Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Unwritten Rules

The other day this writer I know got an interesting revision request from her publisher. They asked her to rework a scene so that her heroine doesn’t “throw the first punch,” as the situation was described. Apparently good girl romance heroines are allowed to finish a fight, but not start one. I’m sure it has something to do with keeping the character sympathetic to the readers.

Frankly, I’m surprised. I thought the unwritten rules had changed, as society has changed over the decades. Guess not.

If you’ve ever watched a 1950s Western movie, or a cop or PI TV show from the 1980s or before, you know the unofficial “rules” I’m talking about. The good guys are good. They never kill. They’re incorruptible. If they’re PIs, they don’t take money from a client if she’s young and pretty and helpless. Above all, they never, ever shoot first, not even to save their own lives. They can’t fire their fancy weapons unless and until the bad guy shoots at them. That makes it self-defense, and the good guy’s upstanding morality remains intact.

In fact, next time you watch one of these shows, check to see if the climactic fight scene takes place on a rooftop or bridge or cliff or somewhere else high up. That’s so the bad guy can slip and fall to his death. Problem solved, hero’s hands still clean. Karma’s a bitch, especially on network television.

Of course, society as a whole isn’t like that any more, if it ever was. It’s okay now for heroes to make pre-emptive strikes, whether it’s with a fist or a bullet. I think we have Clint Eastwood and Dirty Harry to thank for that, but that’s just my personal theory. It should be okay now for a lady to haul off and slug her bitchy, two-faced rival and still remain a lady. Fess up: how many of you moviegoers cheered when Hermione finally gave Draco the crack in the snoot he had coming in that one Harry Potter flick? Show of hands.

Now we see the rules are still in place, at least in romance novels. The girl can still defend herself, but she has to be provoked. No starting fights, young lady! If you do, the boys won’t like you. And neither will the readers, apparently. Man, would Buffy have had a tough time with that restriction.

Though come to think of it, she only started fights with monsters. Left alone, they would have killed innocent people. I guess that makes it okay.

Or maybe not. I need another show of hands. How many folks remember the original Star Wars from 1977? Compare it to the retooled ‘90s version. Han and Greedo. You know the scene I mean. George, you can try to whitewash it all you like, but I’ve still got my original VHS tape and so do a lot of other people. We know the truth. Han shot first. He murdered Greedo in cold blood. Sure, if he’d hesitated even a second Greedo would have killed him, but that’s beside the point. Over the decades Star Wars has become a classic, popular with kids. Little kids. Thought George, “We’ve got to clean this up so even the shady heroes are still heroes.” So now Greedo shoots first—at close range!—and Han kills him in self-defense. Or maybe Greedo only had a flesh wound, and he gets up and limps away after Han leaves. I’m surprised George didn’t include that in his re-imagining.

George should take another look at these kids he’s trying to shield. A lot of young kids like Wolverine. How many people has Wolverine unapologetically slaughtered during his career? It hasn’t affected his popularity. Maybe it’s because Wolverine doesn’t use a gun. He just slices people up with his freaky claws. Since people don’t have freaky claws in real life, I guess that makes it okay.

I don’t know what this editorial mandate says about romance novel heroines, or the publishers’ attitudes toward their readers’ sensibilities. Somebody somewhere must believe proactive behavior by a romance FMC is unacceptable, hence the rewrite request.

So what’s a girl to do? I recommend she lead the bad guy to some place real high up, and let karma take its course. Or else start dating Wolverine. It’s okay for the hero to kill the bad guy if he’s protecting the heroine. Wonder if the man is allowed to throw the first punch?

Dammit, now I’m stuck. For one of my WIPs I’d planned on having the girl fight off the abusive bad guy. She throws the first punch. She’s totally justified, but do I have to rethink that now? And now that I think about it, I think the bad guy gets defeated by the physically-smaller hero when the hero tricks him into falling off a ledge. I’d better rethink that, too.

I’m okay on the other WIP. The bad guy gets his at the hands/tentacles of other-dimensional monsters. Karma, gotta love it.


