Expanding the Boundaries of Romance

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.

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December 3, 2012

This post at Wonk-o-mance (especially this comment) along with some conversation on Twitter the other night got me thinking about the sorts of protagonists I’d like to see in romance novels.

Disabled protagonists–where the disability is more profound than an inconveniently placed birthmark or  a limp. One of the things I loved about Jennifer Ashley’s The Madness of Lord Ian MacKenzie was his autism and how it was portrayed as an integral part of who he was but not the only thing about who he was. I was really looking forward to Tessa Dare’s A Lady By Midnight because Kate had been described in previous books as having a prominent port-wine birthmark on her face, but then it turns out that it’s but a splotch on her temple and I started to wonder if everyone in the prior books was just really shallow. I had the same problem with Eloisa James’s Fool for Love, whose heroine has a (IIRC) congenital hip deformity that impairs her ability to walk to a limited extent but which is not otherwise a serious problem (although in the book, she does believe that if she were to try to have a child that it would kill her but, of course, it doesn’t). And I seem to recall a Regency with a deaf heroine, but the title escapes me right now.

While all these representations are great to see, they are still somewhat limiting and are, to a certain extent, window-dressing. I know that historically (and even now, in some situations), people with disabilites were not allowed to marry or have romantic or sex lives–this was brought home to me a number of years ago when I read a biography of Helen Keller and learned that she had wanted to run away and elope with Annie Sullivan’s secretary but was thwarted by her mother. I’m not sure how a historical with a seriously disabled protagonist would work, exactly, but I’m sure it could be done. And it would certainly be appropriate to see such protagonists in contemporaries–I would love to see a contemporary really examine the barriers that a lot of people with disabilities encounter when trying to form romantic relationships and have fulfilling sex lives.

And how about protagonists who aren’t perfect physical specimens in other ways? There are a lot of sylph-like women and heavily muscled men out there in Romancelandia. When a character is fat, it’s always just plump or chubby, never fat–and I don’t think there are many books with fat male protagonists (one of the other things that disappointed me in James’s Duchess Quartet was the way the narrative treated Miles, Esme’s first husband–he was short, fat, and balding and mocked for it and then he keels over from a heart attack in his mid-thirties).

I’d also like to see characters from different socio-economic  groups represented. There are lots of wealthy people and small business owners and tycoons and nobility out there–how about middle-class people who work boring jobs? Or people who are poor?  Or people who work in the skilled trades? Or are unemployed? Or who are retired?

Finally, this last one–which is not really related to everything above–is one that some readers may feel is too serious and possibly too much of a downer for a genre romance and that is a Regency that acknowledges the rot at the heart of the setting: slavery.

I am not one of those readers–I think that with the right writer, a romance that looks this issue in the face has the potential to push the limits of the genre to a really interesting place. There are readers who would also prefer not to have same-sex or interracial relationships or explicit sex scenes in romance. There are other readers who prefer characters to be nothing more than ciphers for wish fulfillment fantasies. The genre is big enough for lots of different kinds of stories. I think romance has a lot of power to challenge people’s perceptions.

Tessa Dare touched on slavery in A Lady of Persuasion.  The female protagonist, Isabel, is the daughter of a disgraced younger son sent to the Indies to manage his family’s sugar plantations which have slaves. She has two half-brothers, one is the son of a free white woman and the other is the son of a black slave. Isabel’s mother was Spanish and mentally unbalanced. Isabel is a reformer and an abolitionist and is pretty strident about it and the only reason she marries Toby is that she thinks he’ll help her with her cause. I loved her but a lot of people didn’t.

Julie Ann Long also touches upon slavery in her Pennyroyal Green series and I am hopeful that when she does write a book about Olivia Eversea and Lyon Redmond that she deals with the subject more directly.

This is, naturally, a difficult and fraught subject and one which directly affects a lot of readers. I know I avoid most historicals set in the US before the Civil War because I absolutely do not want to read books in which slavery isn’t challenged by both the characters and the text. If I want to read apologia for keeping human beings as property (and I’d really rather not), I can find plenty of texts written in the time period for that.

Some people may argue that as historical novels, having racist slave-owning characters is true to the period except: romance novels are modern novels written for modern readers and the ones I enjoy the most do not adhere strictly to historical accuracy when it comes to the protagonists’ beliefs and behaviors. After all, we don’t see female protagonists dying in childbirth (this only happens off-screen to either mothers or first wives and occasionally sisters) or rakes with raging cases of the pox which they then proceed to pass on to their wives and children.

