bitch Sarah makes a comment about this trend in Beyond Heaving Bosoms, and comes up with a funny catch phrase for it, but I just can't remember what it is at the moment.

  8. Anonymous10:50 PM

    Actually, I'm pretty sure that the heroine in Your Scandalous Ways has sex on stage with another man (the prince)as part of being a courtesan and is supposed to enjoy sex with other men. But boy is that rare...

  9. reply to anonymous: I thought the heroine led the Prince on, but it was her friend Guilietta who actually wound up in bed with him... I may be wrong.

  10. Hi Elisa --

    We have a reasonable number of heroines with wild sexxing in their pasts, be it sexxing for fun or profit.

    Do we have many where the sexxing takes place 'on-stage'? I mean, sexxing with someone other than the hero, of course.

    Interesting that men can do their pre-commitment diddling on-screen, presumably with approval from the readers.

    Nowadays heroines are allowed their own fun, (or profit,) but . . . off-stage.

  11. Love the post and the comments. A scenario I found interesting and kind of risky from the standpoint of reader acceptance occurs in Jo Beverley's Company of Rogues series. The hero of An Unwilling Bride has a mistress (Blanche?) who eventually ends up being the lover and then wife of another member of the Rogues (Hal?). Hal and Blanche's story is developed over the course of several of the novels.

    I don't think I've read another historical in which the hero's friend ends up marrying a woman who has had sex for pay with the hero. I really loved this twist, and I admire Beverley for pulling it off. Beverley always goes straight to my keeper shelf.

    On an unrelated note, we're all talking about heterosexual romance here. I'm guessing that some of the conventions and the do's and don'ts are different in same sex romances.

  12. Hi Annie --

    Unwilling Bride broke so many rules. Well . . . Jo Beverley, after all. And Arranged Marriage broke another set.

    None of this consideration of 'rules' has any relevance outside mainland Romancelandia. There are archipelagoes stretching out in every direction where rules, as we know them, do not apply.

  13. Anonymous12:08 AM

    I can't swear to what happened in Scandalous ways, but I remember reading that section with an eye to whether Chase had broken that rule, because I was curious how she would handle it. And we definitely get the impression that she spends the night with the Prince--although he definitely ends up with her friend. I forget exactly what she called that book, and the book before (Not Quite a Lady) and the one after it (the virgin from a harem book) but something like her bad girl series--she was deliberately trying to break the romance rules.

    Kristin Higgans has a contemp (can't remember which one, but not one of the most recent ones) where the heroine has really good sex with someone she doesn't end up with.

    Balogh breaks these rules impressively. Think of The Pearl and A Precious Jewel; in the first the hero and heroine meet when her hires her as a prostititue for what is her first (and only) night in the job--and she explores how awful the heroine feels about it for quite a while. And in A Precious Jewel the heroine works in a brothel to earn her keep before the hero hires her as his mistress and eventually realizes he wants to marry her. In the sequel to Dancing with Clara, we do see that they are happily married 5 or 6 years later, although it doesn't address directly how successful he's been at avoiding hsi various bad habits.

    I might point out that in fact in the Georgian and Regency era men did occasionally marry prostitutes and their mistresses--Charles Fox is one example, there are others. So this is purely about Romance Rules.

    On the adultery taboo, Eloisa James had a heroine (Esme) who happily committed adultery with several men before she found her true love, and then committed adultery with him before her husband died (the red shirt again.) And her Desperate Duchess series looks at a couple who were both adulterous and how they rebuild their marriage.

    There is also a less well known Heyer, for that matter, Venetia, where the heroine basically gives the hero permission to commit adultery at the end, although of course he says he wont, because she knows he's a rake and doesn't want to have unrealistic expectations. I suspect it is less well known because that ending made people uncomfortable.

  14. An Arranged Marriage may be my favorite of the Rogue series. Come to think of it, that series leaves a host of shattered rules in its wake. Virgin heroes, broken wedding vows. The list goes pleasingly on.

  15. Christine1:33 PM

    I think the rules are a bit more flexible nowadays but authors who bend them more than a little are still the exception. I believe when a person picks up a romance novel there is an implied "feel good" factor in knowing that no matter what happens during the course of it there will be the requisite happy ending. Each reader has their own parameters for how far their hero/heroine can stray from the "rules" and still be heroic.

    No one can deny Mary Balogh is a great author. I read "A Precious Jewel" and it was a well written moving book, so moving I pretty much bawled through most of it and gave myself a raging headache. I don't deny the author's skills but I also didn't rush to buy another book of hers. Some people love angsty books and post seeking recommendations.

    One of my most favorite authors is Carla Kelly- I think she is phenomenal. In her last book "Marrying The Royal Marine" the hero has already fallen for the heroine and while they are separated he tells himself he is too old for her and goes along with a friend to a "house of ill repute" and visits a prostitute. Not a courtesan, not his mistress but a poor working girl. Not long after he is back with the heroine and all I could think was "he is going to give her a disease" and "he is the kind of guy who thinks it's OK to visit these poor prostitutes." I know this is historically accurate, especially for a military man at the time, but its historical accuracy I really don't enjoy.

    Regarding Justine- knowing what the readers already know about her life so far, I don't think there is anything she could do that would turn the average reader off. Like Adrian, she so clearly has been leading the life of an (extraordinary) adult, it would be surprising if she wasn't making adult choices at a younger age. We've already seen her have to do it. If she were closely guarded young Victorian Lady that would be a completely different matter.

  16. Hi DLS --

    Yes. The Loretta Chase with the Harem Girl.

    She talks about it in an interview at booksmugglers.

    Very interesting.

    I like the comment that men did occasionally marry their mistresses. Regency social life -- what with Byron and Emma Hamilton -- had an almost Hollywood entertainment value. Not nearly as stuffy as we like to think.

    I had forgotten Eloisa James' Desperate Duchess series when I was considering adultery. Yes indeed. More than a bit of a rule breaker there. This one may be more easy to break in Historicals than in Contemporaries . . . marriages being easier to break in contemporary times and thus the excuses for adultery, fewer.

    I liked the Venetia ending, myself. It works well with the heroine's shakey sense of self-worth from her isolated and neglected upbringing. And, of course, her cynical and truly heroic hero would never be unfaithful.

  17. Hi Annie --

    Beverley. I just love them all. All, all all.

    I'm planning to move sometime -- maybe in 2011 or 2012 -- and I'm going through the bookshelves trying to discard stuff. I just couldn't part with any of the Beverleys.

  18. Hi Christine --

    You're right. The 'rules', insofaras they exist, are there to support the predictability of the genre. To protect the feelgood factor. To make the HEA work.

    The Mary Balogh books I mention are specifically the ones where she breaks the rules. I wouldn't say this is typical of her work. Maybe try Seducing an Angel or At Last Comes Love or The Ideal Wife. All excellent HEA books.

    Balogh had to earn the chops to break rules.

    In re Marrying the Royal Marine -- I have not yet read this, but I plan to. You would not believe how many books I have on my TBR shelf.

    Anyhow, I too have these problems with men visiting brothels.

    Here's where I'm going to paraphrase somebody who was very clever and I cannot remember who it was or where I saw this ... so I apologize.

    Anyhow, somebody was making a list of 'Regency Rules'. Among them was the Regency rake . . . a man with a rich selection of social diseases.

    So . . . my heroes do not frequent brothels.

    I do not know quite what I am going to do with Adrian in this regard. I'm working on him. And Justine.
    I am trying to remember how I got into this situation.