"I don't think romance ever dies...
which might be the cheesiest thing I've ever said."

Agent Ted*


I've been thinking a little bit about romance in fiction, inspired not only by Agent Ted's trenchant comment, but also by Maggie Stiefvater's post on the topic over at her blog. Stiefvater brings up the movie Jerry McGuire, specifically the dramatic scene where Tom Cruise tells Renee Zellwiger "you complete me" and says that this is an example of romantic chemistry that simply does not work for her.

To which I say: sing it, sister.

That scene, to me, was the most objectionable part of an otherwise inconsequential movie, because it's the point where, because of some sappy speech, the woman goes back with a man who has been pretty much nothing but a jerk to her. This is the happy ending? Really?**

Basically, the problem is that, without a real attachment between the characters, there is no way for them to overcome the fact that Tom Cruise was a jerk. Repeatedly.

But, of course, then there's the flip side of that problem, which is that there's not a whole lot of romantic tension in two characters meeting, liking each other, going out on a date, and falling madly in love. There have to be obstacles if the romance is going to draw readers in, and since there aren't a whole lot of evil uncles forbidding young heiresses from marrying the scrappy but kind and intelligent stable boys in contemporary society, these obstacles are typically psychological.

So what to do?

Stiefvater has a couple of good suggestions, which are: (1) your characters should have personalities; and (2) being hot isn't enough, especially if your characters have personalities.

Say, for example, your main character is a hard core punk chick. She parties, she drinks, she curses out teachers in school. She is mad, bad, and dangerous to know. What she is NOT is interested in the captain of the football team. This girl couldn't care less about sports or jocks or high school popularity. She's raging against the machine, and a captain of the football team is the machine, to her.***

Unless...unless she's got a personality. And maybe there's something about her personality that draws her to this particular captain of the football team. Like, say, for example, that she is really committed to animal rights and this particular captain of the football team has recently become a vegetarian because his little sister is making his whole family do it. Or because she saw this particular football player stand up for her best friend, who was getting picked on, and she thinks that's big of him. Or because she's messed up and is attracted to guys that she thinks will treat her badly, and who could be more of jerk than a captain of the football team?****

These are the things that make romance interesting to me as a reader. When a character is three dimensional, she (or he) is going to behave in ways that are not stereotypical, but also that make sense for the character. I dislike Renee Zellweger's character in Jerry McGuire because any woman who takes a man back after he's treated her the way Tom Cruise has is an idiot. Her decision doesn't make sense. Now, if this were a drama, then her taking him back would be an interesting ending, but Jerry McGuire is supposed to be a romance (at least, partly), and this ending? NOT ROMANTIC. It's not romantic if I'm left with the feeling that the characters are bad for one another.

I'm going to go for another cliched example here, and bring up Pride and Prejudice because, frankly, P&P is a book that gets this aspect right. Darcy is a jerk to Elizabeth at first. He's a snob and he's stuck up and he's an ass, even though he's rich. Elizabeth is very intelligent, and a bit of a snob herself, frankly,***** and makes fun of him for his prissiness. Darcy actually comes around first, and realizes that he likes Elizabeth, and proposes to her fairly early on. If she accepted him at that point, the novel would be flawed. She thinks he's a jerk! There's no romance in them getting together at that point.

But over the course of the second half of the novel, Elizabeth realizes that, while Darcy may certainly do some jerky things and may, in fact, have a bit of a stick up his butt, he's also a good guy. He looks out for his sister and his friends. He treats his servants kindly. He doesn't pretend things he doesn't feel. In short, Darcy is a man of honor who improves greatly on closer acquaintance, and Elizabeth learns that she has made a mistake in judging him so harshly. When Elizabeth accepts Darcy at the end of the novel, it is romantic, because we know his flaws and hers, and know that they can overcome them together.

That's the key to romance in fiction, to me--the characters should fit together because of who they are apart.

~~~

*Agent Ted=awesome.

** Incidentally, this is the same problem I had with the ending of "Sex and the City" (a show I didn't actually watch much, but was considering renting via Netflix until I found out how it ended. He's just not that into you, Carrie!). It is also the same problem that social critic Linda Holmes (aka Miss Alli, formerly of Television Without Pity, and one of the most insightful/funny media critics, like, ever) had with Reality Bites, the ending of which seems romantic when you first see it, until you realize that at the end Winona Ryder is saddled with Douchebag McCoy as a boyfriend when she totally deserves better.

***One mistake that people who don't understand teenagers will make is that they will assume that all teenagers want to be at the top of the high school popularity food chain. This is so not true, I don't even know how to explain how untrue it is.

****If we're going for a happy ending here, of course, he won't actually be a jerk and our main character would have to overcome her misperceptions about him.

*****In the setting of the novel, thinking you can marry for love is a bit of snobbery. Marriages were for money, and marrying for love was a luxury few women, including Elizabeth Bennett, could really afford.

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