The Manly Virtues—Regency Style

Heroic Virtues

Picture of Regency heroThe “hero” of a romance, the male lead, holds up a mirror to a given age’s conception of the virtues a man should have.  If the romance is to work at all, the hero must be someone we’re willing to see the heroine give her heart to.  He may not be perfect; in fact, he frequently has flaws or emotional wounds that help provide obstacles in the story.  But he has to be admirable enough to win our approval.

We’re not talking just about the kinds of physical attributes a woman might sigh over.  The reader is supposed to respect the man as well.

This assumption is largely tacit.  Probably no one in the story comes right out and says “this is what a man should be.”  It’s a matter of what the story presents as desirable or worthy of respect.  We can learn a lot more from how the story treats a character than just what the author tells us.

In other words, romantic stories can give us clues about the archetypes or role models for males (and of course females) in a given period.

These ideals aren’t necessarily the same in different eras.  Cultural differences affect what qualities we see as admirable.  There’s a fairly constant core—virtues that are respected in every generation—but there’s also a good deal of divergence.

 

Hero Types

There’s a fair amount of variety in the heroes of Georgette Heyer’s twenty to thirty Regency novels (the count depends on how loosely one defines the Regency period).  We can see this from the fact that attempts to categorize the heroes have to deal with a lot of exceptions.

The standard division, originating with Heyer herself, proposes two principal archetypes.  Jane Aiken-Hodge, in The Private World of Georgette Heyer (1984), is quoted in Laurel Ann Nattress, Heyer’s Heroes:  Immutable Romance Archetypes, on Austenprose (2010), as saying that “Georgette Heyer put her heroes into two basic categories: the Mark I hero, who is ‘The brusque, savage sort with a foul temper’ and the Mark II hero, who is ‘Suave, well-dressed, rich, and a famous whip.’

Dorothy Dunnett added in a Washington Post article (1984):  “If hero Mark I was firmly based on Charlotte Bronte’s Mr. Rochester, Mark II is the very embodiment of Sir Percy Blakeney, Baroness Orczy’s languid aristocrat of The Scarlet Pimpernel” (links and italics added).  TV Tropes’ Creator page on Heyer notes this division of heroes (and a corresponding classification of heroines).

The Foundling, coverBut these dual archetypes don’t exhaust the roster.  Nattress notes that the Duke of Sale in The Foundling “perhaps requires one to add at least one more category to Heyer’s own classification scheme, since he, like the heroes of Charity Girl, Cotillion, and Friday’s Child, is neither “suave” nor “brusque.”  That’s four stories that apparently escape the Mark I/II dichotomy.  Nattress adds:  “In addition, one might have to create a small category for Heyer’s military heroes who are neither ‘suave’ nor ‘brusque’ but instead have a penchant for behaving in unexpectedly unconventional ways, and which would contain the heroes of Beauvallet, The Spanish Bride, The Toll Gate and The Unknown Ajax.”  We’re now up to eight exceptions.

Common Characteristics

On the other hand, the romantic heroes do have a pretty consistent set of common features.  Let’s divide the personal qualities—not the characters—into two groups (no relation to the Mark I/II character types).

Group 1 features:  General

  • The hero has plenty of money. Sometimes this is important because the heroine is in financial need; sometimes it isn’t, because she’s not.  But the male lead is almost always solvent, if not extraordinarily wealthy.  A rare counter-example is Adam Deveril of A Civil Contract (1961), whose attempt to achieve financial stability for his family is a main plotline of the story.
  • Black Sheep (Georgette Heyer) coverHe typically looks good, both in the sense of physical handsomeness and in that of being well-dressed and “put together.” A rare counter-example here is Miles Calverleigh in Black Sheep (1966), who is described as a man “with harsh features in a deeply lined face, a deplorably sallow skin, and not the smallest air of fashion” (ch. 3, p. 34).
  • He’s kind to his lady. They may start out at odds; he may be brusque or formidable to others; but to the heroine, at least, he is considerate and caring.
  • In a pinch, he’s cool under pressure. There may or may not be any situation in the story that calls for physical courage; but if so, he’s got it.
  • Loyalty and, more narrowly, fidelity to his lady is another hallmark. We’re talking here about fidelity after they fall in love.  Heyer makes clear that the hero has previously sown his wild oats, which makes him experienced in carnal matters and confident in his wooing.  But once he falls for the heroine, all that is behind him.

It should be noted that Heyer’s novels do not deal with actual sexual activity at all.  Physical attraction, while it is obviously present, does not feature largely in the storylines—so it is not a requirement that the hero be outrageously sexy.  In this respect Heyer differs considerably from many modern genre romances, even Regency romances.  (On this aspect of Heyer’s character, see Jennifer Kloester’s biography Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller (2011).)

The Group 1 traits are probably common, in some form, to the ideal mate for a woman in any era.  Having plenty of money, in particular, may represent a kind of wish-fulfillment for the traditional female reader (Heyer’s 1920s-1960s audience):  the hero is someone who can be relied upon to provide a safe support for the necessities and amenities of life.

How this is expressed may differ by society.  In the Regency period, a fortune was generally inherited; in a modern story, the traditional millionaire romantic interest probably earned his stash.  In a fantasy or science-fiction world, the currency of survival may be something other than money per se.  But some reliable means of support is generally attractive.

The corresponding wish-fulfillment quality in a female for male readers/viewers, by the way, is beauty.  One doesn’t cast unattractive Bond girls.  It would be considered shallow for either sex to value only these qualities in a potential mate; but they do form part of the complete package for the ideal romantic interest.

In addition to the Group 1 virtues, a Heyer hero is expected to have some more period-specific qualities.

