Expanding the Boundaries of Romance

This post at Wonk-o-mance (especially this comment) along with some conversation on Twitter the other night got me thinking about the sorts of protagonists I’d like to see in romance novels.

Disabled protagonists–where the disability is more profound than an inconveniently placed birthmark or  a limp. One of the things I loved about Jennifer Ashley’s The Madness of Lord Ian MacKenzie was his autism and how it was portrayed as an integral part of who he was but not the only thing about who he was. I was really looking forward to Tessa Dare’s A Lady By Midnight because Kate had been described in previous books as having a prominent port-wine birthmark on her face, but then it turns out that it’s but a splotch on her temple and I started to wonder if everyone in the prior books was just really shallow. I had the same problem with Eloisa James’s Fool for Love, whose heroine has a (IIRC) congenital hip deformity that impairs her ability to walk to a limited extent but which is not otherwise a serious problem (although in the book, she does believe that if she were to try to have a child that it would kill her but, of course, it doesn’t). And I seem to recall a Regency with a deaf heroine, but the title escapes me right now.

While all these representations are great to see, they are still somewhat limiting and are, to a certain extent, window-dressing. I know that historically (and even now, in some situations), people with disabilites were not allowed to marry or have romantic or sex lives–this was brought home to me a number of years ago when I read a biography of Helen Keller and learned that she had wanted to run away and elope with Annie Sullivan’s secretary but was thwarted by her mother. I’m not sure how a historical with a seriously disabled protagonist would work, exactly, but I’m sure it could be done. And it would certainly be appropriate to see such protagonists in contemporaries–I would love to see a contemporary really examine the barriers that a lot of people with disabilities encounter when trying to form romantic relationships and have fulfilling sex lives.

And how about protagonists who aren’t perfect physical specimens in other ways? There are a lot of sylph-like women and heavily muscled men out there in Romancelandia. When a character is fat, it’s always just plump or chubby, never fat–and I don’t think there are many books with fat male protagonists (one of the other things that disappointed me in James’s Duchess Quartet was the way the narrative treated Miles, Esme’s first husband–he was short, fat, and balding and mocked for it and then he keels over from a heart attack in his mid-thirties).

I’d also like to see characters from different socio-economic  groups represented. There are lots of wealthy people and small business owners and tycoons and nobility out there–how about middle-class people who work boring jobs? Or people who are poor?  Or people who work in the skilled trades? Or are unemployed? Or who are retired?

Finally, this last one–which is not really related to everything above–is one that some readers may feel is too serious and possibly too much of a downer for a genre romance and that is a Regency that acknowledges the rot at the heart of the setting: slavery.

I am not one of those readers–I think that with the right writer, a romance that looks this issue in the face has the potential to push the limits of the genre to a really interesting place. There are readers who would also prefer not to have same-sex or interracial relationships or explicit sex scenes in romance. There are other readers who prefer characters to be nothing more than ciphers for wish fulfillment fantasies. The genre is big enough for lots of different kinds of stories. I think romance has a lot of power to challenge people’s perceptions.

Tessa Dare touched on slavery in A Lady of Persuasion.  The female protagonist, Isabel, is the daughter of a disgraced younger son sent to the Indies to manage his family’s sugar plantations which have slaves. She has two half-brothers, one is the son of a free white woman and the other is the son of a black slave. Isabel’s mother was Spanish and mentally unbalanced. Isabel is a reformer and an abolitionist and is pretty strident about it and the only reason she marries Toby is that she thinks he’ll help her with her cause. I loved her but a lot of people didn’t.

Julie Ann Long also touches upon slavery in her Pennyroyal Green series and I am hopeful that when she does write a book about Olivia Eversea and Lyon Redmond that she deals with the subject more directly.

This is, naturally, a difficult and fraught subject and one which directly affects a lot of readers. I know I avoid most historicals set in the US before the Civil War because I absolutely do not want to read books in which slavery isn’t challenged by both the characters and the text. If I want to read apologia for keeping human beings as property (and I’d really rather not), I can find plenty of texts written in the time period for that.

Some people may argue that as historical novels, having racist slave-owning characters is true to the period except: romance novels are modern novels written for modern readers and the ones I enjoy the most do not adhere strictly to historical accuracy when it comes to the protagonists’ beliefs and behaviors. After all, we don’t see female protagonists dying in childbirth (this only happens off-screen to either mothers or first wives and occasionally sisters) or rakes with raging cases of the pox which they then proceed to pass on to their wives and children.

