Sunday, August 21, 2011

Change We Need

Change is key to the development of a romance. You can't have a romance without a "Central Love Story," that love story "centers around two individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work" (RWA), and so, by definition, the relationship changes over the course of the novel. That kind of change, to borrow one of President Obama's campaign slogans, is the "Change We Need."

That may not, however, be the only kind of change some readers need. When SmartBitch Sarah recently gave Georgette Heyer's The Grand Sophy a "D" grade I wasn't at all surprised that this was partly due to the anti-Semitic portrayal of Goldhanger, the Jewish moneylender. We have, after all, discussed that before here at TMT. I was, however, surprised by the following criticism of the novel:
Sophy doesn’t change or grow or evolve. She gets her way, and everyone around her is probably better off for her involvement, and they’re all happy, but Sophy doesn’t develop. She achieves through her own machinations, which, while entertaining, was not as satisfying as having her develop or grow as a character.
Although I had noticed that, in many romances, both the hero and heroine are greatly altered by the end of the novel, it had never occurred to me that change in the protagonists was necessary to any readers' enjoyment of romances. With this revelation still in the back of my mind, I came across the following:
When our immigrant ancestors arrived on America's shores they hit the ground running, some to homestead on the Great Plains, others to claw their way up the socio-economic ladder in coastal ghettos. Upward mobility, westward migration, Sunbelt relocation - the wisdom in America is that people don't, can't, mustn't end up where they begin. This belief has the moral force of religious doctrine. Thus the American identity is ordered around the psychological experience of forsaking or losing the past for the opportunity of reinventing oneself in the future. (Engle 337)
While there are likely to be plenty of non-American readers who have a preference for protagonists who change a lot, I wonder if the romance genre, as it has developed in North America, does tend to reflect the belief "that people don't, can't, mustn't end up where they begin."

Virginia Kantra, for example, states that
At the center of every story is a protagonist who wants to do, accomplish or change...something. In pursuit of his goals, our protagonist must struggle, learn and grow to become a more self-realized, self-reliant, autonomous character. This is the character arc.

But as readers and writers of romance, we expect, we celebrate, the development of the pair bond from attraction through exploration to emotional intimacy and sex. This is the romance arc. [...]

As romance writers, our job is to develop all three arcs, the hero's, the heroine's, and the relationship's, in an emotionally satisfying way.
Jennifer Crusie found the genre powerful and important because it
gave me female protagonists in stories that promised that if a woman fought for what she believed in and searched for the truth, she could strip away the old lies about her life and emerge re-born, transformed with that new sense of self that’s the prize at the end of any quest. And when the heroine emerges transformed from the romance story, so do I. So do all romance readers.
Leslie Wainger, author of Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies and Harlequin editor believes that
Static characters are boring: Your heroine (and yes, your hero, too) can't remain static over the course of the book. As the plot progresses, you need to make your heroine develop, change, grow, and discover things about herself and her abilities — especially how to love and live with her hero. If your heroine starts out perfect, she has nowhere to go. But if she has insecurities, past failures to put to rest, doubts about herself and her abilities, or an out-and-out bad habit — maybe a quick temper, or impatience that leads to rash, unwise decisions — she has room for progress, and readers will want to see how she masters the challenges of the plot and the romantic relationship.
I'm still not convinced, though. If the characters are intrinsically interesting, why do they need to change? Isn't it enough to see how their relationship develops? In Heyer's The Nonesuch, for example, neither the heroine nor the hero become "more self-realized, self-reliant." They don't change their personalities; what changes is how they feel about each other. And, as Sunita recently said,
For readers who enjoy context and setting, this novel has a lot to offer. There isn’t much in the way of plot: Ancilla and Sir Waldo slowly fall in love; Linden’s initial adoration of Tiffany dissipates and he moves on to a deep, long-lasting love for a more appropriate object of his affection; and Tiffany eventually gets her comeuppance, in a way that engenders some sympathy from the reader.
One of my favourite romances (as I've said many times) is Austen's Persuasion in which, when Captain Wentworth observes that
"You were not formerly, I know. You did not use to like cards; but time makes many changes."
"I am not yet so much changed," cried Anne, and stopped, fearing she hardly knew what misconstruction. After waiting a few moments he said - and as if it were the result of immediate feeling - "It is a period, indeed! Eight years and a half is a period!" (Chapter 22)
The years have made Anne more confident in her own judgments but in the essentials of their personalities, she and Wentworth remain basically unchanged:
they exchanged again those feelings and those promises which had once before seemed to secure everything, but which had been followed by so many, many years of division and estrangement. There they returned again into the past, more exquisitely happy, perhaps, in their reunion, than when it had been first projected; more tender, more tried, more fixed in a knowledge of each other's character, truth, and attachment; more equal to act, more justified in acting. (Chapter 23)
The changes in their circumstances which make it possible for them to marry are more than enough change for me, and what change there has been in their personalities is the sort of gradual change I can believe in.

