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13 Elements of Romance

  • 1. First meeting--mirrored recognition.

  • In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth and Darcy meet at the ball and he hurts her feelings, but notice that he does it by describing back to her some of her own reservations about the society she lives in. People are always saying that Elizabeth is just as proud as Darcy and Darcy is just as prejudiced as Elizabeth. That's because they are so similar, they are both proud and prejudiced.

    In The Princess and the Hound, George dreams of the princess's childhood, which is a lot like his. Lack of acceptance, the need to disguise, the sense of not being worthy of the father/king, estrangement, and so on. Without this, the two do not fall in love. In The Princess and the Bear, the bear and the hound have both had the experience of being animal and human. And in The Princess and the Snowbird--oh, you'll just have to wait to see that.

  • 2. Deep goodness in relationships with others

  • In Persuasion, Anne shows her deep goodness in going to visit her sister who is a hypochondriac, because it has to be done. She does everything that has to be done. And think of Captain Wentworth and how he thinks of marrying Louisa Musgrove because he has given her expectations, even though he realizes he loves Anne and not her. Or Pride and Prejudice, remember how changed Elizabeth is when the housekeeper talks about Mr. Darcy. It's not just the beauty of Pemberley that begins to change her mind. It's the true story of Darcy she gets from those who are not prejudiced against him.

    In The Princess and the Hound, I show George saving the man who has animal magic on the way to Beatrice's castle. He has to be clever about it, but he does it. And the relationship between the hound and the princess is her way of showing her goodness, despite her inability to connec to other humans. I think this is part romance and part Bildungsroman, showing the core of a person and then developing it into better.

  • 3. Witty repartee or deep conversation

  • I'm not so good with the one-line zingers like Jane Austen can do. I spent a long time wanting to write a romance and then realizing that I was writing a romance and being terrified that I couldn't do it well without the zingers. Every once in a while, I can think of one, but I'm not sure it would be enough to fill a whole novel unless I wrote one every twenty years. Plus, they might not be at all appropriate, since they are often related to children, potty training or vomit. Or sometimes washing dishes.

    Anyway, what I decided while writing The Princess and the Hound was that the conversation could work another way. In fact, in The Princess and the Hound, there are reasons that the two can't ever actually talk to each other, because of other external factors. They have to communicate in other ways. Still, there is conversation going on. It's just a little misleading. And in The Princess and the Bear, the conversation is actually impossible because one of the characters is a bear who can understand human language but not speak and doesn't even speak the language of the bears. The other character, at least in the beginning, doesn't speak anything but hound. So, they actually have to make motions or just express themselves in physical ways. Interesting.

    But there are conversations later, when these magical problems get ironed out. And those conversations are very important. The hero and heroine need to show themselves to be thinkers (I find thinking to be very romantic) and inquisitive. And the most romantic moments in the books to me are when because of the hero, the heroine (or reverse) sees the world suddenly in this wonderful new way. It can be funny, wry, or just mind-blowingly deep. This is where it is important that the hero and heroine are actually different from each other, for all their similarity at heart. They must have different backgrounds and different experiences in life, so that they can enrich each other's lives.

    But is it too much to ask that just once, I could rival this:

    "All this she must possess," added Darcy, "and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading."

    "I am no longer surprised at your knowing only siz accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any."

    "Are you so severe upon your own sex, as to doubt the possibility of all this?"

    "I never saw such a woman. I never saw such capacity, and taste, and application, and elegance, as you describe, united."

  • 4. Unique need for each other (but not dependence)

  • I am not interested in dependent relationships in romance, where one character obviously needs the other one more, or is constantly being "saved" because of stupidity or clumsiness. The need has to go both ways. But it can be a useful plot element if one character can offer the other character something that is necessary for the way the world is set up. In a fantasy quest plot, all of the characters are necessary at the end because they all add something that comes to be part of the saving of the world. How delicately this is played makes a difference to how believable it is. Having the right sword to kill the evil monster is a bit like hitting the reader over the head. But if the character happens to be one who is always reciting poetry and then there's a poem that has to be figured out at the end, that might work better.

    In romance and in romance fantasy, the characters' needing each other can be helpful to the writer in designing the plot. In The Princess and the Hound, George needs someone who can understand animal magic in order for him to deeply connect. I don't give the obvious answer, by having the princess with animal magic. Instead, I make her a character who understands magic from the other side. And animals, too. I twist the reader's expectations, but also fulfill them. In The Princess and the Bear, Richon needs someone who understands him, but also needs someone who can be a queen. Can the hound be his queen? I devised a way to prove that she was the only one who could be his queen, by having her demonstrate it in a way that was integral to the magical plot of the story.

