Hijinks or Tears – Which Romances Do You Prefer?

funny pictures - *CHILLAX, GURLFREN!*

I’m always obsessed with learning more about anything I tackle, and so for writing, I read and reread craft books, trying to soak in every tidbit. Right now I’m in the planning stages of a new novel and so I’ve been rereading some books on structure and some on writing romance. Coupled with a comment made by an instructor in a class I’m currently in, it’s made me step back and look at what kind of romances I like to read.

Hijinks or Tear-jerkers

What started this introspection were some comments made by this instructor that in romance the main conflict needs to be based on emotion, which echoes what I’ve been reading in the writing romance books. That I can’t have external issues keeping the two apart, etc. And typically the books will list different emotional, drama-inducing scenarios that frankly, while yes, they are heavy on emotion and conflict, just don’t interest me in the least. My usual response when reading a romance where the main thing that’s keeping them apart is some huge emotional baggage is “get over it.” I’ve never been into watching movies or reading romances where the sole purpose is to indulge in some huge emotion-fest.

But, please know this is not me judging those types of stories, it’s simply me stating it’s not my thang. I know that there are other types of stories that I find awesome, that don’t interest others. That’s what’s so amazing about humanity– the variety of opinions. Thank GOD we don’t all have the same tastes!

So, back to exploring my tastes :) Perhaps this is why I don’t normally read contemporary romances, since that seems to be how they’re mainly structured. Everyday domestic drama holds no interest for me. Especially if the main plot is 80% working through some emotional trauma that’s keeping the two apart. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read some contemporaries that aren’t like this, but I usually come by them from referrals or because I know the author’s work.  The historicals I typically read have some kind of interesting external plot the two get ensnared in, and hijinks and fun and love happens along the way. If some happen to elicit a tear or two, that’s awesome sauce. I’m not averse to emotion, I just don’t relish wallowing in it, if that makes sense.

Anyway, this led me to question whether MUST LOVE BREECHES is even a romance (according to the instructor, based on my GMCs I turned in, it’s not) and set me into a panic last week. But then I’d just finished reading a wonderful romance and I thought I’d analyze it to see if it would hold up to the instructor’s strictures, and I really don’t see that it does. But I could be wrong. Please feel free to set me straight in the comments. I want to learn!!

The book? A Week to Be Wicked, by Tessa Dare. It’s also getting great reviews, so I’m not alone in thinking this was a great story and romance. In fact, it could be one of her best. Since I’d closed the book with a sigh during all this introspection, I thought I’d see if I could write up the GMCs for this book (GMC=Goal/Motivation/Conflict, usually stated as x wants ___ because ____ but___):

Minerva

External GMC: She wants to present her findings on her geological discovery because she wants to leave a mark on the world, but the symposium is in Edinburgh and she can’t get there alone.
Internal GMC: She needs to feel attractive and loved for herself but her bluestocking habits are usually all that guys see.

Colin

External GMC: ? In Act Two, he modifies his goals in order to get Minerva to Scotland because he realizes she’s determined to go anyway but he has to have a woman in his bed every night. But what’s his original story goal? Is it: He wants to live life on the surface and have a woman in his bed every night because he cannot sleep without someone physically next to him, but Minerva is a virgin and wants her to escort her to Scotland?
Internal GMC: He needs to keep everyone at an emotional distance because that’s how he’s learned to cope in life but Minverva challenges him

What am I missing here? I feel like I’m missing “it” on several levels. One– I can’t seem to come up with solid GMCs for Colin. If you’ve read it, can you help me out here? In fact, I just looked up the book description, and his goal is stated as “Colin Sandhurst, Lord Payne, a rake of the first order, needs to be . . . anywhere but Spindle Cove” which would actually dovetail with hers, not be in conflict with it. And Second– if this had been my homework assignment my instructor would have told me that my story was flawed because my hero’s GMCs were muddled and not tied directly to the heroine’s strongly enough. She would probably say that he needs to have some competing external GMC that would be opposed to her going and ditto with the internal, so that the whole middle was taken up with their conflict over this. But yet, she’d be so wrong. This story WORKS, and it’s a wonderful LOVE story with tons of ROMANCE. And I loved Colin to pieces and wanted to wrap him up and take him home with me. His character arc was wonderful to witness and a natural progression. As one reviewer said, it’s so much fun seeing a guy like that fall like a tree. Sigh.

