Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Few Non-Standard Character Types

According to Donald Maass, there are three types of protagonist:  The regular guy, the heroic guy, and the dark guy.

Fair enough.  But no matter what sort of romance novel you enjoy reading, there are some people you'll never see falling madly in love.

Like the procrastinator.  Sure, that's a nice regular person sort of foible -- but you're never going to read a sentence like, "She really ought to call her boss back, but every time she picked up her phone, she just couldn't resist playing 'Angry Birds' one more time."  You especially aren't going to see that sentence if you, as the reader, know that the procrastinator risks losing her job.  You're more likely to volunteer for root canal than follow the self-destructive peril a hard-core procrastinator can get into.  Not to mention the adverse psychology of reading a book that is constantly reminding you that that are a lot of other things you might be doing...if you weren't reading that book.

And regular guy professions have some natural exceptions.  Anything that makes the worker smell bad when he comes home -- that's out.  Fish processor, garbage sorter, mortician (or medical examiner) -- I really think those are non-starters.  We know we need to have all six senses in the deep POV third person, but I don't want to read a richly evocative account of what these workers smell like when they get home after a long day at work.

Heroic professions include cops, firefighters, surgeons, and so forth.  Not an exterminator.  Oh, hey -- they can find themselves in some truly scary situations and if they can help out a homeowner with a serious termite infestation, say, or snakes under the house, they're heroes.  But I don't want to read about them dealing with any -- and I mean any -- of the things exterminators have to deal with.  Besides, in my experience all exterminators are named Stan.  That's simply not a hero's name.

Dark protagonists have something twisted or conflicted in their past, their present, their psyche, something.  They're tortured, or misunderstood, or desperately in need of help -- possibly even help the heroic love interest can provide.

But in a romance novel the dark protagonist will not be a hoarder, or even people with garden-variety obsessive-compulsive disorder.  It's shame, too, because such a person would be a lot of fun to write about...just not fun to imagine in a romance.  A little clutter does not a hoarder make -- the writer would have to pile it up, carve paths through it, fill entire rooms so that the doors no longer opened.  Very conflicted, very twisted, very very dark.  But not easily lovable.

Same thing for the crazy cat lady.  If you need to describe kitty litter boxes in the double digits to round out her personality, chances are she's got a few dozen too many furry friends and won't have room for a nice normal guy -- heroic or not -- in her heart.

Here, then is the quintessential "no way José" meet cute:  Pat, the county's animal control officer, arrives to help out Chris, who has been putting off doing something about the ever growing collection of rats at home...

Ugh.  I've managed to skeeve myself out just writing this post.  Here's something to make us all feel a LOT cleaner!  (Click on him to see the original photo, which I cropped to make slightly less NSFW.)

Monday, April 25, 2011

Borrowing or Copying?

I gather people are wondering about the overlapping issues of copyright infringement and plagiarism in writing.

Copyright infringement is the unauthorized copying and use of a significant portion of another authors' words.

Plagiarism is the fraudulent misrepresentation that the words, research, ideas, etc. in your work are yours alone and that you didn't borrow (or steal) them from other authors or researchers.

Clearly, the two can overlap, but copyright infringement is the harder tort to prove in court, in part because fewer elements of another's work are copyrightable (the words are but the ideas and research aren't) and in part because the borrower has some defenses (fair use, parody, etc.) to the claim that he's infringed the original author's copyright.

Plagiarism is more of an ethical matter than a legal one.  It's wrong to claim as your own the work of another, but it may not be illegal as a civil matter.  "Work" in this context includes all sorts of stuff: research, original or unique ideas, characters, even terribly clever plots.  As with copyright infringement, the more original or unique the source material, the less likely it is that the borrower came up with it on her own.

Characters are interesting in this regard.  If I write a book that has an Irish Setter named "Ron Weasley" in it, J.K. Rowling's lawyers won't be coming after me.  If I write a book with a character named "Ron Weasley" who's a wizard, has four older brothers, a younger sister, and a best friend named Harry -- I should expect a very curt letter.  The devil's in the details -- the more of J.K. Rowling's details I put in, the more likely it is I'm infringing her copyright in the character(s) she's created.

(I consulted Henry before writing this post -- he's an intellectual property lawyer, so of course I did -- and he pointed out that Rowling may have trademarks in all her major characters, so that even using the name Weasley on a red-haired character could be a problem.  Not sure if my Irish Setter will survive a trademark dispute, in that case.)

