[Small Chirps] Surviving the Crazy Romance Novel

Those of you who follow the The Canary Review even a bit might know that I have a weakness. This weakness comes in the form of popcorn fiction of the romantic sort. Gimme chick lit, and paranormal romances, and romantic fluff, and I am set.

…or the respective eye size and placement (see above).

However, those of you who’ve been around me a little longer may also know that I am a born again feminazi of the most lovable sort who enjoys constructivist theories on the side and watches adorable Disney movies with one eye trained on the waist-hip ratio of the characters.

So what’s my trick? How do I manage to get through the truly ridiculous without throwing books against the wall?

Easy: I have a very well developed coping mechanism. Let me pull out an example.

I’m going to pick on Feehan’s Dark (Carpathian) series because, well, I haven’t been able to get through a single one of her books without eye-rolling since I was sixteen. But my love-hate relationship with them means I can’t resist the books whenever I spot them.

From what I’ve sampled, this series has all the hallmarks of overblown paranormal romance, from the Good & Noble Vampires™ to the Irresistible Soulmates™ trope used in lieu of relationship-building. Gender roles are crisply defined: The Carpathian Male (read: the vampire guy) is an instinct-driven creature, overwhelmingly possessive and territorial when it comes to “his” woman. Even if our petite, lovely, and compassionate lady is independent and modern, she finds that she much prefers to cuddle with Dominating Male, courtesy of  the aforementioned Irresistible Soulmates™ effect, than do her own stuff.

Book vs Man

Let’s pick a representative passage from the first chapter of Dark Fire:

“Tempest’s green eyes flashed like jewels, an indication she possessed the famous red-haired temper. Darius frightened her where no one else had ever accomplished such a thing. There was a stark possession in his eyes, a sensual cruelty around his well-cut mouth, an intensity burning in him she had never witnessed before.”

Yes, true love at first sight, right there. I sometimes wonder if some romance novelists don’t take Machiavelli’s “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot have both,” a little too close to heart.

What to do? Stop reading because you can’t take any more of this? Sure, Dark Fire offers an absurdly terrible representation of men and women and romance. But what about the other stuff in the story — the fluff, the romance, the stuff you do want to read?

Here’s what I do. When the going gets hard…I switch the pronouns. What happens when I change our fierce manly-man into a girl, and our lovely lead lady into a guy?

We get something like this:

“She smiled an infuriatingly female taunt that told him she knew he was afraid of her. The smile did nothing to warm the black ice of her eyes. She bent her head slowly toward him.”

Or something like this:

“Somewhere deep inside himself, he knew she had taken away his choices. She would not allow him to leave. It was in merciless slash of her mouth, the implacable resolve on her face and in the soulless emptiness of her black eyes. He could pretend if he wanted to, leave it unspoken between them. Not challenge her. Power clung to her like a second skin. “

Not only does this help me get through the truly nauseating passages, but it’s amusing to boot. Then, when that gets too much (which it usually does within a few paragraphs), I switch back. Rinse, repeat. This also works in non-romance novels or when it’s the heroine that makes you want to cry. Switch, rinse, repeat.

Because really, if you can’t switch pronouns in a piece without going, “Wait what?”, then you’re looking at double standards  or characters who were never real in the first place.

11 thoughts on “[Small Chirps] Surviving the Crazy Romance Novel

  1. Oh, my, gosh, I’m rolling on the floor laughing! When you switched the pronouns,it sounds like she’s a predatory ice queen and utterly soulless. Talk about the heebie jeebies.
    I am so going to use this to test the males in my stories now. And I’m desperately trying to remember if any of my characters act like this…
    I love this post! Thanks for writing it!

    • I’d love to hear about what you find. You should post the results!

      This test also works wonders for figuring out if our lead girl is just acting emotional and snarky, or if she’s actually being an insufferable brat. Double standards, why you make life so hard?

      • Uurgh! I can’t find any fun passages; all I’ve tried it on so far read fine when I switch them. Here’s the closest that is at least semi-entertaining:
        The part of her eye visible beyond the corner of the concrete wall crinkles. “I mussed [my hair] just for you.”
        “Dang, I’m honored to have been mussed for. Not many people muss themselves for me. It’s just… I wish I had your gift of always looking so effortlessly chic.”
        Another tiny spark of humor. “I work hard for this look.” She shifts slightly, and the edge of a purpling bruise on her cheek comes into view.
        My lips tremble. My fingers must, too, because she freezes and her hand squeezes mine. “I’m glad it’s me they’re beating and not you, Jace.”
        “It’s not fair.”
        “Yes, it is. I have the tougher jaw. And I like you with all your teeth.”

