Friday, December 26, 2008

Corny Cliche Hatefest: Part Deux

Yes, it's happening again, as I predicted: my second Corny Cliche Hatefest, my rant about what I hate hate hate in badly-written romance. While most of these cliches were from To Sin with a Stranger by Kathryn Caskie, I have found them in other novels as well. It's just that having to read them all at once in one novel irritated me enough to make another point about them.

As with my previous Cliche Hatefest post, SPOILERS BEWARE. Major Major Spoilers Ahead. You have been warned.

The Gorgeous Protagonists
What is it?
Romance heroes, heroines, and their sequel-bound relatives who are devastatingly tall, beautiful, muscular, and awesome - and at least ten times taller, more beautiful, muscular and awesome than everyone else.
Recent Offenders:
To Sin with a Stranger, too many Lisa Kleypas novels to count, Sins of Midnight by Kimberley Logan.
Why I Hate It:
This sounds like an odd duck of a cliche, I know. I'm not "hating people because they're beautiful." I have nothing against good-looking heroes and pretty heroines, and if a hero is handsome, it's genetically realistic that his siblings would also be hot. It's not like I'm rooting for heroes with bad teeth or anything.

What I hate is the cliche of the hyperbolically beautiful protagonist. The ones the author isn't satisfied to make simply handsome, or relatively good looking, but the protagonist who has to be the most beautiful, the most built, the tallest in the room, the protagonist who has to be the perfect physical specimen and ultimately superior to everyone else in the world, except maybe their siblings. The hero whose manliness makes every other man look girly - or the heroine whose feminine curves make every other woman look masculine. Or, at the very least, a protagonist whose physical perfection isn't a relevant plot point - for example, I'd pardon this cliche if the hero was a famous underwear model, because it would make sense to the story.

I hate this cliche for two reasons: it's unrealistic, and it's condescending. First of all, most romances (or at least the best romances) are built around interaction between the hero and the heroine - conversation, bantering dialogue, witty jokes, sensual encounters. Are good looks necessary to any of these? No. Being pretty doesn't make you smart, witty, or good in bed. So what, then, is the point to making them paragons of conventional physical beauty if it's not directly relevant to the plot?

Nothing's wrong with having a handsome hero (I love me some handsome heroes), but why does he have to make everyone else look bad in comparison?

The worst recent example of this was in To Sin with a Stranger, when the seven Sinclair siblings walk into a room for the first time. Laughably, all seven swoop in like aliens from Mars, or angels from Heaven - here's a direct quote (page 39): "Behind [Sterling, the hero] was a collection of the tallest, most beautiful beings she had ever seen. The women were the height of most men, their features delicate and perfect. The men were giants, a least a foot taller than any other gentleman in the assembly room. Like those of [Sterling] himself, their muscles were pronounced beneath their dark blue coats, protruding like great river stones embedded in a shallow creek."

This is an excellent paragraph for proving my point - not only does it dehumanize the characters and take away their realism, it also makes them bland. The paragraph calls them "beings." Not "people," not "humans," but "beings," as if they are a different species altogether. How does that make them relatable? What is the reader supposed to get out of that?

And notice how none of the seven siblings are described individually - the women are all "delicate and perfect", the men "giants." They're not even individual people - they're just cookie-cutter hotties, every one of them adhering to the same idea of beauty. What makes people individual, special, and different are their flaws - could none of them be short? A little too thin? Have an endearingly crooked nose or cleft chin? They all sound the same - and completely dull.

The condescending part comes from the fact that these types of characters are often so perfect for no discernable reason to the plot, and they all hammer home the same ideal of beauty that not everyone agrees with. I like skinny, lanky guys myself - so why do all my romance heroes have to be huge hulking Schwartzeneggars who have to walk through doors sideways if they're titled gentlemen who don't do any manual labour??? I mean, if romance authors are reading this, let me ask you: you spend so much time creating a hero or heroine with a unique backstory and character and personality - why don't you want them to be that way physically? Can't they be unique and special and loveable inside and out?

