For months now Scott’s been getting stacks and stacks of queries from fans all desperate for the final book in the Uglies trilogy so that they can find out which boy the protag, Tally, ends up with: David or Zane? (Check out the “reviews” here for an idea of what I’m talking about.) I’m starting to get my own trickle of mail asking about who Reason winds up with. (Satan! She winds up with Satan!—Just kidding.1)
How did we get so obsessed with relationships? With who’s zooming who? What gives?
Is it possible to write a popular novel series that’s romance free? I’m trying to think of one and I’m failing. It’s hard to even think of romance-free standalones.
Is romance the genre that arches over all others? I think it is. More than any other genre it’s the one that works its tendrils into everything. Way back when, I remember reading an article that argued that scientific papers about conception frequently get taken over by romance motifs with the damsel-in-distress egg being rescued by the valiant knight-in-shining-armour sperm, which you’ll all be shocked to hear is not actually how conception works.
Is the dominance of romance a bad thing? Should I worry that my trilogy is now being shipped? (Mostly Reason & Tom.) I certainly didn’t conceive of the trilogy that way. I thought the question of who would survive the magic-or-madness conundrum was the driving force, but judging from letters and convos with folks that ain’t foremost in their minds.
Yet as a reader I’m a total shipper. I’m still cranky Rhett told Scarlett to bugger off. (Hey, did you ever notice that they both have a double t? How surreal is that?) I kind of want Rebecca and Bois-Guilbert to wind up together (whenever I re-read Ivanhoe I skip all the bits without them.) I totally bought into all the Buffy shipping, despite my favourite relationship—Cordelia & Xander—not lasting long.
So why was I not thinking romance when I started writing my trilogy? What is this weird writer v reader split I seem to have going?
What do you lot reckon? Any response to any of these questions is most welcome.
PS Many thanks for all the thoughtful responses to my quessies about violence to animals in books.
- Or maybe I’m not kidding . . .
No, really, I’m totally kidding.
i’d say not to worry about not thinking romance when you started out. you got in enough romance to please people and get them ‘shipping’, didn’t you? it’s probably so automatic and ingrained in you as a reader that you don’t have to plan it out in advance, it will just happen during the writing. Must admit that even I, avowed kissing-hater, give some thought to who will “end up” with who (and that’s between scare quotes because i’m an old cynic whose friends are at that lovely age when they all divorce/break up).
i will take the satan quip as a clue.
i’m all for the romance in the books, but what’s getting me at the moment is the actual writing of the romance bits. i was so excited about being able to write a love story, but now it’s so hard to actually do it without sounding cliched. i spose it’s hard to write something that features in practically every novel ever written, and keep it original…
I think it’s part wish-fulfillment (c’mon, we’d all like a hollywood style romance, you know, so we can say we had one before we discovered that they don’t floss), and part gossip. Gossip about real relationships, why not do it to fictional ones?
(Also, you have ships already? That’s awesome!)
Rebecca kicked Bois-Guilbert’s blocky Templar ass! He is not worthy of her awesomeness.
The very least he could do was fall over dead; at best, he could have been her slavish manservant while she romanced, um, everybody else in the whole book, I mean the people who weren’t buffoonish barbarians.
(Really, when I read a noevl called Ivanhoe, I expected Ivanhoe to be the main character. How wrong I was!)
Romance is the god of western culture. Well, maybe money is the god and romance is the goddess. Couplehood is worshiped everywhere you look, love conquers all, etc. Anyhoo, I have no helpful suggestions. Just write whatever the story needs, eh? (Don’t hit me!)
even guy fiction novels have romances of sorts.
until you posted this, justine, it didn’t occur to me that all of my novels-in-progress and the one that is finished contain romance.
ultimately, in my view at least, every good book is about relationships (not necessarily as in a romance novel). whether they are romantic or otherwise is moot.
there are plenty of ya books without romance in them, but the best ya books are ones that at least hint at some sexuality in the characters. why? because it’s an important impetus and tends to underlie, well, everything, at one point or another.
another thought: maybe romance is important because it points to the future, creates the possibility of posterity. romancing puts you in the human chain, even if the romance ends tragically. not to participate in romance is to step out of the chain and isolate yourself. your story is more important — it lends stature to the characters and the story — if they are part of the greater flow of human history, rather than an idiosyncratic eddy.
