Friday, March 6, 2015

Judging Our Romance Characters

Earlier this week, the All About Romance blog ran its first "Winsome or Loathsome" column. This new feature will "look at well-known heroines and asked the pointed question—Winsome or Loathsome?" Each column will open with an AAR reviewer giving a brief description of the heroine in question, and the book in which she appears, then the reasons why she has not been "universally loved" by romance readers. Several AAR reviewers will then weigh in with their own judgments; AAR readers will be invited to discuss and debate in response to each post.

Why do romance readers so often judge the likability of romance characters? It's a tendency that's always interested me, because it's not one that literary critics are not trained, or encouraged, to pursue. Maria Konnikova's 2013 Atlantic article, "Do Readers Judge Female Characters More Harshly Than Male Characters," shows how the entire question of wanting your literary characters to behave well is rather ridiculous to the literary cognocenti:

Should we be looking to fiction for friendship material to begin with? Imagine for a moment that someone wrote an impassioned critique of Crime and Punishment on the basis of Raskolnikov's unworthiness, or denounced Macbeth because Lady Macbeth would likely turn out to be one of those frenemies who invites you for a sleepover and takes the opportunity to poison you and ruin your reputation on the chance you survive, or railed at The Inferno because, out of all its major players, hardly a one would pass muster as friendship material. You'd dismiss any of these arguments from the get-go. Judge literature on the merits of its characters-as-my-best-friend material and you lop off the vast majority of the literary canon—and much of modern fiction along with it.... Such a reading misses the point entirely.

But for readers of romance, unlike readers of literary fiction, judging its characters has always seemed part and parcel of the reading process. Why?

AAR already has a successful column, "Dreamboat or Douchebag," devoted to a similar evaluation of male romance novel protagonists, so clearly this is not simply a gendered thing, this judging. Although I'm guessing there have been, in the original column, and will be in the new one, interesting gendered aspects to reviewers' and readers' conclusions. What actions do readers find reprehensible in a heroine? In a hero? Are they similar, or quite different?

I'll be interested to read  future AAR columns, to analyze the gender politics behind the judgments readers make. But today, though, I'm more interested in the larger issue of judging itself. Why do romance readers feel (I'm not sure of the right word to use here)—compelled to? entitled to? deep pleasure in?—making moral, ethical judgments of the characters in our romances? 

Is it because romance readers believe/wish/desire on some level that the characters in the books they read be their friends? And being friends with a protagonist who does something bad makes the reader feel bad/guilty by association?

Is it because their main way of responding to romance protagonists is by identifying with them, and if a character behaves in an unacceptable way, it's like throwing a monkey wrench into the identification process?

Is it because romance, unlike most other genres, focuses so much on emotions, especially on the impact one character's actions can have on another character's feelings? Bad behavior leads to hurt feelings—by condemning a hero or heroine's actions, are readers trying to protect one another from feeling hurt?

Is it because romance heroes and heroines are supposed to be larger, and thus less fallible, than people in real life? So if they aren't, we feel the need to point out their unsuitableness for the role of hero or heroine?

Is it because romance readers are so-often judged (negatively, in large part) for their reading, so they extend this judgmental stance to what they themselves are reading?

I'm also wondering about the line between judging and being judgmental. Is there a meaningful difference? Between making an ethical judgment and conservatively policing the behavior of others?

When you read romances, do you find yourself judging their characters? Why or why not? And to what end?


  1. I'm so glad that you're raising this question! I've always been a little surprised at this approach to texts, and even more surprised by some of the heroines who are called "unlikeable." Rather than "identification with" characters, I wonder whether the romance genre particularly invites us to "root for" characters, to feel sympathy when they suffer and then rejoice in their success, so that when we are put off by a character, we find it hard to enter into that emotional dynamic?

    1. Yes, this approach to texts is certainly different from the one us literary critics were taught, isn't it?

      You're making me wonder about the romance community's use of the word "relatable" in the place where literary critics would use the idea of "identification." Perhaps "relateability" has more to do with likability, with the need to feel justified in "rooting for" a protagonist? I don't want to BE you, but I want to be FRIENDS with you, and I can't if you don't share my values/world view/ethics?

  2. Guilty as charged. I am leery of generalizing based on my experience as a reader, but speaking as one reader of romance fiction with more than five decades of reading in the genre behind me, I want the protagonists to deserve their HEA. If I dislike either the heroine or the hero, I find it difficult to believe she/he deserves the bliss the conventional conclusion of a romance promises. In her essay “I Know What It Is When I Read It: Defining the Romance Genre,” Jennifer Crusie says, “ So in romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice, unconditional love in an emotionally safe world.” Implicit in Crusie’s use of “rewarded” is the idea that the ones receiving “unconditional love in an emotionally safe world” merit the gift. Spoiled, selfish, or ungrateful characters (the characteristics that most often render a protagonist unlikable for me) haven’t earned their reward.

