by Anna Clifton and reblogged with permission from Book Muster Down Under
I’m reading a crime novel at the moment. It’s well written, it’s racy and I’m enjoying it. But am I ‘feeling’ it? Not one bit.
I can’t relate to the main protagonist as though he’s a living, breathing life force. I don’t care if he’s happy or sad from one page to the next. But does this ‘not caring’ thing matter in the crime genre? Probably not. I’m enjoying the mystery and the intrigue. Would it matter if this protagonist was starring in a romance novel? Absolutely it would.
It’s not by accident that readers read romance novels. They’ve got their noses in those pages for a reason. They’re looking for that special something that they know the romance genre will offer them. But what is that magic ingredient that’s won the hearts of around twenty-nine million readers worldwide?
In a recent post in The New Yorker Joshua Rothman wrote, ‘We connect with books in an intellectual way, but the most valuable relationships we have with them are emotional’*. For me as a reader, that’s where romance fiction packs that emotional punch. I care about the characters I meet there. In fact, give me an emotional love story that has touch points for my heart and it will stay with me forever. I’m guessing that most romance readers feel just as I do.
So. Note-to-self: when writing my next romance novel, inject lots of emotion.
Well, not exactly.
It sounds easy. Unfortunately, it’s not easy at all. In fact, it’s damn hard – one of the hardest things a romance novelist faces. But why is it so hard to get readers to care about your characters and feel what’s happening on the page? And why is it so important that they do?
As I prepared this post I tried to remember a scene in a book I’d read where I’d sweated and fretted over a character and the predicament they’d found themselves in. One scene in particular kept flooding back into my mind. And one line in particular:
‘In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.’
For those of you who’ve read Pride and Prejudice you might recognize Mr Darcy’s explosively unexpected declaration of love to Lizzy Bennet. Being both ‘handsome’ and ‘rich’ you might also think that in the rough and tumble of the eighteenth century marriage game Lizzy would have jumped at the proposal of marriage that follows? Alas, no. Her response to Mr Darcy’s proposal is scathing given that she and her entire village decided he was ‘proud and disagreeable’ the moment he arrived at the Meryton ball.
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So how do readers feel about the proud and disagreeable Darcy in this proposal scene? I know how I felt but do other readers share Lizzy’s intense dislike of him? Do they believe that he deserves to be rejected as brutally as she rejects him?
You might think so, given that Austen has handed out painfully few cues about Darcy’s motives towards Lizzy up to this point. Yet strangely, I’m pretty sure most readers are unwilling to hate-on Darcy with the same enthusiasm as Lizzy does.
Jane Austen had a fierce faith in her readers’ emotional intelligence. She had faith that by the time they reached the proposal scene – with the help of just a smattering of cues – readers would already be feeling Darcy’s powerful attachment to Lizzy. She had faith that they were feeling that beyond the village gossip Darcy might be far from all-bad. She even had faith that they were feeling that he and Lizzy might actually be made for each other.
The genius of Austen is that she never ‘tells’ her readers what they should think or feel. What she does is give her readers the freedom to take ownership of the relationships they’re forming with her characters. Because of the fledgling bonds readers have already begun to build with Darcy – all on their own – this proposal scene is harrowing, even if we’re not yet quite sure why.
The temptation for romance writers to regularly ‘newsflash’ to readers how they should feel about their characters is powerfully compelling. Why? Because we’re utterly petrified that readers and reviewers will hate our characters if we don’t.
The problem with newsflashing is that readers of romance fiction want to experience the thrill of life-like relationships within the relaxation of their reading world. And in real life, relationships are not born out of newsflash moments, they’re forged within step-by-step journeys of discovery, connection, understanding and growth. To feel what’s going on a reader must experience this same slow thrill around a character’s journey too, just as I experienced Darcy’s. And although mapping out a cracking itinerary for the journey is essential, it’s not a writer’s job to frog-march readers to their ultimate destinations.