But that is another post for another day–what kinds of protagonists would you all like to see in your romances? Are there stories out there that deal with these issues of which I am unaware? If so, please let me know so I can expand my reading horizons!

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  1. Brie

    Did we all have the same idea? Because I just wrote a post very similar to this one. The romance about regular people from different socio-economic backgrounds, and the average-looking hero are on my list. Another one is erotic romance that’s actually erotic. Not just lots of vanilla sex. I want stories where the sex feels organic to the plot and character development, and that aren’t just about two people trapped on a cabin or a millionaire boss bending his secretary over the desk. Maybe BDSM where the heroine is the dom. But not sex for shock value, either, if that makes sense.

    Anyway, I hope people listen to us, but I have a feeling 2013 will be more of the same. Great post!

    • Natalie

      Have you read Grace Burrowes? I find a lot of her sex scenes to be very erotic but also essential to the overall arc of the story.

      I think I may spend some time next year investigating some of the smaller romance publishers.

    • Mary Ann Vadnais

      Yes! Grace Burrowes, The Heir, really stood out in relief over years of sensual Regencies. The sex is very intimate–in fact, there is a lot of intimate, loving, non-sexual touching in her books (openly affectionate brothers, etc.) Also, the sex is very erotic but written in a quiet way, in very plain language, which makes the Feelings more Feel-y. I always think that The Heir is a Regency that many dudes would really like.

    • Natalie

      Grace Burrowes was my big discovery after RT this year–I picked up The Virtuoso from the goody bag room (which was hilarious drama this year, too) and read it on the train home and was just astonished by how wonderful it was, I proceeded to glom everything she’d published to that point and now she’s an auto-buy for me.

      I really love her narrative voice and the way that all the siblings in her series aren’t just sequel bait but fully realized characters from the get-go with shared history and all that other stuff that goes along with that. You get the sense that they’re real people. (I also love that the fact that women menstruate and that it’s not always a good time is acknowledge in her books, too.)

  2. Penelope

    I love this post and the one at Wonk-O-Mance, too. I have always gravitated to books that are outside of the traditional romance box. With quirky characters, funky story-lines and world-building, and flaws that shake things up. Here’s why we don’t see so many of these things: Publishers don’t want them. Traditional publishers are reluctant to take risks with unknown elements. I agree about The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie. The success of that book is very encouraging. Jennifer Ashley took a huge risk creating a hero with Asperger’s. She made him sexy, appealing, and unique. I hope that more authors and publishers will become willing to take risks. But the reality of our industry is when something works (a-hole BDSM billionaires with cuffs on the cover), the publishers love to run with those trends, glut the market with knock-offs, and squeeze every last cent out of that over-used theme, way past the time it should have run its course.

    Bravo to all the authors and publishers willing to take a chance on something new.

    • Natalie

      Agreed–there’s a tendency to repeat a winning formula until all the life’s been sucked out of it. And with the sheer volume of books being published each month in romance, it can be really hard to find books that challenge or subvert the formula.

  3. sienamystic

    Oddly, one of the few straight-up Harlequin Romances I’ve read and enjoyed (enough to keep the book) features a disabled protagonist (although it is, fundamentally a limp – one leg shorter than the other and requiring a special, built-up shoe) and I remember it being actually woven into her motivations. She’s also a career woman. The book’s hero is a genie, so you get the “what is truly important enough for me to wish for” concept being played around with.

    It’s an older book – from 1993 – but now I’m moved to dig it off the shelves and read it again: A Wish…and a Kiss by Margaret St. George

  4. Mary Ann Vadnais

    I was totally honored when Cara McKenna alerted me that you’d cited my Wonk-O-Mance wish list, but I’m over the moon about this post. Thanks for visiting with me about on Twitter this morning, and let me tell you, I can’t stop thinking about this.

