Monday, June 18, 2018

Akihito Character Analysis: Morality in an Amoral World

I recently read through BL's Special Edition Volumes of Finder, 1-8.

The most impressive aspect of the eight volumes is that the relationship between Asami and Akihito changes. It isn't a "once the trope has been established, nothing else can happen" kind of storyline.

In fact, Akihito is established early on as having a non-static personality. He is precisely the type of person who will change as he encounters new events, even as his core personality remains the same.

As I wrote earlier, Asami is attracted to Akihito precisely because he avoids Fei Long's more negative traits. Akihito encapsulates all of Fei Long's high maintenance idiosyncrasies but without the angst or lack of confidence.

A fundamental similarity between
Asami and Akihito: they both take
responsibility for their choices/past
He also (and this may sound odd in a series where the sex is frankly raunchy; nevertheless, it holds true), more inherently moral than either Asami, who appears amoral, or Fei Long, who frets.

That is, it isn't merely Akihito's "hey, how can I get into danger this volume?" behavior or his brash self-confidence that attracts Asami. It's his clear-sighted assessment of other people's actions. In the course of the first five volumes, for instance, he confronts a corrupt police officer (unwisely since he misreads the man's fight or flight response), deliberate erases Asami's disc of underworld information, chooses to place his friends' safety over Asami's--then takes responsibility for his choice--and scoffs at Fei Long's angsty insistence that his relationship with Asami is "complicated."

"You sound like a college kid with a grudge," Akihito responds, only backing down when Fei Long resorts to threats.

Asami also threatens although his threats are rather like Gibbs' threats: simple statements of reality. And Asami, unlike everyone else who deals with and misreads Akihito, takes great care to never crush Akihito's spirit. His main worry during the Hong Kong kidnapping (these books, like many manga series, are  full of H. Rider Haggard-type action) is that Akihito will have lost, for lack of a better term, his piss & vinegar.

Akihito: "In the end, it doesn't matter
what he says. It's not his problem.
It's mine.
To a large extent what makes the series work is that unlike Martin Freeman's marvelous Watson, Akihito isn't an unusual man caught up in a world that attracts him more than his "real" life. Rather, Akihito, like Lister from Red Dwarf, is an ordinary guy (with unordinary characteristics) caught up in a world that he assesses with utter accuracy as problematic and/or degenerate.

When Sudo (story arc beginning in Volume 7) describes Akihito as low caste and tries to shame him for chasing after a man (Asami) who is out of his league, Akihito immediately dismisses Sudo's argument. He has no trouble spotting the other man's inherent weakness, namely Sudo's lack of an actual moral code. He recognizes that the issue of whether to be with Asami or not rests in his, Akihito's, agency. Sudo blusters and struts as if he is Akihito's superior (and Asami's direct rival). Akihito, on the other hand, recognizes the other man's inherent sallowness and dismisses him as fundamentally irresponsible.

Akihito has lots of stuff happen to him. But ultimately, his character growth resides in his responses/decisions. The tension for Akihito is between his honest and accurate moral judgments and his growing affection for the seemingly amoral Asami. Akihito comes to question not Asami's actions (as he did in the beginning) but Asami's motivations. And he is forced to ask himself, "Once I know all the truth, what will I decide?"

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Complaint: Bad Romances & The Sudden Solution

In a prior post, I discuss the difference between skanky and non-skanky erotica. Like the difference between skanky and non-skanky art, one argument I make is that skanky erotica comes across more like filler.

The basic premise of all art--even porn--is that there must be a narrative. The human brain is geared towards narratives, probably out of a need for survival (or fun or both). So any romance is going to have a mystery problem or a historical problem or a contemporary problem (someone is dying, someone is trying to save a town, someone is trying to reconcile with one's family, someone is dealing with a legal tangle).

Some of these romances are what I call trope romances, a collection of classic tropes and erotic scenes squished into a narrative thread. And the big give-away for pure trope romances is the ending.

In these types of romances, once the revelation occurs ("I love you. You love me.")--the story is over! That's it! No more!

I've read romances where the writers/narrators basically ended with the following throw away lines (I'm making up the words but not the endings):
"Oh, and then a few months later, we caught the murderer."

"And then we found a cure next year after we were happily settled."

"And then our families started to get along."

"And then the dam was repaired and the town was saved and the asteroid was diverted and by the way, Superman flew around the world backwards."
Okay, I made up the last one--but you catch my drift.