What kind(s) of change do you need in a romance and what makes it change you can believe in?

The first photo, of "Change We Need" was taken by snowmentality and downloaded from Flickr under a Creative Commons licence. The second image, of "Change We Can Believe In," came from Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Maybe the power of Austen is the fact her protagonists, with few exceptions, grow/change. I know there was certainly change for Elizabeth and Darcy; they found out they were mistaken in their assumptions and they grew as people. Emma found out she was mistaken about everything, including herself, and grew up. Marianne changed more than Elinor, but I'd say Marianne grew enough for three characters, let alone for two. I wonder if that's why so many people don't like Mansfield Park all that much. Fanny is such a paragon that she doesn't change at all. It just comes about that her perfection is eventually rewarded.

  2. This is a fascinating post, and what a great set of quotes. I hadn't thought about the desire for change in this way, but I think you make a compelling case.

    For me, I'm not really looking for the heroine to change dramatically in her essential personality, but more expecting that falling in love will reveal new aspects of herself to herself. Or perhaps she'll access her other emotions in a different way. My problem with Sophy is that she seems fundamentally unaffected by falling in love with Charles. But then, I think TGS is more a comedy of manners (or farce) more than romance in the end.

  3. Kyra, I'd say that "the power of Austen" lies in her ability to make her characters come alive and seem very real. But then, it's Elinor I care about in Sense and Sensibility and I see a lot to admire in Fanny (even though we have very little in common).

    My problem with Sophy is that she seems fundamentally unaffected by falling in love with Charles.

    One of the difficulties here is that I think it's possible Sophy may be hiding some of her feelings. It's difficult to be sure, though, because she's constantly putting on an act in order to manipulate other people.

    She knows that "It may be that with regard to Charles my stratagems may not succeed" (279) and, as she says to Charlbury, "I don't suppose [...] that I should ever advise anyone to despair, for I can't bear such poor-spirited conduct! (163). This being so, it seems to me that she might be feeling quite deeply about Charles and be quite distressed by the prospect that he will never be able to marry her, but she'd never give much sign of those feelings lest it appear "poor-spirited conduct" and/or spoil her plans.

    Thinking a bit more about love changing or at least affecting the characters, I remembered Betty Neels and the way in which her heroes often give almost no sign that they have any emotions while her heroines stoically carry on until the hero finally decides it's time to declare himself. There are variations in that pattern, of course, but in many of the Neels novels I've read there's not a lot of change in either her heroes or her heroines. And, now that I think about it, some of her heroines are not totally dissimilar to Fanny Price.

    Heyer, Georgette. The Grand Sophy. 1950. London: Arrow, 2004.

  4. Fascinating subject, Laura. Though I can understand a gut-level desire for change in the characters, I think it's sad if such things are becoming templates. Change? Tick. No change? Cross. That without regard to simple pleasure in the reading of the novel.

    Interesting about Americans valuing change. I do wonder if that's universal. History plays a part, but I suspect many modern Americans reckon they're happy where they are, so their reaction to novels might be different.

    As someone said, the process of forming a mating bond, especially with barriers to overcome, is bound to change anyone, but that can be gentle. I'm not overly keen on the repressed woman fighting to be free, anymore than I'm keen on the guy who needs to sort out his screwed up self because I'd rather have that happen before the book. I'm interested in the working to come together rather than personal change. It's all a question of what story we most enjoy.For me it's the romance.

    Many of my characters aren't seeking to change, but fighting to get back what they have lost. Anti-change? Maybe it's an English thing.

    I haven't read TGS in years, but I think Sophie changes. She comes to see she needs to be more moderate, or perhaps that she's no need any more to fix everyone. That people can fix themselves. She has been living an adventurous and sometimes dangerous life and finally can relax and just be. IMO.



  5. Hi, I don't know where else I can say this, I stumbled across your blog by accident anyway, and I decided to leave a comment. I'm sorry it's not a comment about this post. Very sorry about that.