The pretend instructor feedback on Dare’s book (hero’s GMCs were muddled and not tied directly to the heroine’s strongly enough) is similar to what she’d told me about mine and said “let me guess, your middle is mostly external conflict.” Well, yes, it does have a lot of external conflict, but it also has emotional conflict. After a while, I realized that the kind of romance she’s advocating is actually the kind I don’t like to read. As noted above, I like to have a good balance of external and emotional conflict. I also realized that this is how many who don’t read romance perceive it and is why they don’t read it as it wouldn’t be their thing.

So that you have an idea of the styles of romance I like to read, here’s my list of auto-buy, big-name romance authors:

  • Loretta Chase
  • Julia Quinn
  • Amanda Quick
  • Tessa Dare
  • Katie MacAlister
  • Courtney Milan (a recent addition)

I’ve never read a single Nora Roberts, as I have this perception that her work is the kind of romance I don’t like to read.

So, am I completely whacked and I’m analyzing Dare’s book incorrectly? Am I missing some key ingredient that would make all this crystal clear for me? Do you like purely emotional-driven conflict or a mixture of both?

Sorry for the rambling post as this is something I’m trying to grapple and understand. I’m hoping that by writing this post, it will help clarify some things in my mind.

I’m also aware I probably just exposed myself as a complete ignoramus and just shot any chances of landing an agent if they happen to check out my blog while evaluating my partials/fulls. *waves* Thing is, I want to learn. To get better. I figure by posting this and getting your feedback, it will help to this end. What am I missing in understanding the romance genre?

What’s an Alpha Anyway? Guest post by Rachelle Ayala

Wednesday’s post on the dirth of non-Alphas in Romance generated a lot of interest. One thing that came out of it is the misidentification of what makes a true Alpha. So, I thought I would ask one of my critique partners who loves true Alphas to guest post. Without further ado, please welcome Rachele Ayala:

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Recently there has been a backlash against Alpha Males in romance novels. The typical Alpha is defined as a brash, dominant man who is all brawn with little brain. He overpowers anyone who gets in his way, is ruthless and forceful and comes off as an unfeeling jerk. He is often so mean and hard-hearted, mechanical and emotionless that he’d be better off portrayed as the villain.

Sadly, I don’t believe any self-respecting woman would sympathize, much less fall in love with such a man, and I have a hard time portraying this type of man as a hero. Which leads to my definition of an Alpha male…

He is 100% male, unabashedly a man, and one who does not apologize for being a man. He knows what he wants, sets goals, is sexy as all get go, and is protective of those he loves. Show me a hero, and I’ll show you a man who’s loyal to a fault, decisive, and in command in every area of his life except for his heart. He does not sip tea over crumpets, nor weep at movies, but in a disaster or a life-threatening situation, he takes charge and acts. He has a tough exterior to protect that tender little boy’s heart and presents a challenge for the heroine to overcome.

To Alpha or Not to Alpha

Our heroes should be complicated, interesting and larger than life. This does not necessarily mean fitting him into the stereotyped Alpha role. The recent trend toward describing an Alpha as super muscular, taller than a monstrous Highlander, with biceps the size of basketballs, and a vocabulary even Arnold would eclipse causes stilted and clichéd stories. In order to match these domineering men, the heroines have become bitchier and pricklier than porcupines with steel-tipped quills. Romance becomes a War with the reader rubber-necking for the unbelievable HEA.

A hero does not have to be traditionally Alpha to be interesting. As my critique partners point out, I have unorthodox heroes and not quite so strong heroines. A hero may have an Alpha edge and a bad-boy vibe with the suspicious scent of danger. He may have a trick up his sleeve, but he is determined and single-minded, possibly jealous and possessive. Any relationship with him is destined to be a turbulent ride.

