When I turned 12, I was gifted a series of books — 12 of them, to be exact — and I spent the entire summer reading every single one. It was the Sunfire series, and it’s OK if you’ve never heard of them because they were basically terrible. They were teen romance novels that followed the same narrative structure: a teenage girl lives during a specific time period, and is torn between loving two different boys. Over the course of the book we learn about the time period, and she discovers who she is and chooses between one of the boys*. In fact, I blame them for my obsession with loving things that are horribly cheesy, but enjoyably so.
I’m going to be reviewing them on a pretty regular basis for this site, and I want to have a single article I can point to which describes the why and the how of reviewing these dumpster fires. Bear in mind I use that term as affectionately as possible because if you happened across a dumpster fire in real life, you’d be disgusted by the smell and recognize that it was a problem, but you’d probably stick around to watch for a bit, too. So let’s break this down, shall we?
Ye olde Plot
Romance novels almost all follow the same narrative structure, which is really more of a laundry list of plot check boxes:
- Boy and girl meet under awkward situation, or are thrown together by “dire” circumstance. The girl is almost always a fish out of water, thrown into the boy’s world.
- Boy and girl hate one another.
- Boy and girl must embark upon some sort of “adventure” together. (I use air quotes around both “dire” and “adventure” because by golly do some authors really stretch the definition of both of those terms.)
- Boy and girl are attracted to each other but continue their hard line “we don’t like one another” stance.
- Boy and girl kiss and/or see each other naked.
- Boy and girl have misunderstanding.
- Boy and girl have sex and/or an intimate moment in which they learn to understand one another.
- Boy or girl rejects the other because rejector feels as though s/he doesn’t deserve rejectee because of his/her tortured past.
- Girl is either angry boy has rejected her, or is upset about rejecting boy and Does Something Rash. Yes, capitalized because this is almost always the central conflict/rising action of the novel.
- Boy has to rescue girl.
- Boy and girl confess their love to each other.
- Boy or girl rejects the other, AGAIN, because they don’t feel they deserve one another over some really stupid, minor quibble. Despite having just resolved this very issue merely pages or paragraphs previous.
- Boy and girl realize they really do deserve one another and they will be together, THEY DON’T CARE WHAT ANYONE ELSE THINKS. (It’s almost always a super dramatic reveal).
- Boy and girl live happily ever after. The epilogue almost always reveals that they are married and either have a child or are expecting one. Because that’s just how you do.
There are variations on the theme, of course, but this is the general structure, and you’d be surprised (or not? I don’t know, I guess it depends on your opinion about these things) how adamantly some authors stick to this.
I’m actually rather grateful because it makes these books so mindlessly easy to read. Which is one reason I enjoy them so much. They’re great for vacation or times when you’re really stressed and want to read a book, but don’t really want to think about what you’re reading.
If the plots are formulaic, then the characters are basically standard issue. In movies, characters are often referred to as “manic pixie dream girls,” and everyone knows what the reviewer is talking about There are three main archetypes for romantic main characters:
- The Tortured Good Woman. This is a female character who is good and wholesome, but she had to commit a Vile Act which, of course, was not vile at all, and utterly justified, but it haunts her and she feels she is unworthy of anyone or anything because of it. The male lead helps her realize that it was an Act of Courage.
- The Healer. The healer is a woman who is good and wholesome and just wants to heal/mend the pain of the male lead. She is understanding in the extreme and puts up with a lot of crap from the male hero, all in the name of helping him. If you’re familiar with the folk tale, “The Tiger’s Whisker,” she’s that character, with more patience.
- The Firebrand. The Firebrand is your Non-Traditional Woman. She’s adventurous and stubborn and wants to do things that the men in her life feel are dangerous. At some point she is going to predictably get herself in trouble and realize she needs the male lead to help her. The Firebrand’s hijinks will occasionally result in an innocent bystander being horribly hurt or wronged, and this is curiously never mentioned or reprimanded.
- The Tortured Good Man. This is a variation on the Tortured Good Woman, but in male form. He often has a dark, or guilty secret from his youth that tortures him, making him feel unworthy of anyone or anything. The female lead helps him realize it was an Act of Courage and all is well. He is often paired with The Healer.
- The Alpha. The Alpha is your standard alpha male character. He’s good looking, powerful, and accustomed to being in control. He is almost always paired with The Firebrand, who will challenge his authority and make him realize that sometimes it’s OK to let someone else take the lead.
- The Boy. The Boy is usually the youngest sibling of a brother group and he’s the boyish one who is both good and wholesome like The Tortured Good Man, but without the dark secret. He is sensitive and Has Something to Prove, which goes against his familial traditions. He is often paired with the Tortured Good Woman.
There are, of course, variations of the archetypes, and occasionally the archetypes masquerade as a different character. For instance, the Boy likes to play the Rebel a lot, and the Tortured Good Man likes to play the Loner, but they’re almost always little more than a variation on a theme.
But the question is, how do you review something like this? To my gif above, isn’t it kind of like reviewing chicken strips at a restaurant? Yes, yes it is, though once you embrace the assembly-line fashion of a novel’s characters and structure, it’s actually rather fun to break it down by how well they adhere to the formula; or if they dare to escape it.
Case in point: some stories attempt to pair the Firebrand with the Boy, or the the Alpha with the Tortured Good Woman. It’s fun to examine if this was a successful pairing, or if it feels forced and chaotic within the narrative structure.
It’s also worthy examining what the misunderstanding or the Does Something Rash moment is in the story. Sometimes the understanding/intimate moment happens early on, other times, it happens at the three-quarter mark. As with the mismatched combos, sometimes this works, others, not so much.
Join me in this adventure of reviewing this very questionable obsession of mine, won’t you?
*If this sounds a lot like proto-Twilight, they actually aren’t. Believe it or not, the female characters had a lot more agency in their stories. Almost all of them were the Firebrand, choosing between the Alpha or the Boy. They were formulaic, but oddly empowering for a 12-year old. “Oh, my god, she’s wearing pants! Girls weren’t allowed to wear pants!” … I’m not helping myself here, am I?