Are You Writing Responsibly?

Copyright Cynthia VanRooy - All Rights Reserved

 

In romance, more than any other genre, our characters become role models for our readers. In romance, we don’t even call our characters protagonists, we call them heroes and heroines--for a reason. Writers and readers alike expect them to exhibit heroic behavior.

I hear you protesting that no one wants to read about saintly women and sinless men, and I agree. I’m not talking about characters so virtuous their halos glow. I’m talking about creating characters your reader would want to emulate. The key words are honorable and responsible.

Isn’t part of the reading experience slipping into the character’s identity, living life through them? Would you want to identify with a hero who gets drunk on a regular basis and thinks that’s just fine? Boys will be boys, right? Or a heroine who sleeps with every good looking guy who can afford the price of a drink? Girls just want to have fun, don’t they?

These are extreme examples, but bear with me. What if our hero, instead of wallowing in his drunkenness, realizes he has a drinking problem and is struggling with it? What if he attends AA and is trying to turn his life around? What if we learn our good-time-girl was sexually abused as a child and believes sex is the only way she can find love and approval. What if she recognizes her self-destructive behavior and is seeking a better way to live? These characters are now more sympathetic to us and we are rooting for them. What made the difference?--the characters’ honorable motivation and responsibility for their own actions.

If you’re going to give a character behavior or habits that are less than heroic, make sure there are consequences. Overcoming that behavior can be part of the character’s growth. By the end of the book, the hero or heroine has changed, has given up the behavior, or at least has made the decision to. The hero shows up at his first AA meeting, the heroine signs up for night classes in psychology instead of hitting the bars.

In a manuscript I critiqued the heroine was a television news reporter. She got a lead on a story and jumped in her car, with her child in the back seat, and rushed to capture the scoop. She was driving recklessly over the speed limit, talking on her cell phone, and applying mascara all at the same time! Trust me on this—because the heroine is doing these things, there are readers who will take it as an okay to emulate her behavior. Don’t label this kind of stuff heroic by assigning it to your main character unless there are consequences—a speeding ticket (which she acknowledges she deserved—no arguing with the cop), an accident (perhaps her child is severally injured and the guilt is part of our heroine’s growth process). I have a problem with a heroine that would endanger her child this way, though, and even with consequences would have difficulty warming up to this character.

The current popularity of more sexually explicit romances especially highlights the need to write responsible characters. Are your characters having unprotected sex? Why? Don’t brush this concern aside with the argument that having to mention condoms, etc. in the scene disrupts the mood and spoils the flow. (I actually heard this from an agent who doesn’t like romance, doesn’t represent it, and doesn’t "get" it). Don’t have your characters so aroused—and thoughtless--that they don’t address the problem. In this day and age, intelligent people (and characters) take care of this. What does it say about a hero who gives no thought to the possible consequences to the heroine of unprotected sex?

One author who writes explicit love scenes, minus mention of any protection, told me she expects the reader to assume the characters are having protected sex. Say what? Her scenes are written play by play from first kiss to last exhausted sigh. At what point in there is the reader supposed to assume the hero donned a condom? Don’t make the reader assume (or hope) the characters are behaving heroically. This is lazy writing. It’s your job, not the reader’s, to write the scene.

We have no control over who reads our books. Do we want a sixteen-year-old to read our romance and think it’s all right to be "swept away" by the moment and have unprotected sex with her boyfriend because Miranda (or whatever your heroine’s name) did and nothing bad happened to her? Use your love scenes as teaching moments. Mature people handle difficult issues. Show how.

Responsible behavior isn’t limited to just the big issues. In an unfortunant example from a published book, the hero was a smoker. I wasn’t crazy about this, but I like this author so I kept reading. When the hero flicked one of his cigarette butts onto the sidewalk, I was disturbed. Then the hero and heroine were strolling on the beach and he flicked a butt into the sand. Last straw. The act said so much to me about this man, none of it good. I quit reading and probably won’t pick up anything else by this writer. The memorable characters we fall in love with are the ones who, in spite of all their human foibles, can be counted on to behave with honor--or least feel shame when they don’t.

Romance writers, more than others, have a responsibility to their readers to present a good example. Think that’s an exaggeration? My favorite story is told by the owner of a used-book store. One of her regular customers came in one day and said she was stopping by to say thank you and goodbye.

She explained she had grown up in an abusive home and then repeated the pattern in her abusive marriage. From reading the many romances she bought at the store, the reader came to understand that not all men were like her husband and father, that there were kinder, better men out there. She noticed the way the romance heroines dealt with the problems in their lives—taking control and taking action, not waiting for someone else to make things better. The customer told the bookseller that thanks to all the romances she had read, she’d found the courage to leave her abusive marriage and was moving out of the area to begin a new life.

Pretty inspiring, isn’t it? Your books can do more than provide a few hours of entertainment. They can change lives. Your characters are teachers. Are they teaching something you’d be proud of?

 

About the author: Cynthia VanRooy is an award winning romance novelist with eight books published by both print and epublishers. Her ninth romance will be released late 2005 by New Age Dimensions. She is also the author of etips booklet The Secrets to Query Letters That Work. Additional details can be found at Cynthia's website.

 

Easy Way to Write Romance - by Rob Parnell