Savanna Kougar said...

Yeah, another reason I miss Buffy, and Xena, Warrior Princess... 'cause really, what's the difference between a monster and a villain acting like a monster?

I'm assuming that's a mainstream heroine thing... I'm not planning on writing a mainstream romance... but it kinda makes me want to open a scene with the heroine socking it to some disgusting creep... besides, what happened to the good ole days when women could smack a man for being out of line?

I'm not really a violent person... except when pushed, and fired on first, so to speak... but I want those days back. And what about the spunky Old West heroines who socked it to a man that had insulted them?

Maybe I should write a YA where the heroine punches out the bullies/villains who deserve it. Instead of being cast as the victim.

Yeah, I think Dirty Harry did break the mold of the hero or anti-hero maybe playing by his own rules.

Pat C. said...

I suspect the rewrite request came about because it was chick-on-chick violence. The reader is supposed to identify with the heroine, so you don't want her coming off like a bitch. So no punching the other girl unless the other girl starts it. Yeah, I know, it's really stupid, especially if the other girl has a gun or is holding a knife to the hero's neck. Should Our Heroine wait for her boyfriend to get cut before she throws her own knife? C'mon.

It was just as stupid when Spenser or Mike Hammer or Steve McGarrett couldn't shoot until they'd been shot at, either. Good thing the bad guys were always such lousy shots. You'll notice Hawk never stood around waiting to get shot. He weren't no fool. Did he have to shoot second when he had his own show because he was supposed to act like a hero? I didn't watch it, so I don't know.

Savanna Kougar said...

"Should Our Heroine wait for her boyfriend to get cut before she throws her own knife? C'mon." EXACTLY!

I can guarantee if there is any possible way, my heroines WILL BE throwing the first punch, knife, shooting her weapon, whatever... should the hero be in danger... regardless of gender, age, or race.

Yeah, there's a real heroine for ya. "Oh gosh, I couldn't shoot the other girl, so my boyfriend's throat was slit." Who needs a wussy heroine like that?

Pat C. said...

Forgot about one of the most famous violations of the "rule": Indy vs. the Arab swordsman in "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Do you think anyone lost respect for Indy because he shot the guy? The laughs I recall from the theater suggest otherwise. Suppose Marian had shot the guy instead? Then what?

And just the other day I watched a "Supernatural" rerun where Dean punched a woman in the mouth when all she did was insult him. Okay, she was a demon, she was trying to lead Sam off the straight and narrow, it probably didn't hurt her and she landed a solid one in retaliation. But still. I guess it's okay for a guy to punch a girl if she's really a demon. I don't think Dean's ever punched a human girl.

If Jo had been in the scene, she probably would have had to stand off to one side while the guys did everything. Some TV tropes haven't changed.

Savanna Kougar said...

That would have been good too. Marian aims sharpshooter style, and as the swordsman attacks... bang, dead on!

An acknowledged Demon is different... however, did she LOOK like a demoness in any way? If she didn't I'd say that was a negative psychological message against women.

Sigh... that sort of TV trope is one reason why I'm for EVERYONE learning basic self defense... like the basics of cooking, etc.

Pat C. said...

Demons on "Supernatural" look like the actors who play them. They don't have much of a budget.

At the end of the next season, the demon tricked Sam into releasing Lucifer from Hell, so in retrospect Dean probably should have hit her harder.

Pat C. said...

I remember that one Trek ep where they went to the mirror universe and Uhura grabbed the gun away from the "Captain's woman." I suspect Uhura was only in that show so she could deal with the "bad girl" so the men wouldn't have to. Not only couldn't the heroes shoot first, they couldn't manhandle any woman even if she held a gun on them. That was the '60s.

Oh, who cares? Spock had a beard in that episode. Yowzah!

Savanna Kougar said...

Oh, I do recall that episode. Uhura got major points from me. Yeah, Spock did have that sexy edge with a beard. I remember wishing that mirror of him would be combined or included in his personality/being.