Scare Tactics: How About a Little Violence with Your Romance?

This is a post-in-progress, which is to say it’s an invitation to a discussion….  

I’m still thinking through the questions I want to explore, and I’m hoping one or two fellow readers and/or bloggers will be willing to help me kick this around a little bit.  What’s your comfort level with graphic violence in romance fiction?  Does your level of ease/unease change according to the setting or sub-genre?

My previous post was a rave review for Donna Thorland’s The Turncoat.  I think — although I’m by no means able to state this with any kind of statistical certainty — that it’s more violent than most histrom novels I’ve read.  It’s a wartime romance, and the protagonists are engaged in espionage and counter-espionage on opposing sides. There are several scenes involving physical and psychological torture (of known and/or suspected spies, of ordinary citizens for the purposes of intimidation by the occupying British) that were intense enough to remind me of novels and films well outside the romance genre – painful WWII stories with Nazis, or at one point even the cable drama Homeland, which is sort of a maze-like essay on spying, love, illusion and torture. I thought perhaps the novel Thorland most evoked for me, in terms of the use of violence and fear as a theme in a love story, might be Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, which some detractors dislike for its graphic no-holds-barred narrative (that’s the original cover from 1991, when it was published looking very much like a trad romance novel).

In a way, the grittiness of Thorland’s wonderful novel was oddly refreshing to my historical sensibilities, because I love this period and setting so much, and she made it a very real, very dangerous place and time, with safe domestic harbors few and far between. But there are other romance novels set in this period, even ones involving the spy networks, that don’t place the brutality of wartime so much at the forefront. It’s got me thinking about violence in the romance genre, and the delicate balance required to incorporate graphic episodes in a form of storytelling that is a lot about escape, fantasy, and happy endings.

We talk a lot about how rape or the threat of rape functions in romance, from “rapey” heroes and dubious consent to rape culture and assumptions about women who read BDSM erotica. These are important discussions, and what I’m talking about is certainly connected to these issues. But I’m pondering violence in romance more broadly — what do we find acceptable, and how does what we find acceptable change according to the different sub-genres or settings of particular novels? What about non-sexual violence?

Heroes are often called upon to be badass and perform a beatdown on the villain, or to annihilate random thugs. This is equally true in a Stephanie Laurens Regency or a Black Dagger Brotherhood urban fantasy from JR Ward. In some cases the heroine is also capable of delivering the beatdown – see for example Joanna Bourne’s female spies. Do we expect a certain level of badassery and capacity for violence in the hero across the romance genre? Do we look for a similar capacity in the heroine in selected contexts?

And what of violence and the threat of violence against hero and heroine? How much is too much? How much are we willing to let happen to our protagonists? And whatever has happened to them or whatever they endure, what level of detail are we willing to experience along with them?

If you’re still with me, I’m really curious to know what you think about the way violence gets used and incorporated in romance novels. Do you prefer the suspense to build via allusions to offscreen violence? Character development via potentially violent and/or abusive episodes from the past, not the present space of the novel? What about the function of plot devices such as last-minute rescues, subjecting a secondary character to violence to intensify the sense of danger to H/h, or going inside the villain’s head for sections or chapters involving evil deeds and/or graphically violent fantasies?

Even romance novels that are frothy and fun sometimes utilize danger or the threat of violence to drive the story. How does that work? When a novel is light in tone, how do authors elevate suspense if there is a plot involving hero or heroine in peril? I reviewed The Pirate Lord by Sabrina Jeffries a while back, and I struggled a bit with the romp-ish tone of the book given grim subject matter (pirates kidnap convict ship carrying female prisoners, for forced marriages so they can make a utopian community on a deserted island). Do some romance sub-genres depend on the element of danger as a plot device, yet avoid graphic depictions of violent crimes? How does this work without trivializing the emotional impact of fear, stress, etc. or reducing violent acts to the level of cartoonish evildoers?

Or are all these questions sort of meaningless since as readers we tend to instinctively choose books that will meet our needs within our comfort zone on several important measures? In romance fiction, people seem to frequently make choices based  on subgenre, “sensuality rating,” and the opinions of trusted recommenders. Perhaps level of violence, like level of explicit sexual content, is something about which we make instinctive judgments, thereby avoiding books that will make us uncomfortable? Or are we willing to tolerate more variability with violence, from book to book?

