Guest Post: RJ Conte on Romance in Fiction

This week I am enjoying another long awaited joy!

My very good friend, RJ Conte, has come to stay at my house with her two little girls (who are about the same age as my oldest two kids).  We met on Facebook through a mutual friend about 6 years ago, and this week was the first time we got to see each other face-to-face!

In addition to being my dear friend, RJ is a fellow writer and author of several books.  Her newest novella, The Hotline Girl, is a sweet retelling of Beauty and the Beast, told in a contemporary setting.

I’m excited to be part of her blog tour to promote the book, and we both thought it would be fun for me to host her here this week – on my blog as well as in my home. 🙂

So without further ado, here is my friend, who I invited here to talk about romance in fiction!

RJ Conte

Hello! I’m RJ Conte – author of psychological love stories infused with hope! (Check me out here on Amazon.com.)

I am a wife, mother of two toddlers, and former piano and voice teacher. I have been writing stories since first grade, and tried my hand at two modern re-tellings of fairy tales. The first is a non-fantasy version of Beauty and the Beast, which I’m releasing next week! Pre-order it here!  The second novella, The 12th Girl in Heaven (which is a re-telling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses) will be out June 6th.

And please come to my Facebook party on May 2nd to celebrate the release of The Hotline Girl. Giveaways, prizes, and fun, as well as virtual snacks! 😉

Consider yourselves invited! Click here to say you’ll come!

Bethany has graciously invited me into her home as well as her blog this week. We have been friends for six and a half years, and many of those years we were definitely besties. I am finally meeting her in person this week, as well as having our kids play together. It’s a dream come true.

Bethany asked me to write about romance in fiction – some of its tropes, faults, and what I think is the cure.

She’s very kind to give me the honor of being her go-to romance person! Most of my stories are psychological and issue-driven, but I always have a love story in them somewhere. The Hotline Girl is my first published strict romance story, although the psychology and counseling angle still weaseled its way in due to the premise being about a suicide hotline and forgiveness.

The warped and unrealistic romance in today’s fiction has definitely frustrated not only me, but my godly family and friends who counsel professionally and regularly. It shouldn’t surprise us that the world twists anything God created and pronounced good, but, what concerns me, is that these tales of lust and false reality have seeped into Christian fiction as well.

I think there are three things to remember when writing romance:

1.  Men are not women.

This might be the biggest “Duh!” moment in this entire post, but, as much as we might laugh, in modern fiction, men are portrayed as women with muscles. They emote, they share, they shop, they cuddle, they adore, and they abstain.

Now, I’m not saying that a good, godly husband won’t do all of these things every so often. But – let’s face it – these monster-type, beefy, serial killer men in our romance stories who come out of the backwoods, blood practically dripping from their hands, and find themselves lying passively with their head in a woman’s lap going, “No, let’s just talk tonight. I don’t want to touch you. I’m so excited you’re going to teach me to braid hair…” is just frightening! I remember reading and reviewing a certain popular fictional novel (I also have a book review website for parents here.), and I was listening to it on audio so I could clean house as I jotted down notes for my review. My husband came in the door, listened for a few minutes, and went, “Who’s this pansy man? Did he really say, ‘Don’t force yourself on me in your underwear. I’m a gentleman. I don’t want to touch you ever even though I am an immoral person and have no soul’?” We laughed heartily. This isn’t to say that I think that all men are John Waynes who are going to stalk you and grab you and powerhouse smooch you. But many of them are more physically driven than we are. And to portray these affection-hungry female main characters throwing themselves at wicked men who turn to kittens in their hands? Every girl’s daydream – no one’s reality.

If you had to have a “bad boy” character, and wanted to write a realistic novel, the lines would go something like this:

“Honey, you have to stop drinking. This is your second DUI.”

“The things you did with your ex-girlfriends still haunt our relationship. I can’t believe you call out to them in your sleep.”

“We set principles and standards. Why do you keep coercing me to cross them? Have you ever submitted to authority in your life?”

“You are crude and so is your language. You better tone yourself down and change yourself.”

“I’m really afraid to parent with you. Could you possibly be a good father? You’ve never seen a good example of a man in your entire life.”

(Guess which line is from The Hotline Girl? 😛 BUT my book is a sweet story, not a depressing one, I promise! I just hope it’s a little bit more realistic. 😉 )

Even if you don’t have a “bad boy” character, run any male character in your romance by multiple men readers. The dialogue, the scenes, the actions. Ask men to be brutally honest with you. Does this make any sense for your male character to be doing or saying?

2. Have a purpose for writing romance.

Are you an estrogen junkie? Is there an adrenaline rush writing about someone else’s every physical move in their new, exciting, perfect relationship? Is it to fulfill what you yourself are not getting in real life? This is very addicting and dangerous for your young, single readers. Very dangerous and tempting.