Group 2 features:  Regency-specific

  • Gentleman Jackson's Boxing Salon, 1821 woodcutThe ideal Regency gentleman, as Heyer see it, knows how to fist-fight. Typically, he frequents Gentleman Jackson’s Boxing Salon, where he attains some skill using his “fives” in an art the ladies generally deplore, but still rather admire.  At least some brief mention of this ability turns up for almost all of Heyer’s heroes.
  • Moreover, he can fight with firearms. The hero is generally a good shot, spending some of his off hours target-shooting or hunting.  Even in a story where neither fist-fighting nor shooting plays a part, these talents seem to be indispensable:  the proper hero is prepared to fight should the need arise.
  • He can ride a horse. Whether he’s a “notable whip” or merely a very competent horseman, he’s particularly good at riding, even in an era where the horse was a standard mode of transportation.
  • In Regency high society, a man’s integrity is expressed especially in honoring his bets in the ubiquitous gaming. A hero always makes good on his gaming obligations; someone who doesn’t is instantly recognizable as a villain.  (Note that this is closely related to the general virtue of having plenty of money available.)
  • Almost invariably, he has a sense of humor; frequently the heroine wishes she could share some absurd incident with the hero when he’s absent. This sense of humor may be a survival trait when you’re in a romantic comedy.
  • Last of the Mohicans action sceneIn a society where almost all one’s time is spent in social interactions, social competence is a key feature. The proper hero can cope with any social difficulty or complication.  Some of them do so calmly, with aplomb, while others may be brusque and seemingly unconventional (I mentioned Black Sheep above).  In a primitive or frontier situation—say, if you’re in The Last of the Mohicans, or a Heinlein adventure—competence may mean basic survival skills.  But in a highly formalized society like the Regency, social skill is what competence in general looks like.

Of course we’re talking about the aristocracy here—what the stories refer to, tellingly, as “the Quality.”  Heyer’s stories only glancingly involve the kinds of street urchins or poor tradespeople who grace the pages of (for example) Dickens.  While later Regencies may try to work in a more egalitarian perspective, the Heyer-type stories focus on the leisured class.

Cotillion

We can see what the essential characteristics are by looking at an exception to what one would think of as the typical alpha hero:  Freddy Standen of Cotillion (N.Y.:  G.P. Putnam’s Sons, A Jove Book, 1953, 1982).

Cotillion (Georgette Heyer), coverIn this light-hearted tale, heroine Kitty Charing is the ward of crochety old Uncle Matthew, who’s determined to marry her off, along with his considerable fortune, to one of his nephews.  Kitty’s in love with the rakish Jack, who is too proud to show up when Uncle Matthew calls the nephews together.  Instead, she convinces the amiable Freddy to pretend to be engaged to her, which allows her the London experience she’s always wanted, and (not incidentally) the chance to convince Jack to offer for her.  In the course of the story, she discovers Jack’s unlikable features, and ends up falling for Freddy after all—and vice versa, of course.

You might expect Jack to be the hero.  He’s handsome, devil-may-care, knows how to fight, and so forth.  He’s the classic powerful, assertive alpha male type.  But Jack is too selfish, and he doesn’t really care about Kitty; she’s merely convenient for him.  It’s the non-alpha Freddy who wins out.

Freddy is good-looking, but in an almost dandyish mode; a “Pink of the Ton” (p. 41).  He’s “kind-hearted and . . . uncritical” (p. 112), and expresses “ready sympathy” for Kitty (p. 210).  He professes to be frightened of intimidating types like Uncle Matthew (p. 53); but he really isn’t, and provides unexpected support to Kitty in dealing with difficult relatives (pp. 191, 258-59).  These are of course good things for the inexperienced heroine, though they’re milder virtues than the bold assertiveness one would expect of a stock hero.

At the same time, Freddy does possess the Group 2 qualifications outlined above.  He has integrity:  he’s an honest gamer (“Play or pay, m’girl, play or pay,” pp. 108-09).  More importantly, he’s courteous and magnanimous in real life.  Jack recognizes that Freddy is “wholly incapable of making so unhandsome a gesture” (p. 267), and Heyer even describes Freddy’s willingness to help someone in difficulties as “an innate chivalry” (p. 354).

Freddy shares with his lady an appreciation for the humorous (p. 306).  He is a past master of social competence:  mild-mannered though he is, he “knew to a nicety how to blend courtesy with hauteur” when necessary (p. 305), and although he lays no claim to great intelligence, he has the practical knowledge of how to get his much smarter brother out of trouble (p. 318)—practical wisdom.  To Kitty, this is genuine heroism:

“I daresay Freddy might not be a great hand at slaying dragons, but you may depend upon it none of those knight-errants would be able to rescue one from a social fix, and you must own, Meg, that one has not the smallest need of a man who can kill dragons!”  (pp. 314-15)

At the start of the story Freddy’s own father Lord Legerwood regards him as mentally negligible.  But Legerwood is repeatedly astonished in the course of the book when Freddy comes up with a clever solution to some problem at need—at which Freddy himself is equally astonished (pp. 105, 170, 305-06).  In this respect Freddy bears some resemblance to Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster (we’ll have to discuss the remarkable Jeeves and the Wedding Bells another time).

Most strikingly, although we’re explicitly told that Freddy is no match for Jack at fisticuffs, Heyer does give him a chance to knock Jack down with a well-placed blow—in response to an insult to Kitty (p. 408).  Everyone, including Freddy and Jack, recognize that this was an impulsive and lucky hit, but at that point of the story Jack’s not going to follow it up by getting into a “mill.”  So Freddy, the least likely of combatants, is left holding the field—a neat trick by Heyer.  Even in those Group 2 qualities that aren’t his strong suit, he qualifies.