When I assign narratives in my business and academic writing courses, I instruct my students that they may tell a story about themselves but they cannot end the essay by talking about themselves.  They have to use the narrative to prove a thesis. And the conclusion of the essay has to be relevant to the READER, not to the self-absorbed, navel-gazing writer.

Fiction writing is not the same as essay writing, but the principle holds true:

Romance writers, if you create a narrative in which to hold your characters, you need to PAY IT OFF! (See Shakespeare.)

If it's a murder, solve the murder. If it's a war, wrap it up. If it's a terrible disease, find a cure or kill everyone off--either is fine but DO IT (i.e. SHOW IT)!

But ending the narrative when the couple declares its affection is frankly, obviously manipulative. It says, "Oh, you, the reader, are only reading this for the love scenes. You're such a dopey romance reader. You don't care about good stories. You only want your HEA. As long as I give it to you, you won't complain."

I do like HEAs. I am a dopey romance reader. And I will complain if the story arc stinks.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Character Driven Romances

Speaking of spy stories . . .

I far prefer character-driven stories over stories that only focus on external problems.

That sounds obvious. Don't most people say, "But I want good characters in my fiction!"

However, there is a perfectly respectable sub-genre to any genre (fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, romance, contemporary angst, etc.) where the focus is more on the world than on the characters.

Tolkien, for instance, created "world fantasy." That does not mean his characters aren't solid or that character development doesn't take place in his novels. There is a spectrum: The Hobbit is a more character-driven novel (hence the casting of everyman Martin Freeman) while Lord of the Rings is a more world-driven novel.

In world romance, the story centers on the hero and heroine overcoming obstacles in their personal lives before they can meet. In chick-lit, for instance, the story centers on the heroine's friends, how often she goes shopping, what she does in her church/work/volunteer group, etc. etc. etc. It's Sleepless in Seattle (don't meet until the end) versus You've Got Mail, While You Were Sleeping, and Lakehouse (ongoing relationships, no matter how strange).

I prefer the character-driven romance (You've Got Mail) to "world romance" (Sleepless in Seattle). I have very little interest in "world" genre fiction generally (Tolkien being the huge exception), and so can't comment much on it. Hence, all my comments are directed at the character-driven romance.

Basically, I want to watch the characters talk and fight and tease and discuss and exchange ideas. My interest lies in their ability to work through the relationship problem.

Of course people have all kinds of non-intimate-"world" problems in real life from aging parents to low funds to work issues. But finding those kinds of problems in a romance is rather like finding those kinds of problems in a murder mystery. Okay, now I know all about the character's world, but where's, you know, the dead body?

Likewise, in a romance, I want to learn more about the relationship. If all that other stuff can be worked in smoothly and non-distractingly, fine. Otherwise, the arc should focus on the couple.

Here are some character-driven romances (from all genres):
  • Monk Downstairs by Tim Farrington
  • Jane Eyre by Bronte
  • Jane Austen's works (world + character with more focus on character)
  • Pamela by Samuel Richardson (despite the lectures)
  • Beauty by Robin McKinley
  • Queen of Attolia by Megan Turner
  • Georgette Heyer (in some cases: Devil's Cub and Venetia are more character-driven; These Old Shades and many of her mysteries are comparatively more world-driven)
  • Fifteen by Beverly Cleary
  • Blood & Chocolate (THE BOOK! NOT THE MOVIE) by Annette Curtis Klause
  • Serpent of Time by Eugene Woodbury
  • Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers (not one of her best mysteries, but one of her under-appreciated novels--Wimsey's character is better delineated here than anywhere else)
  • Glass Mountain by Cynthia Voigt
  • "Straw Into Gold" from The Rumplestiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde
  • Samantha and the Cowboy by Lorraine Heath
  • Changeover by Margaret Mahy (and kudos to Mahy for subtitling it "a supernatural romance")
  • The Road Home by Ellen Emerson White
  • Howl's Moving Castle (the movie) by Diana Wynne Jones (with a strong world component)
  • Romances by Lisa Kleypas
  • A Seditious Affair by KJ Charles (M/M)--KJ Charles's various supernatural series tend to be more world-romance (and first-class horror) but they also do a good job paying-off the characters.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Abstinence in Erotica: Why M/M is Often More Chaste Than Traditional Historical Romance

In all erotica--romance paperbacks where sex plays a part--there is tension between when the main characters first feel mutual attraction (and it is always instantly mutual) and when they begin sleeping together.