How do we portray a man, one that has Alpha traits but does not fit the stereotype? By exploring and deepening his interactions with the heroine and other characters in a unique way. He may be dishonest in one area, but have high minded principles elsewhere. Perhaps he has trouble keeping his pants on, but he respects the heroine’s religious beliefs and refuses to compromise them. He may go to great lengths to deny his feelings for the heroine, but his instinct to protect overrides his denial and he charges forth, sometimes in a controlling or overpowering manner. Deep inside, he’s a softy, and she may be the only one who sees that side of him.

How to Tend to Your Male Hero

Keep your male hero strong. Give him a heroine who will stand up to him, but also comfort him and forgive him his faults. Never make him violent toward your heroine or any other woman. If he needs to get violent, have him beat up the bad guys.

He may be uncommunicative about his needs and make the wrong assumptions, but do not let him push the heroine for sex. That is reserved for villains. The heroine should always feel protected and safe with the hero. She should trust him never to intentionally hurt her. Give him a moment with a small child or injured animal so she can observe his nurturing side.

He may have a one track mind, is unbending in his beliefs, but he’s got that soft core inside a hard exterior. He’s not everyone’s best friend, and he presents difficulties, but once the heroine in his heart, she’s there to stay. And did I say protective? A strong hero feels responsible. Hand him a problem and he’ll solve it for her instead of asking her how she feels about it.

He is secure enough in his manhood to be strong and yet sensitive on the inside, controlling and yet yielding when he has to, silent yet expressive in multiple nonverbal and sexy ways. Being loved by a strong male is feeling secure and protected at all times, able to let him take the lead and make the decisions, but never pushed-over and dominated.

Being a hero is tough. He is expected to be strong at all times, have all the answers, and not show any weakness. But when life dishes out heartaches and grief, the one set of arms he can turn to is the loyal and nurturing heroine, herself a survivor who understands the pressure he is up against. And the one thing that makes him so rewarding is his single-minded love. This is a man who doesn’t go around telling about his love, but shows it in the privacy of his heart by his actions, whether the tiny choke whenever he sees her off on a long trip, or the possessive stance when another man gets too close. One thing’s for sure. It might have been hard to penetrate his hide and steal his heart, but once an Alpha loves, it is forever.

What do you think? Do you like your heroes strong and silent, or weepy and your best girlfriend? What characteristics of a heroine do you like to see paired with a strong male hero? Would you write the stereotypes in hopes of being published? Or would you take a chance and write fresh and unique individuals?

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Rachelle Ayala is the penname for a retired software engineer, a mother of three and a Ph.D. in Mathematics. While FORTRAN was my first language, C my second, and Java my third, I indulged in English to write short, satirical stories about my work life.

My first full-length novel, Michal’s Window, portrays the life of King David through the eyes of his first love. It is due out this year. My second novel is a romantic suspense about a software build engineer caught among a bunch of reckless drivers.

Please visit me at my blog or follow me at FB  or Twitter: @AyalaRachelle

I look forward to chatting with you.

Non-Alphas Need Not Apply: Can only Alpha males get published in Romancelandia?

Recently I received an email from a writer friend who’s agented, but has not had any luck selling her first novel. She told me that her agent says that the problem is that her hero and heroine are too much like real life and that she needs to make them into the romance cliché, and for the male, that means he needs to be Alpha, baby.

Sigh.

I’ve read this friend’s novel and I loved the hero, he had a quiet strength, he was intelligent and he respected the heroine. Her agent loves the characters too, but apparently the editors she’s pitched it to don’t. The agent said she needed to revise the hero so that he is more arrogant, more aggressive, and more domineering.

As new writers, in order to get published with traditional publishers, are we doomed to stick to this stereotype? Is this why many have chosen to go with smaller, independent presses? Apparently the Big 6 demand this type of hero and so if you’re tired of it, you know whom to blame. It’s this all-pervasive monolithic stereotype that allows us to chuckle at this 2-minute regency romance because it’s so dang true.