or maybe there’s just a deep, culture-wide recognition that partnership is very psychologically balancing. (this is where i think a great deal of the hostility towards single people –especially single women — comes from: it’s an exaggeration of this recognition. it’s a quick and easy way of creating stature in a character: look! this character is whole and balanced s/he has a lover!
plus, everyone acknowledges the bond of partnership, so when that bond is threatened — either because one of the partners is threatened, or because the partnership itself hasn’t been cemented yet — then shazam! instant conflict.
did *anyone* who read “ivanhoe” identify with rowena? *anyone*? why was she even put in there? how boring can you get? rebecca all the way! oh, and didn’t that whole situation, that construction of women and male lovers remind you all of “the last of the mohicans”? you know, where you have this perfectly boring, fair heroine, and this perfectly boring, fair, hero, and then the racially flawed, but full-blooded and strong and interesting woman with her racially or morally flawed but passionate and strong and interesting lover, and the latter are *bound* to die tragically, and the bloodless former get to inherit the future. what *is* that?
Sure it’s possible… but where’s the fun in that? bring on the romance, i say! i was just talking to a writer friend this morning about romance and why it is that i was such an awful awful romance writer and then i realized my favorite romances are kind of romances secondarily and big adventure stories or whatever first and foremost. still love the romances and want them to be huge honking parts of the story, but not to the exclusion of all else. i want saving the world and getting the guy.
Call me crazy.
but yes, i love love! more love! more romances! more crazy shippers who wante veryone to fall in love and be happily ever after!
ahem, i’ll be serious now.
a few years ago, i played a video game called syberia about this young female lawyer questing through eastern europe in search of a mysterious toy manufacturer with a penchant for mammoths (it was a great game, i promise). she kept getting annoying phone calls from her annoying fiance back in annoying new york, and in the end, decided to ditch the fiance and keep questing for mammoths with the toy manufacturer. I was tellign all my friends about how cool this game was, and wihtout exception, they all thought that the lawyer “ended up” with the toymaker. they assumed that because it was a girl heroine and the toymaker was a guy, and she broke up with the fiance, there had to be this romance going on. and I was like “no, she just decided to have an adventure with him.” that blew my mind — there *is* an expectation in stories for and/or about women that the happily ever after will include a romance. i don’t think peple would have jumped to the same conclusion if it was a male lawyer and a female toymaker. But then again, this toymaker was old and wizened. maybe if it were a young and sexy toymaker, i would have assumed a romance would follow as well, because of the old harry-met-sally adage.
I like when books toy with my expectations, though, make the girl happy without a guy at the end. they surprise me, though –always — because hte happy ever after with man is always the expectation.
I think it’s probably that happily ever after factor. The story comes to an end at some point. The threat or quest is usually resolved, but if a romance has been created this will extend beyond the confines of the story itself. We get to think about the future of the characters and not just what we’ve already witnessed. If there are no ties to the other characters like a romance, they could literally go anywhere and do anything after the conclusion, so it’s harder to imagine this future world for ourselves. The romance gives us a framework to build that imagined future on.
Identifying with people dealing with the joy and pain of love is easier than identifying with with Tek Jansen, heroic leader of Alpha Squad 7.
I would also think it’s a lot easier to ask about the relationships since these could start and end at any point of a series whereas you expect to have to wait until the end to find out what happens with the main plot. It’s a lot easier to ask “Do Xander and Cordelia end up together?” than “Does Buffy die young, saving the world, because she’s a slayer?”
Romance (in terms of desire/relationships, not in terms of romanticised romance…) tends to give books more depth, imho. Relationships in the broad sense are part of our everyday lives and romantic relationships often inextricably (and messily) bound up with that. To me it always feels like books with no hint of that have been, I dunno, surgically altered, or something, clinically cleansed… it feels kind of false and sterile to me… of course there are exceptions…
I guess love is a large part of most people’s lives, whether they have it or desire it, and so it’s something that provides empathy, and maybe something that makes characters feel more 3-D than if they’re simply interested in solving a mystery/defeating an evil overlord/shooting down enemy space ships/whatever.
i’m not into the whole idealised romance thing, though. Books where two beautiful characters fall immediately in love feel like tissue paper to me. I think love has to be complicated and hard-won.