So, once a writer has mustered up the courage to let their readers run free within the world of their characters, is that it? Will that be enough to entangle their characters with the hearts and minds of their readers in a way that will endure beyond the last pages of the story?
Once again I’m reminded of another creative genius. Not an eighteenth century English novelist but a cultural icon of the twentieth century American film industry.
Walt Disney was a trailblazer. No doubt about it. He discovered that if human qualities and everyday predicaments were kept front and centre of his movies then his creative choices were limitless. Not only could he animate his films, his main characters could be talking animals!
The film, Bambi, is a great example. Can anyone relate to being an animated baby deer?
Not likely. Does it matter? Clearly not. I cried buckets when Bambi’s mother was shot and he was left to fend for himself in the wilds of the forest. But I wasn’t crying about a deer. I was crying about the gift of motherhood and the grief and vulnerability of a child who had lost that gift forever.
Romance fiction is no different to cinema. No matter who or what the main characters are, whether eighteenth century aristocrats or modern day captains of industry, their predicaments and motives must actually touch a reader’s life in some way. If they don’t, the reader won’t feel what’s happening to the characters. Whether it’s grief, joy, loneliness, jubilation, or any of the other emotional roller coasters we ride, readers must feel these being played out in a gripping and inspirational way on the pages before them.
Not every book will touch a reader’s life. No writer has discovered a one-size-fits-all recipe for that yet. But for writers who care about forging a dynamic and emotional relationship between their readers and their characters, committing to a unique journey of discovery within their story and then putting their heart and soul into its resolution is vital.
After the release of my third book, New Year’s Promise, a reader wrote to let me know how much she’d enjoyed and appreciated Justin and Ellie’s story. But what she also said was that she’d cried her way through the scene when Justin’s brother, Sam, makes his final goodbye to Ellie. The reason it had moved her, she said, was because she’d experienced something similar to that despair-hope moment that Ellie experiences on that snowy Paris street.
Did all of my readers relate to this scene in that way? I know they didn’t. The reason I know is because I was never going to reach every reader with Ellie and Justin’s story. But what I did want to do was reach my readers, with a story that was emotional and meaningful for them as individuals, as though each one of them was the only reader I had written it for.
So what is the magic ingredient within the romance genre that’s won the hearts of around twenty-nine million readers worldwide?
I’d be willing to put money on the fact that it’s the exhilarating and emotional journeys it offers its readers. But what the genre also offers, like no other, is a chance for readers to ride-up-front on those emotional journeys. They may not be in the driver’s seat, but they’re indisputably a vital and dynamic part of the journey as they enjoy the wind in their hair, the company of exciting if challenging new friends in the backseat, and the building anticipation of the destination that awaits them all.
They’ve been colleagues, allies and best friends forever, but he wants more — and he’s not above using the magic of the Christmas season to get it.
When Business Development Executive Ellie Halligan is offered the job of a lifetime in Paris, it seems her chance to live a fairytale adventure has finally arrived. Her only hurdle is convincing legal eagle Justin Murphy — her boss and friend since childhood — to wave his boss’s wand and waive her four-week resignation period so that she can start her adventure by Christmas.
But Justin proves to be a demanding fairy godmother. He’ll let her go early, but not unless she spends time with him over the festive season up until New Year.
Ellie doesn’t know what to do. Is Justin finally looking at her romantically after all these years, or are far more threatening dynamics at play? Justin has a secret, and he seems to want to pull her back into a past she’d rather forget. But delving into that old pain might be the only way to move forward — and for Justin to finally be free.
Will doing this for Justin become Ellie’s final gift of love as she loses him forever?
I absolutely loved your article, Anna. I agree, emotion is one of the most important ingredients in romance. I’d go so far as saying it improves all communication. And I also agree that it’s one of the hardest things to do and that what touches one person won’t necessarily touch another. But that’s also what makes romance particularly fascinating and interesting not only to read but to write!