Oct 25 2011 9:30am

Outstaying Their Welcome: When Romantic Couples Linger Too Long

Slightly Tempted by Mary BaloghEver 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.

Match Me If You Can by Susan Elizabeth PhillipsFor 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.

Immortal Warrior by Lisa HendrixOn 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.

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1. KatiD
Now Elizabeth, you know I loves you, but I couldn't disagree more. I love, love, love when we get to check in on characters whose HEA we've already experienced. I love seeing them happy, baby on the way, bantering and loving. This is the appeal of the series for me. Do I love it if it's more the focus than that main couple? No. But I do love seeing past couples. It's one of the main reasons I read romance series.

My mileage...it differs. :)
Megan Frampton
2. MFrampton
Meanwhile, @KatiD, I couldn't agree more! I don't want those super-happy (and therefore not quite believable) couples cluttering up the current love story. Stay in the background with your adorable babies and constant sexual tension! Leave me to the people who need my attention right now!
Janet Webb
3. JanetW
You know I cut *cough cough* Mary Balogh a lotta slack but even I could wish for more of the personalities that brought the Bedwyns to the table to be more apparent. Same with glimpses of Lauren and Kit. But I'm not that bothered by it. She did one duo, Heartless and Silent Melody where Luke and Anna, in the 2nd book, have real roles to play, there's tension and even gasp, an argument ... it was so rare as to really stick in my mind. Balogh doesn't do continuing folks that badly, imo. I don't mind the Cynster crowd never disappearing either altho of them all, Devil and her duchess seem the most vivid over the maaaaaany books!

Now Susan Eliz Phillips -- what was her last book, with the president's daughter pulling a bunko? HATED the couples from before. Could barely finish the book and hope I have totally forgotten it when I re-read the Phillips that have given me so much pleasure.
Pamela Webb-Elliott
4. Spaz
Elizabeth, I am soooo with you on this one. I am not familiar with any of these books, but in my experience with other PNR series I read, I get SO ANNOYED when the couple comes back in to the story just so we can hear them singing The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Music. I don't wanna see that crap, it was great in THEIR book, but now we've got angst from a NEW couple, see your wait out, old couple!
5. Darlynne
This is an interesting subject because although I agree with Elizabeth about the enough-already revisiting of previous characters, that is one of the complaints, for example, of JR Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood series. Once the HEA is reached, the couple virtually disappears and readers clamor (oh, do they) for more sightings in future books. They feel short-changed or perhaps just miss their favorite characters. In any event, I'm betting the voting will be split when all the responses come in.
6. ksb36
I guess it depends on the couples--and the author. I would love, love, love to know how Olivia and Lyle experienced Egypt, or how Daphne and Rupert got on. But then, I trust Loretta Chase and know she wouldn't write some treacly, happy-happy epilogue for these characters.
7. Anette
I kind of like the duchess-series by Eloisa James - yes, we DO hear about the married couple Jemma and Elijah all through... lets see, 5 or 6 books, but Jemma and Elijah is an unhappy couple already married, which I find a bit intrigueing, cause while Jemma is helping her friends with their marriages, at the same time she tries to wreck havock on Elijah with her mischievious tricks and attacks on his manhood, his wig, his sense of proprierty (which Jemma is SO NOT going to follow), and whatever she can find to taunt him with.

The Duchess-series holds a very special place in my heart, its like a group of old friends, and therefore I was actually interested in reading the Ever-ever-happy-everafter-extra-story which Mrs. James wrote to bind all the HEA's together in a tidy knot around the christening of Jemma and Elijah's baby.
8. Janga
I'm with KatiD. While I don't want the settled couples to upstage the H/H, I love seeing characters who share a world play a part in other characters' stories. That's a big part of my series addiction. Families and friends do gather for weddings, christenings, etc. I expect fictional characters to do the same.
9. jsmom2
yes and no... I love to revisit just to see that they're doing well. I think that Amanda Quick does a great job with this with the Jones', we see them because their lives are all intertwined but each couple really does get their own story and their own book.

The trouble for me comes when the new couple gets overwhelmed. The most recent example for me was Lover Unleashed, Manny and Payne totally got lost in all of V's (and then Xcor's - really? Won't he get his own book?) angst. I was so disappointed; as much as I love me some V, I was really looking forward to Payne's getting her own.

That's when it irks me.
10. Beverly Diehl
Total agreement. Once their HEA is resolved, all I want in future books is a smile & a wave. Unless they have more actual business and are integral to helping the current H/H resolve their crisis, a glimpse is plenty. You're right on with how well Hendrix handles it - enough to satisfy, withut being cloying/annoying.
Erika Blackburn
11. fadedsouls
I can't think of a series where the reappearance of a happy couple has bothered me.