God, good question! Romance in my real life? Betcha. I’m a mushpot.
Romance in fiction? Not so much. I mostly prefer none at all. In so many novels, a conventional romance element can feel like an add-on that’s imposed upon the story, resulting in an unsatisfying amount of idiot plot and creaky character development in its efforts to convince me that these two people should ever be anywhere within ten miles of each other.
Mind you, if a romantic plot element works for me, then I go just as gooey as anyone else. But I can only think of a handful that have done that: Emma Bull’s _War for the Oaks;_ the movie _Jumpin Jack Flash,_ which isn’t a romance per se — it’s just that the freaky black woman gets to go on a *date!* And she doesn’t have to straighten her hair and start wearing pumps to do so. Happens so rarely in the movies that it’s remarkable when it does show up. I also kinda liked the three-way romance in Wilhelmina Baird’s _Crashcourse_ books, though I was never convinced that the two guys were into each other, and I think the woman has a serious case of de facto hatred of women that she really needs to work on. But as a unit, they worked. Probably helped that I had kind of a crush on one of the men in the triple. Oh, and Barbara Hambly’s _Dragonsbane._
So I was gobsmacked when a high school teacher told me that some of her students wanted to know (spoiler alert, in case it matters to anyone) why the protagonist in one of my novels didn’t end up getting together with the man who’d just brutally murdered her grandmother! The need must really burn strong, if they were willing to overlook that little detail.
I do feel that love and relationships (of all kinds) are the most part of what humans are here for. I just rarely find it dealt with convincingly in fiction. And the tropes of contemporary romance fiction feel more like horror to me. They seem to demand a massive suspension of disbelief about what constitutes a healthy way of relating, to an extent that I find crazy-making. The hair on the back of my neck is standing on end the whole time I’m reading one.
I do put successful love relationships in my books. But I find I tend to show them in snapshot.
Speaking as someone who *has* “stepped out of the chain and isolated herself” (i.e. haven’t dated in years, still don’t want to, have good reasons to that nobody acknowledges because I MUST BE WITH SOMEONE!!!), this is making me want to go get drunk tonight. Except I’m playing with torches, so…maybe that’s not the best idea.
Mystery novels are a good suggestion, but I can’t help but notice that those are pretty old novels. I can’t think of any modern mysteries I’ve read where the detective doesn’t have a longterm SO, or at least a brooding ex. Kinsey Millhone is pretty non-romance, despite having lovers once in a great while. She’s probably the one heroine I can think of who’s pretty well guaranteed to NOT have a happy ending with a man in her future.
Justine does have a point, though- just TRY to find books or televison or movies that don’t have at least one token quickie romance in them. I tried once after a breakup and the closest I managed to get was watching the movie Payback. And even that has the most token brief “romantic” moment in it. Is it possible to write anything without a romance and have it sell?… Probably not. You can have a romance and have it end badly, or the “happy ending” be that she’s single, but you can’t have a girl go through a book without having her get interested in SOMEONE at least, and in turn have someone (not necessarily the same one) be interested back.
Oh, wait, I thought of a fictional example: the anime series Scrapped Princess. The heroine is 15 years old and seems to be the only 15-year-old in history that’s not very interested in men. One guy proposes marriage to her several times (he’s a little wacky) and she enthusiastically turns him down. She *might* have a wee crush on her adopted brother (when her biological mother hears her talking about the brother, she assumes it’s a boyfriend!), but nothing ever goes on. And the heroine’s best friend gets interested in a guy, but he never picks up on those signals. I was surprised at how much non-romance there was- but I guess they were all too busy with the plot to have any! Mainly, I was surprised that a teenage character COULD go through anything without a love interest.
I don’t care about romance. I care about characters, about plots, about writing that makes me care about the characters.
I too was a BtVS fan. (Hence the username.) Good to hear that you were as well.
I ‘ship no one. Noooooooooo one.
Is it possible to write a popular novel series that’s romance free?
