Friday, 10 May 2013

The Opposite of Heroic

Creating the villains in a romance novel can be a lot of fun. One type of villain is the Extremely Evil Villain – the truly treacherous mastermind of evil schemes. In historical novels, he’s usually intent on capturing the heroine and eloping with her (either because he desires her madly or because he wants her fortune). Or he could be the hero’s arch-enemy who is looking for a way to seek revenge – and what better way to do that than by stealing his enemy’s lady-love?

Then you can have the Comedic Villain or the Bumbling Buffoon… this kind of villain is usually the most entertaining to create. Just think of Mr Collins in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. His stuffiness and lack of humour and intelligence make him a truly memorable and annoying character… and although it’s a little strong to call him a villain, perhaps, the negative emotional reaction he engenders in me as a reader causes me to sneak him into this category!

Of course, a romantic novel is often not complete without the requisite Villainess – she comes in many shapes and forms, but the common denominator of the Villainess is that she usually hates the heroine! Miss Bingley in Pride and Prejudice is a classic example of a Villainess with her snobbish nature and nasty character, but Elizabeth Bennett is more than a match for her in wit, intelligence and humour, and Mr Darcy falls in love with Elizabeth, rather than the unpleasant Miss Bingley, which is a truly satisfying result.

It may seem as if romance novels feature a number of stereotypes – the strong masculine hero vs the evil villain; the charming heroine vs the nasty villainess, however I would venture to say that if you dig a little below the surface of a romance novel you may discover hidden messages of hope as well as joy. Of course we’re all a mix of good and bad – and I’m sure we’ve all been heroic on some occasions and cowardly on others. We’re human after all, and the nature of being human is our fallibility.

Romance novels focus on good triumphing over evil, which is often symbolised with the hero vs villain theme in a story. And this usually culminates with the requisite HEA (happily ever after), where the hero triumphs over all the odds and rides away victoriously with the heroine on his saddlebow.

People who focus on good things are often happy in themselves. And focusing on happiness is a recipe for actually becoming more happy. Sadness and tragedy are part of life, but so are happiness and joy. And yet stories which focus on tragedy and the darker side of humanity are often seen as more representative of life than stories that focus on comedy or love. A tragedy is always taken more seriously than a romance and I question this. Why should something that is considered more “realistic” because it features darker themes be more acclaimed than a joyful story?

If you watch the news on television or read newspapers the focus is usually on the negative, and the good is often left unreported. I’d say the same applies in the literary world. Books focusing on tragedy are often commended but the happy stories go unreported. And that saddens me. Sometimes we all need a HEA.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Lessons For Romance Writers From Mr Darcy

In a number of romance novels, the hero seems to have two opposing sides to his character. When one first encounters him in the initial chapters, he appears to be the total opposite of what he becomes later in the book. Does this suggest an inconsistency in characterisation on the part of authors in order to create conflict and drama in a story? Is it possible for a man to stop exhibiting bad behaviour simply because he falls in love?

The prime example of such a man is Mr Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. When the reader first encounters him, he seems proud and rude, and Elizabeth doesn’t warm to him at all. This is what he says about Elizabeth when he first sees her:

“She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me.” (Mr Darcy to Mr Bingley about Elizabeth Bennet; Chapter 3).

Of course later on in the book we discover that Mr Darcy has many good qualities, and the reader is won over by his declarations of love for Elizabeth and his acts of service and devotion on her behalf. However this doesn’t change the fact that Mr Darcy exhibited behaviour that was very questionable in the beginning of the book.

Authors often show a character’s “bad” side and highlight it in order to create conflict in a story (and indeed how dull books would be if the hero and heroine were always nice!), but when an author comes to reveal such a hero’s good characteristics, it’s very important to make it apparent to the reader why he behaved in the difficult/nasty/unherolike manner in which she initially portrayed him. Jane Austen does exactly this later in Pride and Prejudice when Mr Darcy says the following:

“I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Unfortunately an only son (for many years an only child), I was spoilt by my parents, who, though good themselves (my father, particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable), allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing; to care for none beyond my own family circle; to think meanly of all the rest of the world; to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own. Such I was, from eight to eight and twenty; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.”  (Mr Darcy speaking; Chapter 60).

Jane Austen did a brilliant job of being consistent in her characterisation of Mr Darcy. Indeed, he is rude and proud when we first encounter him in the pages of Pride and Prejudice, but later on we come to understand his behaviour and we truly believe by the end of the book that Mr Darcy has changed for the better.

Many modern day romance authors draw inspiration from the character of Mr Darcy. What I hope to point out in this post, though, is that a character needs to make sense and be fully rounded in order to appeal to a reader, and what is truly satisfying is when a character grows and changes, but in an understandable manner.

The worst thing to do as a romance author is to allow your hero to behave in a Darcy-like manner in the beginning of a book, and then later on, magically transform him into Mr Nice Guy without explaining or showing why he has changed for the better. If an author fails to illustrate this, a reader will be left scratching her head, wondering how this man could possibly have transformed himself, as he simply won’t ring true.