Issue #37 (October 20, 1997)
And Now For Something Completely Different:
I try to take this column in whatever direction appeals to myself and/or readers, and over the weekend, I finally read a book I'd heard great things about on Aarlist - High Energy by Dara Joy. High Energy was packaged along with a Jayne Ann Krentz reprint, Whirlwind Courtship, and was published in 1996. Both are very good reads, but I was struck by how many components of a great read High Energy has. Since we've talked about many of these components before, I thought it might be interesting to talk about them again, now.
There is a step-back cover on this book, and, thank goodness, because the inside portion of the step-back is blatant. There is simply the view of a man's torso and thighs, draped in a towel, with one hand, shall we say, drying off his crotch. The message I got from this cover? The men in these books are strong characters who know what they want and go after it. Truth in advertising? You know it!
What would I have done had there not been a cover over the step-back? I would still have bought the book, but I definitely would have covered it up when I took myself to Starbucks this weekend to read! Tell me your thoughts on blatant covers such as this step-back by e-mailing me. Is a hero-only cover better than a clinch cover when both are sexual? Does it seem to you as though we are now objectifying men as we have accused men of doing to us for years? Does it matter?
Tyberius Augustus Evans is gorgeous, brilliant, rich, kind to animals, small children and kooks, sexy, eccentric, and secure enough in himself to fall utterly and completely in love. This is a fantasy hero - no real man could ever compete with Tyber. There's no angst here, no dark and brooding secrets, simply the perfect man.
When I think about the hundreds of romances I've read, and the different types of heroes I've come across, I'm always amazed by the nuances each author includes which make her hero a bit different than the others. But most of these differences are simply a matter of degree, unless we're talking about the three big archetypes, of alpha, beta, and gamma.
I was struck by the gamma of Tyber. In other words, he might be the gamma-est of them all. Having said in the past that Duncan MacLeod of Highlander: The Series is the ultimate gamma male, perhaps I need to amend that. Maybe I've been disappointed in the three episodes that have aired so far this year, but I think Tyber may have replaced Duncan as the ultimate gamma male. Not that Duncan doesn't conduct himself admirably, but it is refreshing to have a hero without four hundred years of history.
What heroes have you read that are completely and utterly without torment, who don't cause problems, are kind to animals and small children, and yet strong enough to punch out the bad guy? I've read wonderful heroes, but never before such a perfect combination of traits that made up Tyber. I know he can't be the only one out there, can he? Is Alan MacGregor from Nora Roberts' All the Possibilities cut from the same cloth? Please let me know about utter perfection by e-mailing me.
Humor & the Heroine:
When an author writes a romance with a hero such as this, the heroine has to be handled correctly. I mean, what we've read before tells us that if she falls too hard and too fast, there will be no conflict and therefore no story. Did Dara Joy follow that steadfast rule? Not on your life. The set-up for Zanita, our heroine, is that she's never experienced fulfillment because she's always held herself back, never allowed herself to become befuddled. Her best friend has advised her that she'll know when it's the real thing when she jumps in feet first.
Which is precisely what happens; Zanita falls for Tyber asap, and before she knows it, she's completely befuddled. Ah, you say, if she's befuddled, does that make her too stupid to live? Well, I certainly didn't think so. She didn't get herself into situations she couldn't get out of, although the hero's mastery prevented many of the situations from getting out of control (just another reason to love him!)
Humorous romances require quirkiness of character. Zanita, as Tyber puts it, is a genius in non-linear thinking. Perhaps I relate to her; my husband says I get from A to C via Q. My synapses fire differently than most. So do Zanita's (okay, so her name is a bit on the zany side, but I can live with that!).
So, does her befuddled-ness annoy our hero? In many romances, it does, and that's where the humor generally is found - think Bewitching or A Basket of Wishes. In this book, Tyber knows Zanita's non-linear thinking is what is drawing him in to her and he's secure enough to go along for the ride. She knows he's eccentric but is living her friend's advice - she's jumped in without thinking, and for once, her love life is working. There's great humor there.