To write one? Maybe. To publish one and have it stay that way? I don’t think so. If I’m at all typical of readers-at-large, readers are really, really good at reading subtext into books that the author never put there. I suspect that a writer could publish a magnum opus about intelligent bacterial networks on the planet T-II Omicron and have readers really want BT-34 mutation alpha to wind up sharing silcate genetic matrices with BX-42 mutation zeta.
Lili: I could be totally off the mark here, but I don’t think the fact that it’s all been done before means it’s impossible to get a reader engaged in a love scene. In my experience as a reader, what really gets me involved in a love scene is the fact that I really care about the characters, and really think they’re right for one another. Once you get to that point, it’s not another girl and another boy (or two girls, or two boys, or two sentient bacterial networks) who are just saying the same words to one another — it’s this girl, named Marta, who comes from a colony where girls can’t be doctors, so she shipped off on a transworld vessel as a stowaway so she could go attend med school on another planet, and this boy, who’s the tough-as-nails captain of the ship who has a vulnerable soul Marta only discovered while nursing him back from the Iternijian Space Plague when the rest of the crew jumped ship, and those two characters are just so meant to be together.
Seriously. Get me to believe those two characters are meant to be together, and the battle’s over, no matter how many other couples have said “I love you.”
“Is it possible to write a popular novel series that’s romance free?”
In mystery one can sometimes do this, since the puzzle-solving replaces the relationship-interest.
A lot depends on whether you have a male or female main character, too, I think.
So you can have, say, Hercule Poirot, or Shelock Holmes and Watson, without any need for a romance to drive things along. (Or a spinster like Miss Marple.)
Or you can have female characters who are effectively married to their work. Like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone or Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta.
Although even there, relationships do often enter into the series (especially over the long-term) and mentions of their lack-of-romantic/sexual entanglements .
“I certainly didn’t conceive of the trilogy that way. I thought the question of who would survive the magic-or-madness conundrum was the driving force, but judging from letters and convos with folks that ain’t foremost in their minds.”
This makes sense, since, people identify with characters not with deas or conundrums, so the questions facing the characters are what is most important to them.
i’m very worried about who will die.
though I’m getting a lot of shippy comments from those who have read my book. and like you, it’s not hte main thing I’m thinking of as I write, htough her romantic entanglements make up much more of hte plot than it does in yours.
after readign those letter, i think i’m a bit miffed at asimov, 18 or not.
Our lives are about relationships: those we have, those we want to have, those we want to change. Romance is only one part of the broad category of ‘relationships’, but let’s face it, it’s a darned big part.
It’s very human to care not only about our own relationships, but also about those of our friends, family and aquaintances. Well-written characters tend fall into one of those slots, so we care about their relationships too.
And I’m with Diana: I’m very worried indeed about who will die (or go bananas).
Marrije: “You got in enough romance to please people and get them shipping, didn’t you?”
That’s so interesting cause I think there’s hardly any romance in the first two books (and I’m not saying if there is or isn’t in the third). But it’s what all my readers—including my editors—are very focussed on. I’m not complaining—I’m just fascinated.
The Satan quip is not a clue (or is it?) (no, it’s not) (maybe).
Lili: I’m with G. Jules on this one. The ubiquity of romance means that some of the work has been done for you.
But at the same sometimes it feels impossible to avoid the cliches. There are only so many ways you can describe a kiss (sorry, Marrije for mentioning them).
G. Jules: It is really hard to write sans romance. No matter what you do it seems to come creeping in. I do take your point that it makes publishing even harder. I have a novel that’s not got any romance in it that’s struggling to find a publisher despite them all loving various things about it. Sigh.
That’s hilarious! You’ve got me praying that those sweet kids, BT-34 mutation alpha and BX-42 mutation zeta, are going to make it!
Sir Tessa: Love & gossip? That’s all there is, innit?
I confess that I am more than a little thrilled by the ships.
Lawrence: I agree with Jennifer all the mystery novels you name are covered in cobwebs. Name some recent romance-free ones!
I said, “I certainly didn’t conceive of the trilogy that way. I thought the question of who would survive the magic-or-madness conundrum was the driving force, but judging from letters and convos with folks that ain’t foremost in their minds.”