I know there are many readers and reviewers who lament the pervasiveness of this type of male in Romancelandia. In a Google search on the subject, I’ve come across these various opinions:

Strong, confident Alphas have become monstrous and overbearing

In the old school romances of the 70s and 80s, Alphas were assholes who practiced forced seductions if not rape. Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan of Smart Bitches Trashy Books (SBTB) gave this hero the term alphole in her book Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels and that today this type has thankfully become the minority. But Jane at Dear Author discusses how even the stereotyped Alpha male has morphed of late from strong and confident to monstrous and overbearing. She goes on to lament:

We have this warped view of alpha men.   They are caricatures relying primarily on physical prowess to serve a romance shorthand for all those things that we view a hero should be.   But the unfortunate thing is that it straightjackets the heroes’ character such that they aren’t allowed to drink mixed drinks or sleep in pajamas without being viewed with immediate suspicion that perhaps they are, in fact, from the other end the Greek alphabet.

She ends her post with this valid question, which elicited some great comments about what readers want and their definition of an Alpha male:

Now, you readers might tell me that your books don’t have these uber alpha characters and if that is so, tell me the titles of those books. Or perhaps the alpha male means something else to  you or you really must have an alpha male for the book to interest you.   I want to know why because ultimately the question I have is whether the alpha male that we read about today is reflecting what readers want or whether its a literary exaggeration done unconsciously to evoke a certain reader response [emphasis mine].

The blog Heroes and Heartbreakers has an excellent post on when an Alpha becomes too Alpha, and uses the excellent Loretta Chase novel Lord of Scoundrels as a perfect illustration of the need to match that Alpha with a strong heroine:

Since most Alpha Male heroes tend to be physically more powerful, the best romance authors compensate by matching them up with heroines who are stronger intellectually, who use words and wit and cunning. Either way, when paired with a strong-willed heroine who is capable of defending and maintaining herself, the hero’s forceful personality and aggression come across as challenges rather than threats

What about the poor Beta male?

Heroines With Hearts blog wants to know what’s wrong with the Beta male:

I blame the romance industry (publishing) for their unbidden constancy of inflicting Alpha males upon readers of romance. What’s wrong with a Beta male?  To be honest, I always fancied Dandini rather than Prince Charming. The latter too vain in every way: Dandini the charmer of the two. Hee hee, and a man on his knees placing glass slipper on feet far more to my liking!

Are non Alpha males viable in Romance?

Sarah over at SBTB kicked off a great discussion a while back on what makes a real-life hero and asks if there are such in Romance novels. In the comments one reader referred to these as the Omega hero, and another referred to them as The Sandwich. I just HAD to know what the latter meant and it brought me to this great post by Sarah Rees Brennan where she breaks down Romance heroes into 3 types: The Angst Muffin (which would be most Alpha males), The Sandwich (reliable and dependable) and The Pastry (wide-ranging varieties that can initially be off-putting but are sweet inside). It’s a great read and she gives examples from books for each type.

My writer friend said that she couldn’t think of examples of romances featuring non-Alphas, but Sarah Rees Brennan’s post mentions a few for each. In my recent reading experience I can name an example for the other two, and oddly (or not so oddly, as I’m really coming to believe she’s one of the best in the genre) they are both Loretta Chase novels. In Lord Perfect, we get The Sandwich delightfully thrown into a situation that ruffles his world. And in Mr. Impossible we get a wonderfully strong and sweet Pastry who surprised me time and again with his non-Alpha responses to the heroine.  It’s been awhile since I’ve read some Julia Quinn, but I’m thinking some of the Bridgerton brothers weren’t Angst Muffins, or am I misremembering?