No Means Yes!
What is it?
It's the tendency of romance-novel parents, best friends, eccentric aunts, and meddling servants to interpret the heroine's utter loathing for the hero (and vice versa) as boundless love.
Recent Offenders: To Sin with a Stranger, many others
Why I Hate It: This is another cliche that I tend to dislike only when it's exaggerated, but this cliche does tend to be exaggerated a lot.

When it's not exaggerated, this cliche can make sense. The opposites-attract theory's worked before, and it makes sense that people with opposing personalities might clash and dislike each other at first, only to discover how they complement each other later. And, after weeks and months of the hero and heroine sniping at each other, it's natural for their friends/relatives/servants to wonder why their friend seems to be so obsessed with this other person, even if it's only to make spiteful comments about them, and believe that their friend's pride prevents them from knowing their own mind.

However, many romance novels lately have taken to speeding up this process, to the point where Heroine A and Hero B only have to declare that they hate each other on sight for their confidantes to sigh, "It must be love!" No, it must be bullshit. Although there may be a thin line between love and hate, it's not realistic or natural to immediately assume that when someone declares a hatred for someone, they're hiding romantic feelings.

In To Sin with a Stranger, it takes Isobel and Sterling a total of TWO encounters within as many days for everyone to assume they've the hots for each other. During the first encounter, Sterling implies Isobel's a slut. During the second, Isobel slaps him silly. And yet, days later, Isobel's declaration of hatred for Sterling is refuted point-blank by a total stranger who says she "saw the fire between them" - you know, when Isobel was making Sterling's eyeballs rattle around in his head.

But this isn't the worst part about the cliche, the part that makes me grind my teeth whenever I encounter it - the worst aspect of the "No Means Yes" cliche, in which nosy relatives or servants think they know the hero/ine's mind better than the hero/ine themself does, is when they inevitably meddle and manipulate events to throw the hero and heroine together. It shows a dangerous and unrealistic disregard for the hero/ine's feelings. In a realistic world, imagine you are a spinster aunt in the Regency period, and your beloved niece and ward comes to you crying about what a brute Earl Toddy is, how terrible he makes her feel, how she hates everything he stands for. If the first thing that comes to your mind about what to do is engineer a scenario in which your niece and Earl Toddy are forced to spend the night alone in a snow-bound inn without supervision .... well, I guess you should be relieved that Social Services as we know it didn't exist in the Regency. But there's no way I'd consider you a responsible guardian.

It's those exaggerated cases that I despise, the ones in romance novels where well-wishers assume the hero's romantic intentions are contrary to his declarations based on very little time or evidence, and proceed to thwart the protagonists' orders/wishes/feelings/consent. I suppose this is a little ironic coming from a reader of historical romance, in which the heroines are nearly always in a position where their consent matters little in regards to what their fathers and guardians do for their own good. But I just plain don't like it when, in regards to romance, the heroine's wishes are sabotaged and thwarted by people who claim to know her mind better and claim to be doing it all for her own good. It's - well, it's pretty much as repugnant to me as the "no means yes" defence, that when a woman (or even a man) says "no," it's your judgement call, and not theirs as to whether they mean it or not.

Virgin In the Street and a Freak In the Bed
What is it?
It's when a virgin heroine in an historical period, upon entering into her first sexual encounter, knows exactly what will happen, what to do, and some neat tricks to make it better.
Recent Offenders: To Sin with a Stranger
Why I Hate It: Um, because it exists completely in the realm of fantasy? Because it's a blatant refusal to write characters realistically influenced by their time periods? I could go on. As Julia Quinn's novels have demonstrated, well-bred misses in the Regency were not educated on sex to the extent that we are today. It was mainly "close your eyes and think of England." They likely wouldn't know what would happen unless they were told the night before their wedding by their mothers. And the ones that did learn about sex probably knew squat about oral sex.

It's not at all unlikely to assume that once they did have sex, they could grow better at it, more exploratory, etc., but it's insulting when the virgin heroine suddenly knows (without being asked or told) how to perform an exemplary blow job, or where to touch the hero, or the fact that there's even more than one position.