    I think you’re right, as far as disability, that Ashley’s book is such a stunning example of how a writer can plot a constraint, in this case an utterly alpha hero who is also on the spectrum, and the story pays out dividends beyond measure. It makes me think about constraints in poetry, especially formal constraints like sonnets/sestinas; contemporary poets balk at them because they feel it is a convention that will prevent them from writing the poem they want to write without understanding that they are *already* participating in the convention of contemporary free verse poetry and likely without a lot of attention. When the poet actually sits down and works through form, the results are often fucking brilliance, like Catherine Bowman’s book 1-800-HOT-RIBS (which I managed to pimp on Twitter recently, as well). Writers of Romance may believe they are writing the stories they want to write, but may actually be participating in conventions they haven’t given a lot of thought to–I think a lot of these conventions have become shorthand for actually making meaning (or a semaphore to the reader that yes, ROMANCE IS AHEAD, please don’t think too hard about it).

    Class, race, appearance, body, ability–all of these are FERTILE constraints. Writing h/h who are differently classed, participate in the non-dominent culture, have bodies the function differently, does not mean that you have to be writing an “issue” book. Constraints are a palpable compression of energy, getting as much as one can into a small space, so that when you put fire under all of it, change the conditions–BOOM.

    The romance movies I love have a lot of good examples–Good Dick, Management, Lars and the Real Girl, Sidewalls, Bridesmaids–though we’ve yet to see an acknowledgement of racial diversity and personhood in movies, either. And like indie movie producers take more risks, I think indie presses do, as well, and we’ve seen pioneers in movement going in the right direction (Samhain, comes to mind) for a while. I know that a lot gets thrown around about marketability, but I also think that institutions can market something however they want to get it to sell. Go ahead and market the story about a retail sales clerk finding love with the grad school gamer as “a scorching hot romance–warning: toys and games and hot sexts ahead.” Once I’m in there, I’ll be happy to find those “ordinary” folks wrapped up in their extraordinary romance and in each other.

    • Natalie

      I really like your comparison to formal poetry. A lot.

      I agree 100% with the idea of convention as semaphore–that ties into some of my ideas about worldbuilding (or the lack thereof) in romance.

      And I don’t have much more to add to this because I agree so hard with what you’re saying. I’m going to have to check out that Bowman book–I’m just now really starting to explore the world of contemporaries.

      ETA: And upon using the mighty Googles, I discover that the Bowman is a book of poetry, not a contemporary romance. I will still have to look for it!

  5. Mary Ann Vadnais

    Oh, and yeah–I agree that category (SuperRomance, is one I read a lot in) is much better insofar as class and, sometimes, differently abled folks and every so once in awhile, race.

  6. Helena Fairfax

    I loved this post and was led to it by Wonk-O-Mance on Twitter, whose post I also really enjoyed. I wholeheartedly agree it would be great if romance authors felt able to step outside the usual tropes. I’m thinking in particular of racial diversity – by now this should be the norm in romance novels, as it is in real life, and not just used as an “issue” for conflict. Before reading this post I had never even considered the lack of heroes/heroines with a physical disability in most romances, and more shame to me. Thanks for raising this excellent point. I will definitely be reading Jennifer Ashley’s book. I’d just like to mention Liz Fielding’s 2005 The Marriage Miracle. The heroine of this M&B novel is in a wheelchair. Liz Fielding is an author I generally admire, but I did feel that in this novel it would have been better if the heroine were shown enjoying life to the full, without suffering terrible angst about her disability. Even so, it was a brave move on FIelding’s part – and at least it’s a step in the right direction. Also, one thing that a lot of readers forget is that romance authors (and I’m including myself in this- my first novel will be published next year) are generally writing because we need to make money. It’s not easy to risk losing readership by stepping outside the norm if your livelihood depends on people buying your books. And finally (sorry for waffling on!) I wrote a blog post a couple of months ago relating the romance conventions with the conventions of poetry: http://helenafairfax.com/2012/10/05/why-write-romance/ , and so I was interested to read Mary Ann’s comment. Thanks again for your great post. It has definitely given me a lot of food for thought when cooking up the plot of my next romance

    • Natalie

      Thanks for the great comment–I am well aware that writing is work and that getting paid is a HUGE part of that, so you do have to keep the market in mind when pitching and writing novels. But at the same time, I think it is possible to push at the boundaries of what people are willing to read; I think Ashley’s novel is a great example of that (a later book in the series has a male protagonist who was physically and psychologically abused by his first wife–also an unusual and brave move on Ashley’s part).

      Unfortunately, diversity isn’t just going to happen–it’s something that everyone needs to speak up about and not just in the context of “issue” books. “Issue” books usually aren’t very good. And we need to put our money where our mouths are, which is one of my goals for next year.


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