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The Reader’s Ever Changing Hard Limits

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A few years ago I wrote a post about the reader’s consent. Essentially the argument I made is that authors have to win over the readers’ consent to move on to the next stage in a story. Most debates over books arise because readers have different limits on when they’ll withhold consent. One of the most robust discussions I remember from the All About Romance site was over the Jo Beverly book “An Unwilling Bride.” In the story the hero, Lucien, strikes the heroine.

The debate is whether Lucien can ever be redeemed from that moment sufficient for the reader to buy into the idea that he can be a partner for the heroine and one who isn’t going to haul off and smack her every time he believes she’s stepped out of line.

Readers on the side of Lucien believe that the text shows his remorse and a change in his ways. Readers on the other side believe he’s an abuser and worse, enjoying this book elevates abuse as acceptable behavior.

For some readers, a hero striking a heroine is a hard limit, meaning that its intolerable in every situation from when Jamie in “The Outlander” beats Claire because it’s expected by his clan to when Lucien slaps Beth in “Unwilling Bride”.

For other readers, whether the act of a male protagonist striking a female is acceptable depends on the situation. More realistically, it depends on how much the reader enjoys the book because the same reader who excuses Jamie’s behavior may not excuse Lucien’s.

A much lauded book within romance readers is “To Have and To Hold.” Sebastian the main protagonist is a sadistic rapist who buys a criminal condemned to death with the sole purpose of toying with her emotionally and physically in ways that humiliate her to the point that she wishes she was dead. After he rapes her, he has an epiphany and spends the last half of the book turning his character around.

The same reader who enjoys this book may have problems with the current slate of motorcycle club books with the overly misogynistic tones or even “The Last Hour of Gann” (although the hero’s “rape” is not considered to be rape in his culture and he does not ever rape the female protagonist).

So what gives?

Reader’s limits come less from the trope or acts than the execution skills of the authors and the reader’s own bias.

Last week Willaful highlighted a reader who was upset with the characterization of a heroine in a story who left her child in a hotel room to engage in anonymous sex.  I’ve not read the book. For that reader the author’s execution of the storyline did not work and for that reader that particular set up may never work.

In the 70s and 80s, secret baby tropes abounded in greater numbers than they do today. The woman could keep the baby secret with no real justification other than we all knew that men weren’t interested in being fathers so there was no harm done. The cultural attitude toward the involvement of fathers in parenting has changed the type of secret baby book that is acceptable to more readers. Nowadays the mother has to have a really good reason for keeping the baby secret or animosity toward the heroine is hard to overcome.

For many readers, the secret baby trope is just not one that they can get behind anymore but those same readers may, from time to time, enjoy one because of the skillful way that the author has executed the plot line.

When an author writes outside the mainstream such as featuring a hero with a tiny penis, the author has to be ten times more skilled at telling a story than one who is telling a story of a well endowed man. For readers, it isn’t so much that dick size is a hard limit but that there are few authors that can write the tiny penised hero and make readers love him and probably even fewer authors who want to try.

The author has no idea where the reader’s line of consent is other than to look at what’s been successful in the past. My guess is that authors internalize criticism pinpointed toward other authors and then shy away from extending too far out wanting to avoid the same criticism. It’s the complaint I’ve seen in regards to authors writing more multicultural stories. It’s “safer” for the author to stay within a certain set of tropes and characters.

But gaining a reader’s consent takes time. It can be built through previous good books. There are some authors I just trust can take me anywhere with them. New to me authors are treated with much more skepticism. There are new authors that convince me to go places with them where I’d feel uncomfortable going with any other author, even an old “friend” (meaning an author I’ve read for years). Some of the most controversial books are also those most loved by some readers, because an author was able to push the reader beyond her comfort zone. But trust has to be earned, and if readers are shown a limited range of things over and over and over, they’re not being conditioned to push past what the genre routinely offers them.

But the reader’s consent depends upon the text itself and the reader doesn’t always know if she’s going to give up that consent, that willingness to forgive an a character’s behavior or be convinced of a character’s genuine repentance or just be convinced the relationship will last beyond the last page of a book.

When readers express their dismay over a particular storyline, so often they are saying this didn’t work for me and couching it in terms like “I hate secret baby tropes” when they really mean they hate secret baby tropes as executed by that author in that story. Or they are saying the author didn’t convince her of the rightness of this situation. The ability to pinpoint and then articulate exactly what didn’t work is really difficult. I have a hard time doing it and I’ve been writing reviews for the blog for years.

The very first review I did for Dear Author was of Eloisa James “The Taming of the Duke“. In this book, the hero pretends to be someone else and the heroine falls in love with who the hero is pretending to be. I did NOT believe in the love relationship between the hero as his true self and the heroine because the hero pretended to be SOMEONE ELSE for the majority of the book. James never, ever gained my consent for the love relationship between the hero and the heroine. James tried to argue that she left all kinds of clues but I didn’t buy it and I resented her attempts to tell me, the reader, that I was wrong in my interpretation of it.

