I had a reality check the other day. I read part of a contemporary Christian historical fiction novel, which suddenly decided to jump to the romance genre about a third of the way in. It’s been so long since I’d read—even by mistake—anything of the kind that I feel I owe y’all an apology.
I’ve been trying to come to grips with what I actually believe about romance in fiction for a number of years now. I’ve already come to a handful of conclusions, very similar to those listed in this excellent blog post by young authoress Rachel Coker (go and read it!).
But to sum up my basic thoughts. Obviously a measure of romance is not only permissible, but expected in any good story. Redemptive history itself is a romance, ending with a wedding. On the other hand, the teen-girl demographic has a fair bit of caution to exercise in this regard—as I mentioned in my review of Rachel Heffington’s charming Fly Away Home, “My problem with the [romance] genre is that inviting twitter-patedness over fictional men doesn't seem like great training for keeping your head when it comes to real men.”
Somehow we have to balance these two things, however paradoxical that sounds. And I’m not just saying that, I think we see it pretty inescapably in Scripture. The constant refrain of the highly romantic Song of Solomon is a plea for young women not to stir up emotion before the right time.
We’ve heard a lot of advice on handling romantic plotlines from various people. Some of the advice has encouraged people to avoid fiction and/or romance altogether, but I have a hard time reconciling that with Scripture. Wiser advice has encouraged girls to simply avoid the kind of thing that they find troublesome, and if that’s the point you’re at, I’ve written a post I highly recommend to you, Reading in the House of Busirane, about how a dear (and frighteningly well-read) friend worked together with her mother to navigate possible difficulties. Also, I certainly would never recommend making romance of any kind the main staple of one's literary diet. That would be like living on dessert (ick!).
However, we don’t have a lot of advice—or even thought—about what a really good, solid, helpful romantic plot might look like in fiction. This is where my reality check came in. As the heroine of that novel goggled into her hero’s electrifying blue eyes between bouts of contrived bickering, I realised that my reading has, by and large, been at a pretty high level of quality for most of the last two or three years. And although most readers would rate the book as pretty tame, I realised that its flitter-pated silliness far outstripped anything I've recently complained about on this blog.
Over the last year or so, I’ve had the opportunity to think more deeply about the romance question. Part of this has involved struggling with the romantic subplot in my own novel, Pendragon's Heir. I knew I wanted the characters of my novel to try, though imperfectly, to apply the same principles I believe (about not stirring up emotions, keeping physical boundaries, seeking counsel, building a real friendship, and so on). At the same time, I had to acknowledge that my characters were different enough from me in background, temperament, and upbringing that their applications of these principles were going to look quite different than they might in my own life. It’s been a wonderful exercise in learning to appreciate the basics, and let go of narrow applications.
So, having taken this reality check, and begun to better appreciate the difference between principle and application, I have a few conclusions.
I believe that a good fictional romance will teach its audience something about how love works. Maybe it'll show some common pitfalls. Or maybe it'll demonstrate what a really worthwhile spouse will look like. Jennifer Freitag’s novel Plenilune really impressed me on this account: it is among other things a wonderful illustration of the difference between a bad man and a good man. You’ve never seen the Mr Rochester-style dreamboat so thoroughly and powerfully dismantled.
Here are some things I’ve noticed in what I’d consider unwise and unhelpful romance plots. In those, there tends to be a lot of emphasis on galloping emotions and galloping pulses. Someone might tell the heroine, “Oh honey, you’re in love. You can’t fight that.” The hero will have intense blue eyes, or a crooked grin, or rumpled hair, or something, and you’ll hear all about it ad nauseam. The couple might bicker, or they might take one look at each other and drift helplessly into La-La Land, but either way their relationship seems more based on looks and infatuation than on any solid common goal or interests. Practicality and rationality never even gets a mention.
The hero might be the tortured outcast of society, scorned by the heroine’s uppity friends and relations, whom she defies in order to run away with him. Or, he might be the dark and saturnine owner of a gigantic mansion covering half the planet, through which he stalks our heroine like a hunter. Either way, he’s always pushing boundaries, whether they’re set by the heroine or by her stodgy society.
Next to this, a really good romance is not just much more satisfying to read, it’s also much more believable. I love a romance...
...in which a callow young man in love comes to realise that his beloved would be better off with another, whether it's because that other is a better man than himself (as in Phantastes) or because even though the other is a weakling, he's still the one she loves (as in Midwinter) or even because he realises she simply isn't a woman of great character (as in Sir Nigel).
...in which two old enemies are fooled into loving each other, not
fatuously but faults and all, calling themselves “too wise to woo
peaceably" (as in Much Ado About Nothing).
...or in which a frightened woman is rescued by a laughing cavalier at
whose side she becomes the fearless and deadly Lady Spitcat,
queen-adventuress of a war-torn planet (as in Plenilune).
I like romances founded in something deeper than sparks and daydreams. I love romances in which two people with very real differences must come together and learn to work for a common cause. I like romances where when difficulty arises it doesn’t play out in fruitless bickering but in real self-sacrifice and love. I like romances where the hero and heroine have believable flaws, but still attempt to demonstrate wisdom and graciousness to each other. I like romances where the hero respects the laws of God and man. I like romances where the dark and saturnine man turns out, every now and then, to be the villain. I like romances where the characters are stronger and wiser together than apart, and where the love itself may grow from youthful infatuation to mature profundity.
Let’s have more of that kind of romance, and you will never hear me complain.