Finally, are there loose conventions that guide us as readers — that is, does level of violence correlate with particular subgenres within romance? Do you expect a certain amount of danger in paranormals or urban fantasy because of the use of suspense plots, while contemporaries tend to offer less violent forms of danger? What about historical romance? Are certain settings likely to involve more graphic violence, or just different types of violence — eg. the ritualized violence of the duel?


Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, 1975

14 thoughts on “Scare Tactics: How About a Little Violence with Your Romance?

  1. JessieRM says:

    II don’t think I’ve paid enough critical attention to violence in romance novels, but after reading this post, I can see that’s a huge oversight on my part! You ask some tough questions that open up many avenues of discussion.

    I have only a rambling response at right now, but here goes:

    Since romance novels are primarily courtship stories that emphasize a woman’s, rather than a man’s, experience, I wonder how violence factors into the courtship arc. It seems counterintuitive to suggest that violence enhances the courtship in some way, but obviously, it can. How does violence do this?

    As a reader, I respond differently to heroes and heroines who endure violence than I do to those who deliver the violence themselves. Plenty of romance novels have heroes and heroines who endure pain and suffering at the hands of others, and as you note, this drives the plot and reveals character. Still, this type of “trial” occurs in many genres of literature, so when I come across it in a romance novel, I don’t pay much attention to it _as violence_ other than to determine how well the extent of it arises from the historical setting or the world building the author is doing. For example, I expect to see graphic violence in a Black Dagger Brotherhood novel since the culture Ward built for those books has a justifiable place for it. But if it doesn’t arise organically, then it breaks my suspension of disbelief. I can’t say graphic violence could never appear in a Regency romance, but if it did, the author would have to do some genre bending to include it, and at that point, I’m not sure it would be a Regency anymore.

    But romance novels that have an exchange of violence _between the hero and heroine_, whether intended or not, injure not only a key character but also the courtship. I see the harm done to the courtship as a borderline disruption of the genre because it questions the very nature of what a courtship is. Jamie beating Claire in _Outlander_, Elizabeth accidentally shooting Nathaniel in _Into the WIlderness_, and other episodes like this jar the romance reader’s expectations of how a courtship should evolve. Marriage before love? No problem. Long separations? No problem. Hero persecutes the heroine’s family? No problem.

    But the hero _physically harms_ the heroine (or vice versa)? Big problem. Of all the books I have had my students read, including _The Flame and the Flower_, nothing confuses them more than E. M. Hull’s _The Sheik_, a novel where the hero rapes the heroine night after night and yet these two transcend this violence and become a couple. That kind of courtship is no courtship at all to my students today. They hate this novel and cannot but into its fantasy. But _The Sheik_ held an incredibly strong appeal to American women in 1920, the year they finally got the vote! Why wasn’t this violence as repugnant to them as it is to my students?

    I am interested in how such H/H violence affects the reading experience. If the H/H violent episodes are done well, as they are in _Outlander_ and _Into the Wilderness_, I feel they increase the cognitive load on the romance reader to figure out how the couple is going to “make it.” Readers who have a high need for cognition may enjoy this increased difficulty, difficulty they may need since the happy ending (HEA or HFN) is a given. If, as a reader, I need something to challenge me on the journey to that ending, this type of violence, if done well, can make my reading experience much more enjoyable not because I revel in the violence itself, but because I have what seems like an impossible courtship puzzle to solve.

    But as the example of _The Sheik_ makes clear, this is not an easy thing for an author to pull off, so I’m eager to learn more about other successful examples of this.

  2. Nicola O. says:

    I love this topic.

    I read a long time ago that in horror films, there is often a sensual or sexual scene shortly before the Big Scary Moment, to amp up the emotional reaction in the audience. I think many romances do the same thing in reverse — bring in the violence to amp up the romantic moment.

    I’ve also noticed that as sexual scenes have become more graphic and… well, specific, so has the violence.

    As for me, I’m not a big fan of really graphic violence, especially in contemporary romance. Serial-killers are practically their own subgenre in contemps, and I avoid them actively, even from authors I like.