And there are those that are tired of the Alpha male

A writer on the absolutewrite.com forum posed this question:

The Hero’s are always tough guys that get what they want because they are either rich and sexy, a dangerous Vampire and sexy, or a medieval lord and sexy. I’m not talking about having a weak willed guy keeping his head down with a female dom, but when I wrote my next book I did it with the idea that this guy wouldn’t walk around with his chest puffed out all the time, though he could still handle himself when needed. But that seems to be the problem in my story. My critique partners are saying that any medieval lord had to be a dominant alpha in order to protect his lands, and I can understand this and have made a few changes to hopefully buff him up enough so that they’re satisfied, but does an alpha hero who knows how to handle himself have to be an arrogant jerk?

And it generated a lot of comments.

And Wendy Palmer doesn’t like them either. She likes:

Calm, competent men who actually get things done while Mr Arsehole Alpha is off ranting or brooding or obsessing about status or measuring the size of his mobile phone or whatever it is these Heathcliff types do. They also have the decency to converse politely with women they don’t find attractive and don’t intend to sleep with, which some real-life wannabe alphas don’t (it’s always fun trying to make small talk withthem in a social situation, I can tell you).

But she also says what she’d like to see are male characters that are well-rounded, instead of being pigeon-holed:

Of course, the most important thing … is that they are decent characters first, and fall into those categories [Alpha, Beta] second — and even then, generally only loosely — just like real people, none of whom are 100% alpha or beta or omega or whatever animal classification you want to try to force on them. One of my favourite characters ever is Lord Peter Wimsey; he’s nothing like the modern alpha male but nor could he really be called a beta with its unfair undertone of submission.

Which brings us to…

Give us real males

Erotica author Freya Duquesne had a great post on this subject in which she sums up with:

What I’d love to see in more nov­els is not Alpha Male or Beta Male, but real males. Real guys that stand out­side and beyond the Alpha Male/Beta Male cliches. Flawed, yes, but maybe not in the stereo­typ­i­cal ways. It would be nice to read about heroes that know how to com­mu­ni­cate, who do value women for more than just sex, who are socially con­scious and…humble. Who are will­ing to lis­ten and con­sider the ideas of other people, instead of act­ing brashly on their own.

In defense of the Alpha

Suzanne Brockmann was asked why she loved Alpha males, and I thought her response very enlightening. She says:

When I create my characters, I don’t think in terms of labels. I don’t say, okay, I’m going to sit down now and create an alpha male or a beta male. Instead of male or female, alpha or beta, I create a human being.

I’m a strong believer in the theory that environment and upbringing play an important part in establishing a person’s personality. It’s true, there are quite a few personality traits we as individuals are born with, but if a boy is born with a sensitive, beta-type personality but is raised in an abusive, be-tough-or-get-crushed type environment, chances are, he’s going to grow up to be more of an alpha male. He’s going to learn to fight, and he going to learn to hide his feelings — perhaps he’s even going to learn not to feel.

She then explains in a thoughtful way, what she loves about an Alpha male, and I think the lesson here is that what she loves in an Alpha is when it’s done right.

So what does all this mean?

There are examples of non Alpha males in Romance and there’s definitely an audience for them, but can you only push those boundaries once you become a well-respected author like Loretta Chase? As a new writer do we need to conform first and then break out? This is worrisome as my hero is not an Alpha male. I posted this question in a private forum with some of my critique partners, and they were worried too since their heroes weren’t Alphas either. One commenter said:

I like the romances that Mira books print. Those books (by authors like Debbie Macomber and Susan Wiggs) have strong, interesting characters without all the stereotypes. I really hate the arrogant male. He annoys me. I am not attracted to that type in RL, why would I spend 300 pages reading about a guy like that. I understand the frustration. It’s so two-faced.

Another said, “…they want stereotypes…they just want nice little bows on them so they don’t look like stereotypes, but still are.” She’s worried too because her hero isn’t an Alpha, but yet her crit partners loved her hero and told her not to change him.

What do you think? Can a new writer get published with a non-Alpha male? If we write about a non-Alpha male, are there other elements that need to be present in order to compensate? Do you like Alpha males? Do you have romances you can recommend that feature Made of Awesome heroes that aren’t Alphas?