CONVERSATION: Redemption and Reparation in Romance
A couple of weeks before Yom Kippur, Judaism’s Day of Atonement, I started this conversation about redemption and reparation in the genre. I’ve scrapped my original intro because the Yom Kippur is well past, so I’ll just say that Rose (once a DA reviewer) joined us for this one and she’ll be doing that in the future, too. And that tomorrow we’ll be running a post discussing specific examples of fictional reparations that worked or failed for us.
Janine: Any trope can be executed well or poorly, but generally speaking, how do you feel about romances where one protagonist wrongs the other and has to make it up to them? Is it a trope you’d like to see more or less of?
How do you feel about smaller subplots (often having to do with the characters’ family relationships) where tension over a past wrong has to be resolved? Do you enjoy that less or more than a redemption plot involving the main characters?
When it comes to reparation, which do you most like to see a character do to convince the other character (and you) that they have earned forgiveness–suffer as a result of their remorse, apologize, make tender love, or behave very differently to prove they’ve changed?
Thoughts on the Trope
Sirius: In theory I really like redemption storyline, but same as with many other tropes it very much depends on the execution and what the character needs to be redeemed from.
Layla: I like a good grovel but there’s lots of circumstances where it doesn’t work for me. There are some wrongs that just can’t be forgiven and go on to have a healthy or romantic relationship. But making mistakes and hurting people you love is normal and I think when romance writers depict it well it’s deeply satisfying.
Janine: This is a trope that can go pear shaped easily, but when it works, it works so well. The effort involved in making up for a mistake is romantic to me because often it involves the character who hurt the other person putting that person’s needs ahead of their own. The struggle to be forgiven and sometimes to forgive also resonates with me personally. I’ve made mistakes and I take them seriously. Seeing someone else grow into a better person helps me believe that I can and that maybe I can make it up to the other person.
Kaetrin: There are two (or more) parties to the process but they don’t always have to agree. One to do wrong and apologise, one to be wronged and forgive. Forgiveness does not mean a return to relationship necessarily – I’m in the school of forgiving being good for me because I’m not carrying around bitterness – and it’s not an open invitation to be walked on like a doormat. There can be a true apology without forgiveness (an apology does not have to be accepted. It’s not the law!) and there can be forgiveness freely given (although, again, this doesn’t even have to be communicated to the other party – it may well be only an internal action) without an apology.
Rose: I know some readers want a satisfying grovel or an equivalent big gesture and they’re good to go. That’s not really my thing; I want to feel like whoever caused harm to understand where they went wrong and do something meaningful to fix it and change whatever led them to behave like that. The HEA/HFN has to leave me believing that something similar won’t happen again, and that it’s been resolved in a satisfying way and won’t be a source of endless conflict in the future.
Kaetrin: For me, the essential things in a true apology in romance are the same things as in real life: an acknowledgement of the wrong, personal responsibility for it, commitment to change and then an actual change in behaviour being demonstrated. Weasel word apologies are meaningless as are words without actions. I need to see that changed behaviour on the page. In romance the reader has to accept the apology as well I think or the HEA is tarnished. (At least when issue is between the love interests.)
Jayne: I agree with you Rose that a grovel, no matter how grandiose or heartfelt, isn’t enough for me anymore. Including one is all fine, well, and good but if the person who did something that needs forgiveness still doesn’t really get what they did and that it hurt someone, then what does that gesture mean in the long run? Bupkis.
Janine: Agreed. When it comes to apologies, actions speak louder than words. And by actions I don’t mean hiring a violinist to serenade the other person under their window or presenting them with a humongous diamond pendant (the latter happened in one of Judith McNaught’s books, Something Wonderful). You can’t just throw money at the harm you did.
I want to see the character who earns forgiveness understand what they did that hurt the other person, understand how wrong it was and how badly they hurt the other party. I want to see it really sink in with them, to see them feel genuine remorse, and preferably to see the changes they’ve made in action. That’s the biggest gesture at all–not getting out an engagement ring or pulling out the keys to a house to live in together, not even begging forgiveness or touching the other person with tenderness and showing remorse in the eyes. All that can be satisfying but it doesn’t substitute for making genuine changes and showing growth.