    It's problematic if the need fulfilled is only a generic one. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth obviously needs a man who can support her financially, and hopefully one who can help her sisters, as well. Darcy fills this function, but it's not sufficient that he only fill this general function. He also has to fill the function of meeting her unique needs. He has to appreciate her specific sense of wit, and I think he shows that when he comes to her after her encounter with Catherine deBourgh. He knows what her answer meant and he is amused by it, and also hopeful.

    In romance that is meant to be more than just romance, romance that is "the romance of the century" or "the romance of all romances" type (not Jane Austen, for example), I think that the uniqueness of one character filling another's need is a little complicated. The woman needs to be THE WOMAN, the only one who could possibly make this man love again. The man needs to be THE MAN, the only one who can break the curse because of his magic. But again, this can work more or less subltly.

    A certain book which I will not name doesn't work for me because the need for each other drifts into a kind of dependence. I think I want to have a regular romance between characters and let the fantasy play out on a different plane. Yes, she is THE ONE because she has THE POWER. But she is also THE ONE for him because of the same reasons that a romance would work out in the real world. You don't get to cut out all the steps of romance just because "they were made for each other." They still have to fall in love the old-fashioned way, and the other part of the story is just another layer that makes it even better.

    The two characters need each other, but they also need to be independent. They need to have lives of their own, dreams of their own, skills of their own, that are not related to the romance. I want to believe that if one or the other died, that they would go on and not commit suicide, that romance isn't the only thing that matters in either of their lives. I think that's important for me as a reader because it adds tension. If "they are meant for each other," then I know how the book will turn out. Any obstacles to the love end up feeling like the author manipulating me. But if they really do have lives separate from each other, then we don't know how things will turn out. We as readers can imagine that they could go on without each other, and it pains us to think that. In The King of Attolia and The Queen of Attolia, for example, I always believed it might not work out. Then when it did, it meant more.

  • 5. A mistake, or series of mistakes

  • A lot of romances choose to conflate the mistake and the obstacle. They make it too simple, like a misunderstanding. And there is a misunderstanding in Pride and Prejudice, so I can see why if you're copying Austen you do that. But that's not all Austen does. Darcy truly hurts Elizabeth by insulting her family and acting so rudely to her. Her family is a real obstacle, as is Emma's in her romance.

    I think it's important for the reader to see the main characters making mistakes, not just because it makes them feel more realistic, but also because it helps the reader have that moment of Aristotelian catharsis where the audience feel uplifted by having experienced the tragedy with the players on the stage. If someone else steps in to correct the mistake, it doesn't work. If the mistake is caused by some external event, and is not part of the character of the hero or heroine, then it doesn't feel as real and doesn't have the same affect on the audience. But it's also not because the hero or heroine is morally flawed. The audience has to feel like the mistake is one that he or she would make in the same place. And yet, there are consequences that cannot be escaped, guilt being one of them.

    For George in The Princess and the Hound, his mistake is at the very beginning, when he stands in judgment at his father's side and lets a man with animal magic be burned. He is twelve, which is the age that adulthood beings (but is not finished), so he feels the full weight of this mistake. The book cannot end until he corrects it with the proclamation. In The Princess and the Bear, you already know Richon's mistake--it's the one that begins the prologue of The Princess and the Hound.

  • 6. An external obstacle (or more than one).

  • In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy's aunt Catherine deBourgh stands in for the social consequences that Darcy will face in marrying Elizabeth Bennet. Anne Elliott faces her family's disapproval in marrying Captain Wentworth (note she faces it the second time, as well, though not as much--they want her to marry her cousin because he has a better social face). Expectation in Emma is a problem, since she thinks of Frank as the choice society wants her to take.

    In The Princess and the Hound, there are a number of very real obstacles that fall one by one as the romance grows. First is the obstacle of George's desire to keep his secret. (There are often secrets in romance, but I think they tend to be there as obstacles, so I don't talk about them as a separate element.) Then is the obstacle of George's father dying. The obstacle of King Helm's lack of respect for George. The obstacle of well, the secret I'm keeping from the reader. Magic has to fix this last one, but it is magic that George has to find in himself, and the other obstacles he has to get through the way the rest of us do. So it's not easy. The reader needs to feel like there is work being done to get to the ending, or else it feels like what was won wasn't valuable.