Warrior Virtues in Disguise

Why do Regency heroes (at least in Heyer) have this particular set of Group 2 qualities?

I suggest that the ideal underlying Heyer’s heroes is that of a warrior caste gone to seed.  The aristocracy depicted in these stories seems to have occupied itself almost exclusively with trivialities:  gaming, fancy dress, gossip, absurd customs and manners enforced by exaggerated social sanctions.  But that aristocracy originated in the feudal system established in England after the Norman Conquest.

Hohensalzburg fortressThe basic “social compact” of the feudal system was that a warrior caste was given overlordship of specified lands in exchange for military service—particularly in the cavalry, the realm of the traditional knight.  From the standpoint of the king, a vassal drew on the resources of his lands to equip himself and his companions to provide soldiers for the king at need.  From the standpoint of the common people, the local lord provided defense in wartime, kept the peace, and administered justice, in return for his authority over his fief.  Not that the commoners had much to say about it, of course—but there were reciprocal obligations of the lord to his people:  noblesse oblige.

Over the ensuing seven hundred years, the notion of holding lands in exchange for service gradually degenerated into a system of pure inheritance.  Succeeding landholders might be anything but warriors, and their support to the Crown was more likely to be financial than military.  Yet some of the original ideal remained, a sort of ghostly glamour in the name of remembered glory.  The Dorothy Dunnett article quoted above continues:

And the moral etiquette of the books is very much in the comfortable tradition of her time.  Behind the Corinthian stands Bulldog Drummond, defending his honor, his land and his lady; and behind them, the courts of chivalry from the days of “armor,” Georgette Heyer’s favorite period.

Our Heyer heroes may spend most of their time playing at vaguely military-like sports:  riding, boxing, shooting.  But if there ever is a call for soldiery—there they are.  And the Regency aristocrats do go to war.  Much of the Regency period overlaps that of the Napoleonic Wars, and campaigns on the Continent frequently play a role in the background of a Heyer romance.  In this respect, a classic aphorism about war and sports is apropos:

“The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” the Duke of Wellington did not say – although as the Victorian era’s principal supplier of epigrams, he certainly should have. [footnote omitted]  For apart from war and preparation for war, it’s in competitive athletics that the Clausewitzian combination of a distilled past, a planned present, and an uncertain future most explicitly come together.  (John Lewis Gaddis, On Grand Strategy (NY:  Penguin Press, 2018), ch. 1, p. 26.)

We may note briefly that Heyer’s heroines fit the pattern too.  Looking at the covers of the books, one may be tempted to think the women in the stories are purely ornamental, representing the “prize” of the warrior:  “None but the brave deserves the fair” (Dryden).  But in fact the ladies in these romances are frequently estate managers, skilled at family governance and the organization of veritable armies of workers—just as one might expect from those expected to keep things going on the home front while the defenders are away at war.  There’s more to these decorative ladies than meets the eye.

The particular sketch of the ideal male in Heyer’s Regencies, then, may be rooted in a much older ideal:  to employ a favorite phrase in jest (oddly enough) of Wodehouse’s, the parfit gentil knight, sans peur et sans reproche.  Like Tolkien’s hobbits, the Regency gentleman conceals unexpected resilience beneath an apparently trivial surface.  He makes an interesting contrast to more contemporary models of manhood.

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The World Around the Corner

The World Premiere

The World Around the Corner coverI’m excited to have my romantic comedy novella The World Around the Corner in print as of last week.  Or in virtual print, at least; it’s out as an e-book from the Wild Rose Press.  (Details are available on the story’s page.)

Uncharacteristically for me, TWATC isn’t science fiction or fantasy.  The only potential SF elements are some very minor advances in gaming technology (and perhaps in automobile design).  Some parts read a little like fantasy, because there’s an online role-playing game (an MMORPG) involved.  In that respect there’s a faint resemblance to Ready Player One (book and movie), where an online game plays a major part in a much more serious SF story.  But TWATC isn’t really about games or technology; it’s all about having fun with the characters.

You’re Who?

I’ve always liked the kind of romance where a character has to make a discovery about who their romantic interest really is.  Jasmine isn’t immediately aware that Disney’s Aladdin, when he visits the palace as a prince, is the same street urchin she’s already met—though she isn’t fooled for long.  In Shakespeare’s venerable Twelfth Night, nobody is quite sure who “Cesario” (Viola) really is.  The same is true in the modernized high-school variant of the Shakespeare comedy, She’s the Man.  Playing around with two ways of knowing the same person is also put to good use in the case of super-heroes (or heroes generally) who have secret identities, from the Scarlet Pimpernel to El Zorro to Superman.

The Shop Around the Corner posterBut in all these tales, one member of the couple has the advantage of knowing the truth.  It puts the couple on more even terms if neither of them is aware of what’s really going on.  There’s a whole series of variations on a single story where the main characters meet indirectly and fail to connect up the two different ways they’re communicating with the same person.  This plot seems to have been invented by Hungarian playwright Miklós László in the form of a play called Illatszertár or Parfumerie (1937).  It was adapted in English into the Jimmy Stewart-Margaret Sullavan film The Shop Around the Corner (1940), which in turn gave rise to a musical treatment with Judy Garland, In the Good Old Summertime (1949), and again with She Loves Me (1963).  In these versions, the main characters are pen pals, and also co-workers.  Nora Ephron updated the treatment by making them e-mail correspondents in You’ve Got Mail (1998).

Romance And—

When we tell the story of a romance, we’re often telling a story about something else at the same time.  To be sure, this isn’t always the case.  In Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion, for example, or in Must Love Dogs, and in a lot of high-school rom-coms, the personal relationships are pretty much all that’s going on.  But generally, we don’t spend our lives doing nothing but looking for love.  We go on about our daily business, meeting our daily challenges, and stumble upon love as we go.

