In the time of the romcom, is there room for angsty books?
This was the question posed on Twitter, parituclarly in light of the Corona virus pandemic. My instant knee-jerk was to say, yes, of course, there’s room. There’s always room for different levels and depths of emotions in romantic fiction. But, on closer inspection, if romance as a genre is about happily ever after, where is the space for those stories with less than ideal characters who have deep-rooted trauma that, in real life, often dooms them to less-than-ideal choices in love relationships?
When I started writing romance, six years ago, I started with contemporary romance. My intention was to keep it light, enjoyable, with internal conflicts that didn’t touch on to heavier topics such as alcoholism or domestic violence. Almost immediately, I failed in my attempt by including a black hero who, like any black man in South Africa, was subjected to the prejudiced system of racism.
I tried again. This time I wrote a novel about a failed ice skater, but scraping under the surface, there’s a distant father who fails to emotionally connect with his daughter. In the novel, she gets the guy. But I knew that if I were to meet my character in the local coffee shop, she’d be bouncing from one unsuccessful relationship to the next.
By the time I started writing my erotic romance trilogy, darker themes sprung up like weeds on the pristine lawns of contemporary romance.
‘Broken people deserve happy endings, too” was what one of my writer’s group said to me. I want to read about depressed heroines who’ve survived suicide attempts overcome their challenges to be open to the kind of vulnerability that’s gutted them in the past. If love has meant pain, romantic love is no different.
There are any number of writers who extoll positive thinking, happiness as a baseline state, and the power of editing out anything dark and negative. These are wonderful aspirational goals, but for many who’ve lived through trauma, these shinier, brighter futures are shadowed by the reality that prince charming might have a drug habit, or mommy dearest is a raging narcissist. When life has shown its ugly side one too many times, it’s hard to swallow anything different. It feels unreal, unattainable, and as if at any second, the next monster is lurking around the corner, waiting to terrorise us once more—even if that monster’s ourselves.
I recently held a webinar on building better characters. One of the things that makes a reader resonate with their character is shared trauma. Even in the lightest romance novels, there’s trauma lurking between the pages. It’s our wounds that drive so many of our decisions.
When I read a category romance, I enjoy the escapism. The beautiful locations, the glamorous characters, the will-they-won’t-they stakes. But it doesn’t give me hope. It’s so far removed from something I can identify with, I appreciate it for what it is…pure fiction. I need a character I can identify with. Someone who’s been to hell and back and somehow is still standing, ready to fight another day, ready to slay their demons, unashamed to get help when and where they need it. I want to read those stories. Redemptive stories that explore the dark and assure me that I don’t have to fear it.
Redemption is a powerful arc.
I already know the dark is there. I’ve been in its shadows most of my life. And that same dark is what’s made me who I am. And they’re the stories I want to read. But not the dark that’s ugly, that traps and keeps its victims and dooms them to repeat the cycle over and over, never letting go its grip.
Not stories about heroines trapped in Stockholm syndrome relationships with their captors, or ruthless thugs who kill all but the virginal ‘not-like-other-girls’ girl. I want to read the stories about those who came out the other side, and won. The ones who are scarred, wounded, broken, but stumbling towards recovery. I particularly want those stories in a world that feels familiarly topsy-turvy.
I’m writing something at the moment that’s not romance. There’s a happy ever after, but it’s not about relationship between two people, but about what can be found in the dark. And how it can be transformed into something different, better, more real.
The dark is beautiful.
Don’t fear it.