Or do you write romance to celebrate something awesome God created in an appropriate way? I’m not saying that reading sex scenes is celebrating God’s amazing creation, or to embrace vulgarity or indecency. But reading about messy, sacrificial love might bring about hope and joy over what Christ can do in the heart. My novel, Angel-Lover, is a love story, but definitely NOT a romance. I felt no need to have my characters engage in physical affection, mainly because I wanted to portray how love can truly be God-centered and generous, even if things go very badly and nothing turns out the way you might expect.

Does it mean I don’t approve of a super sweet kiss scene? By all means, no! I have some that I hope you will love in The Hotline Girl and The 12th Girl in Heaven. But there’s a reason that I saved my first kiss for when I got engaged. Kisses are powerful, devastating, or life-changing. In my books, a simple kiss scene can be forgiving, healing and embody commitment, but it can also rush things too early, and be selfish and dangerously binding.

What is your purpose in writing romance? I hope there’s a deeper meaning than giving someone a hormone rush. If writing a more realistic romance, with a flawed couple, doesn’t make the cheeks flush quite as red, it still may be a worthier goal. My purpose in writing is to give God glory and teach my readers something about Him. God uses love and marriage to portray Himself and the church. There is something very powerful about Song of Solomon, or the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah, or Jacob’s long-suffering for his Rachel. God teaches us about Himself, and His passion and longing for all mankind to be saved, through love. There can be deep intricate truths or sincere wise warnings wound up in beautiful or flawed romance stories. Strive for a higher purpose, not just to satisfy the female reader’s more base desires.

3. Romance is also a training ground for the character.

Not only should romance not be an end-all, shallow bite of warm fuzzies for your readers, it shouldn’t for your characters, as well. If romance is portrayed as an add-in to get squeals from preteens, or as an end-all: “He got the girl, so all is right in my fictional universe,” you run the risk of really writing shallow fiction as well as portraying a false reality to young, susceptible girls. In real life, romance is something that no one forgets. It’s a life milestone. Yet it’s not the culmination of all of life either. A romance with the wrong person can lead us away from the Lord for a time. A Ruth Graham romance, where she told Billy to “go get his life right first and then come talk to her later” can do wonders for a person. Romance, for your characters, should grow them in some way, even if it’s a side note. If the goal of your plot is to get to that great makeout scene, you have shallow goals for your characters. If your goal is to grow and change a solid character into who they are supposed to be, then maybe Prince Charming will help that along. If your goal is to create a villain who loses hope after being spurned, a negative romantic experience makes sense. If you’re trying to teach a message, relationships for your characters tend to do that well. I haven’t read very many books where someone sat in a cave and figured out all of the meanings of life, grew, matured, and developed as a character. I think that sort of book would be pretty boring, as well. And what about the stories that look like this?

Point A: Meet guy

Point B: Love guy at first sight

Point C: Play hard to get with guy

Point D: Date guy

Point E: Argue with guy

Point F: Leave guy

Point G: Have a revelation about guy

Point H: Come back to guy and get physical

It’s just rather pointless, no? There are dozens upon dozens of books with this formula, and with no greater plot goal than to just be the next John-and-Sally Doe-meet-and-fall-in-love. You don’t want your book to be simply porn for the female brain, nor do you want it to be junk food for the soul. Romance plots should do something important for your characters to give a deep meaning to your book, so that it will not be a cheap thrill and forgotten. I want my books to sit on God’s bookshelf and to be something He’d be happy I wrote. He created romance. Let’s have it glorify Him even in our fictional recreations of it! It really is a special, magical, pivotal, and amazing thing in a human being’s life – a story that never gets old, and can be done so powerfully.

Happy romance writing!

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Click on RJ’s lovely new book cover to go to her Facebook page!

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8 Comments

  1. Thank you for hosting me! I love you!

    Reply
  2. “Who’s this pansy man?” – haha – yes! It drives me batty!! Also, I think every good romance needs a reason for the two to match – why is this particular person such a good fit compared to someone else? What needs do the two fulfill in each other that make the two of them one?

    Reply
  3. Thank you for these observations! As much as our female minds crave that emotional thrill, it is rarely portrayed realistically in fiction. That inaccuracy can create dangerous expectations in a naive mind. I think part of the problem is it’s just plain hard for a woman to accurately portray how a male mind works. 🙂

    Reply
  4. What exactly do you mean by “psychological” love stories? I’m not picking up on any particular sciencey-ness in here. (Also, am I the only one who thinks the John Wayne style of grab-her-of-a-sudden-and-mash-faces seems waaaay more uncomfortable and awkward than actually enjoyable? Technique matters, bro.)

    Reply
    • Amen on the John Wayne!
      I mean that I like to write stories about people going through psychological issues, and I like to sneak a love story in there. 🙂 Love brings out the best and worst in people’s psyche. 😉

      Reply
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