Saturday, 1 April 2006

I spent quite a bit of yesterday attending a creative writing workshop at the very lovely Painswick Hotel given by the equally lovely Katie Fforde . The event was being filmed for a three part TV series on romantic fiction presented by Daisy Goodwin, which has been commissioned by the BBC and will be broadcast, if everything goes according to plan, in October.

The three programmes will apparently cover "heroes", "heroines" and "happy ever after" or something like that. Katie structured the day along similar lines, so we started with a discussion of the great romantic heroes - not just Heathcliff, Darcy and Rochester, but also more modern examples like Jilly Cooper's Rupert Campbell-Black. Katie argued that romantic fiction allows the reader to have a safe "virtual affair" with the hero, so we had to make the hero someone that readers would fall for in a big way.

Then we had to do some work. We had ten minutes to write a passage that describes a fictional hero - giving some idea of his appearance, what he does, what sort of car he drives, what he's like - but does so allusively, rather than through straightforward physical description. Show, not tell.

After we had read out our passages (and taken a coffee break, and some shorter breaks to change tapes in the camera, reshot the odd fluffed comment from Katie, and worked through all the other joys of being filmed) we moved on to heroines. We nominated various favourites, and discussed the importance of their being realistic. Readers want to identify with the heroine, so she has to be plausible - achievably beautiful rather than impossibly gorgeous, not too stupid, and so on.

More writing for us. This time we had to describe our heroines, but we had to do it from within their own point of view, with no recourse to looking in mirrors or other popular clichés. Since this is something that I have been wrestling with in Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth, I was glad of the chance to have a go at it in a different context.

Then we discussed the whole question of what constitutes romantic fiction, and romances. Not surprisingly we dsidn't reach a definitive view, but the centrality of a relationship between two people that includes a distinctly sexual element (even if not actually consummated), and the importance of an emotional appeal to the reader were both part of the answer.

Another exercise now; a description of the second time that our hero and heroine from the earlier exercises meet each other. The first meeting is usually a chance encounter. The second shows how the relationship is developing. We had ten minutes to get some of that down on our writing pads.

And at that point, with more tape changing and reshooting being done, I had to leave, to get down to Reading for a book launch, about which more tomorrow.


Laura V said...

I don't accept the idea that all readers of romance are looking for a book which 'allows the reader to have a safe "virtual affair" with the hero'. Maybe this is something that some people are looking for, but surely not all? Where would that leave Freddy from Heyer's Cotillion? And what about male, heterosexual readers? Are they also wanting a virtual affair with the hero? And even supposing that everyone does want to have an affair with the hero, different readers will have different ideas of their 'ideal man', so an author's never going to create a hero who embodies the fantasies of every single reader.

Nor do all readers look for a heroine who is 'plausible - achievably beautiful rather than impossibly gorgeous, not too stupid, and so on'. If that were the case, Barbara Cartland wouldn't have done at all well with her implausible, impossibly beautiful and innocent heroines.

Personally, I'm looking for a hero and heroine who are believable, who seem to have real personalities, and who are right for each other.

Doug Hoffman said...

I just finished Jennifer Crusie's Bet Me. I'd have to agree with Laura -- when I read something like this, I'm not lusting after the heroine. I care about her (and the hero) much as I would care about any main characters in a well written book. I want to see good things happen to them. The 'safe affair' theory really doesn't hold water.

Bet Me I read for the humor, too.

Stephen said...

These are both good points, Doug and Laura.

Any sweeping statement about what readers are looking for is bound to be an over-generalisation, but the writer has to target something, I think. Freddy is an atypical heyero - not unique in this respect, Adam Deveril in A Civil Contract is not necessarily someone to fall in love with, nor is Charles Rivenhall - but he is not Rule, or Avon or Damerel, and those are the sort of heyeroes that, as far as I can see, Heyer is most often read for. In any case Heyer is not exactly your everyday romantic novelist - she is something special.

I have to confess that I have never read any Cartland, and have no idea what was behind her success.

As far as male heterosexual readers go, I would have to say that romances are not, by and large, written with them in mind. There isn't a symmetry here. While the hero is frequently an ideal, to be longed for, the heroine is more realistic, to be identified with. Male readers, I think, have to be willing to sympathise (not empathise) with the heroine, rather than lust after her, and respect (not identify with) the hero. I'd love to hear Jennifer Crusie's views on her heroes and heroines, but I don't think she reads Wenlock.

I should add, to give a bit of context, that Katie was, to an extent, articulating the ideas that the director most wanted to articulate in the context of the programme. That's not to suggest that Katie doesn't hold these views, but that her expression of them was probably less nuanced and more simplistic than she really thinks.

Laura V said...

'Katie was, to an extent, articulating the ideas that the director most wanted to articulate in the context of the programme. That's not to suggest that Katie doesn't hold these views, but that her expression of them was probably less nuanced and more simplistic than she really thinks.'

That's a bit of a shame, if she's not expressing the nuances, because it makes me wonder if this programme is going to end up being used to reinforce some of the negative stereotype about romances and romance readers. You know, the stuff about how it's really 'pornography for women' and/or how it's unrealistic fluff, not related to real lives and real relationships.

Austen, Heyer, Crusie, are all, in their different ways, among the very, very best of romance. And while I think they probably wrote/write about heroes and heroines who appeal to them and whom they hope(d) would appeal to their readers, I think they hope(d) the relationship between the reader and their hero and heroine would be a lot more complex than to cause female readers to swoon over the hero and to feel they could completely identify with the heroine. Yes 'the writer has to target something', but I'd hope it could be something a little more character-focussed (rather than reader-focussed) and complex, more emotionally/intellectually nourishing than just creating a space for women to have 'a safe "virtual affair" with the hero' while reading about a placeholder heroine. Romances can be funny, informative and thought-provoking (in an intellectual way).