Ever have one of those couples you invite to an open house party, who are incredibly witty and entertaining for the first two to three hours, but grow less tolerable the longer they stay, and who continue to follow you around and butt in when you try to start conversations with other people?
Well, if you wouldn’t want to meet those people in real life, why should we have to tolerate them in a romance novel?
What I’m talking about is Prequel Baggage. Prequel Baggage refers to those couples who have already attained their HEA earlier in a romance novel series, but who overstay their welcome in later books. These are the romantic couples who not only won’t leave, but continue to hog the spotlight, taking story time away from the actual protagonists.
Romance series are incredibly popular, with authors writing anywhere from two to ten books (and sometimes more!) based around a certain group of characters. They can be siblings (like Mary Balogh’s Bedwyns), they can be members of the same Hot Cursed Viking Club (like Lisa Hendrix’s Immortal Brotherhood series), or they can simply be a common group of friends (like Lisa Kleypas’s Wallflowers series and the various friendship permutations in Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s books).
Now, it’s understandable that a lot of these characters will appear in more than one book in a romance series. It’s perfectly fine, even expected, for characters destined for future books to make appearances in earlier books to establish relationships and backstories. Happily-matched characters from prequels, however, need to be used sparingly.
For example, in Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Match Me If You Can, heroine Annabelle Granger shares a bookclub with no fewer than three (!) previous SEP heroines, whose conversations about their utterly flawless married lives are about as thrilling as watching beige paint dry on the side of a funeral home. And the later the book is in a series, the worse Prequel Baggage tends to be, since it’s cumulative—by Lisa Kleypas’s A Scandal In Spring, I was ready to nip those pesky married Wallflowers in the bud.
If prequel characters have no specific purpose to be in a particular story, then they ought to butt out, because Perfectly Married Bliss is boring as hell to read. Authors who include married prequel characters in later novels often don’t want to tarnish the image of their Happily Ever After as established in their own books, and the result is an inundation of Eternally Blissed-Out People, with the heroines either pregnant or accompanied by their ever-increasing hordes of children who are just mischievous enough to be adorable, but not enough to require actual parenting. Heaven forbid one of the Prequel couples should be going through a rough patch, with Book One’s hero sleeping on the couch for forgetting an anniversary or Book Three’s heroine worrying about her family’s finances.
Prequel Baggage essentially pads a narrative with characters who have no conflict and no real purpose who take away narrative space that would be better used by those protagonists who do have conflict and purpose.
On the one hand, if they’re siblings or friends or teammates of the current protagonists, of course they aren’t going to simply disappear just because they’ve found their romantic soulmate—but there’s nothing wrong with keeping their participation peripheral. And it doesn’t mean that every couple from the series has to appear in every book at once. Lisa Hendrix, with her clever millennia-spanning Immortal Brotherhood series, established an easy way not to wrestle with all nine of her Vikings at once (as exciting as that mental image may be). In the novels, they’re spread out all over England, in different groups and pairings, and once a Viking finds his true love and is freed from his curse, he becomes mortal, so that by the next book he’s already died fat, old, and happy, surrounded by historically-pertinent grandchildren.
Frankly, while every romance reader longs for the HEA, we don’t always need to see what happens afterward. Romances should focus on the present hero and heroine, and while it’s not bad for the occasional happily-matched couple to drop in, they should really adhere to high society’s 15-minute limit for paying a call.
Elizabeth Vail hails from Alberta, Canada. A book reviewer and aspiring YA writer, she currently runs the review blog Gossamer Obsessions under the screenname AnimeJune.