We all have our hard limits and sometimes we don’t know that we have them until we encounter the storyline and some authors can talk us over them but it all comes down to whether the author gained our consent at all the pivotal moments.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

46 Comments

  1. kt grant
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 05:18:33

    For some reason it didn’t bother me when Jamie punished Claire in Outlander.

    One of my hard limit is when the hero meets the heroine, is halfway in love with her, and still has sex with another woman or women (because he had needs). I can’t stand cheating in any romance novel, especially after the hero admits the heroine is “it” for him, but can’t abstain from sex because he has to have it.

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  2. library addict
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 07:33:15

    I agree there are authors I would trust and read just about anything by them. On the flip side if that, once an author has broken my trust I can’t read them again. That’s only ever truly happened with one author where I got rid of all her books as I knew I wouldn’t be able to even reread old favorites.

    Secret baby books are a trope I say I don’t like and I do mean it…mostly. But I have more than a few on my keeper shelf. But that means the author managed to dig themselves out of the hole the character(s) dug by keeping it a secret.

    Infidelity is a more solid line on the sand for me. I don’t think I have any books with it on my keeper shelf but am not 100% certain as there may be one or two old school romances I haven’t reread in twenty plus years when more books had the trope. But if I were to reread them they’d more than likely get the heave ho even if by an autobuy author.

    But while I have learned to never say never, books with tropes I don’t like are still the exception.

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  3. Kimberly James
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 07:59:12

    At the risk of sounding cold-hearted and selfish, my hard limit right now is babies or kids in stories. I was reading a synopsis yesterday and when I got the the part about the babies–twin babies–I was like, nope, don’t want to go there.

    I love kids and babies. I’ve raised four of my own. And maybe that’s the point. Been there, done that. I really don’t want to read about it.

    Lots of different books out there and lots of different kinds of readers.

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  4. cleo
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 08:02:25

    “The author has no idea where the reader’s line of consent is other than to look at what’s been successful in the past. My guess is that authors internalize criticism pinpointed toward other authors and then shy away from extending too far out wanting to avoid the same criticism”

    I’d think that extends to editors as well, per Willaful’s post the other week.

    This is really a interesting post. I’ve noticed my personal line of consent has moved over the years. Sometimes it takes me more than one book to decide. Frex, both SEP and Julia Quinn have books where the heroine rapes/ coerces the hero. I read the SEP first, I trusted her as an author and I went with it. Then I read the Quinn and it really bothered me – rape is rape and what Daphne did was not ok with me. And my reaction to that, made me rethink/retract my consent for Molly’s actions in the SEP book.

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  5. Michele Mills
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 08:10:55

    I’ve learned recently that my hard line in romance is cheating. I can handle some cheating, but I can’t handle cheating after H/h have declared their love or are married and someone gets hurt because of it. For instance lots of readers love Undeniable by Madeline Sheehan, but I could barely finish the first book, and no way could I continue the series. Objectively, I knew the book/story was great but the cheating was killing me. Everyone was a cheater in that book, even the secondary characters! A close friend keeps trying to get me to continue the series, she says it gets better and better, but I can’t, the cheating litterally made me ill! But, I consider this to be my individual prob, the author needs to write what her muse tells her to write-the edgier the better!

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  6. It's Me
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 08:23:47

    I’ve found that my hard line is pretty loose, except when it comes to books like Consequences by Aleatha Roming. That book was wicked abuse through and through and I couldn’t understand why people absolutely loved it.

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  7. Andrea T
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 09:35:34

    The only hard limit I’m sure I have is abuse from a hero or maybe falling in love with a sex trafficker, like in a lot of the dark romances that are out right now.

    And you’re right, it is sometimes very hard to articulate what didn’t work in a story, when a lot of times the answer is lack of reader consent. Thanks for such a great post.

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  8. Amanda
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 10:22:11

    I think my reader’s consent really has evolved as I have gotten older and as the world has changed around me. I remember reading many “secret baby” books years ago and being fine with them but now I find them much more problematic and the author has to work for me to get on board. I also have a much more difficult time reading or rereading some older books because how rape is treated. I am not sure if I ever viewed them as romantic but now I see Stockholm syndrome in some of these books.

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  9. JM Bray
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 10:35:31

    Great article.

    I does make me wonder if the line, tends to be different for male and female readers or if where they’ll refuse to go are different areas. (Speaking in only the broadest terms.) I write Romantic Fantasy and I’m facing a hard line section in my work in progress. I had them in the first two books of the Trilogy, but went another step in the third. Thanks for the thoughts, I’ll apply them.