To Say Nothing Of The Dog coverSo a lot of romantic tales also have a storyline dealing with something that brings the couple together.  In Heyer’s The Toll-Gate, there’s an involved plot having to do with a theft of currency.  The main characters in Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog are searching for the bishop’s bird-stump.  (It’s a long story.)  Gaudy Night is the Dorothy Sayers novel where Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey finally get together, but they do it while trying to resolve a crisis at her alma mater.  The redoubtable Amelia Peabody and her future husband Radcliffe Emerson meet in the context of archaeological investigations (Crocodile on the Sandbank).

I like the idea of a couple’s bonding by cooperating in some shared endeavor.  And we may be able to amplify that motif by having it happen twice, in parallel, like the parallel identities in the “Shop” stories.

The Camaraderie of the Quest

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about the group quests of role-playing games, whether in D&D or World of Warcraft, is the bonding and sense of camaraderie that develops in a group working together for a common purpose.  Most traditional games like chess or Risk have the players competing against each other.  But the role-playing games typically pit a band of True Companions against third-party monsters or other opponents.

This is a whole different dynamic.  And seeing it play out in a game makes the tone both more light-hearted and more detached than, for example, in a real-life business relationship.  But for that very reason, it lacks a certain gravitas.  Suppose a couple used to fighting side-by-side in a game found they had to work together on something important in real life as well?

The Fun of the Shared Adventure

All this contributed to the idea of The World Around the Corner.  Other aspects also played their roles—for instance, a chance to share some favorite music and books.  And let us not forget the occasional opportunity, sheerly by happenstance, to achieve a truly dreadful pun, without even setting it up on purpose beforehand.  You’ll know it when you see it . . .

I hope you’ll have as much fun reading TWATC as I did writing it!

Romance and the Big Lie

Often a story is built around an elaborate deception.  It may be a caper or heist story, like the Ocean’s Eleven series.  It may be a spy story or thriller.  But there’s more at stake when the Big Lie is central to the main characters’ relationship.  Million-dollar prizes or secret papers are small potatoes; love is serious business.

Let’s look at cases where a romance is founded on a Big Lie.  Resolving that discontinuity—bringing the relationship safely onto a firmer footing—tends to become the main issue of the storyline.  And because at least some of the characters are mistaken about what’s going on, incongruities abound, and the natural home of such stories is romantic comedy.

Dramatic Deceptions

A Big Lie imperils a romance in the most challenging way is if the lie is about the relationship itself.  We can be confused about a potential lover’s name, or status, or identity:  consider all those songs that say ‘I don’t care who you are, only that you love me.’  But if the love itself is false—based on ulterior motives—we’ve got trouble.

10 Things I Hate About You (movie poster)The high-school rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, is a simple example.  Sophomore Bianca’s overcautious dad won’t let her date unless her older sister, the prickly and unsociable Kat, does too.  Bianca and an admirer arrange for “bad boy” Patrick Verona to be paid to date Kat.  Naturally, Patrick has a hard time convincing Kat he’s really interested in her; but by the time we reach the climactic prom, he actually is.  Naturally, that’s when the secret about the bribe is revealed, leading Kat to reject Pat and storm out.  When she realizes she’s fallen for him, and that he really does care, we arrive at the happy ending.

If A starts out pursuing B for base motives in a comedy, we’re almost bound to be riding the trope where an attachment that starts out fake becomes real.  It may be a cliché, but the pattern has everything going for it:  at least one of the lovers experiences a reluctant or unexpected change, providing a character development arc; the secret creates tension; the inevitable reveal produces emotional drama; and the shift from cynical motives to genuine affection pleases those of us who aren’t already too cynical to be convinced.  TV Tropes locates this plotline at the intersection of the tropes “Was It All A Lie“ and “Becoming the Mask.”

27 Dresses (movie poster)For a grown-up example, try 27 Dresses (2008), with Katherine Heigl and James Marsden.  The unholy motivation here isn’t money, but ambition.  Newspaperman Kevin Doyle (Marsden) wants to shift from writing fluffy wedding reviews to serious investigative journalism.  When he realizes that always-a-bridesmaid Jane Nichols has been in no fewer than 27 of her friends’ weddings, he figures that writing an exposé article about her is his ticket to making the transition to Real Journalist.  But as he gets to know her, he finds she’s not as shallow as he thought.  His attraction becomes genuine just at the point where the unexpected publication of his exposé reveals that he’s been using her for professional advancement.  Because there are other character issues in play, a good deal of further action is needed before Jane recognizes that Kevin’s the one for her.

The Big Lie’s Challenges

A plot built around the Big Lie carries with it some difficulties, which any such story will have to face (or dodge).

One is plausibility.  The bigger the fake, the more unlikely it may seem that someone could pull it off.  On the other hand, the more entertainingly appalling the secret is, the more likely we are to let it ride, just for the fun of it.  This critical leniency is what TV Tropes calls the Rule of Funny (“The limit of the Willing Suspension of Disbelief for a given element is directly proportional to its funniness”).  We can be similarly willing to bend plausibility on such grounds as the Rule of Romantic, Rule of Sexy, Rule of Cute, and of course the Rule of Cool.

More important, we may lose sympathy for the character who conducts such a deception.  A lot depends on the original motivation:  is it understandable, forgivable?  A journalist, for example, can legitimately pursue a story.  The strain occurs when the relationship becomes personal enough that the reporter’s aloof interest in a source begins to seem discordant, or when it becomes evident that the article will be taking advantage of the source’s vulnerabilities or weaknesses.  If the deceiver’s uneasiness grows in proportion to those considerations, we can continue to sympathize.