    Based on countless times I have had students speak or write—sometimes passionately—that Lily Bart or Edna Pontellier do not get the conclusions they deserve, I suspect that for many readers the desire to see characters rewarded for their struggles is not limited to works of popular romance. And that desire seems rooted in their positive feelings about the characters.

    1. So interesting, Janga, that you want your romance protagonists to "deserve" "unconditional" love. Isn't the very definition of "unconditional" mean that you're loved whether you deserve to be or not?

      Crusie's definition makes the romance genre sound far closer to fairy tales, where there is clear good and evil and the do-gooders are rewarded and the evil-do-ers punished, than to realistic fiction. Romance reinforces the belief that if you are good, if you act in a good way, you'll be rewarded. Is this a belief more common to women than to me, I wonder?

    2. It is, of course, and I am fully aware of the contradiction. Shall I quote Whitman? I like to think I'm more generous in my personal relationships than in my judgments as a romance reader.

  3. I think another part of it is that the fundamental goal of a romance is to depict a great love story leading to a happily-ever-after relationship, and when you see one or both of the leads behaving toward each other in ways that don't really lend themselves to a healthy relationship, you start getting suspicious. It's one thing when you're watching the characters changing and growing; it's another when you're watching them treat each other like shit without changing or facing consequences. If I'm reading a romance, I want the characters to end up in a place where I believe they can have a healthy relationship, and if one or both of them doesn't seem to be in that place, then I can't really buy into what the author is trying to sell me.

    If I read a book about two flawed people who have their issues but are clearly trying to grow past them, and basically treat each other in good faith despite hiccoughs, then I care less about their flaws as people.

    Another issue for me is how the author presents the characters. If the author presents me with a seriously flawed character who believes questionably, and it's clear from the text that the author is well aware of the flaws and is deliberately showing us this character's journey as a person, I will cut that character more slack than I'd show a character whose author thinks their flaws are a sign of how masculine and hot they are, or how "adorable." A good example here is Serena from Jo Beverley's _Forbidden_. Serena's behaviour is appalling, at many junctures, but it's clear Beverley knows that and that you're not supposed to be cheering her on. But I've read many other novels where the hero is being controlling and borderline-abusive, or the heroine is being controlling, irrational, or selfish, and I'm supposed to find this sexy or cute, and this makes me angry. So I think authorial decisions are often more an issue for me than the characters themselves.

    1. Great points here, anonymous, especially your comments about author intentions. Interesting to think about whether your/a reader's beliefs about what constitutes readiness for a healthy relationship match or conflict with those of the author/story...

  4. This is a very interesting topic. I've never thought about it, it's one of those things that you simply assume. That's something that happens but you don't ask yourself why.
    As a reader, I do judge the characters and their actions. But I think that's part of the genre. It's not something I usually do when I read other genres. I think it might be because of what you say - romance, unlike most other genres, focuses so much on emotions, especially on the impact one character's actions can have on another character's feelings?
    When I review a romance novel that's one of the points I usually mention. How are the characters like? Are they nice people, do they behave badly or what. Do they deserve their HEA?
    If you don't talk about the people in the book -their feelings, emotions, thoughts and actions, what are you going to talk about?
    Plot, style, setting? The difference in this genre from one novel to the next one is mainly in the characters, not in the plot or the style. The genre itself, asks you to connect emotionally with the characters. Ergo, you judge everything that touches you.
    It's something I look for in these novels and not, for instance, in an essay or a historical or literary novel.
    This is a genre about feelings and the relationship between two (or three or more) people. If that's the main focus, judging a character's actions is absolutely required.

    1. Bona: So you'd argue that romance is primarily character-based? Or that romance readers focus largely on the characters, rather than on plot or style?

      Why do emotional connection and judging go hand in hand for you? Is it because if you DON'T find yourself connecting emotionally to your romance characters, you need a way to justify/understand that lack of connection?

