by guest blogger Maya Rodale, writer of historical tales of true love and adventure
In days of yore, there was a tremendous fear that young, impressionable youths would be corrupted by what they read in novels. An 18th-century conduct book warned against reading novels because they “raise expectations of extraordinary adventures and cause readers to admire extravagant passions, and lead to unacceptable conduct.” After all, books were meant to educate, and novels were awfully realistic…except for the inclusion of occasional flights of romantic fantasy. One could easily be deluded into thinking that remarkable changes of fortune happened, or that class barriers were no obstacle to love, or that happily-ever-after was a real-life thing.
Fortunately, these days reading is encouraged and we’ve realized there’s a lot to be learned from novels. Here’s what I myself have learned about life from romance novels:
1. Believe in hate at first sight. Some of my favorite stories to read and write involve a hero and heroine who can’t stand each other at the beginning. Their interactions are snappy, not sappy. And is there any obstacle greater than admitting you were wrong? Here’s the other thing about hate at first sight: Few things elicit strong immediate reactions (be it hate or love), and it’s worth paying attention whenever it happens. For example, I used to hate romance novels and now I write them; when I first heard about Twitter I thought it would never take off; and I was certain that Pirates of the Caribbean would bomb as a movie. Long story short, don’t just dismiss something (or someone!) because you don’t immediately love it.
2. Speak up. There’s a rule romance writers are taught: If the conflict of a book can be resolved by a simple conversation, then it’s not conflict, it’s just annoying. Similarly, “outspoken” heroines are much more fun to read and write than those characters who sulk and mutter, “I’m fine” when they’re not. Likewise, there’s nothing worse than a hero who won’t open up from time to time. Dialogue moves a story forward in an engaging and interesting way, in real life or on the page. So speak up and ask questions.
3. Just say YES. It can be tricky to justify why characters or real people embark on outrageous schemes, but let’s all agree right now that “because it makes for a better story” is a perfectly acceptable reason. In my newest novel, The Wicked Wallflower, a betrothal announcement for Lady Emma and the Duke of Ashbrooke appears in the newspaper—but they’ve never met! They could print a retraction. Or they could play along…. In the words of Tina Fey (who is the inspiration for Lady Emma): “‘Say yes and you’ll figure it out afterward’—it’s a notion that has helped me be more adventurous. It has definitely helped me be less afraid.” Less fear, more adventures—how can you say no to that?
4. Everyone has a backstory. The best villains have motivations that anyone can relate to. That party guest in Chapter Four might be the main character of another book. Information dumps about people’s life story are boring, but the slow reveal is what keeps us reading, understanding, reevaluating, and even falling in love. Don’t be afraid to share a few paragraphs of your own backstory. And even when you don’t know someone’s history, it’s worth remembering that you never know what happened in that person’s preceding chapter or how you might move his or her story forward.
5. There is no perfect. Some heroines are slender, some are plump; some are plain, some are pretty. Some are good at math, or have their nose in a book, or are too busy running the household. And every once in a while, you find a hero who isn’t tall, dark, handsome, unfathomably wealthy, or powerful. (Even the tall, dark, handsome, rich, and powerful guys often have serious issues.) The point is: A really good romance depends on two imperfect characters fitting together. A really successful genre depends on a variety of character combinations. We often hold ourselves back by comparing ourselves to someone else or some abstract “standard.” Instead, we should just look for the person who fits us.
6. It ain’t over ’til it’s over. In romance, just because everyone thinks a character is dead doesn’t mean he or she actually is—don’t believe it until you’ve seen the body. And similarly, when all seems lost, don’t despair as long as there are a few pages (or percentages) left to go. In every story, there are highs and lows, romantic moments and dark moments before there’s a happily-ever-after. What might seem like THE END might only be a cliffhanging ending before a new chapter.
7. Real love does not diminish you. There’s a difference between compromising and changing or hiding fundamental aspects of your character to please someone. A real hero or heroine won’t ask you to change the things that make you you. Nor does real love ask you to “put your light under a bushel.” That leads to frustrated characters who say no to adventures they’d like to say yes to, and who mutter “I’m fine” when they’re not (ugh). Remember, there is no perfect. But if you give yourself and others the chance, there might be a happy ending.
Here’s the moment when I speak up about my new book: The Wicked Wallflower, features an imperfect hero and heroine who hate each other at first sight before saying yes to adventure and eventually living happily ever after. Visit www.mayarodale.com for more details about the book.
Maya Rodale is the author of multiple historical romance novels, as well as the nonfiction book Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels, Explained. She has a master’s degree from New York University and lives in Manhattan with her darling dog and a rogue of her own. Her latest book is The Wicked Wallflower. Visit her online at www.mayarodale.com or say hello to @mayarodale on Twitter.