As you may have gathered by now, any discussion about what's acceptable and unacceptable in mainstream romance is sure to garner quite a stir. Like all art forms, literature--and romance, constitute a living breathing entity bound to change over time. It's the reason for the gradual shift from heroines who are unable to express desire and/or sexuality, hence their constant ravishment in times past, to heroines with decidedly more feminist appeals. Today's leading women are expected to be strong and self-sufficient at the very least. If they aren't presented to the reader as such, the character arc better lead them there before the novel's end, otherwise the writer can run the risk of offense. It's an understandable premise, but one that falls a little short of reality. Not all women are strong and self-sufficient, some need help getting there, and some are content in never getting there. But that's another conversation for another day. For those interested in how I take my heroines, I prefer smarts over vestiges of stubbornness or physical prowess, and I tend to write stories with flawed women who embody only some of the perfectly modern woman's prototype. I like to see my heroine evolve during the course of love, and in uncovering her perfect half, she herself is made even better.
This leads to the fourth unspoken rule of romance:
This is a sticky one. In reality, it's difficult to find a girl or guy who hasn't dated someone before. Ideally, in romance, guy and girl meet (or whatever happens to be your fancy), there is no one else, and guy and girl get together through that rocky formula we all love. However, when either hero or heroine shows ambivalence because of a past love or potential love prospect on the horizon, it's a major turn off for readers. And it's simple to understand why. Early on, the reader meets both characters. When they connect, sparks should fly not just for them but for the voyeuristic one holding the book, as well. When it does, the reader looks forward to each time boy and girl connect, just as much (and often times more, early on) as the characters. A trust is built as the reader quickly becomes convinced that he and she belong together. But this trust never culminates if one character has a wayward eye. Now, that I've said all that, I should add that this isn't a hard and fast rule, and that the writer with some finesse can introduce and dismiss potential love interests--but only after proving that they are absolutely, not what the hero or heroine should have. Like I've already said, these love triangles can get funky in a mainstream romance. Which, incidentally, leads to my next point.
Ménage à trois
I think it's safe to say that it's no longer mainstream once girl and boy and girl all hop in the same bed. Not to say there isn't an audience for this, just to say it's no longer Harlequin-ready. For many of the same points illustrated above, it's simply a bad idea. For many readers, this is less about romance and more about sensual pleasure. For some, it's a turn off. For others, it comes with too many questions. Is the heroine alone, not enough for him? Will he stray? Will he cheat? I don't know about you, but none of those questions conjure the warm fuzzies of romance in me. For that reason, many believe that threesomes are the stuff of erotica or erotic romance. Whether erotica is romance is certainly a discussion worth having, though I'm reluctant to take it on just here. Suffice it to say my answer is an overwhelming 'depends.'
No one, I repeat, NO ONE likes a stupid character. They don't like characters who frustrate them by forgoing the most obvious solutions when it, in effect, would solve their problems. They don't like couples who spend four hundred pages fighting when things could have been cleared up in a single conversation. And while I know some may find a slow man with a pretty smile and strong somewhat entertaining, he's hardly fodder for serious prospects. Likewise, having to endure a heroine who is obscenely gullible, has trouble seeing what is plainly before her, is naturally spoiled or ungrateful, or doesn't know anything about anything of consequence, is asking a bit much of the reader.
First, let me qualify this by saying that I am an interracial romance writer. What I've found in my sub-genre is a number of poorly researched novels which, on one end of the spectrum, teeter on the verge of racism. On the vastly opposite end, is stuff that is so washed down and generic that aside from a character's name alone, Maria, and the occasional eating of beans, there is no indication that the character is a member of any ethnic group. Perhaps this generic version is less an unspoken rule and more my personal gripe, so I'll stick to the first point, that of racism. I would be a happy girl, scratch that, I would be positively enraptured, if I never saw another interracial romance where the title explicitly referred to the food often eaten by a particular demographic of people. I would probably resurrect myself after having dropped dead if I never saw another lazy reference to ninjas or noodles or anything on the title created under the supposition of romance. I'm noticing that this is a particular affliction which seems most readily available when the hero is Asian. I can't imagine anyone would purchase anything called "Fried Chicken Watermelon Romance" or whatever the hell people are proffering these days. Yet, for some reason, similar titles are out there. Why?
I don't think it's a maliciously racist act. Whoever these authors are, seem to have good intentions. What I do think is happening, is that a lack of familiarity with a culture, a lack of adequate research, and sheer laziness has turned out a product that is patently offensive in nature. So, I will close this section out by saying this: lack of research in a novel is bound to show no matter what the genre. People won't like it. People will say so. But when that lack of research results in the caricature of a race, prepare to get called a racist.
That's all for now, folks. Look forward to Part III in the coming days.