    I think that one of the great things about Megan Whalen Turner's books is that the queen cutting off Gen's hand is an obstacle, and not a mistake. I've thought about this a lot and decided that is the reason it works for me. If it were a mistake, if we as readers believed she had done this purely out of anger, we would truly hate her. In fact, she hates herself for doing it and lets us off the hook. In the end, it's the gods who say that Gen's hand has to be cut off, or else none of the rest of the series is possible. That makes it an obstacle rather than say, in General Hospital, when Luke rapes Laura and then she falls in love with him (ick!--Yes, I watched it, when I was 12!)

  • 7. Equality in development

  • I know that not all romance writers agree with me on this. It may be my own thing. But I am annoyed when I see books that seem to only reform the male character, as if the female character was perfect to begin with. This is not equality. This is a return to stereotypes of women being more "spiritual" or more delicate than men, and it is an excuse for them to be treated as lesser creatures in the real world. I will admit (fearing repercussions) that for me, Pride and Prejudice sometimes veers a little bit to the side of Darcy being the only one who needs to change--at least in the way that the book is sometimes read or interpreted on the screen. Emma has the reverse problem, and I think it's in the book. Mr. Knightley knows everything, and Emma is a fool. Mansfield Park has Fanny be the only sensible, moral character in the book. No one else matches her. I have a hard time seeing the romance in that. (Sorry!) And in Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester is so far beneath Jane that he has to be punished with blindness to repent for his mistake.

    I want equality in mistakes and equality in development for the hero and the heroine. I actually believe that it makes for a better romance because then both partner is equally invested in the other. They need each other equally, and so I don't have this sinking feeling that in ten years time one of them will regret the match because that one is giving more to keeping the marriage going.

    But realistically, the romance can work if the equality in development is hinted at and not necessarily described in detail. A single viewpoint is often the best choice, and with that, there may be some inequality in whose story is told most fully. I think one of the reasons that The Queen of Atollia and The King of Attolia both work as wonderful romances is that one book is about her development and change, and the other is about his.

  • 8. Rejection of society, loneliness

  • I think I'm bringing this element from my studies of the Bildungsroman in German literature, but I see it in Austen's works, as well. And think of Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, if you want. Although Austen doesn't toy with romance outside of the bounds of society. I think she would see that as ridiculous. Still, her characters never fit in quite with those around them. Elizabeth doesn't. Emma doesn't. Fanny doesn't. They are both above and below their society in different ways, but there is a notable lack of connection with other socially. Elizabeth loves Jane deeply, but she is surprised by Charlotte's choice to marry Mr. Collins. I think at that point she realizes she never understood her friend to begin with. As for Emma, she is junior in her relationship with her governness and senior in her relationship with Harriet. Who is her peer? The romantic hero is the cure to the loneliness.

    George is the bridge for the princess, certainly, coming back to human society. And she is the same for him, because he has spent so long protecting himself. Once he loves the princess, then he can make the proclamation because only then does he want to connect to the rest of society again (those with magic and those without).

  • 9. The moment of connection/vulnerability

  • For Pride and Prejudice, this moment is when Darcy writes the letter (not his first proposal of marriage, by the way). In Emma, it's when Mr. Knightley chastizes Emma and then apologizes for it. It's also when Emma tells him to speak to her, taking the chance that it won't be something she wants to hear. There is risk here, real risk of being rejected. If the reader doesn't feel that risk, again, nothing is gained. So there has to be an element of tension, so the reader does not know what the ending will be. This is why so many romances have problems with reader believability. If you can't sustain that tension, then the reader already knows how the hero feels and isn't surprised. Also a problem with two povs in a romance.

    In The Princess and the Hound, I had to have George's point of view for other story reasons, but it worked well because as the secret in the story is slowly revealed, George's feelings are growing in the background. I remember that I kept thinking that the reveal of the magic was the climax of the romance story plot, but it isn't. After that, there are still problems to be worked out between them. It was on the last pass of the book that I was still working out those problems because the book has so many different arcs in it, not just the romance arc. The moment of vulnerability comes with a declaration of love that isn't knowing, is always tentative.

  • 10. Sacrifice

  • Darcy sacrifices his pride by giving Wickham money and accepting that he will be Wickham's brother-in-law. A uniquely painful sacrifice for Darcy to make, the more so as we readers come to understand Darcy more. He does it solely for Elizabeth, because he has understood now how much she loves her sisters and how their lives are bound up in hers. He doesn't do it for social reasons, or because he feels guilty. He does it because he loves Elizabeth and he doesn't want her hurt.

