Thursday, March 19, 2015
“Uh,” the author said, “he’s not the hero. He’s the bad guy. She hasn’t met the hero yet.”
On the other hand, how were we to know? We’re romance readers and romance writers. That’s one of the biggest tropes of the genre: the first fellah the woman meets is THE ONE. The rest of the story is about them falling in love. So, when Lady Protagonist met Helpful Male, we automatically assumed he’d be the love interest. We’ve been conditioned to expect it by hundreds of thousands of romance novels.
This phenomenon is known as “imprinting.” Like baby ducks, we the readers latch onto the first male character we see as the romantic interest. Mess with our expectations and we will be royally pissed. Not only will we throw your book across the room, we’ll never read anything else with your name on it because you tricked us. You bitch.
Romance has been promoting this “truth” with a vengeance for years now. Romance novel women (or men, if it’s M/M) meet their dream mates by the end of Chapter One at the latest. There’s no question who they’re destined to be with. Finding Your One and Only is the whole point of category romance. Throwing a second or third guy in there only muddies the waters.
Writers help these things along by focusing on that one guy in the crowd who catches the woman’s eye, and they introduce him as soon as possible. Readers can then relax, knowing they’ve just spotted the hero too. Now we can all get on with the story.
This can lead to problems if you need to set up a situation in order to get the plot rolling, and that setup includes introducing other characters. I ran into that on my last book. Our Heroine exchanges barbs with a man I intended to be the book’s villain. But a couple who initially hate each other is also a romance trope. How to keep the readers from imprinting on Bad Guy? Fortunately, the book was a ménage. Both the title and the blurb warned readers in advance Our Heroine was going to end up with two men, and Bad Guy wasn’t either of them. The book hasn’t been doing too well. Maybe I messed up.
Over in Young Adult, which is practically a subgenre of Romance these days, writers have things a little better. Thanks to Twilight and The Hunger Games, love triangles have practically become a given in YA books. However, in YA it’s possible for the girl to have a male friend (not necessarily a boyfriend) at the start of the book, then meet (or be forced into proximity with) another guy, then spend the bulk of the book torn between the two until she makes her choice in the final chapter. Or one guy dies, or is revealed to be the bad guy, or turns out to be her long-lost twin brother (thank you, Star Wars). Interestingly, the girl always seems to wind up with the boy who has the most money. Things that make you go hmmmmm ….
Here’s a blueprint for how not to introduce your destined lovers to the reader or, in this case, the viewer: West Side Story. Tony and Maria don’t meet until about a half hour into the movie. The audience doesn’t even meet Tony until after the opening musical number, after we’ve all imprinted on Riff. Except me; I imprinted on bad boy Bernardo. I do have a type. In the long run none of it matters because all the interesting guys are dead by the time the movie ends. West Side Story isn’t a romance, so this haphazard introduction of the major characters is acceptable. Don’t you dare do this in a category romance. The readers will string you up by your laptop’s power cord.
It’s so much easier to write ménage or multiples. In those, it doesn’t matter who the reader imprints on because Our Heroine is going to end up with all of them. Lord, the laundry she’ll be stuck doing after the story’s over. I suppose everything has its down side.
I’m fiddling around with a YA right now. In the opening chapter Our Heroine, a trained secret agent, is acting as bodyguard to a foreign king and his son. She saves their lives. The prince is suitably grateful. I sure hope the readers don’t get too attached to him, because after Chapter One you never see him again. He’s a plot device. He’s part of the setup. He does his bit and then he’s gone. She doesn’t meet the possible love interest until several chapters in. But … the guy’s a prince. Readers programmed by the slew of quasi-romance YA novels currently on the shelves may be tricked into prematurely forming expectations. Are they gonna be miffed. Wait’ll they find out the possible love interest is an alien shapechanger and may be the bad guy. Wait’ll they learn Our Heroine is also an alien, and may not even be biologically female. Wait’ll the Miley Cyrus character emerges as the leader of the rebellion against the alien invaders. Maybe I shouldn’t be writing Young Adult.
Fortunately, in the book I’m currently wrapping up, Our Heroine meets a man within the first two pages, and he’s the one she ends up with. Even my brain gets it right sometimes. Enjoy your reading, folks.