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?

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Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, 1975
via amovieaweek.com

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Boston and Badass

I just need to get this off my mind.   It’s an unfinished post I was working on about 2 weeks ago.  Butch O’Neal was going to be my next badass.  I wanted to do a JR Ward hero to add a solid dose of vampire/paranormal romance into the mix, and review a book I actually really liked.  My blog is so new; I’m still trying to get some momentum going and figure out what it’s really going to be about. What will be fun and interesting for me to ponder and post, and what might inspire some sassy and/or intriguing discussion?
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Even though I read Lover Revealed quite a while ago, Butch’s story was among my Black Dagger favorites and this is partly because of the Boston connection.  So there it is… I’ve been completely stalled and distracted, like everyone else who lives in the Boston area, and pretty much haven’t even thought about my new blog for over a week, since before marathon Monday and school vacation week.  When I did think about getting back to the blog, it was with avoidance,  because I knew this was the post I’d find.  Ugh.  I can’t finish it now, and I’m not sure I should post it at all, even with these fragmentary musings.
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I have noticed the term badass all over the place in mainstream coverage and tweeting about the cops in Boston and Watertown.  I can’t tell if I am just noticing it more, or if it is actually being used more. For example, this from a list of media moments compiled by Boston.com’s Radio BDC blog:
IF YOU WERE LISTENING TO THE SCANNER, THIS WILL NOT BE NEWS: WATERTOWN POLICE OFFICERS ARE TOTALLY BADASS.  While waiting for backup, a single Watertown police officer engaged in a shootout with the suspects early Friday morning — and employed a tactic straight out of a Die Hard movie, according to Watertown police chief Edward Deveau. The officer put his car in gear and jumped out of it, hoping they would think he was still in it as he fired from behind a tree, Deveau said.
We tell kids to “look for the helpers” when we’re forced to talk with them about violent and scary events in the news.  I think some of us grown-ups can’t help looking for badass heroes, in much the same way.
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It’s interesting how quickly social media has provided the means for romanticizing key figures in the drama of the last week.  This morning I read this crazy story about how “hot” and badass the Boston FBI head is, based on tweets and other online sources of pop culture buzz.
In case you were buried under a rock, DesLauriers was at the center of the investigation all last week. He stood up at press conferences and said all kinds of badassy stuff, like this: FBI’s DesLauriers ‘We will go to ends of the earth to find those responsible for this despicable crime.”

I was inclined to just ditch my whole post, since it seems pretty cheesy and insensitive to objectify and engage in the “crushing out” on Boston law enforcement in the context of an overwrought fictional world where the Boston cop hero is a vampire.  I have not been directly injured or affected by the terrible events of last week.  I just live here, and my children live here.  The perpetrator is being treated in the hospital where they were born.  Many other strands link us to the places and institutions that have suffered devastating loss and lockdown. For me, Boston Strong is too personal; it’s not just a meme to adopt, analyze and/or deconstruct.   But then I decided to leave the post unfinished and try and make my peace with it by articulating some of this.

I had been especially looking forward to comments on the “poll” question, but now the whole thing just feels completely different.  Real life badass cops chasing and fighting warped evildoers who suddenly — given the scale and grandiose ambition of their actions — resemble nothing so much as Lessers.  Tough to make your peace with that.

Boston Badass

Badass: Brian (Butch) O’Neal, hard-ass Boston cop and long lost descendant of Wrath; re-united with his kin and his kind when he rescues Beth, a female vampire destined to be Queen.

Falls For: Marissa, aristocratic female of impeccable lineage who was not destined to be Queen, but kicks ass in her own right when she takes on the Princeps Council and defeats an attempt to impose misogynist restrictions on female rights and freedoms (the “sehclusion” motion).

Story Recounted By: the incomparable J.R. Ward, in Lover Revealed (2007)

Hangs Out In: V’s lair at the mansion, the ultimate man cave.

Likes:  Schmancy clothes, good Scotch, the Sox .  There are a lot of high end, top shelf brand names in this book.

Dislikes:  Following law enforcement rules when justice is what he’s after; sitting on the sideline when there are Lessers to be Dehstroyed.

Badass Hero Moment: Withstands torture to protect the Brotherhood and its secrets.

To Read Or Not To Read?

Tangentially Related … and Possibly Diverting:  

Pamela Poll:  Boston cops, Boston criminals… there’s a whole sub-genre now of Boston Noir, and it’s not just books.  There are so many great Boston films.  And tv — who can forget Spencer For Hire?!  So…. who are your favorite Boston badasses?

Hungry Like the Wolf

Name: Aidan of Awe, brawny 15th-century Highlander who’s half deamhan (demon?), half immortal Master (savior of Innocence); haunted by his small dead son, he’s a dark, tormented, and merciless warrior feared as the Wolf of Awe.

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Falls For:  Self-described plain and geeky data-whiz Brianna Rose, who has her own paranormal thing going on; as an empath “Brie” is somehow both enthralled with Aidan and brought low by his intense negative emotions.

Story Recounted By: Brenda Joyce, in Dark Embrace, a Masters of Time novel, book one of the Rose Trilogy

Hangs Out In: Cold Scottish castles, packs of wolves, Brianna’s dreams.

Likes:  Lasses with nicknames of French cheese.

Dislikes: Ghosts.

(too) Frequently Described As:   Hot.  We get it, he’s hot.  He would have benefited from a big dose of Showing Not Telling, perhaps via some better dialogue and some perceptible rapport with Brie.

Might Look Like:  I could not get a good mental image of this guy — at least not his face.  As a reader, I find it frustrating, and very telling, when the hero feels so generic to me that I can’t picture a face.  Like the book cover itself, in my mind Aidan was Faceless Bonny Braw Big Shoulder Hero in Kilt.

To Read Or Not To Read?  Too many big questions loomed annoyingly throughout the read.  Why/how is Aidan a shapeshifter, and why a wolf?  Why is this love story so one-sided? (It’s impossible to tell why or how he has feelings for her, but we’re told every couple of pages that she is in love with him).  Why is time travel, and living in centuries not one’s own, so widely practiced and no one is thought odd for wearing designer jeans in medieval Scotland?  I realize this is part of a series, and I mistook the fact that it’s book one of a trilogy, but there are few answers to be had, and apparently any world-building that might have answered at least some of these questions, has happened in an earlier Masters of Time book.  The action and emotion throughout this tale are fever-pitched, yet the real problem is the lack of connection between Aidan and Brianna.  Constant dread, constant lust-think, constant anguish.

Tangentially Related … and Possibly Diverting:  This song just kept popping into my head as I was reading!

Pamela Poll: Do you ever find yourself associating a song with a book as you’re reading it, almost like a mental soundtrack (with or without the accompanying mental image)?  Leave a comment and tell me about it!