  5. Dang it, I just left the most insightful reply EVER. Where did it go?
    So I'll repeat it. If my previous comment is just sitting in moderation, feel free to delete this one...
    I'm reading a thriller right now with a protagonist that I feel sorry for, but didn't particularly like for the first 1/4 of the book. And it bothered me at first...because I read so much romance, where likeability is key.
    As an author, I have to make you WANT my h/h to get over their flaws and resolve those insurmountable conflicts to be together, and to stay with them, root for them, give them your good vibes to reach deep and find that place inside to be willing to sell the watch to buy the tortoise shell combs (it was a watch, right? I know it was tortoise shell combs. I think. And she sold her hair). And if you don't like them, why would you care if they get their crap together?
    And we don't like people who aren't nice, or good, or at least redeemable. That's the judgement thing. They have to be willing to save a cat.
    ANYWAY. I think that's a big part of what romance is about...escaping into the fantasy, the place where people deserve their happily ever after by working through their issues, and the yeah. It's important to like the protags. Why would you want to live forever with someone you don't like?

    1. Hi, Teri Anne:

      Sorry for your posting problems :-(

      Your post is making me think about whether there's a difference between "caring" for a protagonist and "liking" a protagonist. A skilled author can make me care about a character even if that character is not particularly nice—show me that character's flaws, vulnerabilities, back story traumas, etc., and I'm willing to go along for the ride, even if that character acts like a jerk. I don't need a character who will always rescue the cat; if the author can explain to me WHY that character can't or won't rescue the cat, then I'm hooked.

  6. I agree with Anonymous and Teri Anne that it's largely a matter of having to want to invest and believe in the relationship. If you don't like the characters, why would you do that? Many people do talk about it in terms of deserving love or emotional justice, which makes me cringe. We all have flaws and have done things that aren't loveable or loving, yet we all need unconditional love. But getting a reader to go on the journey with you is a different matter.

    Which leads me to my other point: Why would a reader invest time in reading as well as the emotional commitment if s/he didn't like the characters and isn't rooting for them to be together in the end?


    1. This makes me think of something that maybe we (ahem, YOU, Jackie) could talk about. Conditional vs unconditional love.
      There's also the feeling vs. The action.
      When I think of unconditional love, I think of living by the golden rule. That kind of love, if I were a better person, I'd manage to spread all over the world like a can of Coke (that sounded better in my head).
      That, to me, is different than the Big L that my hero can't spit out. The kind of love that he has the earn by recognizing and overcoming his own crap. And gets mixed with the Coke for a really great cocktail (well, that was slightly better).

    2. Lawless:

      I'm thinking about the process, then, when a reader picks up a new romance. That reader has to like the characters in order to invest time and make an emotional connection. In order to understand whether or not a reader likes the characters, though, he/she has to pass judgment on them. Or is it more a matter of assuming that the characters in romance will of course be likable, and being popped out of the story if something about one or both sets off a reader's own personal "I don't like this behavior/thought/belief"?

  7. I find this discussion interesting because I don't think I judge romance characters differently than any other genre. I wouldn't say I am a romance reader nor do I linger in that community. I do pick up the occasional romance novel when I find a plot that interests me. I, often, add romantic elements into my own writing.
    To me, the character drives a story. I may not have to like them to be my friend but they have to be interesting enough to keep me reading their story. Sometimes, the story is enough to get me to overlook weak characters but more often it's the other way - my investment is in the character and what happens to them next, regardless of genre.
    If I had to determine what I feel differently about romance writing vs. other genres, I guess I would say I am more forgiving with romance novels. I overlook weaker writing if the story is still good because I know that the requirements for romance novels is less strict than other genres. But I still want characters that are interesting.
    I will say that I often hear (and I believe have blogged about) having relateable characters. I find that irritating because it's an individual response. I get that the publishing world wants the readers to connect to the character but I have found that what makes a character relateable to one person will be the very thing that another person won't get. And it's nice to have that as well. There are characters that fascinate me because they are almost foreign in their behavior.
    I think I am babbling and I'm sorry. This has been a great topic.

    1. Thanks, Sara, for adding your thoughts. I, too, find the whole "must be relatable" thing annoying--who and what you relate to will likely be very different from who and what I relate to. "Relatable" seems more like a code word for "no character traits that are likely to annoy or anger any reader." A goal for publishers, who want to sell the most books they can, but not a goal likely to lead to very complex character development.

  8. Jackie, I agree that identification and heroism probably have to do with it, but I think NK Jemisin also made an interesting point about internalized misogyny. Other people have pointed out that female readers are harder on female characters, but she actually analyzes criticism two characters of hers, similar but for their gender, to show the disparity in reception.


      Forgot to link!

  9. Thanks, Anonymous, for the pointer. Yeah, my guess would be that internalized sexism has something to do with it, but I didn't want to jump to this conclusion right away, without opening up the conversation to other ideas first.