Take away the bondage, and Fifty Shades of Grey is an old school romance between a worldly-wise but emotionally constipated hero and a naïve but emotionally intelligent heroine. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, almost all romance novels, historical and contemporary, featured this kind of dynamic. Like Mad Men’s Don Draper, the hero knew all about fine wine, guerilla warfare, engine repair and female orgasm, but some traumatic event had scarred him and left him completely closed off to any emotions, especially his own.
The heroine, on the other hand, was unworldly, having lived a life so sheltered that she had barely tasted wine, let alone orgasm. (I know, it’s easy to make fun of this trope now, but let’s face it, the female orgasm can be at least as tricky as engine repair, and almost as hard to pin down as guerilla warfare.)
I’m not going to list the many reasons this paradigm changed—or how grateful I am that it did—but the old school romance hero started out as teacher but wound up as student, which gave both hero and heroine clearly defined character arcs.
These days, heroines are allowed to be competent and experienced and less than saintly, but many heroes start out so well-adjusted, intelligent, nurturing and emotionally accessible that they don’t have much changing to do. And when heroes do change, they change fast, along the lines of, I used to screw around, but now that I’ve met you/exchanged wisecracks/smelled your pheromones, even Jennifer Lopez looks like my Aunt Myra to me.
In some of the YA books I’ve been reading, the hero has no changing to do at all.
In Hunger Games, Grave Mercy and Graceling, for example, uber-competent, lethally-skilled and hot-tempered heroines are paired with wry, tender but strong, emotionally savvy heroes. In these books, the old romance dynamic of outwardly weaker but inwardly stronger heroine winning the heart of the masculine other is flipped; the main emotional battle is usually between the heroine and her own hang-ups.
The only problem here is that the heroes of these novels are really too good to be true. Not only are these adolescent males brave, self-sacrificing and confident enough to be dominated by unruly women, they’re also endlessly patient. In Graceling, the hero is alone in a forest for weeks on end, able to read the mind of the woman he loves, aware that she wants him as much as he wants her—and he never even tries to initiate a kiss until she makes the first move. (Okay, so she could kill him with a flick of her wrist, and that might be a deterrent.)
Much as I loved Graceling and these other titles, I wouldn’t mind having a hero with a couple of flaws of his own, because without flaws, there isn’t as much of a character arc.
Perhaps the lack of established gender roles and the we-both-change-and-grow arc is part of what makes male/male romances attractive to a straight female readership. In Damon Suede’s well-written Hot Head, for example, two male firefighters grapple with issues of friendship, identity, and desire. (At the very end, one firefighter’s character arc turns into a flamboyant curlicue flourish, but that’s just quibbling.)
Of course, there are contemporary writers who challenge gender roles and create arcs for heroes as well as heroines. In Julie James’ latest novel, About That Night, the hero is a brilliant ex-con who used to serial date models. (He renounces his horndog ways quickly, but his drunken white-collar crime and resemblance to Sawyer on Lost give him flawed hero status, in my book.)
Pamela Clare’s romantic suspense heroes aren’t flawed, exactly, but they tend to be imprisoned, tortured, or (in her soon to be released e-novella) terribly scarred. This may not be an actual character flaw, but hey, it works for me.
Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Rachel Gibson both write wonderful contemporaries with traditional structures (i.e., heroine does not usually kill people with a bow and arrow, and hero does not boast of decorating cakes as his special skill) but both writers create idiosyncratic and authentically flawed heroes and heroines. Gibson’s bad boy heroes are sometimes bad enough that they teeter on the verge of being anti-heroes, which gives a bite of chili-pepper to the chocolate of the inevitable happy ending. (If you’re scribbling down titles to take to the bookstore, Gibson’s new book, Rescue Me, is coming out May 29, while Phillips’ The Great Escape is out in July.)
What I have yet to read: A contemporary romance that plays with gender roles by featuring an emotionally-contained, utterly competent heroine – and a hero who has a character flaw, and not just a scar or a missing limb. (I did read a male/male with that dynamic, KA Mitchell’s No Souvenirs, a boy-surgeon-meets-boy-dive-boat captain tale of lust on sea and land, but found myself skimming sex scenes to get to the emotional payoff.)
So this is what I want: A contemporary male/female romance with a flawed but competent heroine, a flawed but emotionally accessible hero, intense specific yearning and hot, but not ubiquitous love scenes. Has anyone read one lately?
Alisa Kwitney is a former editor at Vertigo/DC comics. She writes romantic women’s fiction, YA and graphic novels, and (as Alisa Sheckley) writes sf/fantasy. You can visit her at www.alisakwitney.com