    Cheers,
    JM

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  10. Lizabeth S. Tucker
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 10:52:20

    Abuse and cheating between the hero and heroine are my top two can’t read in any form deal killers. I am not a fan of kids in my romances either, but exceptions can be made. I also agree with Librarian Addict in that once you’ve broken my trust, I will probably never come back to you again.

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  11. Sirius
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 10:55:31

    Hmm, my hard limits. Cheating certainly does not bother me per se – I mean I read the books where I disliked what happened, but it all depends on the execution. I think in theory it is an excellent, excellent plot development which can make characters grow and learn. I guess besides one hero raping another and then them falling in love I do not have any hard limits. And even that one is 99% hard limit, since in a couple of books it worked for me. Although when I say work I mean that I was able to forgive the rapist not that I liked the device.

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  12. Janine
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 12:13:22

    Great post. I don’t know what my “hard limits” are. I know there are things I generally don’t care for, but I’ve always felt that a skilled enough author may be able to win my consent even to those.

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  13. Kate Pearce
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 12:38:41

    As a reader, I’ll try anything at least once, and I don’t know when I’ve hit a hard limit until -well- I hit it. I do think a lot of it is about the author’s execution of the event. I didn’t find Jamie’s behavior reprehensible because I wasn’t reading a romance novel, whereas I don’t think Lucien groveled enough to deserve Beth’s forgiveness, but I forgave him eventually because Jo Beverly writes so well.

    As a writer I don’t pay attention to what readers reaction will be, I just write the book the story and the characters demand. I’ve written a ‘hero’ (Lord Minshom) who is according to the reviews either seen as still awful but kind of redeemed by love or as the kind of alphole who deserves an essay in CAPS about how disgusting and horrific he is, and what an awful person I am for writing about him. He hits readers hard limits and that’s okay. He also surprises some readers into liking him when they went in already deciding they were going to hate him. I knew that he would be controversial but I wrote the book the way it had to be written and my editor let me do it.

    So I suppose as a writer and a reader I’m prepared to test those limits of mine and of my readers and I think that it’s important that we do test these assumptions because it makes us think and it reflects the way society is changing in both good and bad ways.

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  14. Lynn S.
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 12:53:31

    I’ll use your example of Jo Beverley’s An Unwilling Bride to address how limits are or aren’t bypassed as I can see how readers would find Lucien’s behavior impossible to move past. Beverley presents an interesting conflict but she leaves a great deal off the page and unless a reader is willing to provide their own mental form of fan fiction to the story, it isn’t going to work. I could understand the slap given all the machinations from the duke, but there was a much richer book possible from the framework of the story than what Beverley actually wrote. I enjoyed the book more for what it wasn’t, than for what it was. I think Beverley does a better job with the emotional conflicts in her Malloren books, while still requiring a certain degree of thinking and interpretation on the part of the reader. I find the best books do require thinking and interpretation, but sometimes authors don’t provide enough fodder to work through reader limits. And pesky creatures that readers are, some of us require more feeding than others. And—gak—some want it all on the page.

    The only hard limit I have is casual misogyny, which is often used as a lazy way of selling the reader on the inherent specialness of the heroine, and always pisses me off. Authors generally try and fail to work through my softer limits when they become too clever or manipulative in their efforts to bring it about; kind of like the difference between a blast torch and a slow thaw. But—pesky me—sometimes flame throwing works.

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  15. Sarah
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 13:11:09

    I recently read a novel–quite a sweet one, recommended either here or at Smart Bitches, about a lawyer who is breast cancer survivor finding love with a general contractor. About halfway through the book I found out that the hero and his business partner had engaged in exactly the same kind of financial negligence that lead directly to the divorce I’m going through. When they responded to the heroine’s concerns with precisely the same indifference…

    Oh look, *there’s* a hard limit I hadn’t anticipated.

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  16. Cap
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 13:18:56

    Before I even got to your citing of Outlander, I was thinking about that scene. I have tried to convince myself so many times that I was okay with it, taking into consideration the mores of the period. Still, I struggle. I can put it aside, though, if not accept it. What I really can’t even touch is the increasing number of slavery and rape stories. That truly baffles me. I can’t see how any author could convince me that a love story can exist in that.

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  17. Isabel C.
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 13:24:59

    Jealousy is it for me, uncommonly enough. Or overprotectiveness. If you don’t trust the other person enough to abide by whatever you have going on, then the relationship is deeply unhealthy; you do not get to control what your partner wears or says, where they go, or who they talk to; and all of this goes double if you insult the presumed “third party.” Heroine sees hero talking to other woman and thinks catty things about said woman’s low-cut dress=Izzy throws book across the room and will not touch anything else by the author. Because screw that noise.

    I’m honestly not much for redemption per se. I can go up to a certain limit, but controlling behavior, rape, abuse, or the hero spanking the heroine (outside of explicit kink, and yeah, that happened a fair amount in the old-school books I read, and also, disturbingly, in DC comics during the Silver Age, I don’t even)…no. Fuck you, buddy, we’re done here. I don’t care if you become a better person or get eaten by a bear.

