Romance readers, perhaps more than those of any other genre, know that attempting to judge a book by its cover rarely turns out well. Ask anyone whose shelves contain erotic romance wrapped in the plainest of covers, historical romance with a literal cartoon for its cover art, or a category romance whose motorcycle-riding hero is depicted wearing loafers. Low-cut Amish dresses? Three-armed medieval maidens? Romance readers have seen all this and more, and so we know better than to take things on a surface level, both on the covers and between them, as well. Romance is all about the characters, and the relationships they form, but not all is as it appears at first sight, which only makes the tales that much more intriguing. How so? Let’s take a look.
Heroes or heroines in disguise have long been a staple of the genre as a whole. We have modern day police officers or federal agents in deep undercover, actors researching roles, domestic abuse survivors or witnesses to crimes, who take on an entirely new appearance and identity to protect themselves or others, and that’s only scratching the surface. Historical romances have peasants passing themselves off as nobility, and the other way around, women disguising themselves as male (not as common to see men taking on female guise, but it’s been known to happen) to go to sea, war, or into business, survivors of violent acts or disasters assuming the identities of those who did not survive, and those who take on a second life alongside their first, for profit, protection, or the thrill of the game. The changes the character makes in their appearance may be as slight as a change of clothes or hairstyle, or as deep as making the effort to live as a member of the opposite sex on a regular basis, complete with changes in posture, speech, and prosthetics to approximate secondary sexual characteristics. Even so, true love sees straight to the heart, and there is no disguising that.
Mistaken or assumed identity isn’t always that deliberate, but can be equally intriguing. While the modern age and its methods of proving identity may make it trickier for a contemporary character than their historical counterpart, not everything depends on documents or even fingerprints. How many people with the same name can exist at one time? Whether our hero or heroine meets the wrong John Smith or Mary Jones in a crowded tavern or internet chat room, picks up a package meant for their same-name doppelganger, or responds to the name they share with a stranger when it’s called across a crowded room, and decides to run with it, the identity issue adds a delicious dash of intrigue. Will anything change between the two lovers once the true identity is unmasked…or, has the character taking on another identity become the mask? A spy infiltrating the enemy may gain a different perspective, and end up identifying with the very people they had meant to conquer or undermine. Do they follow their heart or finish the job? What if the right John Smith or Mary Doe arrives on the scene, once the wrong one had become accepted and found love? Will the love interest see this as a betrayal, or will they understand? Any outcome can work as long as the writer makes us believe it.
Though not as prevalent a trope as it once was, we can’t forget amnesia. While it’s true that the actual medical/psychological condition doesn’t always work the same in a romance novel as it does in clinical practice, amnesia can be a useful plot device for several reasons. How much of who we are is what we remember? Amnesia, in fiction, can give a second chance at first love and/or first impression, the opportunity to leave past mistakes behind, and make a brand new start. Maybe the character with amnesia doesn’t want to know who they were before; that’s useful when redeeming a villain, and oh the angst when they do have to reconcile who they were with who they have become. Perhaps a character’s memory loss includes a spouse -whether happily married or not- whose reappearance might complicate their new love, at the most inconvenient time.
In a genre where character is everything complicating the very essence of identity adds something extra to the developing relationship. One or both lovers change because of the other’s presence in their lives, and that includes how they see themselves, and how they present themselves to the world. The moment the mask comes off, literally or figuratively, can have an unchangeable impact on the love relationship and how both lovers define themselves. Does the lover who discovers that their beloved has another identity turn away at the discovery, doubt all they knew to be true, or do they have another reaction altogether?
So, dear readers, I turn it now over to you. Do you have a favorite romance that involves identity issues? Do you like or dislike the use of disguise, mistaken or assumed identity, and/or amnesia in a romance arc? Is the use of disguise or mistaken/amused identity while forming a love relationship dishonest, or are there instances in which it’s a valid, even preferable option? Are identity issues something you don’t like to see in a romance? We want to hear about that, too. Pull up a chair in the comments section and tell us all about it. There’s room for everybody at this table.