I Always Mistrusted His Appearance of Goodness

"Whosoever is overcome of desire and turns his gaze upon the darkness, he shall look on hell
and lose the thing he loves."

After a brief discussion between my sister and me, Abigail wrote down a good post on romance in literature. I highly recommend it, because it bears considering, and I will only summarize it by saying that she holds (as the evidence supports) that romance can be written wrongly, but that there is no one right way to do it. But let her post speak for itself. In light of that brief discussion, her post, and my own novel, we thought I ought to write a companion post on the wrong sort of romance.

Don't misunderstand me. Abigail handled romance being written right and romance being written wrong. I want to wrestle with the beast of writing, not Romance Wrong, but Wrong Romance. We are all familiar with the girl who makes some bad calls and falls for the wrong sorts of men - we hope that, in the course of the story, she learns from her mistakes and finds a good bloke to look after her. But just as it is important to know how to write villains convincingly, flesh-and-bloodly, it is important to know how to write those bad calls, those wrong romances.

Two examples came to my mind, both of them very similar. In fact, it was this idea that brought the similarity to my attention. Those examples are my own heroine and antagonist (not very well known to you just yet) and the famous example of Hades and Persephone. Now, there was a match made in hell if ever there was one. You'll find the story of the kidnapped princess everywhere, of course, but Hades is really master of them all. Riding in his chariot pulled by his fell black horses, he comes upon the flower goddess wandering a little too far from home. In one swoop he grabs her by the wrist and hauls her into his car, whips up the horses, and plunges irreparably back into his abysmal realm. It's a well-known story. But they tell me familiarity breeds contempt, and it has been such a very long time since those black horses pricked through the meadow, leaving dead flowers in their wake, that the whole story doesn't really catch us by the throat anymore. We know how it ends, even if we hate Hades for doing it. It's boring. It has no dimension anymore, warped out of life by the sheer volume of time that lies between it and us.

So how, without violating moral laws that we all hold to be self-evident, do you catch your reader by the throat? How do you write such a persistent, unswerving, inexorable passion on the part of the antagonist, or the heroine fighting him every step and turn of the way? How do you make Hades and Persephone (who only wept, stupid woman; I would have kicked and bitten him on that downward drive) - how do you make Hades and Persephone real?

You're not allowed to be missish. My antagonist really does love the heroine, but in a twisted, dark, self-centred kind of way that shows a horrible kind of mercy and a hard kind of tenderness. Just as a villain won't consciously think "I am going to do this because I think it is wrong," just so a passionate antagonist will not try to woo a woman just to hurt her. Somehow, in some confused, fallen, violent way, there is something like attraction and love in the antagonist. And it is when something good is so totally warped out of decency that it really jolts you. Margaret and her suitor, far more than Hades and Persephone, make you fear for life and limb and light because the suitor stands closer to the attention than distant mythical gods, and he really means business.

You all know how to write good characters. You know how to give them dimension, depth, purpose. You know how to make a really good hero and a really good villain. But I'm throwing another ball into the cricket match (because doesn't this all defy explanation?), and that is the depraved romance. That, too, is a fact, and that, too, as with everything else, is something we ought to be able to handle well. And to make it come alive, this often necessitates a dangerous journey into very abysmal realms of the heart. What drives the antagonist, and how much will he risk to get what he wants? How strong is the heroine, and what can she take before she begins to crack? Once you start pumping life-blood back into such stories as kidnapping, manipulation, dark, hell-bent affection, the long perspective of Hades and Persephone begins to grow some dimension - and begins to be frightening again.

That is a dour note to end on, don't you think? Even the pagan story, which was more concerned about the fact that Demeter had shut off spring and summer, didn't end there. If you ever find the need to write such a romance I am sure your motives and methods will be different. But I do hope that there is one thing similar: I hope there is a white knight with the motto tertium quid stamped on his shield to bring in the right sort of romance. But though the right romance should be that much better, and is that much more important to be sure, make sure the wrong sort doesn't suffer from missishness or neglect.