Why this is insulting to me is because it's a move that obviously panders to the reader rather than the story. Rather than remaining true to the characters and the time period of the novel, the author would prefer to scrap realism and consistent character development in favour of a more titilating sex scene, that in itself would probably be out of place in the novel's time period.

I really don't understand this tendency for authors to write historical romances and not make them historically accurate! Why write in the Regency if the characters don't act like the figures in the Regency? Writers can write about any place or time - you could even make up your own fantasy world that's like the Regency where that type of action could be tolerated! Here's a hint: maybe the people who read novels set in the Regency do so .... because they prefer to read about people who act like they're in the Regency.


  1. Anonymous8:17 AM

    This is why I adore "Romancing Mr. Bridgerton" by Julia Quinn. Yes the hero is considered attractive by the ton, but he tends to get blurred in with his siblings and numbered or called a simple charmer. And the heroine is not a devastatingly gorgeous lady, she's not considered a 'beauty by any stretch' but the hero sees her lovliness and attractiveness over time as he falls for her and sees her wittiness.
    And there's none of that no means yes shit and she actually has no idea what to expect when they hit the sheets.
    I kinda rank it as my favorite romance novel currently.
    And thanks for the review of To Sin with a Stranger. I was thinking of picking it up maybe but seeing as its full of that crap? Pass.

  2. Again, very interesting article. It is amazing - but all of these seem to be romance tropes: you know, the norm.

    I don't mind the Too Beautiful people in romance (Thea does, it is one of the things she moans about when she is reading romance "why must they be the best at everything" LOL) but I do mind the sexual cliches like for example, the virgins that have multiple orgams. Is that really realistic - it is really realistic to have Regencies virgins knowing what to do by instinct ? No, it is not. However, isn't it all part of what most people look for when reading romance: the escape?

    I don't know - I love romance, it is the genre I read the most, my top 10 of 2008 has more romance than any other genre. Yet, I find myself being more and more critical of the genre. There are things I simply can not take. Other cliches that I hate - the villanous villain. The scorned, crazy former mistress. and the need to add too many secondary plotlines.....I want my romance to be GOOD. Is it too much to ask?

    Gosh, how I digressed.

  3. Anonymous - I love Julia Quinn precisely because she doesn't feel the need to pack the cliches in with a shoehorn to create believable drama - there's just enough magic and fantasy, without it straining credulity. I haven't read "Romancing Mr Bridgerton," but I plan to.

    Ana --> I do get the whole romance is an escape thing, and I also believe it needs some realism and at least internal consistency (it can break laws of physics and biology so long as it sticks to its own rules) so that the fantasy and escape can be ACCESSIBLE. Myself, I can't totally get into a story where one Greek Statue falls in love with another Greek statue.

    Maybe this comes from us being readers of fantasy as well as romance - where (yes, Virginia), even the wizards and the spells and the demons operate according to some rules if not to ours.

    The villainous villain I hate, too - the one who's evil for no reason. The one who's not satisfied with stealing the heroine's money, but has to kick puppies and be kinky. That's a clunker for me - the villain who's a corkscrew in the bedroom. How, exactly, does kinky = EEEEVIL? If I ever find myself in a romance novel, remind me not to trust the man with harnesses attached to his bedroom ceiling - a sure sign that he kicks puppies.

    Evil mistresses can be awful, too - but that's the thing. It's not only about the cliches. All cliches, when written well, I don't notice. When it makes sense to the drama and flow of the storyline. In the evil mistress case, I have at least two examples where I didn't mind: "The Price of Desire" by Jo Goodman, because the mistress was part of the mystery, and "The Runaway Duke" by Julie Ann Long, where the crazy mistress was eeevil but FABULOUS and nuanced.

    I guess that's the ultimate thing about cliches - when someone writes a well-plotted story with realistic drama and one of the plot points just happens to be a familiar idea, that's fine. I think the bad and noticeable cliches happen when authors put them in and use them as a crutch for the express purpose of creating drama instead of doing it themselves with better writing.