        The idea of ‘her’ having the tougher jaw was mildly entertaining 🙂 I’ll keep an eye out and see if I can’t find some better passages. This trick is definitely going to be priceless with helping out with judging character behavior, though, so I’m really ecstatic about it!

  2. Actually… the characters in Feehan’s Dark series are NOT human. Even the so-called human mates turn out to have non-human genetics. It’s the reason why they can pair-bond with the Non-Human Carpathians. If you keep that in mind, it’s really a lot more palatable. Their instincts aren’t human, their drives aren’t human, and their morality isn’t human, either.

    These are really fantastic dark fantasy/horror novels, if you were to remove the repetitive, formulaic sex scenes, lol. As for the dominance issues the males have, she actually wrote two books in which strong females simply force their mates to accept that the males aren’t going to be in charge. In one, the character was a vampire-hunter before the male met her, and in the other, the female character is an older full Carpathian herself. She makes the plausible explanation that the young age of the females in most of the bonds is the reason why the males, who are hundreds of years old, run roughshod over them. It’s an unnatural situation created by… well, that would be spoilers.

    Don’t mistake her females for human females, though. None of them ever bonded with a human male in a normal relationship. They aren’t capable of it. They’re as alien as the males are. To be honest, that makes them more interesting… if you keep it in mind.

    • Thanks for the comment! You raise an interesting point. We don’t hold non-humans to the same standard as humans. A dog that attacks a human will not be held to the same moral standard as a man who stabs another human. A hyena that eats her young will not be held to the same moral standard as a young woman who drowns hers. Vampires in novels drink blood and occasionally kill, and we forgive them, because that’s the fictional world they exist in.

      But here’s where it falls apart. Romance is a very human emotion. Readers enjoy romance because we relate to the characters’ emotional turmoil and their exciting, exhilarating, and sometimes incredibly difficult journey to find their Happily Ever After. And so human standards apply and you can only stretch them so far before the “they’re not human” excuse falls apart. Whether they’re human or not doesn’t matter. What matters is that they’re in a romantic relationship that is silly at best and uncomfortable and abusive at worst (see Dark Predator for an example of relationship gone way bad).

      Bottom line, the book is marketed as a romance. The category/tags on the book are Romance, Erotica, Paranormal Romance. On Goodreads, “dark” is the only outlier in a list of romance synonyms.

      This is where we differ – you see this as a horror novel, but that’s not how it’s branded. That’s not what Feehan, who is a paranormal romance writer, says it is.

      (Flowers in the Attic series, however, is a great example that does work with your point. It’s a psychological horror and suspense novel, so the “romantic” elements are viewed through a very different lens. Lolita would be another example, I think.)

  3. Oh my word, this is too weird, it’s too WEIRD!!! Here’s a small snippet of my chapter one with swapped pronouns – it is esp strange when all my characters are straight 😀 Does this mean I have double standards for men and women??? I don’t get what this actually shows me other than weird weird weird!

    Will strode up, basket in hand. His face was pale from hunger, but still he smiled. His thick, golden plait hung past his shoulder. He was in his best dress, sweet crimson and small, white flowers swirling at the hem.

    “Nervous, aren’t you?” Will said, raising his brow.

    An embarrassed smile crept onto her lips. Hayley looked away. “You off to the market?”

    Will nodded, sighing.

    Hayley eyed her, concerned. “What’s wrong?”

    “The market’s the only place I go to nowadays.” Will shrugged. “And Karl’s gone hunting again.”

    • Haha, well, I think it’s okay to find men wearing dresses a bit weird! Naw, no double-standard red flags in this post, though it’s fun to read. It’s suddenly as if it’s become a different story – like Alice falling into a looking glass. I love that about switching. It gets my imagination going!

  4. Brilliant! I MUCH prefer the selections with the pronouns switched. That’s an interesting female character, right there. Even though I stopped reading romance novels because my eyes got tired from all the rolling, I could see using this to test any character’s legitimacy in any genre. It would also be useful for the writer looking for ways to make a character more interesting. Thanks for the tip.

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