In historical romances, there is built-in erotic tension since propriety, social mores, and social expectations keep the characters apart. Against this is the main characters' overwhelming, unstoppable, unthinking lust for each other, a lust that cannot be denied (except, of course, when it's just wrong due to age or marital status; as Meatloaf says, "I would do anything for love . . . but I won't do that.")

With heterosexual couples, there is a built-in plot twist. That is, if the couple give in to their rampaging lust and have sex and get caught--oh, well, he compromised her, so I guess they should get married. After which marriage, the couple will come to realize that they truly do love each other; they weren't motivated purely by lust.

This is a perfectly respectable plot and can be handled well. However, it does leave one with the slightly squeamish feeling one feels about any "trap." What if they realize, "Yikes! What a huge mistake!" Kind of too late.

With historical M/M couples, this "getting caught in the act" is not a fall-back position. Getting caught won't involve raised eyebrows, rumors, scandal, and a forced marriage. It will entail jail and death.

The lessons of Oscar Wilde have been well-learned. Being jailed on behalf of a petulant lover doesn't lead to an HEA (Happily Ever After), which is how all respectable romances end. Being jailed on behalf of a petulant lover leads to loss of rights, illness, despair, boredom, and, after being released, resentment, blame, disgust, and death.

Consequently, historical M/M couples have to be smarter, cleverer, more circumspect, and more thoughtful than historical heterosexual (i.e.,  traditional) couples.

Many historical fictional M/M couples resolve their "how do we get together despite legal ramifications?" problem through wealth, which is frankly somewhat irritating. That is, one of the members of the couple turns out to be wealthy enough to bribe servants, buy a separate residence, and take the pair abroad. I'm happy for them but what about the people who don't have huge bank accounts?

Some couples/writers solve the problem by having amazingly understanding family members, which is sometimes believable and sometimes not (depending on the family's background, whether bohemian, aristocratic, or thoroughly middle-class).

And many of these couples resolve the tension using smarts and/or mutual compromise/understanding. Abstinence--forced or otherwise--becomes not merely a social convention but a literary tool for exploring beliefs, roles, personalities, and future goals.

These issues are important aspects of all relationships from historical to traditional to contemporary. Unfortunately, they lose impact in modern writing due not to their actual lack of impact in reality but to writers failing to think through the problem.

Jane Eyre's unease around Rochester is lost in the off-hand modern assumption "But of course, these days, they would sleep together and nobody would care." But that's not the point. The reason Jane Eyre and Rochester stay apart is not merely social convention. Yes, Jane wonders what living with Rochester as his lover would be like (she and Rochester would have to go live in France or Italy). But her true concern is Rochester's ebullient, in-your-face, non-stop personality. If Jane has a thought in the days between the engagement and the first wedding, it would be "Slow the hell down!" (ah, Meat Loaf where are you when we need you?).

This is lost in the modern insistence that the "real" tension is sexual. And part of it is--as Bronte acknowledges--but it isn't all of it (or it is and isn't at the same time).

Unfortunately, the complexity of I-want-this-person-in-lots-of-different-ways-and-I-don't-know-if-any-of-those-ways-fit-me-and-my-future decision is often lost in contemporarily-written romance fiction where love conquers all. Historical M/M forces some of those issues back on the table:

What is a person truly willing to risk? And for what?

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Problem with the Romantic Spy Novel

Agent Smith is NOT a nice guy.
The problem with the romantic spy novel is that (realistic) spies are not the kinds of people who should inspire commitment.

Yes, I argue on this blog that dysfunctional relationships can work as long as all the people involved know what dysfunction they're signing up for. But there are lines. And a firm line stands between ordinary-dysfunction and con-artists/grifters.

Spies--actual spies--fall into the latter category. Someone like Philby comes across not as clever, resourceful, daring, or even dangerous (in the James Bond sense) but as someone essentially hollow.
Lee, from Scarecrow & Mrs King, isn't really a spy; he's
more of a international FBI agent a la Seeley Booth.

John Le Carre's chilling depiction of spies in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (wherein the sincerely loyal-to-his-country character is sacrificed for the sake of protecting a sleazebag asset) is a far more realistic depiction than the noble secret agent who wants to protect his/her country.

A variation to the sleazebag asset is the tough assassin. The problem here is that generally speaking, tough assassins are like the mafia hitman serial killer in Criminal Minds: a fascinating character with a great deep voice  who has no soul.