    I really couldn’t care less about cheating, particularly if there’s no understanding of exclusivity. Violence really depends: I read and write a fair number of paranormals, so the mistaken-identity-fight-scene is totally something I can get into.

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  18. Jules
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 13:33:35

    I don’t know what my hard limits are until I am reading them. I agree fully that something that works for me in one book may not work for me in another book depending on the execution and my connection to the characters.

    The timely example I am thinking about is Sarah MacLean’s “No Good Duke Goes Unpunished”. I have seen it on best of lists from last year, but in my opinion I could not get over the narcissistic tenancies of the heroine. She wrongs the hero greatly in the beginning of the book, but that is not my problem. That is an excellent setup. She could have been redeemed in my eyes throughout the story, but all the book showed me what how much of a selfish egotist she was, how much she really hadn’t changed. Other people feel like she was fully reformed by the end.

    So there is the trick for authors. Where is the line for what will work with the majority of readers? Or you could ignore this elusive line and write what you want while maybe losing some readers.

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  19. Michele Mills
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 13:34:19

    @Kate Pearce: Now see, I adored your Lord Minshom character. This is because the redeemable alphahole is my favorite trope-and other reader’s hard line! Considering I read Heat by R. Lee Smith, twice, I thought I was a reader with no hard lines. I was surprised to have found that cheating was my hard line.

    One thing- I think us romance addicts need to remember to keep a distinct separation between-this trope isn’t my cup of tea, and-this book sucks. Just because you are having meltdown over a book that is pushing all your buttons, doesn’t mean that book should be burned in effigy. Like Kate said, the diversity, the envelope pushing- this is what makes our genre strong.

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  20. Evangeline
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 13:38:09

    My hard limit is a hero undermining the heroine’s confidence and dreams–basically, a subtle form of gaslighting–”for her own good.” I still rage to this day over Madeline Hunter’s The Saint.

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  21. gloria
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 13:46:52

    My hard limit is a little bit more ill-defined, I guess. It’s when one MC does not treat the other with respect, if they don’t respect each other then I cannot believe in their relationship at all. The cheating, secret baby, rape, abuse tropes seem to be magnets for the lack of respect, but sometimes not. So it can be hard for me to pin down sometimes other than ‘this character doesn’t respect the other character’. If respect is there I’m willing to forgive a hell of a lot, but I have to feel it early on in their relationship. For me respect comes before love because love without respect is toxic.

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  22. Cassandra B.
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 14:20:17

    Interesting essay, makes me think about all the things I like and don’t like in romance. Cheating is definitely my absolute hard line. I don’t read books where it happens, I don’t care if people have a “good” reason or it makes sense in the story. I even avoid books where it happens in a marriage of convenience and it is clear the marriage was not a choice. It still doesn’t matter, I don’t like it, it makes me uncomfortable and I don’t read it.

    Besides this hard limit, I have a LOT of turn offs and will stop reading or not starting reading for a myriad of reasons. I consider myself an extremely picky reader and I am sure that I mess a lot of good books because there is one element or plot device I just don’t like. Some of my top ones: finding love after the tragic death of your first love (this just makes me sad and even if the book is happy, I don’t want to start sad, so I don’t), abused heroine finding herself (again sad, this seems to be a common theme lately, I have read books and enjoyed them where this is a theme but not the focus), secret baby (is there a good enough reason?), hero is a criminal (although it has worked occasionally for me), slave society (works sometimes, but normally there are special circumstances), and the hero wanting heroine to call him Daddy during sex (yuck). This last one I have only heard about once (thank goodness) and it was from a review mentioned on this site. The premise sounded interesting, but I could NOT get the Daddy thing out of my head and knew I couldn’t read it.

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  23. Cassandra B.
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 14:33:37

    @gloria:
    While I do think I have a few hard limits, I totally agree with you. For things that are off-putting, the context matters a lot and respect is a key element. I am both attracted and repelled by the motorcycle club books that flooding the market lately. There are a lot of problem areas for me with MCs but there can be some interesting things, too. I think the deciding factor has to be if the author can make me believe that respect exists within the defined roles of the male and females of the MC. Sadly, most cannot. So far the only books that I read cover to cover are Kit Rocha’s O’Kane series. Most of the other MC books I have tried I end up skimming because I just cannot handle all the things that drive me crazy about the MC lifestyle.

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  24. Isobel Carr
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 14:38:19

    Every time I think I have a hard limit, some author either blows that limit away or my brain suddenly comes up with a plot involving that limit that I just can’t ignore (e.g. I hate secret baby plots, but I’m currently writing one). I think the only romance specific hard line I really have is HEROES DO NOT RAPE (no problem with rape fantasy in erotica, but not in my romance).