    So I just bought your book Castle of The Wolf from ebay, and I enjoyed it very much. The words that always came out of my mouth was "Awww, poor Fenris T___T" lol. I like him, he's somewhat similar to my ex-boyfriend (low self-esteem + feels like he doesn't deserve to be loved) so I can totally relate the situation. The only thing that I don't understand is the usage of Germany words, like gnadige Frau. I'm from Malaysia, we don't learn Germany here XD I found out the meaning after I finished reading the book though. And throughout the whole reading I assumed the meaning was "good day" LMAO XD

    anyway it was an excellent book, totally worth my time and money. Thank you so much for writing it :)

    p/s: Sorry for my terrible English and sorry for the wrong comment section. You can delete this comment if you want >.<

  6. I think Sophie changes. She comes to see she needs to be more moderate, or perhaps that she's no need any more to fix everyone. That people can fix themselves.

    She does find out that her father isn't at all unhappy that his fiancée has married another man, so that's one instance where she learns that "people can fix themselves," but even as she's dragged off by Charles at the end of the novel she's still giving instructions about redistributing the contents of her portmanteau...

    Anti-change? Maybe it's an English thing.

    I wonder if a large study of reading preferences would turn up clear national/regional trends. I have the impression, for example, that Scottish readers show a stronger preference for crime fiction than for romance.

    Hi, I don't know where else I can say this, I stumbled across your blog by accident anyway, and I decided to leave a comment. I'm sorry it's not a comment about this post. Very sorry about that.

    SarahChan, I've forwarded your comment to Sandra, in case she doesn't see it here. I'm sure she'll be delighted to know that you enjoyed Castle of the Wolf. She does have a personal blog here.

  7. Ooh, I'd have to disagree with you that Captain Wentworth doesn't change. Or at least, he has some lessons to learn: don't flirt with girls without serious intent; yes, you're still angry and resentful even if you don't think you are and its affecting your judgment.

    Even Anne has learned (although maybe not in the actual book, although I think a case could be made) to stand up for herself.

  8. I've been thinking about this post a lot which is why it's taken me so long to comment. I think the depiction of profound character change/development is, to me, very appealing in a romance. For some reason, and I do struggle to put my finger on precisely why, it's satisfying. Is it the idea of love being transformative I find so appealing? Or is it that there's something about change that makes you feel that the story is more of a journey than, say, a visit to another world?

    I found myself agreeing with Sunita's comments about The Grand Sophy is more a comedy of manners for her - I remember enjoying it very much but it wasn't a book I felt delivered much of an emotional punch (which is what I want from a romance). That said, I agree with you that there are little things Sophy says that could be read as being rather poignant, and I did read them that way (although I think I have a tendancy to "read in" romance narratives even where they are not particularly present).

    Then I found myself thinking about a recent romance in which the characters really didn't change at all that I liked very much: Muscling Through by JL Merrow, a m/m romance set in Cambridge.

    So maybe you're4 on to something?

  9. Oh, I certainly agree that Wentworth "has some lessons to learn" but (despite the sometimes rather severe consequences of his mistakes) they all seem to stem from his basic character, which is the kind that Anne prefers, and which doesn't change:

    She prized the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character beyond all others. Warmth and enthusiasm did captivate her still. She felt that she could so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or a hasty thing, than of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped. (Chapter 17)

  10. I think the depiction of profound character change/development is, to me, very appealing in a romance. [...] Is it the idea of love being transformative I find so appealing?

    I, on the other hand, find the idea of love being "transformative" distinctly unsettling and worrying. Well, not if it's only to a small degree and/or the change takes place gradually over a period of time and/or love merely encourages a trait that was already latent in someone. Obviously someone can suddenly become a lot happier, for example, if they discover that their love is requited. But a sudden and dramatic personality change makes me think of the effect that the combination of love and a serious head injury have on Louisa Musgrove (also in Persuasion):

    I hope you think Louisa perfectly recovered now?"

    He answered rather hesitatingly, "Yes, I believe I do; very much recovered; but she is altered: there is no running or jumping about, no laughing or dancing; it is quite different. If one happens only to shut the door a little hard, she starts and wriggles like a young dab-chick in the water; and Benwick sits at her elbow, reading verses, or whispering to her, all day long."
    (Chapter 22)

    That said, there can be a semi-religious side to the depiction of love in the genre. As Catherine Roach writes:

    The story of romance is the most powerful narrative in Western art and culture, sharing roots with Christianity and functioning as a mythic story about the meaning and purpose of life, particularly in regards to the HEA ending of redemption and wholeness.

    In that context it makes sense that love in the romance genre would sometimes be depicted as having a transformative effect similar to St Paul's conversion experience.