    Mr. Knightley tries to comfort Emma's pain at the loss of Frank Churchill, even though he thinks Frank Churchill is a cad and not even worth Jane Fairfax's love, by telling her that time will heal her wound. He is utterly serious, thinking he must wait to press his suit until she has recovered. It's only once she convinces him that she isn't hurt about Frank at all that he tries to tell her of his love. Only when he thinks she is ready and maybe has a bit of hope because why didn't she fall in love with Frank, after all?

  • 11. Reader love/longing

  • The reader has to fall in love with both characters first and foremost. I think romances fall or triumph based on this one simple principle. For me, Emma is not as successful a romance as Pride and Prejudice because Mr. Knightley isn't a character I have fallen in love with as a reader. And even Emma sometimes is so stupid that I want to shake her. Fanny in Mansfield Park is the same. I don't love her because she is so full of herself. And Edward? How you love someone who is so deluded?

    When working on The Princess and the Hound, I spent a long time trying to figure out ways to get the reader to fall in love with the princess. George wasn't as difficult because he's the pov, but she is tricky. The dreams still seem a bit contrived to me, but they were the only way I could see to do it. In The Princess and the Bear, the trick is getting the reader to fall in love with the hound as a hound, and then again as a human. How to get the reader to fall in love? The reader needs to root for a particular ending, for happiness, a sense that this is what he or she "deserves." Not just because of a bad childhood, though that can be part of it, but because of that deep goodness and because of what the character needs and wants throughout.

  • 12. Fixing mistakes

  • This is pretty simple to explain, but if Darcy hadn't paid for Lydia's wedding to Wickham, we would never have truly believed he regretted what he had done. That humbling is necessary for us (and Elizabeth) to forgive him the pain he caused her, and for us as readers to fall in love with him, to see him as his housekeeper does. Emma has to go to Harriet and explain how she has ruined everything for her, and live with Harriet's coldness toward her after. She has to do the right thing by Mrs. Bates. Otherwise, we wouldn't love her as much.

    (I will admit as a side note here that I think Austen often shows only one of the two changing significantly, and to the degree that is true, I have problems with her romance. Yes, even Austen I don't think writes perfect romances. Though I will say that I'm not sure Austen ever intended that. Her books are satire and social commentary and just plain fun social adventure. They are meant to be real more than they are meant to be romance.)

    In The Princess and the Hound, George tries to fix his mistake, but I will say that he can't do it entirely and it comes back to bite him in The Princess and the Bear. And how can Richon fix his mistake? Well, if you don't believe how I set that up, I don't know if the book will work for you. But he does fix it. And the hound fixes another mistake, not really one of her making, but in some sense, the larger symbolic mistake of humanity rejecting its roots. Sound good? The mythic gets to play in fantasy, so sometimes the mistakes are bigger than the person who is fixing them, though they still have to pay the price for them.

  • 13. Return to society

  • This happens after the wedding, which is a kind of symbol of accepting one's place in society. Also a Bildungsroman element, since in a Bildungsroman, there is the journey away from one's place, and then a journey back to it, along with experimentations in different places that are not necessarily a part of romance.

    But notice how in Emma, the two move in with her father. They return to social bonds. And in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth doesn't get away from her family, though a part of her might wish to. They visit her at Pemberley, even the younger sisters. In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth has to come to Anne's father to ask for her hand. Her acceptance isn't the end of the romance. It's the return to society that is.

    Other thoughts on romance

    There are other kinds of romances, besides the ones that end in marriage. Family romance. Friendship romance. The stories are surprisingly similar, and they will often contain the same elements, in a different form than you have seen before.

    I think of Transformation by Carol Berg which is a friendship romance. It has the obstacles to the friendship, the mistakes, though I think the moment of recognition comes much later in the book and I am more willing to accept different kinds of mistakes. The book also begins with the readers seeing clearly the flaws in the prince's character, but not in the character of the slave. Those come out far later, but without them, I think the romance would be too one-sided.

    I don't know that all of these elements are necessary for other people to enjoy romance, but it's really useful for me as a writer to think about what works for me and what doesn't, so I know how to write a book I love. I also find it endlessly interesting to hear from other writers what they love. I think writers are the closest readers of books, because we know all the tricks (or at least some of them). We want to be transported, but it doesn't happen easily. We wish for a list of guidelines, but the best of us know that you can never use a list like this as anything other than a way to talk about books. It never works to use it as a formula.

    Copyright Mette Ivie Harrison 2008 all rights reserved.
    Last revised December 31, 2008.