What makes this kind of plot development understandable is that it reflects a natural progression.  Our love for someone grows (sometimes, at least) as we get to know them better.  So the idea that characters initially brought together for baser motives can eventually fall in love has a built-in plausibility.  It also makes the deceiver’s change of heart more excusable.

Variations

How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days (movie poster)There are enough different ways to run this plotline to keep the Cauldron of Story boiling.

In How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), both characters are initially acting from unromantic motives.  Andie Anderson, like Kevin Doyle, is a journalist who wants to get more serious assignments.  She decides to start dating a man and drive him away using classic mistakes women make.  Ben Barry, for business-related reasons, makes a bet that he can get any woman to fall for him.  The fact that each of them is in an equally compromised position helps take the sting out of the deceptions.

You’ve Got Mail (1998) develops into the Big Lie after Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) finds out that his intimate online friend is really Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), the same woman he’s skirmishing with about business matters—and he doesn’t tell her.  From that point on, his actions are informed by something she doesn’t know.  But the characters already have a nascent affection—he’s simply grappling with what to do about it without giving her an equal opportunity, which is not as bad.

The Lie is averted in Runaway Bride (1999).  Ike Graham (Richard Gere) is trying to get to know Maggie Carpenter (Julia Roberts) better in order to write a detailed exposé and redeem his journalistic reputation.  But in this case, she’s perfectly well aware that he’s stalking her for discreditable motives, and is willing to use that for her own purposes (and to mess with his mind).  The plot develops in a different direction.  (There seems to be something about this trope that attracts reporter characters.)

These stories, on the whole, are comedies.  But the romantic deception makes up the serious part of the plot engine.  It really is a genuine issue between the characters.  The serious/comic combination isn’t really a paradox:  a comedy of this sort needs a “heart.”  Even a light comedy has to have some gravity, something we care about, at the core; pure fluff doesn’t hold our attention for long.  Even a fluffy soufflé has to be made out of real eggs.  (And that’s no yolking matter.)

Comedies of Errors

We do, however, also have a class of romantic comedies in which the deception is the comic element and not fundamental to the relationship.  Typically this involves something minor that snowballs to absurd proportions, for comic effect.  The deception isn’t about the romantic interest per se, but about something else.  As a result, the people involved come across as kinder, and the issue of character and trust isn’t quite as grave.

While You Were Sleeping (movie poster)A character might, for example, fall into a Big Lie by accident, and then (more or less plausibly) be unable to retrieve it.  While You Were Sleeping (1995) is a favorite example of mine.  Lonely Lucy Moderatz (Sandra Bullock) admires Peter Callaghan, a handsome commuter on the subway line where she’s a token collector, but she has never actually spoken to him.  When he’s mugged and falls onto the rail tracks, she saves him, though he falls into a coma.  A chance utterance from her convinces first the hospital staff, and then the unconscious man’s family, that she is actually his fiancée.

The writers go to considerable trouble to maintain that error while keeping Lucy’s motives innocent.  By the time she has a chance to correct the mistaken impression, she’s concerned that revealing the truth might be a shock to Peter’s grandmother, who has a weak heart.  When Peter’s godfather learns the truth, he encourages Lucy’s deception—because he likes Lucy and feels that she’s as good for the family as the lively, boisterous family is for her.  In the meantime, Lucy develops a true and reciprocal affection not for the unconscious Peter, but for Peter’s brother Jack (Bill Pullman).

False Colours book coverA relatively innocent deception might also be carried out for good motives.  Georgette Heyer’s False Colours involves the Fancot twins, a responsible diplomat (Kit) and his rackety brother (Evelyn, which is in this case a male name).  Kit arrives home to find Evelyn has disappeared just when he’s supposed to meet the family of Cressy Stavely, the young lady to whom Evelyn has proposed a marriage of convenience.  Their flighty mother talks Kit into impersonating Evelyn, just for this one occasion, to save the pending marriage.  Of course circumstances conspire to require Kit to keep up the imposture a good deal longer—much to careful Kit’s dismay.

Heyer is a master at making plausible what at first seems entirely unlikely.  We hear that Kit and Evelyn used to pretend to be each other frequently when they were young.  Kit’s real affection for his brother is the foundation on which his mother cajoles him into the charade.  Moreover, no emotional damage is done, so Kit’s character is not impugned.  When Kit falls in love with Cressy himself (she’s a much better match for him than for Evelyn), it’s not too long before he finds that Cressy has actually figured out the imposture some time since—and is much fonder of him than of Evelyn.  Moreover, when Evelyn finally shows up (with a good excuse), it turns out he’s fallen in love with a different girl.  So no harm comes of the innocent deception, and we can simply enjoy the ingenious maneuvers by which Kit manages to extricate everyone from the results of sailing under “false colours.”

Conclusion

The Big Lie is an inherently tricky device, and requires some care for an author to pull off without irretrievably damaging the character of the deceiving lover.  Deception undermines trust—and the lover must be seen to be trustworthy if the romance is to succeed at all.  Lois McMaster Bujold captured the point in a recent response to a reader:

The question a romance plot must pose, and answer (showing one’s work!) is not “Do these two people get together?” but rather “Can I trust you?”  Which is most certainly not a trivial problem, in art or in life.

But if the writer is adroit enough, the Big Lie does afford opportunities for high (and low) comedy, and it can be managed to a satisfying conclusion.

Good intentions may pave the road to Hell; but on the other hand, dubious motives can be redeemed—if both parties are ultimately willing to deal with the truth.  Since we belong to a species whose motives are seldom wholly pure, there’s a certain reassurance in that.

