PONDERING: Enough with the High ConceptMonday, February 13, 2012 13:00
I’ve been feeling a bit out of sorts with the romance market recently, so I’ve kept to the authors I enjoy and lines like the Harlequin category romances that I tend to enjoy. I write and read paranormal romance, but more and more, the ones I’ve been reading have gone into action/adventure and that’s not what I read them for. Historical romances have turned into complete fairy tales, with very little history in them. It took me a while to work out what was going on, but I’m getting there.
A couple of years ago, every agent and editor was looking for something called High Concept. It’s such a nebulous idea that it’s easy to get it wrong, because it seems to be different according to who tells it, but, basically, it’s an idea that can be described in one sentence, such as “Godzilla meets Cinderella, and Godzilla wins” or “Mr. and Mrs. Smith in the Regency.” (I’m not making one of those up). That kind of stuff. It’s led to books that are high on ideas, low on character and execution, and I think that’s what my problem with the romance market boils down to.
I’m a romance reader. I love a bit of difference, of excitement, of external plot, but not to the exclusion of the romance. I want that romance to be the centre of the action, not something that happens somewhere along the way. And I’m missing that. The concept is all very well, but I want more. I want a story that makes sense, one that gives the characters a chance to exist, to be themselves. Not one where they’re forced into action, where we don’t see the development of the romance, where we can believe that they are falling in love. More and more, it’s a succession of hot sex scenes with an “I love you” tagged on at the end.
The ancient Greeks had it right. In their tragedies, the tragedy arises from a flaw in the main character’s psyche, something he doesn’t believe or does wrong. He lies, and a whole series of actions arise from that. All external actions happen offstage. In Oedipus Rex, Jocasta dies offstage, Oedipus blinds himself offstage, because the point isn’t that part of the story, it’s the characters and how they react that’s important. In modern storytelling, it’s often the other way about. I wouldn’t have cared about Jocasta had I not learned to like her beforehand. Similarly, Oedipus isn’t just a badass warrior and great king, he’s a badass warrior with deep internal flaws and concerns that haunt him throughout his life. That’s what makes him really interesting.
Subsequent storytellers followed that convention, and in a play like Hamlet, everything is about character flaws, a succession of wrong choices and failures until the final action leads to a tragedic triumph – that is, Hamlet eventually wins, but at the cost of his own life. His flaws interact with the others in the play. So Claudius isn’t a completely bad man, but he falls in love with the wrong woman and behaves with a Machiavellian deviousness that eventually leads to his own undoing. He is also a good king (it’s in the first scene, that he’s doing the job well) and a loving husband.
I want that back in romance. I want a Maddy (Flowers From the Storm) who is brave enough to step outside her community, but whose inner narrow-mindedness won’t allow her to accept Christian’s solution for his problem. I want events to come from the inside. It’s how Jane Austen made a story about a set of perfectly ordinary sisters come to life, and it’s why we remember Charles Dickens’ characters years after we’ve closed the books. We imagine them having a life outside the books.
This is why I’m looking forward to the next Cecilia Grant book. A Lady Awakened didn’t entirely work for me, but it’s still the most interesting debut I’ve read for years. It isn’t the beauty of her writing or the accuracy of her history, it’s because the action springs from the characters and not from outside them. It didn’t work for me because I didn’t like the heroine, but that, in one way, is a triumph because she made me believe in the heroine and have an opinion on her.
A writer like Linnea Sinclair writes rocket ships and cool weaponry, but she never forgets the characters. You don’t want goodies to triumph over baddies, you want that hero to win because you care about him. Games of Command remains one of my favourite books and the characters stay with me.
So please, less of the high concept. It’s resulted in some truly awful books and some extremely average ones. Let’s get back to the happy sigh on the last page, as the reader is given something satisfactory and heartfelt. Give me the romance back.