Have you ever read a romance where the humor was so forced you found yourself gritting your teeth? I know I have. I also know there are but a handful of books that have me laughing out loud, and this was one of them. The humor is not insulting, or at one character's expense. It is simply in the personalities of these two characters and those around them.
Which books have you read where the humor seemed forced? Where the characters seemed well-matched in terms of their eccentricity? The Garwood heroines and the Quick heroines - aren't they always more quirky than their heroes? Sure, Zanita has the habit of falling asleep at odd times, but Tyber sleeps in an oyster bed. Please e-mail me about not-so-favorite funnies and what makes your Favorite Funnies (which are part of the Special Title Listings) work.
So we've got a great hero, a befuddled heroine, humor. . . did I mention great sex? Well, sort of, because Zanita, who never experienced fulfillment, is fulfilled quite a bit. From what I gather, Dara Joy's other books are quite a bit more explicit than this one (I'll let you know soon - I've got them all), but, believe me, Tyber's brilliance isn't limited to the laboratory. Not only that, he knows Zanita is the one for him, and the way he brings her along is masterful. Finally, I think that any author who doesn't use the hero compelling the heroine to keep her eyes open while she orgasms gets points!
I've noticed the eyes-open command in too many books to count. I know you have too. What is this about? I've never been asked to keep my eyes open - of course, since my husband and I are nearly blind, he'd never know, but I've never understood this device. Please let me know what you think is going on with this all-to-common love-scene device by e-mailing me.
So, we've got a great hero, a befuddled heroine, humor, great sex. . . where's the conflict? We all know that there has to be conflict for a romance to work. Without that tension, it's a bore, right? I mean, haven't we read books where the hero and heroine get along so well that it's like talking a walk in the garden? Well, it's a lovely walk, but after about an hour, you start to wonder, "Okay, this is fine, but what else is there?"
Dara Joy created a small amount of conflict for Tyber and Zanita by creating conflict within Zanita, who has a hard time taking Tyber's commitment to her at face value. She exhibits intra-character conflict, a term coined by reader Karen Wheless several months ago. And, the author created external conflict as well - a problem and a mystery for the two characters to resolve that falls outside their relationship. It is, in essence, what keeps them together initially.
In other romances, this external conflict is what brings characters together. I have found that in most instances, these books are humorous. Actually, I should rephrase that. In those instances where the conflict is external, and the book succeeds for me, the book was a humorous read. In most books where there is only (or mostly ) external conflict, and I was not engaged, the book was dramatic. But even in humorous reads, if the author is not careful, that hour-long walk in the park can turn into a marathon of boredom.
I've been working with a few readers in trying to develop a Special Title Listing for non-internal conflict. Most romances fall under the internal conflict category where the hero and heroine begin as adversaries only to eventually find love. Many of my favorite books fall under this category, but I have a penchant for romances with non-internal conflict. It has been months now since I tried to create a list of such romances, and have been able at this time only to work out that there should be two categories for this list - romances with wholly external conflict and romances with intra-character conflict. This type of romance involves characters who get along nicely, but something within one of the characters prevents total commitment. For instance, in Amanda Quick's Mistress, the hero is scared to death of sharing his heart. But he and the heroine get along famously; it's just a matter of time for him to realize he loves her. That's intra-character conflict.
In Julie Garwood's Castles, the hero believes he needs to more successful in business before he can allow himself the luxury of love. He and his heroine are so perfect for one another that his brother walks around with a bemused grin on his face when he sees them together - Caine knows Colin is a goner; it's only a matter of time.
Mary Jo Putney's Silk & Shadows is perhaps an iffy inclusion on this list. The hero here is guided by revenge and engages in a relationship with the heroine to achieve that end. He soon discovers that he cares too much for her to use her as a tool and in fact never uses her badly. But it is his need for revenge that keeps them apart; until he can put that aside, they cannot be together.
The four of us working on this list are having a difficult time of it. We need help. If there are books you have read that you think fit into one of the two categories, please e-mail me. As with all the Special Title Listings, I need the title, author, and time period. And, for this list, I need to know whether the conflict is wholly external, or if it is an intra-character conflict. The key is - do these characters get along? If they do, send me the title. One disagreement won't discount the book from the list.