Let's look at Eloisa James' book When Beauty Tamed The Beast.  She's been quite open about how she based her hero, Piers Yelverton, Earl of Marchant, on Hugh Laurie's character from the show.  Is that infringement?  Plagiarism?  Or something else?

First off, I've read that she had explicit permission of the producers of the show House to do...something.  I'm equivocating not merely because I don't know the parameters of their agreement, but also because I have a hard time imagining that any author would need anyone's permission to create a character in a historical romance set in England who's based on Dr. Gregory House (an modern day American expert diagnostician) who's based on Sherlock Holmes (a late Victorian English consulting detective) who's based on Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin (a Frenchman who uses ratiocination to solve crimes in the mid-19th century).

Eloisa James didn't need anyone's permission to create a character that could be described as "the "arrogant know-it-all" any more than Chuck Lorre needed someone's permission to create Dr. Sheldon Cooper, his "arrogant know-it-all" physicist in The Big Bang Theory.  My guess is she got permission, in effect, to tell people that her hero in When Beauty Tamed The Beast was based on House.  (There are some very complicated rules on using another person, or in this case character, to promote your own product.  Making money off someone else's intellectual property is always risky.)

Giving credit to another author is a defense to claims of plagiarism.  Hitching your story to another character's popularity, depending on how commercial that hitching becomes (answering an interview question is one thing, taking out print ads trumpeting the connection is another) is no longer an issue of giving credit where credit is due.

I don't know if this clears anything up, so post further questions in the comments and I'll get Henry to fill in all the blanks.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Story Versus The Book

For my March TBR Challenge book, I selected Jo Goodman's Never Love a Lawman.  Lots of people love this book, so let me get the most important thing out of the way first:  I really enjoyed it.  No need to call me a varmint or pull that Derringer out from your sleeve...

Fairplay, Colorado
It did get me thinking though, about the distinction between the story and the book.  The story of NLAL is pretty simple, with some frilly bits around the edges.  Rachel Bailey is a seamstress with A Past when the story starts.  She's got the attention of Wyatt Cooper, the sheriff of Reidsville, Colorado, a mining town in the Rockies circa 1882.  When Wyatt arrives at Rachel Bailey's house with a telegram informing her of a death, the story gets rolling like a rock down the hillside.  Their interest in each other, and their relationship, evolves naturally as they deal with the legal ramifications of the precipitating death.  (I'm trying to avoid spoilers here, people, so work with me.)  Eventually, the villain plays a role, everything gets sorted out and there's an event right off the menu of "Nice Things That Can Happen to a Couple to Show How Happy They Will Be After All" to round the story off.

Lovely characters, nice romance, what's not to like.

Old Town of Fairplay, Colorado
The book, on the other hand, is very deliberate in some of its stylistic elements.  It's long, for one thing - roughly 110,000 words.  That makes it pretty wordy and its pacing quite deliberate.  It moseys, meanders, strolls down the main street in Reidsville seemingly without a care in the world.  It's the Gary Cooper of romances. 

Some readers might find it slow.  I didn't, but I'll admit that it took me longer to read than two 55,000 word books back to back would have taken.  Part of that is that Goodman's prose is so languorous that it made my mind wander.  Also, whatever that have-to-read-another-page-to-see-what-happens-next quality is called (the quality that thrillers and romantic suspense novels absolutely have to have), NLAL doesn't have it.  With the exception of the last 75 pages or so, you can put this book down comfortable in the knowledge that Wyatt and Rachel will keep themselves amused until you get back.

Even the shifts between the hero's, heroine's and secondary characters' POVs are subtle and unheralded.  Rachel is kissing Wyatt when all of a sudden Wyatt is getting kissed.  (Is that head-hopping?  I no longer know.)  It doesn't hamper the characterizations at all; the townsfolk are all quite colorful and engaging companions and it's not hard to work out what Rachel and then Wyatt and then Rachel again are thinking.

Mining Spoils near Fairplay, Colorado
Lastly, there's a surprising amount of research in this.  I started -- on one of the occasions that my mind was wandering -- to picture Goodman in a mining museum in the Rockies, taking notes while looking at photographs taken after the Civil War.  Except for a wildly complicated legal premise (that no one but me could possibly be scratching her head over), it all seems perfectly plausible and appropriately used to enhance the story.

To recap:  Great story.  Good book.  And that's the difference between me-qua-reader and me-qua-aspiring writer.  If you're a reader and you like Westerns, you've already read it.  If you're a student of romance novels, Goodman's style might please you, bother you, or just hamper the charm of the story a bit.