    I mind it less in PNR and UF, I think because it carries over to real-world anxiety much less. But, particularly in fantasy that involves immortal characters, sometimes the violence gets to really disturbing levels. The angels in Meljean Brook’s and Nalini Singh’s respective series comes to mind. Brook has a character that spent — years, decades? I forget — nailed to a wall with an iron spike through her skull and brain. Gaaahhh.

    Marjorie Liu puts a fascinating twist on this sort of thing in her Dirk and Steele series – her “othered” characters are frequently victims of really disturbing violence, and most of the time… it’s perpetrated by the non-paranormal characters, even while the books build up how powerful and potentially dangerous the paranormally gifted humans are.

    Do some romance sub-genres depend on the element of danger as a plot device, yet avoid graphic depictions of violent crimes? Yes, certainly. And very common in older historicals.

    How does this work without trivializing the emotional impact of fear, stress, etc. or reducing violent acts to the level of cartoonish evildoers? Well, you know. It just depends entirely on the specific book and the skill of the author. (That’s a terrible answer. But true.)

    • pamela1740 says:

      Great comment – I was hoping to hear more about PNR and UF, because I’m not as familiar as I am with histrom. I agree that it’s somehow easier to tolerate descriptions of violence when they involve things that are happening in a world that doesn’t so much resemble real life. And the way the story is told — eg. the skill of the author — can get me to read books I might not otherwise, including ones with more graphic everything.

      Since I think you’re right about the use of a violent episode to “amp up” climactic developments in the story, I wonder what you think about the nearly commonplace phenomenon of hero committing all manner of violent acts in the name of protection or rescue? Actually, sometimes the heroine does the rescuing, but either way, does romance excuse vigilantism, as Genevieve and Merrian are suggesting?

  3. As I get older, I find I have less and less tolerance for violence in all my entertainment, not just romance novels. I guess I’m becoming more mature? 🙂
    One thing I’m finding more and more troubling is the how some heroes must engage in vigilantism–up to and including murder–with regard to the villain as part of his “heroic arc.” (This seems to be more common in Western historicals.)
    In the next to last chapter, you have the hero rescuing the heroine, killing the villain (who “deserved it”), and then in the next chapter, happily settling down with the heroine with no hint of any kind of mental trauma from murdering another person!
    I realize that it’s only fiction, and everything is going to require some suspension of disbelief, but that’s something I’m having a harder and harder time glossing over.

    • pamela1740 says:

      I have less tolerance for graphic violence these days, too. It’s one reason I was struck by some of the scenes in the book I had just finished. It’s hard for me to believe I once read true crime books for a brief time in my (much) younger days. I also think the narrative scenario you describe happens in plenty of historicals, even Regency historicals. Sometimes the bad guy just gets arrested, but not always.

  4. merriank says:

    Like Genevieve, I have always been disturbed by the vigilantism that is really common in PNR and rom suspense. It isn’t just the violent act(s) but the way inter-personal/revenge violence is core to many stories – the acceptance and valorisation of it as a norm. It sits firmly in gun culture I think. When I read about the narco wars in Mexico and school shootings in USA (here it is the occasional motorcycle bikie shooting other bikies) it seems to me that the violence and vigilantism in the romance genre is on a continuum with this.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Thanks for this great comment. Vengeance is such a strong theme in many romances, and tied to notions of honor which are themselves valorized as romantic and emotionally compelling. With that for cover, I do think violent acts that are “justified” frequently don’t get examined closely when we’re reading through for the HEA.

  5. Nicola O. says:

    I would somewhat disagree that the trauma of murdering someone is glossed over in (realistic) contemporary romance. When the hero must kill someone, or has killed someone, in this subgenre, the emotional trauma is pretty frequently an important character and sometimes plot point.

    It gets more complicated in other genres. In typical Regency, Napoleonic PTSD is such a common backstory/internal conflict, I think it’s pretty much a cliche now (but propers to Mary Jo Putney for starting the immensely effective trend). I think modern readers accept that “in historical times” (whatever that means), life was held more cheaply, and social repercussions could be much less, especially if the villain is mustache-twirlingly villainous. You know?

