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.