Sirius: For the redemption storyline to work, I can take or leave the apology from the character who did the wrong, what I need is for him to show that he means business and tries to correct what he did. If in addition to that the character *suffers a lot* – even better.
Janine: Yes! I couldn’t agree more with this observation. The character suffering a lot because of their misstep makes a big difference to me–it’s emotionally satisfying and also helps convince me that they are genuinely motivated to make a change and that the change will stick.
Jennie: When I think of reparation stories that work for me, for some reason the first two that come to mind are both by Patricia Gaffney:
Lily, in which the hero treats the heroine terribly multiple times throughout the book (he has trauma from a faithless wife). In the end she is pregnant with his child, and he makes amends by telling her she can leave with the child and he won’t stop her. Knowing that he had already lost a child, and how hard it was for him to give Lily and his second child up – it really worked for me as absolute remorse in action.
In Sweet Treason, in which the hero rapes the heroine, in a scene that is particularly awful to read. She is recovering from a gunshot wound and can’t even fight him. (He thinks she’s betrayed him.) Later she leaves, and then arranges to have the hero framed for treason so he has to flee England, presumably forever. They then reunite and ride off into the sunset. This is admittedly batshit and awful, but it worked for me precisely because it wasn’t real – it was only in a fictional setting that I could imagine a revenge – a huge and intense revenge – as somehow balancing the scales between the two characters.
I admire those here who say that they want to see the same thing that they’d want in real life when they’ve been wronged – appropriate remorse and working to repair trust, etc. I think I may just have too much of the sturm-und-drang-lust still left in me to appreciate that fully, LOL.
Kaetrin: Jennie, your comments make me think of Stormfire by Christine Monson. The hero kidnaps and rapes the heroine and puts her in a dungeon in the first half of the book and then other things happen and they fall in love but after that in true bodice ripper saga style, (spoiler) they come to believe they’re half-siblings and so they can’t be lovers anymore. Then they go to France and he ends up getting tortured by a French guy who is jealous (plus some politics) and, among other injuries one of his testicles is cut off. She rescues him and then she goes to live in a convent and later he comes to take their son who can’t live in a convent forever because reasons and then they finally understand they’re not actually related and queue HEA. I don’t recall Sean ever really apologised for raping Catherine but I wonder, given my theory about reparations being necessary to the reader as well, if that torture and lost testicle may have substituted as a kind or reparation for readers?
Jennie: That’s the sort of thing that I can see as being yes, a balancing of the scales, in a way. I mean, I think it especially works in some of these older, already totally over-the-top romances. I want to be clear that my taste in redemption in romance (particularly in the examples I gave!) are far from anything that would work IRL.
Rose: In The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly – which also has cheating, and a decade-long separation between the couple – Joe at one point reflects on something his grandmother told him as a child, that we’re not punished for our sins, we’re punished by them. And so “God didn’t have to punish him; he’d created his own hell. By himself and for himself.”
I guess that’s what I’m looking for with redemption/reparation stories; that the character involved will internalize what they’ve done and atone for it (whether Joe does enough of the latter is another matter). So a character being tortured and losing a testicle won’t do it for me, and anyway I’m too squeamish for that.
Sirius: Physical or moral sufferings alone are not sufficient for me. In Song of the Navigator by Astrid Amara, Cruz eventually loses his mother. It is not a punishment or revenge or whatever, but one can see it as very indirect consequence of his actions. And that was fine by me as much as I liked her character, but if I did not feel that he was really really remorseful for what he did to Tover, it would not have been enough for me.
Funny thing though that initially Cruz was trying to do a really good thing. Him sacrificing Tover to the pirates in his mind was not really a sacrifice (he did not think Tover would be hurt at all, let alone as horribly hurt as he was) and he intended to be back next day. Oops. what I am trying to say that really most that he was guilty of was thoughtless stupidity (because yeah sure, they won’t hurt Tover). And his punishment and self-punishment may have been over the top, but to me better over the top than not enough.