(Oh, one last thing.  It's a great title -- Never Love a Lawman -- but completely misleading.  There isn't a page in this book where a reasonable reader could think, "Rachel's right not to love that man...")

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Notes on a Beastly Book

I read Alex Flinn's Beastly over the weekend.  There's a helpful badge on the cover that says, "Read it before you see it!"  That's because it's already been made into a film, the release of which I completely missed.  (From the reviews, I gather it was eminently missable, but by all means judge for yourself.)

The book, on the other hand, is wonderful.  If you're a fan of the Beauty and the Beast story, be sure to read it.

Flinn has twisted the fairy tale into a Gossip Girl edition -- the prince is Kyle, the super-cute guy at a Manhattan private school with more than its share of good looking people.  In the book, he's turned into a real beast: fur, claws, the works.  His image-obsessed father packs him away in a fabulous brownstone in Brooklyn to live with a maid and a blind tutor.

I won't spoil any of the lovely details -- it's too much fun spotting everything in the course of the book -- but I'm confident that all the key elements of the fairy tale are in there.

I have a couple observations.  First, the book's written entirely from the Beast's point of view.  That's not a minor detail because at its heart, Beauty and the Beast is a very gynocentric story.  The version we all know is of a girl whose father needs her help so she steps up, sacrifices herself, has that sacrifice rewarded with true love and, at the very end, gets a cute prince.  Moral: be generous of yourself and you will be rewarded.  Secondary Moral:  parents are idiots.

Told from the Beast's point of view, the story is one of redemption.  Adrian ( Kyle) starts out as a beastly person and ends up with tremendous humanity as a beast.  Frankly, the romance is quite beside the point -- he needs Beauty to fall in love with him to return him to human form.  Of course he does fall in love, and she with him, but if the witch had set him a different quest that relied on his developing decency and empathy for others it would have worked just as well.

I loved getting the Beast's POV, mostly because the redemption story is actually more interesting than the self-sacrifice-rewarded story.  It made me wonder why there's a rule (how hard-and-fast it is I don't know, but I can't think of many exceptions) that in conventional romances, more than half the scenes need to be in the heroine's POV.  Can anyone think of a romance novel that has a lot more of the hero's POV than the heroine's?

Wouldn't it be fun to get more of the hero's POV in some stories, particularly those where it's the hero who has the dramatic story arc?  Hmmm.  I'll have to think about that.

Second, I wonder if Beastly is really a romance novel.  Kyle/Adrian is 16 at the beginning of the book and 18 at its end.  Flinn doesn't fudge the True Love HEA of the fairy tale, but set in the world of modern-day teenagers, it's a little hard to think that couple will be together in five years, let alone fifty.

Here's why I didn't care -- at that age, I think it's lovely that they think they'll be together forever.  Maybe they will and maybe they won't, but I consider it a happy ending either way.  They're both better, healthier, happier people by the book's end.  And regardless of whether they end up together in the long, long term or not, they have each other's backs.  They have each learned to trust and to bond with another human being.

That's more than most teenagers have accomplished.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

After the HEA

I recently started World War III uh, had a disagreement with the lovely habituées over at The Uncrushable Jersey Dress.

(If you want to get some popcorn & a suitable beverage to watch the "Waldo Smackdown" uh, read the comment thread, you can find it here.)

But basically, it comes down to a fundamental disagreement about whether it matters what life is, or will be, like after the HEA.

In the Betty Neels' romance, The End of the Rainbow, the hero, Waldo, rescues the heroine, Olympia, from indentured servitude with her nasty aunt, who runs a joyless nursing home and needs Olympia's nursing skills at slave wages.  Basically, think Dickens crossed with Cinderella, and you have a good idea of Olympia's life pre-Waldo.  By page 70, he's whisked her away to be his wife and step-mother to his 5-year-old daughter Ria.

On page 178, Waldo utters the divine words, "I deserve to be shot," in his groveling apology to Olympia.

Wonderful stuff -- and to all the other "Bettys" that's what makes The End of the Rainbow so delightful.  (One aficionada confessed to being on her third copy, that's how much she loves the book.)

I had a problem with the 100+ pages between the marriage of convenience and the rapprochement.  Basically, Waldo's a crappy husband and not much better a father.

In trying to see the alternate perspective, I realized that the HEA for the other readers is when Olympia is rescued.  For me, the far-shakier HEA is at the very end of the book.  By then, I was no longer convinced that Waldo was good enough for her.