    In PNR/UF, I think there are two important sub-categories — those where the paranormal world is covert and hidden, and those where it is “out” and generally known about. In the first, vigilantism can be pretty easily justified within the fantasy realm, if that’s what the author wants to do. Take JR Ward’s lessers, for instance. Nobody in the “real world” cares if they live or die — they are chosen precisely with that in mind. Their bodies disintegrate when they’re killed, leaving only a substance that human forensics would not recognize. In fact, the really bad guys actually kill them first — the heroic vampires only rid the world of their soulless evil. There! all tidied up. We readers can have all the dramaz and none of the guilt.

    In the case where the paranormals are “out,” like Kim Harrison’s Hollows series, or Chloe Neill’s Chicagoland Vampires, the human/paranormal politics often play a huge role in the plotting. Though in the cases I can think of offhand, paranormal folk like vampires or shifters in general seem less perturbed by killing an “obvious” baddie than by the possible social ramifications.

    As I ramble around attempting to find my point, I think genre worlds are almost always far more black and white than reality, and that’s just how we like them. We as readers are comfortable knowing — KNOWING, from the explicit narrative– that the bad guys have been summarily dealt with, and the good guys are riding into the sequel — er, sunset, I mean.

    • pamela1740 says:

      Well, I think you found at least several good points here! 🙂 And, again, thank you so much for illuminating these themes with regard to paranormals. I haven’t read much in that subgenre lately, so I was feeling a little rusty about trying to talk about the “justified” forms of violence operate. But I have read most of the Black Dagger books, and I also had the _lessers_ in mind when I was thinking about one particular use of violent fantasy which I actually really don’t like all that much, and that is the head hop into an evil character’s mind, After about my 2nd or 3rd Ward book, I started skimming or skipping outright the sections where the POV shifts to the evil _lesser_ mastermind(s) and there’s a lot of quite graphic fantasizing about what will be done to his targeted victims, etc. I just found I didn’t need to read those sections to get what I wanted from the novels, which was the romance, and the relationships between and among the Brothers.

      I also read a whole slew of Sherrilyn Kenyon, Kerrelyn Sparks and Karen Marie Moning, probably 5 or 6 years ago. With some of those series (and I’m kind of muzzily stretching to remember stuff here….), it seemed to me that the level of violence (and willingness to kill) had a lot to do with codes of honor, battles between good and evil, and a kind of transposition of a quasi-medieval attitude woven into the epic fantasy. Also, in the case of the shifter paranormals, there are codes of the pack substituting for the clans in the Scottish time travel-ish ones. Either way, characters are subjected, as you say, to all kinds of extreme magical and psychological torture, and usually have to kill the evil characters, etc.

      And I agree completely that there’s a big difference between realistic contemporaries and how they approach violence, and contemporaries with fantasy elements.

  6. Kelly says:

    I love the questions you’re asking here. I finished Eileen Dreyer’s ONCE A RAKE over the weekend, and I was a little bit shocked at how violent it was. In many ways, it reminded me of a Stephanie Laurens book (but thankfully without the weird sex, cookie-cutter characters, and romance arc focused on the heroine getting the reluctant hero to admit to loving her)… So, actually, maybe it reminded me of what I wished Laurens’ books were…

    You’ve read those awful BLACK COBRA books, right? In one of them — the third one, maybe? — the heroine gets abducted by the Black Cobra and tied to a chair in a room with this evil-looking dude who twirls his mustache while taking an awfully long time selecting which knife he’s going to use on her first. Of course — you knew it! — she gets rescued before the guy ever comes to a decision, so everything is right as rain after all. I pretty much hated all four books (why did I read them? WHY?!), but I had a particular disgust of this one, because I felt manipulated by an apparent threat of violence that was no threat at all.

    Now, flash to ONCE A RAKE, which features a vaguely similar scenario, except that the heroine actually gets roughed up and really is in a dire situation (so is the hero). Although the violence made me a little bit uncomfortable while I was reading it, I recognized that it fit within the context of the story, and I was honestly just so relieved not to have been pointlessly manipulated by a mere threat.

    I guess the dos equis line sort of sums it up… I don’t always read books that feature violence towards the characters, but when I do, I want it to be somewhat realistic and (ideally) to matter to the story, the characters, etc. It’s when violence is trotted out to serve an author’s purpose and then is neatly put in its place by a quick rescue that it is trivialized, I think. If authors are going to play that card, they should play it for reals.

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