Now that I think about it, I think I like when earlier couples show up. It gives me a better sense of continuity within a series, like every story isn't happening in a vacuum.
12. AnimeJune
Well that's just it - I don't mind if the previous couples have a specific role to play in the story (that ISN'T just mischievous meddling matchmaking, which is the subject of an entirely different rant). What I do mind are pointless and overly long scenes of them cooing over their babies and how great their lives are without really contributing to the story.
Donna Cummings
13. Donna Cummings
I hate to disagree, but I have to! I loooove to see what the previous heroes and heroines are up to. I like seeing that things are great in their world, because when I first encountered them, there was a lot of angst and growth and fretting to get them to that HEA. To me it's like a Facebook update, or a tweet, letting me know things are good. I also think it's good for the current hero/heroine to see what's possible--the previous couples are "relationship role models", so to speak. LOL
14. Martha Eddy
I love hearing what is going on with the HEA couples. Stephanie Laurens with the Cynsters is great - the checking in with the (extended) family seems true to life. Loved her last with Eliza Cynster - the one with sister Heather not so much. Mary Balogh I loved the Bedwyns and the Simply Tempted and Slightly Scandalous are going on at the same time telling how Morgan and Alleyne Bedwyn are seeing the same events. I love Julia Quinn's Bridgerton series with the recent 2nd Epilogues to tell us how things are progressing. That being said, I loathed Balogh's the Secret Mistress (prequel to the Mistress series), perhaps because the characters were not as memorable as the Bedwyns.
Cristina P
15. krissapl
@KatiD. I agree. I like previous couples showing up. And the Eternally- Blissful is nice for me, that's why I read romance novels after all, for the tender and loving moments between the characters. Nothing wrong with bliss :).
However, not every author has the previous couples happy with no problems (see Virgin River series by Robyn Carr). The couple from the first book in the series, for example, has some children related problems later on, in other people's books.
Alana Abbott
16. alanajoli
I think the only thing that gets to me about the prequel baggage is when, particularly in the case of the men, the former bachelors share Sage Looks about a particular quarrel the current hero is having with the heroine. Series that I think avoid this nicely are the ones where the relationships are very different. Jessica Andersen's "Final Prophecy" series does a nice job of that -- one of the books features a husband and wife who have fallen out of love, and the book is their quest to fall back in love with each other. The problems they're facing are totally different from the ones faced by the couples in previous books -- each of the couples in the series is treated as unique. And while the earlier characters are a major part of the cast (because they're the save the world team), the earlier relationships aren't in focus -- and, in fact, the HEA couples don't always see perfectly eye to eye. That, for me, really works.
17. Karen H
I also disagree with you, Elizabeth. In fact, in an early series by Linda Lael Miller, the couple from a previous book were mentioned in a later book as having serious problems with each other and I was very upset. I want my HEA to be EA! And I love to see the previous couple(s) experiencing their HEA life.That doesn't mean the couple cannot disagree with one another but their happy relationship is not in question. It makes me hopeful for my own life and it's one of the reasons I read romance.
Sandi Logsted
18. sandlog
My favorite use of previous HEAs were (and yes, I know I'm showing my age) Lindsay's Mallory books. It was fun to see that those conflicts between Mallorys and those marrying into the family weren't always smooth sailing, but they put up with each other to keep their spouses happy (just like in life).
19. Rose In RoseBear
I like knowing about the previous couples' post-HEA lives. One of my big complaints about the early BDB books was the lack of interaction between the primary couple and the others in the house. The later books, starting with Lover Awakened, do some heavy lifting, character development-wise and plot advancement-wise, in the secondary story.
20. Lafka
I actually love to see former couples make appearances in later books. It's kind of an intersting twist to see that their life is going on even after they reached their HEA.
Nonetheless, I agree with you Elizabeth when you say that too much prequel baggage kills the prequel baggage.
For example, while reading Lisa Kleypas' Hathaways, every book seemed to give more and more room to appearances of mainly Cam & Amelia. So what, ok they are a great couple, Ok it's normal to have them appear from time to time in the life of their siblings, but come on, do we really need to see them at nearly every chapter of the 4 later books? It really bothered me while reading the 4 later books of the serie _ I loved these books but I think I would have appreciated them far more if there had been a little less Camelia...
It was pretty much the same while reading Celeste Bradley's Liar Club serie. Every former couple kept appearing in the later books, for some reason or another, which brings you somehow to the saturation point (there are if I recall well 5 books in the Liar Club serie, and 4 more books in the Royal Four serie, where the said couples make some appearances too).
So yes, I'm found of post-HEA appearances, but let's keep it just that, appearances!
Theresa Ramseyer
21. TheresaR
I agree with AnimeJune and others that I usually like seeing other couples in the stories, as long as they're not completely off in "happily married and perfect kids bliss land". Just because they are married and have their HEA ending doesn't mean it stays that way.

Eventually I would like to write a novel, maybe a series. I have a couple in mind, but I want them to continue realistically after their big HEA ending somewhere along the line. That includes arguing, job-related separations (they work for and with each other), "weren't you supposed to pick up our daughter today?" situations, and so forth.

HEA's are fun and fine, but "Sound of Music/perpetual wedded bliss" isn't realistic and shouldn't be shown so, in my opinion. Besides, there's always a chance for another HEA along the way. :).
22. ReaderCarolyn
I like it when past characters show up when it helps the story or gives us a brief glimpse into their life afterwards because I do want to see their bond as it's grown, if it's done in a non-treacly fashion

Now, I know someone is going to know this series (I'm horrible about names of books/series.) where a future book in a series has a previous HEA couple missing/presumed dead by their grown children. Oh my gosh! I know that death happens eventually, and yes, the author handled it as well as could be expected ("they're together"...), but still it made me so sad. That's not the way I want past characters in the series to show up in future books.
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