Every romance writer wants to create Jason Bourne (who doesn't?)--as opposed to the schemer in the backroom. But unless the character IS Jason Bourne and has a good reason to protect himself without becoming callous, amoral, and deranged, the romance writer is stuck. (In Person of Interest, John's determination to regain his soul means creating a set of personal criteria that he sticks to no matter the cost--he is constantly watching himself--plus he already walked away from being an official "spy".)

Personally, I think spy movies should not even try to be
realistic--put the secret agent in a tank!
The end result is often spy novels that end up being (even more) unrealistic (than the average
adventure movie). In one I read recently, the spy handed the object of his assignment, the mark (and love interest), a gun within 24-hours of their meeting. At that point, I rolled my eyes and gave up on the book being anything more than a series of chases (well-written, I'll grant, but still--). A hard-headed, intelligent, resourceful, expert, non-novice, non-amnesiac spy simply HANDS over a weapon to a wild card?

Where did my suspension of disbelief go? Oh, there it is, wafting out the window . . .

I love the "but love conquers all doubts" theme as much as the next romantic. Only, please, not in a spy novel and not in the first three chapters. Even Leverage gave its grifter several seasons to "repent" (and she was a nice grifter).

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Romance Covers Improved

Sometimes a romance cover is great!

Sometimes, it's just wrong.

In an earlier post, I discuss the change in traditional romance covers over the last few decades, from a woman & a man or only a woman to sometimes only a man. I didn't mention that now-a-days, romance covers are sometimes purely artistic, such as the original covers for Deanna Raybourn's romance/suspense Lady Julia Grey series.

Most romance covers, however, stick to people's faces. And/or beautiful bodies. But mostly faces. This may be gender-specific: mostly women read romances, and women care more about faces and facial expressions than men (reportedly, car advertisements never include close-ups of people because male buyers care more about the car than who's driving it--so was this commercial aimed at women or men? After all, one of my male students, after seeing it, said, "Wow, that makes me want to watch a Van Damme movie!" Not, "Hey, that makes me want to buy a Volvo!") 

The problem with faces is when they are cheesy or don't match the description in the text. The cover for A Seditious Affair falls into the latter category. It's well-done but makes me cringe. Dom (or Silas) is simply not that young.

The cover for One Indulgence falls into the first category and is painful to look at. If I actually thought the characters were like this, I'd never read the book. (I did--it's well-written; the cover is still horrible.)

Occasionally, a cover gets it so right, it's astonishing. I feel the same way I do towards Jackson's Fellowship of the Rings, which I consider one of the most perfectly cast movies in history.

The cover of A Minor Inconvenience by Sarah Granger was obviously read by someone who got the main character (in the background), a young man who sees himself far differently than others see him. The disparity isn't obvious since so much of the book is told from his perspective. Kudos to the artist for picking up on the difference and getting him right!

In truth (as countless movie watchers can attest), matching a character in a book to a character in a visual is no easy feat. In the Harriet-Vane-Peter Wimsey BBC series, Harriet Walter is perfect as Harriet Vane; Petheridge not even close (in my mind) to Wimsey.

Consequently, I am often prepared to give a cover kudos if it at least captures ambience or theme or a relationship, even if the drawings/photographs don't match my vision. The sepia-tinted covers for the early editions of the Cambridge Fellows Series are quite charming and capture the time period. The "Jonty" stand-in, in the background, is not how I imagine Jonty but the design is so lovely--and the images so close to accurate--I give it a thumbs up.

Occasionally, however, I feel compelled to alter a cover to my personal specifications.

Hey, playing with romance covers is a respectable past-time! Check out the Lindsey covers (and Bored Panda).

I went ahead and altered the cover of KJ Charles's excellent Think of England (one of the best plotted romances on record). The original cover shows Archie, who is described in the book as a "Viking." He is a big blond soldier who gets along with preppies but is not one.

I can't stand the preppie on the original cover (it could be the soulful expression), so I replaced it with my own (to the left). And yes, I'm aware that the characters I used are from some Cable show.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Romances & The Too Convenient Solution

Overcoming a crazy ex-wife in the attic is not easy.
Repost with edits from Votaries:

One reason romances are so often criticized is because they are too often convenient. Truthfully, tragedies and dark domestic dramas are often also too convenient. But human beings have been unfortunately trained to find happy endings more convenient (and thus supposedly unrealistic) than lots and lots of dead bodies (when, in truth, most people get up in the morning, run errands, go to work, walk the dog . . . ).