Oh, one last thing. There are some excellent romances out there without conflict whatsoever, or basically without conflict. I've always called Julia Quinn's Splendid the Seinfeld of romance. What's Seinfeld about? Nothing. What's Splendid about? Nothing. . . nothing but mouth-watering romance, humor, and character discovery. And a distinct lack of conflict. I'd like to hear from you about books like Splendid or Deborah Simmons' The Vicar's Daughter. Please e-mail with your comments on nothing.
A Writer Asks:
Last week I received an e-mail from author Peggy Moreland, who did a Write Byte on category romances a few weeks ago. While she enjoys the stand-alone pages here such as the ones on the HEA Ending, she asked:
"Sex on the first page. Is it a turn off? With maybe an additional question tacked on: How does the writer successfully pull off sex on the first page without it seeming sordid or gratuitous?"
Hey, I'm game - are you? While I directed her to look at previous columns where sex in romance has been discussed, I also directed her to the stand-alone pages for Readers Rant About Sexuality. But, let's try to answer her question here and now.
My own personal preference is that I don't like sex on the first page. Not between the hero and heroine definitely, and generally not between others. Occasionally I have enjoyed a romance where the hero has just had sex with a mistress or doxy, but I don't think I've ever read a book and enjoyed it where the act itself occurs immediately within the first few pages.
So, how about you? Is this a turn off for you as well? Could you conceive of such a scene being written and it not being sordid or gratuitous? Let me hear from you here.
Torment or Torture?
Resident historian Jean Mason, who recently prepared for the Historical Cheat Sheet a fascinating piece on medieval women and sexuality, wrote in recently and asked:
Until Jean wrote me, I'd never thought of that. Truly, the reason I so named the Tormented Heroines Special Title Listing was because I had already titled the male version of the list Tortured Heroes. But now that I think about it, the distinction is an interesting one."Have you ever considered the difference between a tormented heroine and a tortured heroine? This distinction came to me when I was reading Balogh's latest Regency, A Christmas Bride. Lady Helena Stapleton is clearly a tortured heroine.
"Let me explain what I mean. A tormented heroine is someone who has been 'done to'. Someone has done something to her in the past which has left her hurting and defensive. She may respond in a number of ways - becoming brittle and untrusting; rejecting warmth and love; growing a hard shell against feeling. Lily in the Kleypas book is, to my mind, a tormented heroine. Yes, she done wrong when she engaged in sex outside of marriage, but what has really made her the tormented soul she has become is what has been 'done to' her: the kidnapping of her daughter.
Lady Helena suffers because of something she has done, something she believes was evil and unforgivable. (And although there are extenuating circumstances, she's very nearly right.) So I see her as tortured, rather than tormented. And I think that such heroines are relatively rare.
Just last week I had a discussion with another reader about the hero from Mary Jo Putney's One Perfect Rose. This hero believes he is dying; in actuality, he is being poisoned just enough to make him and keep him sick. (Sorry for the spoiler, but the book's been out for months now.) He doesn't engage in the typical tortured hero mode - being cruel and mean. So, according to Jean's definition, he's tormented rather than tortured.
Now let's consider the hero from Lorraine Heath's Always to Remember. He's considered a coward by his town. He doesn't engage in typical tortured hero behavior either; in fact, he's on the Special Heroes listing because he behaves so admirably.
So, perhaps Jean has come up with something we should think about. Perhaps it applies not only to heroines, but to heroes as well. Take a look at the lists I've provided links to above, then think about Jean's argument and write me. I have a feeling that heroes Jean would define as tormented are already on the Special Heroes list as opposed to the Tortured Heroes list, but that the heroines on the Tormented Heroines list may be another matter. And, just to muddy the waters further, let's not forget there is also the Special Heroines listing as well.
Before all these lists drive you crazy, just give it a thought, then take a look, then think some more. Then e-mail me.
Laurie's Picks & Pans:
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