Redemption / Reparation in a Subplot
Janine: With regard to smaller plots about the protagonists’ family members or friends earning forgiveness from the main characters (or vice versa), those can be satisfying when well executed, too, but not as much for me. Often the author can’t take them as deeply because in a romance they can’t be the main focus of a book. Sometimes protagonists take toxic family members back and that casts a pall over the HEA for me.
Kaetrin: When it comes to those outside of the main romance, such as toxic family members for example, I’d like to see that explored more. I’ve read too many books where a family reconciliation is forced (Carla Kelly’s Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand springs to mind) which left me dissatisfied. Why force a reconciliation? Sometimes the happiest outcome is an end to the toxic relationship and others in the family endorsing and supporting that.
Janine: Yes, that’s what I meant about forgiving toxic family members. It casts a pall over the HEA because I know that the toxic people aren’t going away and neither is their toxicity.
Rose: Kaetrin, that’s very true about resolution of family conflict: unlike the romantic relationship, which must have some kind of a reconciliation for the book to be a romance novel with an HEA/HFN, family dynamics can have a greater variety of satisfying resolutions. This can be an opportunity to explore forgiveness and reparation in interesting ways, but as you observe, not everyone is able to do so.
The Evolution of the Redemption Trope
Janine: In recent years I’ve noticed that this trope has taken something of a backseat, at least when applied to protagonists. Characters don’t have as steep a growth arc as they used to. Some say that’s just as well because in the past many characters (often heroes) did unforgivable or unacceptable things. To that I say that there are plenty of characters who still do (assassins, mobsters, vigilantes and such) but now they don’t apologize for it. That’s worse IMO.
Characters are also more moving to me when they have a growth arc. I haven’t met anyone who didn’t need to grow, either. And I think it’s valuable to impart to people that growth is possible and possible for everyone or almost everyone. But with that said, there have been many examples of this trope that have failed for me. Books where the heroes were cold-blooded killers or rapists or what have you–I enjoyed some of that as a young person but now that I’m older, I can’t.
Jayne: I began reading romances when the (literal) bodice rippers were all the rage. As you say Janine, back in the day books using this trope often had characters (usually the asshole hero) do awful things and yet somehow they still got the girl, often without (I think now) really earning the forgiveness of the person who was wronged.
Sirius: I understand the popularity of bodice rippers, I do, but for me rape is something that never worked as the reason for redemption. I know I mentioned in the past that Whitney, My Love sent me on the run from m/f romance for years (well, almost on the run – with couple of authors being an exception).
I didn’t want an apology from the hero, I wanted him to drop dead or at least go away – far far away.
I am the same way with m/m romances. Rape never works for me as the reason for the conflict between two leads. If the character is being raped by someone else, that someone else better stay a villain, all I am saying.
Jennie: I feel like my thoughts on this have changed over the decades. As someone who’s had a huge attraction to the concept of the hero behaving badly to the heroine and having to grovel, I’ve read and loved a lot of reparation stories that I’d find horrifying in real life. (As an aside: I think I just started reading romance when groveling became a thing – when I tried to read the older bodice-rippers, the heroes are AWFUL and then never apologize or relent on their behavior at all. I found this appalling and will probably never understand the appeal.)
Today I think I’m still capable of being moved emotionally by the dynamic I once loved, but my mind gets involved and I view it through more of a real-world lens. I think also I’m old enough now to be aware that some behaviors can be forgiven, but not forgotten. Misbehavior doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In the real world, a man that rapes a woman because he mistakenly thinks she’s not a virgin is not just SO in love with her, and so jealous, and beset by momentary madness. He’s a monster. I guess what I’m saying is that in the real world some of the behaviors that have made for the best grovels in romance would never lead to grovels at all because the person wouldn’t be capable of both such terrible acts and true remorse. At least not in the timeline that you find in most romances.
Rose: Regardless of whether it’s a romantic relationship, a familial one, or a friendship, it comes down to whether the reconciliation is actually good for the protagonists, or is there just to wrap everything up in a neat bow. If an author can’t convince me that what’s under the wrapping is worthwhile, what’s the point of all the trimmings?
It’s your time to weigh in, readers. What are your thoughts and feelings about this trope, both in main plots and in subplots? When does it work for you and when doesn’t it?