The classic romance plot creates odds that the couple must overcome. And sometimes the overcoming is a bit too easy.

The particular Christian romances I am reading [2007] are evangelical, meaning that divorce of the unhappy couple (so that the happy couple can get married) is frowned upon. This type of solution is rather distasteful, and most romances avoid it. However, the alternative is so outrageously convenient, it becomes hilarious after awhile.

The alternative? All the inconvenient people die. Slews of them! They drop dead like insects in one of those zapper things. Horrible husband--zap! Horrible wife--zap! Watch out: there goes another one.

Jane Austen never did that. And she lived in a time when it was far more likely for people to die at the literal drop of a literal hat. But she doesn't kill off the dastardly Wickham. She doesn't even kill off the flighty Lydia. She doesn't kill off the horrible father in Persuasion. She doesn't kill off the snide chick in Mansfield Park. She doesn't kill off anyone in Northanger Abbey (who isn't already dead before the book begins). I believe someone conveniently dies in Sense & Sensibility, but it was her first book, and she doesn't kill off the real villainness, Lucy Sharp (although she does marry her off conveniently; again, it was her first published book). Nobody dies in Emma or in Pride & Prejudice. People are left unhappily breathing to work their way out of their problems.

Evil personified is another convenience of too many romance books. It's not a reflection of reality since most people are not, in fact, evil personified (whatever radio pundits try to argue). Austen's "bad" guys are rarely completely evil any more than her "good" guys are ever completely good. Her bad guys are weak, silly, intrusive, greedy, self-serving...

The evangelical romances attempt to tackle this lack of character realism by occasionally having its bad guys get saved. True to form, Jane Austen rarely did this. Wickham may be sorry that he married Lydia, but he goes right on trying to charm everybody in sight despite the fact that everybody in sight knows what he did. The bad-tempered father and daughter in Persuasion never fully grasp what happened. General Tilney in Northanger doesn't change one iota. Willoughby in Sense & Sensibility is only sorry that he couldn't marry for both money and love. All the unhappy people in Mansfield Park stay unhappy. (And the ambiguous people stay ambiguous. It isn't my favorite of Austen's books, but I do think it is her best.) And Emma contains merely self-serving people, not bad ones.

For Jane Austen, change always centers on the hero and heroine. They are the ones who react, change, grow, learn from the experiences around them. In real life, of course, everyone else would be reacting, changing, growing, learning, but one of the conventions (not conveniences) of fiction is that we watch the world through a few eyes, not through the experience of humanity as a mass (no, not even Tolstoy could do that).

This business of change, however, brings me to another romantic convenience: instant change. In romances, the change is often a moment of recognition: the hero or heroine recognizes his/her true feelings. Darcy undergoes this when Elizabeth taunts him, saying that a "gentleman" would not have proposed to her by criticizing her family.

However, Darcy DOES NOT have that moment of revelation, and then, hey, presto, everything is okay. In fact, Darcy writes his "angry" letter to Elizabeth first. (Darcy later apologizes to Elizabeth for the letter, but she responds that although it started out angryish, it ended graciously). His pride is hurt. He has to process his reaction to Elizabeth before he can admit that he behaved badly.

Dr. Seuss did instant change! Like
with Lord of the Flies and dystopias,
once it is done this well, it doesn't
need to be done again.
In too many romances, the moment of revelation is instant, unprecedented by any believable set-up and resulting in almost immediate pay-off. The Christian romances I'm reading are particularly annoying here. The moment of recognition often occurs when the hero or heroine is saved (therefore, making said hero or heroine worthy of love). Now, I will admit that my "eerk" reaction is not just due to the convenience. I don't believe in one single moment of grace, prior to which a person did not accept the Savior and after which, did. I believe people struggle along and that one's life is an accumulation of choices.

Instant revelation also bothers me as a writer and a reader. Fact is: endings are HARD. It's HARD to be constructive. It's HARD to work out problems intelligently. It's HARD to set up change and then pay it off effectively. That's why we Jane-ites worship Jane Austen. She went for the happy ending, but she didn't do it easily!

Now, I am not talking to the writers of romances who are simply trying to churn out formula, so they can make a living. Hey, more power to ya, folks. I am talking to those people who want to write character-driven romances and write them well.

In a later post, I'll discuss why the HEA (Happily Ever After) is a respectable solution (after all, tragedy plays its own games with convenience). The challenge is to make the HEA not only heart-warming but plausible.