Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Cliches and Rationality

While I tend to rail against cliches in books (and other forms of fiction), I'm starting to see some reason behind them as I work on some of the issues in the book I'm currently revising.

For instance, one thing that bugs me is when characters behave irrationally (or what seems irrationally to me). One biggie is when a woman (and it's almost always a woman) whose significant other has some kind of "save the world" profession -- soldier, secret agent, doctor, fireman, cop, superhero -- throws a hissy fit about his priorities when he goes off to save the world. These women always seem to want to have a discussion about their relationship or enjoy a romantic moment together right at the time that he has to get somewhere RIGHT NOW or someone (or many someones) will die, and she takes him choosing other people's lives over her whims as a sign that he doesn't love her. I guess this one bothers me because I grew up as a military brat, and while my dad wasn't really in a "drop everything and run, NOW" role, there were family sacrifices to be made, like him having to be gone for a long time or working strange hours or us having to move a lot, so I grew up with the awareness that fussing about it wasn't going to change anything. It would just make him feel bad, and that didn't do anyone any good. That seems even more important for immediate life-or-death situations because making a fuss that makes him feel bad could distract him and decrease his chances of making it back okay. Besides, it's hard for me to sympathize with a character who thinks that her momentary happiness is more important than someone else's life or the fate of the free world.

Then there are the men (and it's usually men) who have had one bad relationship where the woman turned out to be out for what she could get from him rather than really in love, so she broke his heart and now he's decided that all women are golddiggers and can't be trusted, and he might even go as far as to try to punish all women for the sins of that one (in other words, that's his excuse for being a jerk). I could see being a bit wary of relationships after a heartbreak, no matter what the cause, but it's always struck me as irrational to paint all women with the same brush after one bad one. It takes at least three points to create a pattern, so unless he's run across multiple women like that, he doesn't have enough information to make that assumption, and even there, if he's got a pattern the problem could be with him. If the way he meets women is by hanging out in high-end bars and buying drinks for the artificially enhanced women who hang out there trolling for sugar daddies to buy them stuff, then that could be the problem right there. It's not all women. It's the women he picks. I can't see that man as haunted and tortured and needing to be Healed By Love. I just see him as a whiny, immature jerk.

I tend to like rational people, so that's the kind of characters I write, and I like subverting cliches like this by having the characters respond rationally, but this brings me back to the Spock Writes a Romance Novel issue because when characters behave rationally, it decreases the conflict level and the stakes, and fiction is all about conflict. When the woman sends off her superhero boyfriend to save the world with a calm, "Be careful! Good luck saving the world! Call me when you get back!" there's no conflict, and because she isn't too upset about him going off, it could look like she doesn't really have anything at stake because she doesn't care that much. Ditto with the rational man who realizes that not all women will take what they can get and break his heart and that maybe dating a different kind of woman will be in order. If he isn't so devastated that he can't love again, then it looks like he didn't really love before, there's nothing keeping him from making another attempt at a relationship with someone else, and there's nothing at stake and no conflict. I think it may be possible to write people behaving rationally and still show that something is at stake and to have conflict, but it's very difficult to do, which is where the cliches come in. (And why I'm spending this week whimpering and pounding my head against walls while inhaling chocolate.)

Another cliche that's struck me lately, since this is the time of year when I delve into the atmospheric Gothic novels, is the Gothic trope of the guy who seems bad but who is really good. The Gothic hero was always the Dark and Dangerous Bad Boy who seemed like he might be the villain for part of the book, until after a few twists and turns the heroine discovered that he was good all along. Sometimes they got really wacky and had the Nice Guy turn out to be a snake in disguise, but most of the time he was just there in the role of Safety Net -- so that during the phase when the hero looked like the villain readers could be assured that the heroine still had a prospect for a romantic happily ever after and so that the heroine had someone she could trust absolutely to be there for her when she had nowhere else to turn. Of course, that always had me thinking, "You know, if you could be afraid of that one guy and be able to believe that he could be the villain, and if you absolutely trust this other guy to be there for you in a crisis, then maybe that should be some kind of sign," but she never listened to me.

This may have seemed like a twist back in the heyday of Mary Stewart -- ha! You just thought this was the bad guy, but he's really good! Surprise! -- but it's become its own cliche. Not that it was all that fresh even in the 1950s, considering it goes back at least to Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice, where it turned out that the cold, harsh, rude Mr. Darcy was actually the good guy and the nice, easygoing Mr. Wickham was the bad guy. Then there was Jane Eyre, with dark, dangerous Mr. Rochester and all his dark, dangerous secrets and St. John Rivers, the nice guy who provided a place of refuge but who got dumped the moment she found out that Rochester needed her (though he was her cousin, but apparently in the Victorian era that wasn't quite the squick it is today).

Then again, it wouldn't be all that surprising if the guy who seemed like a villain really was. I'm not entirely sure how to make this scenario fresh -- maybe by not having the Dark and Dangerous Bad Boy and The Nice Guy as the only options in the first place or by not making them so clear-cut. I did read one Gothic where the dark, dangerous guy wasn't really a villain, but he also wasn't the one the heroine ended up with, and she did end up with the Safety Net guy after realizing that Mr. Dark and Dangerous was way too screwed up to be a good relationship prospect. That was surprising, and I loved it, since I tend to like the safety net guys a lot more than I like Dark and Dangerous Bad Boys. However, I seem to be in the minority there, so it's likely that the vast majority of readers would be disappointed by that because they like the Dark, Dangerous Bad Boys.

And now I will go back to wrestling with ways to have conflict and high stakes while people are behaving rationally and not being jerks.

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