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  25. Janet W
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 15:23:16

    This topic has been much on my mind–or should I say it’s one of the themes that has always interested me during the years I’ve been reading romance. I recently re-read all the Jo Beverley Rogue books (I don’t seem to be able to just read one) and once again, I was struck by how the Lucien and Beth violence weaves itself into the conversation in all the books thereafter. Beverley is never bland: rapes, violence, blackmail, treachery, loss of love and looks–it’s all there. Just recently there was a blog on violence in, of all books, An Unwilling Bride: I recommend it for those interested in this topic — http://badassromance.com/2014/01/20/of-marriages-and-mallorens-a-backhanded-look-at-jo-beverleys-feminist-brides-and-still-more-violence/ Author: Pamela at BadAssromance. I have thought about “hard limits” ever since @rrrjessica first blogged on it a couple years ago (which was where I first saw the term) and if I had any hard limits, I don’t seem to now. For me it all depends on the author and how she handles the topic. Which is not to say there aren’t some plots I prefer to others. This topic can’t be discussed enough for me–it is catnip so thank you.

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  26. pamela1740
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 15:29:08

    @ Janet W
    Thanks very much for thinking about my post! For me, one of the interesting things about AN UNWILLING BRIDE is the way it combines a near-taboo trope for romance (hero hitting heroine) with Beverley’s characteristic exploration of feminist themes having to do with the legal status of married women and female submission to male authority. I read this book very recently, and it was the contrast with her much more recent treatment of the forced marriage theme (SEDUCTION IN SILK) that prompted me to write a post about it.

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  27. Cap
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 15:54:30

    This topic is still going around in my mind, so I have a second comment to share….

    On the earlier comment regarding “daddy”: yuck! That was in Knight. So many people loved the book that I had to pick it up. The minute that word came out of her mouth, the book went on my dnf list. That’s a good example of a super turn off, rather than a hard limit though.

    I have thought of two instances though where I put off reading books based on the description, the tropes being ones that I thought I just could not accept. In those cases, I need up loving the books due the way the tropes were handled by the author. They were Thoughtless by S.C. Stephens (cheating) and On The Island by Tracey Garvis Graves (cradle robbing).

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  28. Lindsay
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 17:45:00

    I find it interesting finding out where my hard lines are and identifying them as such, and have found myself reading with a lot more awareness over the last few years since your original post on reader consent. Something I’ve noticed is that I absolutely won’t tolerate third-person or narrative that’s constantly sexist, racist or homophobic — these are deliberate word choices the author makes that don’t belong to a character, and they bring things to a screeching halt for me that no story is going to redeem. I pointed it out in a review and the author commented and said that it wasn’t THEIR feelings, just ALL of their characters happen to be racist, sexist and homophobic (yes it was all three) so that just makes them more REAL. In the same book where aliens were taking over peoples’ bodies! I’ll suspend reality for some things but apparently not others.

    I’ll excuse a character made with conscious choices, but if the unconscious default is that, it’ll be a huge problem for me.

    I’m also glad that I read books out of order sometimes. I just read Julia Quinn’s book Splendid and was ready to toss my e-reader against the wall with some of the things that came up in it (“You’re so beautiful while you’re angry”, “I know what’s best for you”, “even though you said no three times I know you don’t mean it”), and if I had read that first I likely never would have read the rest of her books — and I love the rest of the ones I have read. I’m willing to give some authors a pass on a first book, sometimes, but usually I won’t go back and re-visit them until a much later date. There are so many authors I DO want to spend my money on, second chances are harder to give these days.

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  29. Kate Sherwood
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 20:17:07

    I think I don’t have hard lines for character attitudes, but I absolutely have them for author attitudes (as I discern them through the course of the book).

    If a hero pushes a woman around or is otherwise abusive, and the heroine objects to it and the author treats this as a serious obstacle to the relationship I’m happy as a clam. I like dark, twisted romances where people hurt each other and fight their way back together.

    But when the hero does something objectionable (the typical controlling stalker nonsense seems particularly common these days) and the heroine gives only lip service to objecting AND the author doesn’t explore the issue any more fully or seem to think it’s a problem to be solved?

    That’s my hard line. And, yeah, it puts me off not just that book but other books by the same author. Absolutely. Life is too short to waste any part of it reading books that infuriate me.

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  30. Jane Lovering
    Feb 05, 2014 @ 07:51:34

    I’m another one with fuzzy hard limits. I’d say the only one that I really stick to is characters who don’t behave like real people. This means that I can accept a certain amount of what others object to, as long as it feels realistic – hence a particular hatred of Big Man Little Woman tropes (surely no woman these days would put up with being called ‘girlie’ and given spending money?). But, as said above, if the author is skillful enough to make me believe that this is how these people would behave, in these circumstances, because they are *real* enough to me…I’ll let them get on with it.

