Nov 3 2009
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Robin talks about this all the time. A short cut is a romance convenience, not just a convention. All genres have them but I’m most familiar with the romance genre and thus my attention is placed on its foibles.
Shortcuts are when an author relies on an archetype or trope in order to draw upon the collective memory of a romance reader to fill in the necessary motivation or backstory for a character. This often results in anachronistic behavior which confuses the reader and results in accusations of the reader not understanding. It can also result in distance between the reader and the story because the reader simply isn’t provided enough information to relate to the characters.
Despite how silly it may appear, JR Ward appears on her boards in character from time to time. She knows her male characters intimately, down to the type of liquor that they like to drink; whether they wear jeans, tailored slacks or leather pants; and if they are a boxer, brief, commando guy. Unfortunately, her heroines are not so well developed. The depth of their characters largely rests on the color of their guns and perhaps their pre-BDB employment.
In TV and movies, the actors themselves bring flavor to the character in terms of facial expressions, body language, and intonations. If an author does not provide this, the reader is required to fill in all of this information.
There are some authors who excel at characterizations: Lisa Kleypas is one. Cam is quite a different hero than Merripen even though they are both of gypsy descent. Nora Roberts and Suzanne Brockmann are equally adept at creating memorable and different characters.
But often you see a reliance on shorthand to provide the flavor of a character. It is this reliance that produces the cookie cutter feel of the genre. So much of how a character acts in the course of the book should depend, not just on the circumstances, but what has gone on before the story ever starts. What was their childhood like? In Lord of Scoundrels, Loretta Chase sets up her story by showing Sebastien as a child, eager to earn the love and appreciation of his father, only to be cast aside brutally for a speech impediment and his swarthy looks. He grows up to despise his appearance and believes that he is not loveable. Jessica Trent, on the other hand, has been a poor relation with a open minded grandmother/guardian and a hapless brother. Jessica creates some of her own messes by constantly bailing out her brother and not forcing him to make decisions for himself.
A character that springs fully formed without backstory or acts with inconsistency often provides a disjointed read. What was their childhood like? Did they have siblings? Where in the order of the family did the character place? Did the character grow up in the country? city? rural? urban? Who were the most influential people in their lives and why? Did religion affect them?
To some extent, I think the worry about writing racially diverse characters can be allayed if authors spend time thinking about the character rather than focusing so much on inserting one or two elements to prove the character’s nationality.
There should be elements of the character’s life that the author knows but we may never see. Where the backstory informs the character’s decision making process. I wish as much time were spent constructing hte character as an author spends constructing the world in which the character’s live.
Robin: It’s interesting, because at first I didn’t notice the genre shortcuts/shorthand. I read books I thought were so interesting and then I’d talk to a friend about them and she was like, “eh, I’ve read hundreds of those.” Now that I have read hundreds of those, I get it. And in many cases it frustrates me.
I understand that authors feel constricted by diminishing page and word lengths, but some of my favorite books in the genre remain the old Laura London (aka Sharon and Tom Curtis) category Regencies. Without explicit sex, often little more than a few hot and heavy kisses, these books, from Love’s A Stage to the Bad Baron’s Daughter, feel so richly layered to me, even upon multiple re-reads. Allusions to classical literature and myth, primary and secondary characters posssessing surprising dimension, interesting plot turns (how about getting the hero and heroine into an escaped hot air balloon and stranding them in a crumbling country manor house for the night?), and tight, elegant prose, books like these make me somewhat impatient with complaints about the limits of space. Especially when book after book seems to be turning out another profligate aristocrat, penniless debutante, quirky widow/divorcee with a fluffy little dog, and Navy SEAL.
Even more problematic, I think, is the was shortcuts become entrenched genre authority, passed between books so readily and indiscriminately that readers will often insist on the authenticity or accuracy of something that is, in fact, completely invented. Although I still don’t understand the system of titles and entailments, I know that these areas are a source of constant frustration for those who know intimately how it really worked, since the genre so rarely seems to conform to historical reality. I get a little crazy every time I see the maurading Viking hero presented as the exemplar of uncivilized lustiness. Or American Puritans as sexless prudes. We see it everywhere, from small examples (red hair in a heroine equals fiery and passionate; the FBI/CIA hero equals mysterious and/or brooding alpha in need of love and understanding) to large (Heyer’s Regency history has been accepted as real and has populated the genre with who knows how many misnomers and mistakes).
Although I do not believe that shortcuts reflect lazy storytelling, I do think that if we don’t spend some time thinking about whether they are still valid and useful, the genre runs the risk of getting stale and, more problematically, of perpetuating outdated and undesirable stereotypes. The sheikh as the “exotic other lover,” for example, or the virgin widow as the sensuous virgin, or the trusty Black sidekick as a dose of ethnic flavor, or the pedophilac villain as everything evil imperiling the romantic couple. And when I see resistance to taking a second look at these shortcuts, I’m always puzzled, especially when I see authors talk about how devoted to the craft of writing they remain. I know that many regard Romance as formulaic (I prefer to see its boundaries as those of form rather than formula), but every good recipe depends on fresh ingredients. If you use stale flour to bake a cake, it’s not going to be comforting and delicious – it’s going to taste like cardboard, or worse.
With all of the ways the genre riffs off its broad history, there is a vertible treasure trove (and we know how much Romance loves treasure, especially if it’s accompanied by a sexy pirate) of types and tropes to refresh and reinterpret. Sure, one day those will become shortcuts, too, but hopefully by then we’ll have moved on to the next interpretive movement within the genre.