So -- is Waldo Prince Charming, marrying Olympia out of hand and thus rescuing her from her miserable existence in the basement of her aunt's nursing home?

Or is he Mr. Rochester -- rescuing Olympia from poverty and loneliness but then dropping her into the fire of a seemingly doomed romance with a man who's not quite the hero she expected?  And if this is the case, is tossing off "I deserve to be shot" without a lot more self-awareness enough to rehabilitate him as the hero?

Over on Twitter, some people are discussing Joan Wolf's classic Regency romance His Lordship's Mistress.  Because Jessica and the Earl of Linton in effect live together, we get to see how they interact.  There are undeniable barriers to their happy ending (for more on this book, read Janet Webb's wonderful discussion over at Heroes and Heartbreakers) but we never doubt that they make a good couple.  And we certainly don't doubt Linton's worth as a hero.  Our concerns for their HEA all come down to how they will survive any social solecism resulting from the unconventional way they met.

But with Waldo -- the more I pored over those problematic (for me, at least) 100 pages, the more I became convinced that he needed a lot of reclamation.  I'm encouraged by Olympia's fortitude that they might have a chance, but I wanted better for her.  I wanted her to be with a guy who would see her, believe her, trust her, know her.

At the end of Jane Eyre (spoiler alert), Rochester is blind but finally free to love.

At the end of The End of the Rainbow, Waldo may still be blind.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Expensive OOP Book - Is It Worth It?

One thing I learned in law school is that we can't know the "value" of anything.  All you can know is how much someone actually paid the last time the thing was for sale.

This comes up in all sorts of valuation situations, but for romance readers, it's relevant when you find an author you love and her backlist is hard to glom.

Mary Balogh is just such an author.  From 1985 to 1997 she wrote 40+ Signet Regency and Signet Super Regency romances.  Some have been rereleased, but many have not.  And those that haven't can be very expensive if purchased online as used books.

I have three of the least expensive in my TBR:  A Masked Deception (1985), The Incurable Matchmaker (1990), and Snow Angel (1991); I own two more that I have read: Tempting Harriet (1994) and The Temporary Wife (1997); and I've borrowed at least one from Janet W: Dancing with Clara (1994).

With prices at Amazon.com for used copies running anywhere from $5.00 to $40.00, you can imagine my delight when a friend announced, "Oh, I have all of those.  Or, at least I did..."  I drove to New Jersey to help her sort through boxes upon boxes of books...and we found three:  The Double Wager (1985), A Gift of Daisies (1989), and The Unlikely Duchess (1990), which she lent to me.  They all sell in the $10 range on Amazon, so by the time you add in the shipping & handling, it would have cost me over $40 to buy them.

I'm glad I didn't.  Oh, they're okay -- and having gotten to read them for free was a treat -- but if I'd paid that much money for them, I'd have felt a bit gypped.

Now, maybe it's sheer perversity that these were the ones my friend had kept, and all her other Mary Baloghs -- which she thinks she just listed on PaperbackSwap (!!) back in the day -- were sublime.  Or maybe her taste and mine don't jibe.  Or I'm just being a cranky reader, which is the default assumption in all such situations.

But whatever the reasons, these books seemed not nearly as fluid, engaging, and memorable as Balogh's more recent books, e.g., the Slightly and Simply series.

[If you're keeping score at home: I liked The Double Wager the best of the three, but it wouldn't have been a keeper, particularly as Balogh's done the supercilious duke better elsewhere and the circumstances keeping the hero and heroine apart seemed silly.  The Gift of Daisies was refreshingly duke-free -- and therefore quizzing-glass-free -- but the hero came across as a bit of a prig, willing to sacrifice his and the heroine's happiness because he presumes her "true" preferences no matter what she says.  And I liked An Unlikely Duchess so little that I skimmed vast bits of it just to see if the jewels get recovered.  That was a shame because in many ways I liked the hero and heroine of An Unlikely Duchess best of all.  I just didn't like the book.]

One lesson from this is that I'm happy to wait for the other two dozen Signet romances to be rereleased in their turn.  I'd rather pay the conventional $7.99 + sales tax (or shipping) when the time comes than pay a lot of money (none of which would go into Mary Balogh's pocket) for a used book I might not enjoy.

So -- is an OOP worth $10 + s&h just because that's what's someone's willing to pay?  Not to this cranky reader.