Unlikable Lovers

It’s hard to root for a romance if you don’t care about the characters.  We generally sympathize with the main character (“MC”).  But that’s not always so for the MC’s romantic interest (the “RI,” let’s say).  What happens when we don’t like the person the MC’s supposed to be interested in?

There’s a variety of types of problematic lovers, and sometimes a particular type is called for by the nature of the plot.  Let’s look at a few.

The Friendly Enemy

Much Ado About Nothing book coverThere’s an entire category of plotline in which the eventually happy couple start out at odds with each other.  TV Tropes captions this “Belligerent Sexual Tension,” and has a splendid list of examples.  They range from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing with the feuding Beatrice and Benedick (here’s the Tropes page) through F&SF examples like Leia and Han in The Empire Strikes Back, Kim Kinnison and Clarissa MacDougall in the Lensman series, Taran and Eilonwy in the Chronicles of Prydain, Aravis and Shasta in C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy.

A subcategory of these turnabout stories involves characters who fight in one context while falling for each other in another.  1998’s You’ve Got Mail, and its predecessors such as The Shop Around the Corner (1940), fall into this group, as does my forthcoming novella The World Around the Corner.

Frank and Kathleen across table in You've Got MailSometimes the turbulence between the main characters is based on some conflict in their characters (scoundrel and diplomat in Empire) or their interests (rival businesses in You’ve Got Mail).  Sometimes it’s almost a matter of their own combativeness or aggressive attitudes, as in the romantic comedy Laws of Attraction (2004).  But the writer has to walk a fine line here.  If the relationship is so strained as to become hostile or nasty, we may begin to wonder whether the RI is that great a catch after all.  Would Leia be better off with a “nice man”?  (Other than Luke, of course.)  In You’ve Got Mail, is Frank disqualified by his willingness to take unfair advantage of the fact that he knows who Kathleen is and not vice versa?

In a fight-then-flirt scenario, the romantic interest has to be sufficiently flawed that his tension with the MC doesn’t seem contrived—yet not so flawed that the attraction seems implausible.  The tension must be difficult enough to pose a challenge, and to keep the romance from concluding too quickly.  But the RI has to be admirable enough to be worth winning.

Winning Over the Bad Boy

There’s another class of plots that depend on making the romantic interest disreputable, troubled, or outright wicked.  Not too wicked, of course; they’ve got to be capable of reform—by the right lover.  We see this predominantly with female MCs and male RIs, but not exclusively so.

Clark Gable as Rhett ButlerTake Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind.  His appeal seems to lie especially in the fact that he’s a smuggler who defies the gentleman’s code of the antebellum South and pokes fun at their romanticized ideals.  Scarlett O’Hara doesn’t set out to reform him, but she does find him fascinating.  And she does reform him, as we can see but she can’t.  Interestingly, in this case Scarlett herself is pretty problematic too:  she’s a difficult, self-centered, domineering woman, with whom it can be hard to sympathize—though we do sympathize, mainly because we can see her inner thinking and where those traits come from.  (Personally, I always liked Melanie better.)

Edward Rochester of Jane Eyre barely escapes crossing the line into unacceptability, to my mind.  He’s brusque, domineering, and frighteningly deceptive.  We’re willing to approve him mostly because Jane is in love with him, and we love Jane.  And his comedown at the end both chastens him and engages our pity.

In my view, Wuthering Heights Healthcliff does cross the line.  I’m unmoved by his harsh and erratic behavior, and I don’t respect Catherine for her mad attachment to him.  He lacks redeeming qualities.  On the other hand, his very flamboyant unlikability is the basis for a hilarious imaginary counseling session held for the novel’s characters in Jasper Fforde’s The Well of Lost Plots (2003, chapter 12)—so I guess there’s some justification for his existence, at that.

The Proud, the Crude, and the Gothic

Few of these undesirable, yet desirable, RIs are as comprehensively intolerable as Heathcliff.  Generally one or two off-putting traits are enough to create the necessary tension or conflict.

Elizabeth and Darcy look askanceThe archetype of the proud or arrogant RI, of course, is the much-loved Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice.  Darcy has some unpleasant attitudes and makes some dreadful missteps, but Austen succeeds in convincing us that he’s admirable for all that, partly through his delayed but ultimately sincere devotion to Elizabeth.  Darcy retains such a hold on romantics that he’s even been successful as an artificial intelligence (AI) in Ashlinn Craven’s contemporary story.

Our era’s fondness for the earthy and outrageous gives us a procession of crude romantic interests, whose vulgarity or rudeness may represent a  barrier to be overcome by the Right Woman or merely a species of candor and bluntness—especially in romantic comedies.  Mike Chadway in The Ugly Truth (2009) has made a profession out of cynicism and outrageousness, but comes around in the end, after we’ve seen that his attitude stems from a past rejection.  The main character of Andy Weir’s 2017 novel Artemis sails perilously close to this edge.  But in this era we’re tolerant enough of crudity that the merely indecorous RI doesn’t usually pose a problem.

The brooding, Gothic or Byronic hero can also win readers’ hearts—witness Edward Cullen in the Twilight series.  But his kind of moodiness can so easily slip into annoying self-indulgence that it’s highly vulnerable to parody.  We may be more inclined to snicker than to sympathize, as we see in much of the critical response to Twilight.

The Misguided Romantic Interest

One of the easiest ways to generate conflict without wholly compromising the RI is to make them simply mistaken or wrongheaded.  This aligns neatly with a plot in which the MC shows the romantic interest the error of his (or her) ways.

