Friday, April 12, 2013

Kids in Romance Novels

For the past several weeks, I've been researching and prepping to teach an online course about the history of children and childhood during the Regency period, for an audience of historical romance writers. I'm a research wonk, so digging into all this information about what kids wore, what they ate, where (and with whom) they slept has me in my element. But it's also been making me wonder about the uses of the child figure in romance fiction. As a romance typically focuses tightly around the two (or sometimes more) adults who are falling in love with one another, how, and perhaps more importantly, why does romance make room for secondary characters from the younger generation? And does the inclusion of a child character tend to push a romance toward feminist, or anti-feminist ideologies?

Here are some reasons I can think of to include a child or children in a romance, some neutral, some with feminist leanings, still others that work to contain or constrain female needs and desires:

• Because many of us idealize children and childhood, and regard children as innocent, including a child character can more easily allow an author to mobilize readers' emotions, pulling on those old heartstrings.

• Showing a hero or heroine acting kindly to a child can demonstrate said character's nature, and suitability for a romantic partnership, without having to have the narrator resort to telling us "s/he is a kind person."

• Likewise, because we often think of children (like animals/pets) as having an instinctual "feel" for other people. If a child warms to an unfamiliar adult, said child's instincts can help persuade the other half of the romantic couple that the potential mate is worthy.

• Children can bring lovers in conflict, or lovers who are estranged, back together: witness the ever-popular secret baby plot.

• Or children can foster conflict—a mother at odds with her son's coach; a father who disagrees with his daughter's governess—bringing people with heightened emotions together so that the romantic sparks can flash. When potential romantic partners do not share similar child-rearing philosophies, tensions can mount quickly...

• Kids can play the role of matchmakers, working to push a reluctant parent or relative into a romantic relationship.

• A kid continually interrupting before things get too steamy helps build up the sexual tension...

• Because kids are associated with the inability to suppress emotions, showing a hero interacting with a child can allow said hero to access and show emotions that otherwise would not be allowed under contemporary codes of masculinity.

• Because kids are often believed to be unable to lie socially (or at least, to keep quiet about things adults can more easily suppress), kids can point out how one protagonist is feeling towards the other.

• Interacting with a kid can force that ever-immature hero (or, far more rarely, heroine) to realize that he is ready to "grow up" and start taking on the adult responsibilities of caring for, and financially supporting, a family. For heroines, the trope seems to function more often as a curb upon work, rather than a push towards adulthood; seeing other women's babies or children can persuade a heroine to think that she, too, wants to abandon the working grind to have a child of her own.

Interesting side note: while looking for book covers to accompany this post, I discovered that stand-alone romances rarely seem to feature covers with babies or kids on them. In contrast, category romances seem to have little problem drawing on the "ah, how cute" factor. Why do you think this is?

What are your favorite romances that include babies and/or children? And to what ideological uses do the authors of said romances put their young secondary characters?

Next time on RNFF:
A pre-romance for teen readers: Erica Lorraine Scheidt's Uses for Boys


  1. Personally, I like romances where one or both of the main characters is a single parent. It shows that your naughty bits don't wither up and die the second you become a parent :D. Also, when all of the characters in a novel are between the ages of 20 and 40, it just seems like there's something missing. I guess that's one reason I like Jennifer Crusie so much. She puts children and pets in her books, and some of her heroines are middle aged.

  2. Vicky:

    Yes, sex after parenthood is a great thing to see recognized in a romance novel. And double thumbs up for Jennifer Crusie -- will have to write about her work on the blog some day soon!

  3. Thank you for your astute observations about child characters in Romance novels. As an author, I find myself drawn to writing children for many of the reasons you cite above. Children have a way of forcing adults to question their patterns of behavior, much in the same way finding an equal romantic partner disrupts our existing self knowledge. I love the single parent trope as much as Vicky. Including characters of a wide range of ages and experiences makes the stories more alive to me.

    1. Thanks, Lola, for adding your thoughts. Your idea that children often force adults to question their patterns, their assumptions about what is right, what is normal, resonates with me.

      What are your favorite single parent romances?

  4. One of the most difficult things to do is have a child in a romance who is not a "plot moppet" (a favorite term coined by a friend on SmartBitchesTrashyBooks). Some authors insert a child as a shortcut to one of your points above, and then ignore them otherwise. If the sole purpose of the child is to create a dramatic moment and the child character is otherwise under-developed, you've found a plot moppet.

    As a parent, I'm also frustrated by child characters that seem created by authors without much experience with children, or without a fair grounding in how a child of a certain age generally behaves. It pulls me right out of the story.

    1. Eliz:

      Thanks for sharing your friend's coinage. "Plot moppet" is going to stick with me for a long time...

      -- Jackie