A Tale of Two Romance Novels

Once again, over the past few weeks, I was reminded that in novels, characters are the most important thing.

I used to read romance novels all the time, especially historical and Scottish romances. Then I got into my paranormal phase – which I’m still not out of yet, so maybe it’s not a phase – and discovered urban fantasy (though paranormal romance just doesn’t do it for me; when a dust jacket makes inane statements like “Just as Laura realizes the only thing she wants is to live with Luke and his pack in the Grand Canyon and have his little fur-covered babies, an old enemy comes to call,” I’m sorry, but I just can’t do that).

But it’s been a while since I’ve read a straight historical romance. So this past month, I downloaded two on my Nook:  The Turncoat by Donna Thorland, and The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan.

The Turncoat is set during the Revolutionary War, and it’s not your typical romance (for starters, it’s way over 80,000 words . . . or at least, it felt like it). For another, this could have been another trope-ridden romance, with a splash of history thrown in. Instead, Thorland makes it more of a trope-ridden history book with a splash of romance thrown in. She’s clearly done the research, though I have to take issue with her insistence that all Redcoats and Hessians were awful, degraded, vicious creatures. Sure, you had the rare one like Banastre Tarleton (“Tarleton’s Quarter” was anything but) – but most of them were decent guys. Just doing a job. In fact, I’ve read reports of Hessian soldiers, forced to quarter with families, who ended up on babysitting duty!

But I digress. This novel focuses on the romance between Kate Grey – patriot and good Quaker lass – and Peter Tremayne – dastardly Redcoat AND nobleman. Double strike! Kate becomes a spy for the colonists, embedded with the British in Philadelphia. Peter must figure out where his loyalties truly lie – with his country and army, or with a girl he’s only met once but can’t get out of his head? When his cousin decided to pursue Kate himself, Peter’s decision is pretty much made for him.

This is the thing I really, truly hate about romance novels. The couple meets once – ONCE – and falls madly in love. Lust. Whatever. Never mind that they’re usually on opposite sides of a war, or they don’t even know each others’ favorite color. No. Forget such banalities as that. SHE’S PRETTY, DAMN IT, I MUST HAVE HER! Can she speak? Who knows? SHE’S PRETTY, I MUST HAVE HER!

The fact is, the lead characters let this novel down. I never liked Kate. I never liked Peter that much, either, and I truly despised him when he decided to abandon his post and go join the freaking colonists against Britain. Sure, he became an emissary to France, but face it:  he became a turncoat. Hence the title. The main characters should change in some way, yes; that’s part of the story, that journey towards change. But once Peter chucked it all in for a girl – particularly Kate – I was done. I had zero sympathy for him at that point. I never felt that Kate and Peter had true lives of their own; they always felt like cardboard cutouts, being marched across the pages by the author.

MUCH better is the second one (to be honest, I’m not quite done with it yet), The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan. I chose this one because the female lead is – guess what? – a suffragette in Britain, which sounded interesting.

And it is.

Milan has also clearly done her homework when it comes to this time period (the late 1800s and the early suffrage movement). Free Marshall, the FMC, runs a paper ‘by women, for women’ in which she’s basically Nellie Bly, having herself put into mental wards and prostitute hospitals, going into mines where women are forced to work fourteen-hour days, and enduring all sorts of horrendous abuse from the men of London – and Greater England – for it. I like Free. She’s smart and tough and takes crap from no one, and she’s funny.

And her life takes a turn for (hopefully) the better when a mysterious man named Edward Clark shows up to ‘protect’ her from her worst enemy, the soon-to-be Viscount Claridge, James Delacey. Clark makes no bones about it; he’s a forger and a thief and a scoundrel, and he’s not to be trusted.  But he’s the only thing standing in the way of James Delacey’s plans to destroy Free. As it turns out, he’s also the only thing standing between James Delacey and the Viscountcy.

I adore this book, because I adore the characters. Sure, Edward rambles on too much and he’s too willing to just jump into love with Free even though he’s spent his entire adult life avoiding entanglements, but I can live with that. He’s got real issues in his past that affect – that dictate – what he does today. Abandoned by his family, forced to endure the siege of Strasbourg and tortured afterwards, wandering the Continent trying to find himself . . .Unlike Peter, who is driven purely by lust for Kate and some ridiculous thing about he and his cousin really being brothers or something (I admit, I got lost there), Edward is three-dimensional, real, believable. His motives are real. His problems are real. His solutions will also have to be real.

In all honesty, I never felt that Kate and Peter had any issues. Not real ones. They both seemed whiny, self-centered, and one-dimensional to me. (And it’s a romance novel, so let me just say that the sex scenes were not just boring, but weird.) Kate was certainly not a heroine worth throwing away your career – your honor and title – your life – for. I never got a sense of chemistry from them either. But Edward and Free are all that can be right with a good romance novel. (And the sex scenes? Not bad!)

As always, it boils down to the characters.

  • Will your readers care about them? Are their problems real and believable and most of all, can readers relate to them?
  • Have you given them pasts that affect their presents in genuine ways?
  • Have you given them a pathway to change in your book – to change in a meaningful way? Meaning they may have to sacrifice something in order to be with their beloved? (Or, in not-a-romance-novel, change that’s necessary for them to achieve their goal?)
  • Do they take on lives of their own? Do they, at any point, take over the story? Because if they don’t, you’re just pulling strings. You’re not writing real characters. And readers will know it.

All the research in the world can’t make up for lack of good characters. If there’s no chemistry there – and it doesn’t matter if it’s a romance novel or not; imagine Harry Potter without Fred and George! – then you can’t force them together.

Characters are the most important part of your novel. They’re the driving force behind your novel. Make sure they’re characters your readers will like and care about!

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