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  31. Michelle
    Feb 05, 2014 @ 08:44:35

    My hard limits are adultery and any type of abuse. As a fan of well-written and researched D/s and BDSM stories, character CONSENT is a big issue with me.

    I prefer characters who are strong enough to stand up for themselves, do not allow themselves to be victimized or victimize others, are not easily manipulated and are willing participants. However, some popular books have turned heroines into helpless, easily manipulated, immature, pseudo-virgins who lack confidence and common sense – or characters who are TSTL (too stupid to live). I hope this is just a short trend and it disappears quickly.

    OMG. The “secret baby” tropes had me LMAO. I remember those books and rolling my eyes thinking, “not ANOTHER one? Where’s Maury Povich when you need a good paternity test?”

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  32. Lynn M
    Feb 05, 2014 @ 09:11:15

    @Kimberly James: I’m the same way about books with kids in them. I’m just not really interested in reading about single-parent protagonists IF the children are small/young because I can never buy into the amount of neglect that seems to take place while the love story is happening. I’m always wondering, “where are the kids?” or “who’s looking after the kids?” or even wondering how the hero/heroine can truly lose himself/herself in the romance when he/she has the looming responsibilities of parenting hanging over his/her head. When it comes to kids, I’m too familiar with the reality to be able to ever buy any kind of unrealistic fantasy – I end up thinking that the parent is not doing a good job as far as the kids are concerned.

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  33. Anna Richland
    Feb 05, 2014 @ 10:16:53

    Interesting discussion. Made me try to think if I have any hard limits as a reader OR as a writer, and I didn’t really come up with any (although I usually avoid kids, babies and pets b/c I too can’t get over the ‘where are they? who’s scooping the poop? who’s changing the diaper?’ thoughts).

    I read a lot of Lee Child/Reacher stories, which push every button, but I reread his stories although in general I probably only finish half the romances/thrillers I start, so I can’t blame any one trope or action by a character. I agree with Jane that at least for me, it’s the writer’s skill, not any particular trope. I’ll follow Lee Child down any path, even if it disturbs every single one of my beliefs (Gone Tomorrow, worst offender on that front — and the scene in A Wanted Man which I can’t reveal … when they’re invading the bad guy hideout in the field … what happened made me so mad! It was so unexpected … if you’ve read it, you know what I mean. But I kept reading.).

    If I’m reading a great book, then terrible actions or choices don’t throw me out – as long as the author has me stuck to the book. But if I’m only half-heartedly reading, then even something like a sex scene can make me put the book down.

    From an author point of view – I had one ARC reader apologize and say that she couldn’t finish FIRST TO BURN b/c it had a trigger issue … I felt terrible. Honestly, I’ve read the story so many times and know it inside out so I don’t even see those things any more. I suspect that’s true for other writers too.

    My editor and I had to go over a sex scene several times to remove the potential for a consent-misunderstanding that again, b/c I had read so many times, and I knew the heroine was totally consenting and into it, I missed. Apparently on a cold read the hero didn’t know she was consenting and he veered a little bit toward forced seduction. My editor had me change just a few words and voila, no forced seduction (he thought it was a hard line for some people!) It was eye-opening about author vs reader interpretation of a scene.

    Love these discussions with my morning coffee!

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  34. Teresa Hill
    Feb 05, 2014 @ 19:35:42

    Hi,
    As a writer, I don’t think I can spend a lot of time thinking about readers’ limits. I feel like my characters show up in front of me, wanting me to tell their stories, and I do. There are times when they finally tell me what is really going on with them, and I think to myself, “Really? That’s where we’re going with this story?”
    Yeah, we are. I tell the story.
    I hope readers like my books. I hope they love them. But I know there will be some who don’t, and if I’m going to be a writer, I have to accept that. I can’t let it tear me apart, and I will not let it turn me into a safe writer, one who’s always worried about readers’ limits. That’s not who I want to be. Those aren’t the stories I want to tell.
    It’s fun as a write to push limits, to see if you can make it — whatever it is — work, and pushing limits helps keep us interested, keep us feeling challenged by our work, from becoming boring writers.
    I’m not saying I want to read about a hero who beats up women or rapes them. I don’t. I have my own limits as a reader and a writer.
    But I really don’t want to limit myself as a writer to what I think won’t offend some readers.
    Recently, I was talking to a friend whose first book came out, and she said she wasn’t reading her reviews at all and thought she was saving herself much grief.
    I told her that as writers’, we have to accept that there will be some people who don’t like our books. It’s easier to accept if you think of yourself as a reader. There are tons of books I don’t like, books others rave about, authors who sell tons of books, whose books I don’t like.
    That’s just the way it is.
    Thankfully, there are tons of books I love, too. Books I adore, that I cry over, that I read over and over again. There are books for every kind of reader. I’m good with that. It makes me happy, as a reader. I want it to always be that way.
    To love a book or not is a very personal thing. I accept that.
    As I write a book, I feel like it’s completely mine. The characters and I are together in our own little world, and I love that feeling, that closeness, the relationship that only we have.
    But there comes a time when I have to send that book out into the world, and it belongs to other people, to the readers. And readers get to have their own relationship with the characters and their story. It’s their right, a private thing.
    If they choose to share by telling their friends or writing a review, I think that’s fine. You pay your $5, you’re entitled to your opinion. If you don’t like my books, I hope you go on and find some other books that you love. I want all readers to have books they love, because that’s what I want as a reader.
    Which means there’s room for all kinds of books.

