More than any other genre, romance is all about the characters and relationships between those characters. We come to romance for the journey of two people finding their happily ever after, or happy for now, depending on the subgenre, in opening themselves to another person, being vulnerable and taking the ultimate risk. In the best of all possible worlds, we latch onto these fictional friends from their first appearance on the page, we see how perfect they are for each other, and we’re shaking our metaphorical pompoms for these two crazy kids to beat the odds and end up, in the immortal words of The Turtles, so happy together; often so happy that we wander around in a daze for hours, or even days, afterwards. Then there are the other times…..
This week, we’re going to get personal. This week was my BFF’s birthday, and, like any truly good friend, I wanted to give her something she’d actually appreciate and use. Since we first bonded over romance reading, one guess as to what this gift entailed. Here’s a hint: it was books. A bunch of books. Mostly indie books, because she’d been wanting something new, but wasn’t sure where to look, outside of the current offerings on the library and bookstore shelves (no mean feat, since the brick and mortar chain bookstore she goes to most frequently eliminated its new releases section in romance, but that’s a whole other topic.) This means there was a certain amount of guessing going on, and, as it turned out, I guessed exactly right.
This segued into a discussion of how I knew what her reading tastes were at present, as they are not always the same as mine, and how certain tropes are less of a sure thing, depending on how they are handled. As one of the books had a SEAL hero, she mentioned that she’s read some heroes of that ilk who “would be drummed out of the Navy” if they behaved as the character did. Of course, I had to follow this with some questions, and no, I don’t think the Navy is terribly concerned about where and/or when (or, really, with whom) sailors do the horizontal tango, unless said sailor is deserting their post or performing said tango with an enemy, but one thing my friend said stuck with me. Her exact words were “I’m done reading about you two now,” addressed to the characters, because of actions they took at a particular place and time, and that got me thinking (always a dangerous thing.)
What, if anything, causes readers to part ways with fictional characters? As romance readers, we’re here for the characters. We’re here for the relationship. We want to see the characters get together and find their HEA or HFN, but what about those times when we don’t? In the above case, the reader didn’t believe that the military character, whom she expected to behave in an honorable fashion, did not do so. For her, that affected her ability to connect with the story. We didn’t go further into the reasons why, but it could be any number of things. Maybe a character who did not behave honorably, to the reader’s expectation, may make it hard to believe they will do so in the future, which could easily affect how secure the reader might be in that particular couple’s HEA/HFN. Might the character put their own wants above the needs of their partner, or duties they have sworn to carry out? This might be a valid character arc in some other genre, but, in romance, it could be tricky.
While it’s not possible for every book, or even every writer, to please every reader, if readers can’t connect with one or both of the lovers, that’s going to make the romance an extremely hard sell. Long, long ago, a young romance reader (okay, it was me, but let’s stick with the conceit for now) delved into a breathtaking historical romance set during the US Civil War (this alone may be an indicator of how long ago that was, and no, this novel was not a contemporary when it was written; it wasn’t that long ago.) The heroine was torn between two brothers, heavily leaning toward one of them. Said brother went to war, leaving heroine alone with Other Brother. Heroine remained steadfast in her love for First Brother. First Brother comes home from war, disfigured, and tells Heroine she shouldn’t have to be tied to a broken man. Her response? Basically, “okay,” and now she loves Other Brother. That. Book. Hit. The. Wall. Nope, nope, nope, nope. Done with that.
Forget whatever might have grown organically between Heroine and Other Brother. By that time, that reader was out of that story. That’s not how love works. Even all these years later, this reader still prefers to remember the joyous reunion of Heroine and First Brother, and will stick fingers in her ears and hum, should anyone attempt to point out that said reunion did not actually happen.
Other readers will have other stories (no titles, please; one reader’s un-favorite is another’s favorite, after all) but one thing is the same. There came point, whether in narrative, character choices or actions, where the willing suspension of disbelief went out the window, and the reader went out the door. Nobody likes having to bail out of a book in mid-story, or maybe they do. One of the great things about reading is that it is subjective, and (okay, that makes two things) we have a lot of books from which to choose. Seriously, a lot. For every character who does something that doesn’t sit right with us, there are dozens, even hundreds, more who do the right thing. Sometimes they do the wrong thing, because nobody’s perfect, but when the author makes us understand, if not agree with, their action, we will follow them anywhere, to make sure they get that HEA/HFN they so richly deserve. If not, well, the other options are endless.
So, dear readers, I turn it now over to you. Have you ever set a romance novel aside because of actions taken by one of the main characters? If so, did you go back later? What brought you back? Are there lines as a reader that you will not cross, no sir, no ma’am, no thank you? If the whole idea of not finishing a book because you don’t agree with a fictional character, we want to hear about that, too. Pull up a chair in the comments section and tell us about it. There’s room for everybody at this table.