Lawrence said, “People identify with characters not with ideas or conundrums, so the questions facing the characters are what is most important to them.”
What I meant was that people don’t seem nearly as worried about who will die in the third book as they are about who’ll wind up with who. Who lives or dies seems to me a very big question facing the characters.
Veejane: Yes, Rebecca is a zillion billion gazillion brazillian times more mighty and awesome than Bois-Guilbert. I know it, you know it, and all the readers of Ivanhoe ever know it.
And yet, every time I read the book I want them to get together at the end. call me mad, call me brain washed. But that’s just how it is.
The book is scads better when you skip all the Ivanhoe and boring drip Rowena bits . . .
Sara Z: I solemnly promise never to hit you. Okay?
I think you were right the first time Romance is the god, not money.
May: Tis inescapable and as G. Jules pointed out even if you didn’t deliberately put it there many readers will add it in.
Claire: Like what? Name names. I can’t think of a single one. (Though I do have a shockingly bad memory.)
I think all those reasons are definitely true. Along with the ways we’ve been told stories since we were kids. And so many of those stories equate “happily ever after” with “and then they were married”.
Rowena and Ivanhoe are the blerkiest couple in the history of the universe. Gag. I can’t even read those bits of the book. Wish they’d dropped dead at the end of the book. Stupid Row-hoe.
Diana: I’m really not convinced it is possible. Don’t even those boys’ thriller books by Grisham/Crighton/Clancy and the like have romance in ’em?
As a reader I agree with you. I do love me some romance. But as a writer who wants to be read in numbers surpassing the dozens it sometimes really frustrates me.
Good point about the gendering of it. A boy’s adventure story is one of the few kinds of stories that can leave out the love stuff. Early science fiction very explicitly did this by leaving out girls as much as possible cause as we all know love=girls.
3: “I would also think it’s a lot easier to ask about the relationships since these could start and end at any point of a series whereas you expect to have to wait until the end to find out what happens with the main plot.”
Ben Payne: It’s true, the few books I’ve read where there isn’t any it sometimes feels odd that no one’s feeling desire for anyone else. How many people are there like that, really?
Nalo: Like you, crap romance drives me insane. The type where the female protag drops iq points in order to get her man etc. Or there are all these contrivances to keep the two lovers apart that make no sense at all. I believe Diana Peterfreund has ranted about those at length.
But I’m not hearing you say you don’t like romance, Nalo, I’m hearing you say you don’t like it unless it’s well done. Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith are two of my faves, as is Han Suyin’s The Mountain is Young.
“I was gobsmacked when a high school teacher told me that some of her students wanted to know (spoiler alert, in case it matters to anyone) why the protagonist in one of my novels didn’t end up getting together with the man who’d just brutally murdered her grandmother! The need must really burn strong, if they were willing to overlook that little detail.”
That is a shocker, Nalo! But I understand where it comes from. Witness me wanting Rebecca and Bois Guilbert to get together. So very wrong!
Jennifer: Ah, yes, the persecution of the single by the coupled is one of the most annoying things out there. I feel your pain. The idea that everyone must be in a couple is insane. Especially when espoused by people I know who are in awful relationships. They honestly seem to believe that it is better to be in a couple with a monster than it is to be single. I so don’t think so! /rant
So is Scrapped Princess good? Cause it sounds mightly intriguing. Should I get into it?
Little Willow: Good onya! So nice to hear of those who resist the shipping urge!
Yup, I was a major Buffyhead to the extent of publishing two articles about it. But season seven upset me so much I haven’t watched it since . . .
I do not like genre romance; or rather, I haven’t yet met one that I’ve liked. I keep trying every so often on the grounds that I have to *read* some in order to know whether I like them or not. I don’t like most science fiction and fantasy, either. Maybe I just haven’t met the *right* romance. I know quite well that writing romance is just as demanding a craft as writing any other type of literature; I’m not disparaging it as an art form. For myself, I have found teensy bits in particular genre romances that I’ve thought kinda cool, but so far, they’ve always been overshadowed by the forced romance/weird characterisation and muted by an enforced conformity along the lines of “everybody knows this is what women and men really want”.