Pretty Woman dinner scenePretty Woman (1990) is a fine example.  Edward Lewis (the third Edward on our list so far—coincidence?) is a repressed workaholic who uncaringly buys up business operations and sells them off in pieces.  Lively Vivian Ward not only loosens him up personally, but goads him into “using his powers for good” and working to save a company rather than break it up.  Edward’s change of heart in business parallels the more obvious romantic softening and emphasizes the completeness of his transformation.

A character—particularly a female character—working for the bad guys is especially subject to this kind of change.  For example, the atypical Disney heroine Megara in Hercules (1997) aids the scheming Hades, albeit for initially noble reasons.  There’s an entire category of such repentant subvillainesses, documented by the ever-vigilant TV Tropes.

Because the merely misguided RI is only superficially unworthy, this trope is a favorite of Hallmark Christmas romances, where either the MC or the love interest is often a big-city character who wants to turn some idyllic country spot into a soulless commercial enterprise.  This kind of relationship works equally well for either gender.

Overdominance

Genre romance with a female MC has a certain fondness for the strong, dominant male RI.  (If you belong to Critique Circle, here’s a lengthy forum discussion on the “alpha male” from mid-2017.)  But this can easily go awry.  What sounds romantic at first blush may be creepy or distasteful once we think of it in real life.  Many of the male leads discussed above can be classified as dominant types, but there’s a fine line between dominant and domineering.  When this is taken to extremes, we can drift into the dubious territory of the Fifty Shades books.

But we don’t have to go that far to encounter difficulties.  Heinlein’s juvenile SF novel The Star Beast features a somewhat passive hero, John Thomas Stuart XI, and his bratty high-school girlfriend, Betty Sorenson.  Betty is laudably active and independent, but she’s so brash and overbearing that she rather gets on my nerves.  We like to see both strong women and strong men—but we don’t like to see them demonstrate their strength in ways that are tyrannical or overbearing.

Beauty and the Beast soundtrack coverThe various iterations of Beauty and the Beast illustrate the difficulty.  The Beast has to be fearsomely harsh and threatening; that’s the point.  But this quality can’t be so exaggerated as to undermine his potential for transformation into a caring lover.

Excuses

A romantic interest’s bad behavior can be offset when the author provides information that makes the actions understandable, or even sympathetic.  An io9 article by Charlie Jane Anders makes the general argument that there are “10 Ways to Make Everyone Root for Your Amoral Protagonist.”

Anders is a good source on the subject:  her Hugo-nominated 2016 novel All the Birds in the Sky features male and female protagonists who are each highly stressed and at times hard to love.  But the ending, to my mind, is very satisfying.  Part of the reason is that we see so much of the characters’ prior experiences and difficulties.  We comprehend how they got to where they are.

One technique that can help us excuse a character’s faults is to let us hear them speaking in first person at least part of the time.  The romance technique of telling the story by alternating the two principal characters’ viewpoints does the same thing.  It’s rare that characters seem evil to themselves, and letting us in on their thoughts gives us a useful perspective.

Female Variations

We’ve noted that the “bad boy” characters are generally, though not exclusively, male RIs for female MCs.  There are other potentially troublesome character types that tend to skew female.  One is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl:  as TV Tropes puts it, “She’s stunningly attractive, [e]nergetic, high on life, full of wacky quirks and idiosyncrasies (generally including childlike playfulness) . . . She’s inexplicably obsessed with our stuffed-shirt hero, on whom she will focus her kuh-razy antics until he learns to live freely and love madly.”  An example that seems to go too far is Sandra Bullock’s character in Forces of Nature (1999).  Possibly this is why, unusually, the hero ends up marrying someone else, although he benefits from the Dream Girl’s free-spirited attitudes.

the-black-flame-2Another primarily female archetype is what we might call the Siren, the mysteriously fascinating and unattainable character with whom the male MC is irresistibly obsessed—frequently capricious and even cruel.  My favorite example is the title character in Stanley Weinbaum’s SF classic The Black Flame.  Here, as with the equally melodramatic Byronic hero, the character type has been so overused that it’s easy for it to become either unbelievable or unlikable.

When It’s the Main Character

Less common, but not unheard-of, is where the main character is the one whose romantic suitability is in question.  We’ve noted Artemis as one such case.

I recently got around to watching About a Boy (2002), starring Hugh Grant, which came highly recommended by Connie Willis.  While it’s been observed that Hugh Grant is inherently irresistible, I found that in this case his character was so aimless and shallow that I felt the women in the story would indeed be well advised to steer clear of him, until almost the very end, when he finally shapes up a bit.

The 1999 romantic comedy 10 Things I Hate About You (a modernization of The Taming of the Shrew) also successfully makes the main character just sympathetic enough to sustain our interest.  It’s essential to the Shakespearean plot that Kat be so prickly and abrasive as to be a questionable romantic prospect.  But the excuses we hear, and the perfect fit of the actress’s persona to the dual requirements of abrasion and attraction, give us just enough to go on.

Conclusion

In gauging the acceptability of a character as a romantic partner, even more than in most such judgment calls, “your mileage may vary.”  But we can all recognize that just as there’s peril in making the romantic interest too perfect, there’s a corresponding set of pitfalls if the object of our MC’s affections pushes imperfection to the point of no return.

High School Musical: Or, Artful Trope-Wrangling

High School Musical posterIn this season of festive frivolity (and guilty pleasures), what could be more frivolous than the Disney Channel TV movie “High School Musical”?

Yet there may be a few interesting words to say about it.

The Phenomenon

If by some chance you’re not familiar with HSM, the Wikipedia article has a detailed description of the production, plot, and characters.  You can brush up there; I’ll wait.