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  35. JL
    Feb 05, 2014 @ 23:42:39

    Very interesting discussion, and I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s comments. For me, the hard lines seem to come into play when I’m invested in the book and characters. I’m sure I’ll make some enemies with this next comment, but I didn’t love Outlander, so the beating scene didn’t bother me all that much. It read it as an e-book from the library and my time ran out so I never finished it. I only remember the scene because it is one that people bring up so often in these kinds of discussions. If I’m invested in the book, any kind of betrayal (violence, cheating, etc.) are more unforgivable. I think I start holding the characters, especially the male heroes, closer to my own real-life ideals if I am really into the story. Hero-on-Heroine violence in one story may not bother in one story, but a hero who out of the blue acts on a selfish impulse can utterly ruin my experience of a book to the point of no return.

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  36. Leslie
    Feb 06, 2014 @ 12:17:40

    Really interesting discussion about what readers are willing to accept. I remember reading Julie James’s Practice Makes Perfect, and being unable to get past it when the hero (who is competing with the heroine for a law firm partnership) sliced off the heels of her stilettos and then glued them lightly back on, so the sabotage was invisible. It didn’t matter to me whether he had in mind her falling and breaking her neck or “merely” falling in the courtroom and being humiliated, he was completely finished for me as a hero. I stopped reading the book. There could be no happy ending if the heroine got together with this creep. I’ve enjoyed other Julie James books, but now feel skittish about starting a new one–it’s as if she broke some kind of implied trust that the hero will be a reasonably good guy, at least worthy of the love interest.

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  37. Lynn Rae
    Feb 06, 2014 @ 16:41:34

    Interesting article and comments, as usual! I am coming to realize I don’t read a lot of romance because I apparently have A LOT of hard limits! The first time I consciously hit one was when reading SEP’s Call Me Irresistible. It was her first book for me, I’d heard great things about her writing, and gave it a try. When the supposedly all-around great guy Ted laughs and does nothing to help Meg when she’s trapped under a mattress, I distinctly remember pulling back from the story and thinking, ‘that S.O.B., what a petty little man he is’. She lost me in that scene. I didn’t want him to have a HEA with anyone, ever.
    No ‘hero’ works for me if I have no respect for him as a person, and the same goes for the ‘heroine’. Lousy people don’t magically change and I never root for them in fiction (or real life). I know the ‘transformation’ so beloved in the romance genre is important for many readers, but my suspension of disbelief has never been able to stretch to accommodate rape, abuse, neglect, or any other criminal activities.

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  38. Rose Lerner
    Feb 07, 2014 @ 03:15:34

    I’m not sure what my hard limits are or if I have them, but I have a fair amount of soft limits, and if I hit enough of them in one book, it can be a DNF for me. Something I’ve recently realized that many people enjoy more than I do in a romance is boundary pushing. Suppose a heroine says, “I need to stay home and work tonight,” and the hero shows up with a dozen roses and insists on taking her to the movies (I hope this doesn’t happen to resemble any particular story! I 100% made it up). I immediately feel on edge no matter how much the heroine ends up enjoying herself or how good it was for her to cut loose. I have no logical problem with this sort of scene. It’s a fantasy! A fantasy whose appeal isn’t even difficult for me to understand. But only rarely do I not instinctively shrink back when I see it in a romance–although, go figure, I do frequently enjoy it in erotica.

    I love this whole idea of reader consent…it’s something I’ve thought about a lot over the years, starting with my realization that Joss Whedon was essentially a lousy dom after reading interviews with him where he responded to audience criticism with “I give viewers what they need, not what they want.” The thing is, I never felt like his stories DID give me what I needed in the long run…yet he simply insisted that I was WRONG about my own response to his work, that he knew better than me *about myself*. Viewers who’ve been given what they never even knew they needed DON’T COMPLAIN, Joss Whedon! After a while, his habit of setting up something really awesome and then taking it away started to feel punitive, even spiteful. While I love a story that pushes me and surprises me and even sometimes breaks my heart, I want to feel like I’m being taken on a journey whose goal is to emotionally satisfy me in some way…not like I’m about to be sucker punched for fun.

