Sunday, August 8, 2010

Character v. Plot

Ooh, I just realized it would be fun to set this up as a faux lawsuit . . . hmm, why would Character be suing Plot?  But truthfully I don't have time to be that creative.  Nudge me in a couple months and I'll see what I can do.

No, I wanted to blog briefly about a question a friend asked me the other night.  Jenny is an attorney who does education law at a public interest law firm.  (That's jargon that says she represents children and parents who are having trouble with their school system, and also that Jenny doesn't make a lot of money.  Yup, she is that mythical beast: the poor lawyer.)  She's also a great reader of a lot of different genres.  She had checked out my website and read the excerpt from my work-in-progress, Love in Reality.

Jenny is a lovely person; she promptly insisted that she wants to read the rest of the book.  (I have generous friends.)  But it's clear she's not a romance reader, so she asked me what the differences were between a romance novel and any other sort of novel.  I hardly claim to be an authority -- particularly as authorities do exist and some of them even read this blog! -- but I mentioned two things I think are necessary conditions of a romance novel: the HEA and what I call the No-Broken-Toilets rule.

The HEA is self-explanatory.  If the book doesn't have a happy-ever-after ending, it's not a romance.  Novels have been judged on the believability of the HEA; if you can close the book and think, "Ah, I'm not sure they can make it for the long haul," then the book didn't deliver to you everything it should have.

By contrast, the No-Broken-Toilets rule is far more subjective.  First of all, of course a romance novel can have a broken toilet.  Maybe that's how the protagonists meet each other: she's a plumber, say, and he's called Aaron's Plumbing Service thinking he's getting some guy named Aaron, and it turns out that's her surname.  Meet cute over the clogged toilet!

I call it the No-Broken-Toilets rule because -- and I think we've all been there -- there is nothing pleasant or romantic about the broken toilet itself.  It's a pain in the ass (sometimes literally, as when the seat cracks and pinches your tush) and it is always a hassle to resolve.  I'm all for people fixing the toilet themselves, so a spunky, can-do heroine is a wondrous thing.  But I don't need to read about the mess, smell, inconvenience, etc. of the situation.

Life -- real life -- is filled with mess, smell, inconvenience, and hassle.  Romance writers are selective about which messes, smells, inconveniences, and hassles they detail, so that the resulting story is of a world without petty vicissitudes.  And I like that about the genre.  To paraphrase the old Calgon commercials, "Romance, take me away," is pretty much my ideal.

Well, I think I've stumbled upon another difference: romance novels have more plot, less character detail.  I'm reading Rococo by Adriana Trigiani.  She's an American author who appears to be very popular in the U.K.  At least, I've seen her books in Waterstones, but not in Barnes & Noble; not that that proves anything.  I have to finish Rococo by Sunday; it was loaned to me by my sister-in-law, Bryony, oh about 18 months ago.  Luckily, I haven't see them in the intervening time, but she and Ross's brother Michael are bringing their kids for a trip to the States, much of it spent with us.

You guessed it -- time actually to read this book.  (Bryony, if you're reading this, it's a great book.  I was saving it, like dessert.)

Now, if there was one single lesson I heard over and over in RWA workshops, it was that we need lots of hooks in our writing.  The first sentence, first paragraph, first page, the last sentence of each chapter, etc., etc. -- they all need to be great hooks, guaranteed to pull the reader into the action and keep her reading.  That's probably true of all genre fiction -- it is meant to grab you by the lapels and drag you into the story.

Here's the first sentence of Rococo:  "I want you to imagine my house."  That's a perfect opening for this book, which is about Bartolomeo di Crispi, an interior decorator born around 1930.  The story takes place in Our Lady of Fatima, New Jersey (a fictional town near the real town of Freehold), circa 1970.  The first few chapters are all about the various characters in B.'s life (and their interior decor, of course); nothing really happens until page 75.  (When B. has sex.  I'll count that in the Plot column, although B. doesn't think much of it.)

What makes Rococo fun to read is the thoroughness with which Trigiani evokes a time and place.  I was 14 in 1970, so a lot of what B.'s talking about sounds just familiar enough to amuse me.  But I have some doubts about this book growing much of a plot in the next 300 pages.  Things will happen, B. or one of his family or friends will have opinions and reactions, rooms will get redecorated, and life will go on.  No toilets will stop up (I predict this) and there may even be a full-blown HEA.

Without a plot, though, it's not a romance novel.


  1. I loved your list! It's true, in a romance I don't want to read about a broken toilet, or your messy life, in less the hero helps you fix it-even then, it's a tough sell. That first sentence alone in Rococo reminds me why I read more romance then fiction.

  2. If you'd mentioned this a few years ago, I wouldn't have agreed at all. I would have said romance novels are all about character--that's how you know the h/h are in love! And I still agree with that in a lot of ways, but since I've been reading more general fiction and historical fiction books, I've noticed difficult it is to find a book that gets to the POINT and stays there. I guess I'm so used to romance novels that I have no patience for dithering anymore (or I never had the patience, which is more likely).

  3. "I mentioned two things I think are necessary conditions of a romance novel: the HEA and what I call the No-Broken-Toilets rule."

    I think there's also the obvious bit about there being a single central romantic relationship which has to lead to that HEA. It's no good if there's a main protagonist who has a relationship as a subplot but the book's mostly about her job, her friends, her shopping habits, her family etc. It might be chick lit, or women's fiction, but it's not romance. And it's also not a romance if the protagonists get HEAs but apart.

    I think the need for a plot is common to all genre fiction. The toilets, though, may be gritty and broken in some kinds of genre fiction e.g. hardboiled detective fiction, but not in others. I imagine James Bond, for example, would have a toilet which can transform itself into a car (or something like that). And some romances can include some fairly gritty details.

  4. Buckeye Girl -- I agree. I like a protagonist who helps the other one out -- I'm a sucker for "let's fix up this house/castle/ski chalet together" plots -- but it's still got to be an interesting chore. Fixing a toilet: not so much.

    Heidenkind -- I know it seems like romances are character driven, but I actually think they're plot driven, even if the plot is just watching them fall in love. If they were character-driven novels, we wouldn't have so many concerns about pacing. LOL

    Laura -- I agree about the "single central romantic relationship" but then I think of books like Kristan Higgins' romances, in which the heroine is confused about whom she's attracted to, so literally more than half the book is all about the relationship with the wrong guy. My theory has always been that Higgins figures if she got her hero & heroine together too quickly, they'd bat their extravagantly long eyelashes at each other, sigh, and the book would be over. (Why I'm supposed to be interested in a heroine too stupid to figure out that Guy 1 is a bad bet and Guy 2 is a better bet until 3/4 of the way through the book, this I do not know.)

    I agree that the No Broken Toilets rule is flexible but still applies, in some degree, to all genre fiction. Having the toilet break is just so mundane, and too much of the mundane is out of place in mysteries, thrillers, noir, romance, scifi, etc. It might work in chick lit, but only if the heroine ends up making wicked jokes about it, or gets the plumber's phone number. At which point, it's no longer mundane, is it?

    Although I love the idea of Q explaining the latest spy toilet to him, the fact is that James Bond never pees. Don't care how many shaken-not-stirred martinis he's had, his dick has only one job and urinating ain't it.

  5. I suppose I think of Kristan Higgins' romances as ones which verge on being chick lit. As you say, the heroine often spends a long time thinking she's in love with someone who's wrong for her, and the novels are often (or is it always, so far? I can't remember) told in the first person, which is also something I associate more with chick lit.


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