But that is another post for another day–what kinds of protagonists would you all like to see in your romances? Are there stories out there that deal with these issues of which I am unaware? If so, please let me know so I can expand my reading horizons!

The Shape of Desire, Sharon Shinn

The Shape of Desire, Sharon Shinn

The Shape of Desire, Sharon Shinn

One of the more interesting panels I went to at Readercon 23 this past July was one on protagonist agency. At this remove from the convention, I don’t remember specifically what was talked about by the (intelligent and good-looking) panelists, but it did spur me really think about a book I reviewed earlier this year for RT Book Reviews.  That book is Sharon Shinn’s The Shape of Desire and it was one I really struggled with while reading, for a number of reasons.

It’s a huge departure from her other work; instead of secondary world fantasy, it’s set in an analogue to our own world and is less focused on the fantastic elements than it is on the romantic ones. Her books almost always have romances in them, but often not as central as it is in this one. Note: I have absolutely no issue with romances being centered in fantasy novels over the fantastic elements; I think I may be the only SF reader in the world who really loved Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife series for just that reason. Romance is awesome.

The point of view that Shinn uses is really unusual as well: it’s first person present. First person is one thing, making it present tense takes it to a whole different level. It’s a really intimate mode of telling a story. You’re right there in the protagonist’s head, experiencing everything as they do–and you only know what they know, although a really great author will put things in front of the protagonist that they don’t recognize as important but that the reader does (Frederik Pohl did this in his most recent book, All the Lives He Lead, which was a highlight of a novel I otherwise found to be disappointing). It’s a damned hard thing to pull off, and Shinn really does it so well in The Shape of Desire.

The story, roughly, is about what it’s like to be in a relationship with a paranormal creature–in this case, a werewolf. Maria’s been dating Dante for a number of years and her entire life is built around that relationship. Dante is spending more and more time in wolf form and it makes Maria really sad and mopey (and a bit pathetic). There’s a secondary plot with some of Maria’s co-workers that shows the reader that Maria isn’t a complete wet noodle which, for me, was very frustrating because it showed that she was capable of standing up for other people and just not herself. And then people start dying in what appear to be animal attacks in one of the areas Maria knows that Dante frequents and she really ends up not having a choice about having a backbone or not.

So since Maria’s raison d’être for most of the book is basically to be there for Dante when he’s in human form. And she’s not really protagging and being active in her own story for most of the book, she’s just sort of hanging around waiting for him. And, you know, that’s probably a pretty realistic description of what it would be like to be the human partner in a paranormal relationship (Shinn’s werewolves are the hereditary kind so there’s no chance of Maria becoming paranormal herself). And man, it’s tedious—the mooning about for Dante just isn’t fun to read; until Maria uses her backbone for herself, the most interesting things going on in the book are in the secondary plot.

And yet—Shinn is such a great writer that I just felt pulled along despite myself and I had a hell of a time putting the book down. I’ve been thinking about this book off and on for most of a year by now and I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s the sort of book which is a lot better in retrospect because of the technical excellence of it.

Writing a protagonist who just isn’t very active on their own is extremely hard. There’s another recent book, Yves Meynard’s Chrysanthe, which also has an inactive protagonist and it doesn’t work nearly as well. There’s a lot of stuff (for lack of a better word) going on and it’s hard to really care about the heroine in the midst of all the elaborate set pieces that Meynard constructed around her. There’s something interesting there, but the execution was flawed in a way that made it nearly impossible to see or appreciate. Alas.

Of course, sometimes authors have characters who will take over any story they’re in, even if it not about them. Like Miles Vorkosigan, safely sent offstage in the upcoming Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance so Ivan can protag. And Ivan’s another one of those protagonists who just isn’t all that into protagging. And neither is Tej. It’s a pretty problem and watching Bujold write her way around it is a delight.

There’s a sequel to The Shape of Desire coming out in November. It’s called Still Life with Shape-Shifter and it looks like it’s dealing with a completely different set of characters but with some similar issues. I’m really looking forward to reading it to see what Shinn does next—I wonder if it’ll be told from the same point of view or if she’ll move to one which makes it easier for the reader to distance themselves from the protagonist?

Note: All books mentioned in this post, with the exception of Still Life with Shape-Shifter, were received at no charge from the publisher(s) and subsequently reviewed in RT Book Reviews.