    While romances thankfully are mostly free of sudden major character deaths, the idea still carries over. A story isn’t something that an author creates and a reader passively accepts. It’s an experience that a writer and reader should be creating together in a consensual way. And I think that’s a huge thing for me in whether I’ll hit my limit with a story. If I feel like the narrative gives me space to decide how I feel about characters’ behavior and allows me to have an active role in creating the experience of reading, I’m much more likely to go along for the ride than if I feel like the book is telling me how I should feel about a character or situation.

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  39. P. J. Dean
    Feb 07, 2014 @ 12:38:19

    @Teresa Hill: I agree with your view. As a writerI’m a bit confused as when did MY writing experience need to be co-authored by the reader? Has this always been around or has this criticism only popped up with the birth of epublishing? If a writer is constantly second-guessing his/herself as to what a reader will or won’t accept, the writer ends up frozen in time writing bland, non-upsetting, safe tales. Kinda makes for a world of meh books.

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  40. Joane
    Feb 07, 2014 @ 22:58:15

    You sum it up perfectly in the end: ‘We all have our hard limits and sometimes we don’t know that we have them until we encounter the storyline’. You don’t know you have limits until you say ‘OMG -I hate this!’.
    With the years I discovered that tropes as cheating or secret babies don’t worry me.
    My personal limits, nowadays, are abuse and rape. There are two classics stories that I don’t like and it is, in part, because of this. One has already been mentioned: ‘Outlander’. The other one is ‘Whitney, my love’, I just can’t stand it -even in the softened revised version.
    I guess that, in the 80s, I still could accept that there was something as ‘forced seduction’. Today, I can’t even tolerate that idea.

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  41. Allison
    Feb 08, 2014 @ 19:11:08

    @Lynn Rae: I totally agree about SEP. The heros are such jerks at the start or behave in such abusive ways. Like the one where the ‘hero’ got mad at the heroine and humiliated her in front of the town but then it was okay because then he, like, said sorry or some such nonsense. If a character’s/person’s first instinct is to be abusive, that doesn’t change. Even with looooOOoove.

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  42. Victoria Paige
    Feb 11, 2014 @ 05:58:39

    I have a fuzzy hard limit too. I couldn’t take abuse of animals and child rape which happened in one of the MC books. I do not like cheating, I prefer not to read it but if it was executed well then I’ll tolerate it especially if it’s a book from authors I like. Physical abuse is a very hard limit for me and I think the only book I was OK with it was Golden Dynasty by Kristen Ashley because of the culture of that world and because the heroine made it known that she was not OK with it in a very eloquent manner. Hero did a kind of grovel afterward.

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  43. Margaret Lake
    Feb 11, 2014 @ 20:15:46

    Jamie punishing Claire was consistent with 18th century values and I accept it with that caveat. Had Frank done it in the 20th century, I would not have found it acceptable.

    How did you feel about Randal’s brutal treatment of Jamie? Those kind of whippings were also common, and again, I have to accept is as part of the story and the century in which it was set.

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  44. Sarah Wynde
    Feb 11, 2014 @ 21:06:32

    In my second book, I was playing with “how bad can the heroine be?”

    My heroine is:
    1) legally a sex offender (via sex with an underage partner, albeit when she was barely old enough to break the law, her 17 to his 15)
    2) a reasonably cold-blooded & pragmatic murderer
    3) a mother who abandoned her child (leaving him with his paternal grandparents so that he could have a better life)

    #3 is the only one that anyone has ever objected to, but for a lot of people it’s a deal-breaker. Personally, for me, I think it makes her a hero. But it’s interesting to see how people respond.

    I did know while I was writing her that I was making her unsympathetic. That was sort of what I was exploring–she’s also an empath whose response to understanding everyone else’s emotions is pretty much to say, ‘yeah, get over it, everyone has problems’ and that was the fun of writing her, to twist the overwhelmed empath into the colder-than-ice empath–but I did personally think that the murder was worse than anything else she did, the moment that should be a deal breaker, and it’s been interesting to see how few people (read: no one) have objected to that. Murder, okay. Leaving your child behind in the custody of his grandparents who will love and nurture him, totally unacceptable.

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  45. Daizie
    Feb 12, 2014 @ 18:21:47

    My hard limits are cheating and drug addiction. I don’t mind issues that people have to overcome, but drug addiction is all-consuming and would weight the romance down. I also hate when the hero or heroine sleeps around, especially after meeting or finding chemistry with the romantic interest. It’s just nasty.

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  46. JM Bray
    Feb 12, 2014 @ 22:05:06

    Yes, I commented already, but I’ve found another hard line. Tense Hopping. First chapter: Omni. Second Chapter: 1st person past. Third Chapter: 1st person present. Fifth Chapter 1st person past…. :-S yeah…not so much. The sad thing is each chapter was fairly well written…but I could’t hang with the constant brain change.

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