Ben: Of course, if I was reading those books, rather than writing them I bet I’d be thinking the same thing. Also readers are thinking about who’s going to bite it. I’ve already had requests that I not kill Tom or Reason or Jay-Tee. One reader suggested that I kill off Esmeralda if I have to kill someone. Another was happy to sacrifice Jay-Tee. Those comments just aren’t as common as the shipping one.
Diana: All of them will die! Mwah ha ha ha!! (Just kidding.)
Don’t be too hard on Asimov. It was a long time ago and he was a very very very young eighteen year old.
Chris S: It is indeed huge and wouldn’t it be nice if it was framed in terms of all relationships and not just the romantic/sexual ones. One of the things I loved about Buffy is that the friendships were the core of it.
I, too, am worried about it . . .
Nalo: I used to say that about genre romance until Kelly Link gave me a bunch to read some of which I adored. Of course, I can’t remember a title. Have you experienced the Kelly Link romance education yet? I’m sure it won’t work for everyone, but it worked for me.
What did you think of Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. They’re published as mainstream, she wins awards and yet to me they’re totally romances. But then I’m with Diana—I need the romance to be going on in the midst of many other things and not be the only thing.
One of the things I find interesting about genre romance is the ways in which the underlying form sometimes sticks out in really obvious way, such as completely distorting the plot and characters of the protag in order to fit. On the one hand, as an immersed-in-a-book reading experience it sucks; on the other hand I’m endlessly fascinated by how incredibly strong the pull of the romance plot is. So strong it can break texts open.
Have you ever seen the movie Gilda? The ending makes absolutely no sense given everything that’s happened up till then. The movie breaks open and falls into the mush of a totally wrong “happy” ending. And you sit there blinking going “What the . . . ?”
“What I meant was that people don’t seem nearly as worried about who will die in the third book as they are about who’ll wind up with who. Who lives or dies seems to me a very big question facing the characters”
That’s interesting, isn’t it… maybe it’s got something to do with the notion that whether a character survives or not is them being acted upon, if you get what I mean, whereas who they end up with is them acting. It sort of makes sense in a way that someone who’s emotionally entangled with your characters would care more about the choices the person they care about makes than what happens “to” them, in a weird way. At least that’s my ad hoc theory for the day:) E
Either way, it says a lot for the strength of your characters that people start seeing that stuff where you didn’t even intend it… i guess that means they’re so three-d that people can’t imagine them not having lives beyond what’s described…maybe.
Oh, I’d really recommend Scrapped Princess. I thought it was awesome. Instead of starting out with “the one girl who will save the world”, it starts out with “the one girl who’s supposed to destroy it on her sixteenth birthday,” and follows her and the adopted siblings trying to protect her from all the well-meaning folks who want to kill her off. It was fascinating.
Season Seven had its ups and its downs. This is how I rate the seasons, from my favorite to my least favorite:
testing, testing, last time I tried to post livejournal claimed I was a spammer which really hurts.
romance is the fictional face of the social glue that holds the world together–the people who don’t make it onto the evening news because they just fed their kids and did their chores and loved each other enough to get through the day and did the decent thing without making a song and dance about it. when hero and heroine ‘get together at the end’ it signifies their entry into that part of society. the movie mr. & mrs. smith wouldn’t have worked without this huge assumption for them to be cute against.
genre romance does bend the external plot around the romance, rather than other way round, but those readers want it that way. for a lot of women at least this is more or less reality; their jobs don’t count next to their families.
what is it with no capital letters on blogs anyway?
this was only a test.
only just came across your explanation of cricket for non-believers. it’s very good, but to some extent very good in the way that roman catholicism (it pains me to have to avoid capital letters btw) is really good: take the belief in the instruments too far and you end up with the auto da fe. given the date of posting, i (no, really pains me) can understand your unshakeable australian (even that pained me) faith and while i bow to no-one in my admiration for shane warne and for steve waugh’s invincibles, i did feel it was just a tad on the biased side. there again, i’m strictly anglican (though my religion is cricket, my church is lord’s rather than the lord’s (no objection to case there) and grace (the original sledger) definitely has a capital, by god). oh, and i’m not convinced that no mowing of the pitch takes place for the duration of a test match. but you do write beautifully.