Since the early 1980s, the Disney Channel has produced a formidable list of original made-for-TV movies, generally aimed at a tween-to-teen audience.  Few of them make much impact on the general moviegoing public, though a number of actors and musicians have gotten their start in the “DCOM” venue.  But every now and then one finds something more substantial among the fluff.

Such surprise successes are not unknown among more adult movies.  No one expected Casablanca to become a film classic when it came out in 1942.  It’s A Wonderful Life, with disappointing results in its original 1946 release, became a beloved holiday heartwarmer in the 1970s.

Disney didn’t expect anything extraordinary from HSM, either.  But the movie was a whirlwind success in its target age group.  Disney, always ready to strike when the iron turns out to be hot, followed up the original HSM not only with the conventional TV sequel but also with a third episode that was released in theatres—“the first and only DCOM to have a theatrical sequel,” according to Wikipedia.

When HSM premiered in 2006, I had a daughter at the right age to be interested; that’s how I came to see the show.  But I was favorably impressed.  As lighthearted romantic fluff goes, this venture was pretty enjoyable.

Clearly, the HSM team did something right.

The Chemistry

High School Musical, karaoke scene, Troy and GabriellaA romantic comedy can’t work unless the couple appeals to us.  In this respect, HSM hits the right note from the initial meet-cute.  Teenage strangers Troy Bolton (basketball star) and Gabriella Montez (science-oriented A student) are propelled onstage at random by a boisterous karaoke crowd at a resort’s New Year’s Eve party.  By the usual musical-theatre convention, they sing the required duet perfectly, without any prompting, though they act as if they’re amateurs trying this for the first time.  We watch them gradually loosen up, exchange shy glances, and get into the song with enthusiasm.  It’s entirely adorable.  The song itself, with the refrain “This could be the start of something new,” fits neatly with the beginning of a relationship.

Romantic chemistry is to some extent in the eye of the beholder.  But I felt the actors and filmmakers did a good job of making the romantic interest both credible and enjoyable.  (To mention only one example of a film that fails in this respect:  Star Wars fans will wince in unison when reminded of the fact that the prequel trilogy requires us to treat Anakin and Padmé as heroes of an epic romance, but the actors have no chemistry whatsoever.)

The Tropes

HSM is a gallery of familiar tropes—but it does some interesting things with them.

The idea of star-crossed lovers whose groups are at odds goes back to Romeo and Juliet—or Pyramus and Thisbe.  Using the traditional high-school dichotomy of jocks and nerds to create this opposition makes the situation ripe for comedy.  But what makes HSM interesting is that there’s a third force involved:  the drama club.

While the sports championship and the scholastic decathlon preoccupy the basketball team and the brainy types, Troy and Gabriella are really trying to succeed at a third thing—trying out for the spring musical.  Their real opposition is the reigning drama queen, Sharpay, with her acquiescent brother and dance partner Ryan.  Having three factions in play complicates the standard “Two houses, both alike in dignity” plotline.  It also allows for a satisfying alliance of the sports and science factions at the climax, when they conspire to create simultaneous disruptions so that Troy and Gabriella can appear at the all-important (I’m trying to say that with a straight face) callback auditions.

High School Musical, creme bruleeSimilarly, the basic theme of the show is a classic (especially for teenagers) “do your own thing” or “be yourself” message.  But the three-party problem points this up in a slightly unexpected way.  Troy and Gabriella don’t need to recognize each other’s existing strengths; they’re each trying to do something that’s new to both of them.  The same theme works its way down through the minor characters.  In a song about sticking to the status quo, various people confess their unorthodox ambitions.  To me there seems to be something whimsically specific about a basketball player’s dream of cooking the perfect crème brulée, which becomes a running joke.

The HSM characters are typical high-school stereotypes, but with a little more to them.  They are, at least, multi-talented; and they’re capable (in the end) of appreciating each other’s disparate abilities.  It’s just enough of a spin to lift HSM out of the run of teenage comedies.

The Music

The musical numbers are pretty good pop-rock songs, IMHO.  The comic pieces are well done, and they’re carried off with great joie de vivre by the enthusiastic cast.  The love songs—“Start of Something New,” “What I’ve Been Looking For,” “Breaking Free”—are enjoyable enough that they’re worth listening to even aside from the video.  The big finale, “We’re All In This Together,” is just the kind of rousing, energetic closer one wants for an entertainment of this sort.

Conclusion

High School Musical, finaleThere are, of course, flaws.  Characters don’t always act consistently; for instance, the drama club moderator Miss Darbus is sometimes flagrantly biased in favor of her pet prodigies Sharpay and Ryan, while at other times she goes out of her way to give the newbies a fair chance.  The final wrap-up, in which everyone from all factions become friends (temporarily, until the next episode), is endearing but just too neat.

But to my mind, HSM succeeds at being good light entertainment—and that’s not something to sneeze at.  It can be harder to bring off a light comedy than to craft a drama or an action-adventure flick, just as it can be easier to broil a steak than to make a good soufflé.  (Or crème brulée, perhaps.)

Kelsi Nielsen, HSM's "composer"

Olesya Rulin as Kelsi Nielsen

I also have a particular fondness for HSM’s acknowledgement of the composer of the musical as an unsung hero.  The drama club’s musical is being written by a younger student, Kelsi Nielsen.  The senior drama people act superior with Kelsi, but Troy points out to her that in basketball terms she’s the “playmaker”—the one who makes everybody else look good.  That’s an especially satisfying observation to those of us whose activities lie more in the writing and composition areas than in onstage performance.  It’s another welcome subtlety I wouldn’t necessarily have expected in a casual Disney Channel production.

No one will mistake HSM for high drama.  But it’s undeniably fun, and it reminds us that even the most well-worn tropes can be fresh if you throw in a few new twists.