[She] laughed softly, bitterly. “You are fit to be a king,” she said, lifting her eyes to his. “But you would be a tyrant.”

10 ripostes:

  1. Ah yes. Very true...I hadn't quite thought of it in this way...in my novel Randolph Fitz-Hughes has two motives for demanding the Lady Cecelia as a bride--he wants a shoe-in for the kingdom, but he is also attracted by her beauty--the two things are like flint and steel, making a spark for the story. When he loses her he is, of course, angered that the beautiful woman is gone, but it also took his easy way into the kingdom. But on the other hand, his army is enormous and powerful, but now the most beautiful woman in the world has flown the coop....it's double-sided, and not exactly love....
    Very interesting topic, Jenny, and thanks for sharing!

  2. No, it is never exactly love. But imagine what happened when the most beautiful woman of the Greek world disappeared! The lengths men will go to...though I suspect there were double motives involved and the Acheans wanted free access to the Black Sea, which Troy overlooked. But I seriously digress.

    I look forward to seeing how Randolph Fitz-Hughes pans out and whether or not his interest in Lady Cecelia holds or fades out. He could always pull a Tudor and jot down for the history books that Cecelia was a veritable hag and when a blind man wouldn't marry her. Propaganda. I digress again.

    Yes, this sort of affection is always double-sided and never exactly love. Randolph wants Cecelia for politcal reasons - my antagonist wants Margaret for political reasons as well, but thrown into the mix is the uncomfortable fact that he does love her, weirdly, darkly, and that only makes it more difficult. I think she could have almost resigned herself to being only a pawn, but no-o-o...

  3. You raise some excellent points to think about, particularly the idea of love/affection twisted and "warped out of decency." In books I've read and heard of, that is usually what Wrong Romance is--people with a greedy, selfish sense of love. A lot of Thomas Hardy's novels deal with that, and generally the stories end badly.

    I'd also add that there are a some sick people who are actually sadistic, who have never had even a twisted sense of good intentions towards their victims. Those are probably more difficult characters to write, since archvillain-type characters are considered "cliche" these days. But I do think that fairytales are far more realistic than they seem at first glance.

  4. I'm not sure if the sadist is harder to write or not. I didn't bring it up in the post because, while I am not a psychologist, I think sadists are more in love with the pain than with the object on which they may or may not inflict pain. The line between the two may be fine, and the topic is certainly larger than we can discuss in a comment box (though it would be a fun discussion), but I think there is a difference between the Wrong Romance and the sadist, chiefly the object of the love.

    But going back to my original sentence, it may be harder to write the antagonist of the Wrong Romance than the sadist - it may be harder to write him than to write a Don Juan, for that matter. The soul of the former antagonist is awash with contradiction, of high sentiments fallen to Pandemonium depths. The sadist, in either sense of the term, though a mentally confusing creature is clear in one aspect: he is completely, blatantly, vigorously fallen. One needs say no more about him. Writing a fellow like my antagonist (I do hope I am not alone in these endeavours, and I would love to hear the attempts of others) - writing a fellow like my antagonist leaves me with a more human (and therefore more complex) being to handle. In our completely fallenness we are usually moderately active in social sins, we have yet the Imago Dei, we have yet Law and Decorum that fight with blunted but still mildly effectual weapons against animal urges. My antagonist has scores of feelings, beliefs, and socially accepted norms at war within himself. I think it is far more difficult to write the motley harlequin soul than the black-robed devil or the white-clad saint. Which is more rewarding cannot be said, as each has its place in reality.

  5. Jenny, yes, each has his place in reality. But I'm so happy that we don't have to marry a Wrong Man or a black-robed devil. When we marry our white-clad saint, we simply must remember that he will fail us as we will fail him.

    I wrote about a 'motley', a complex man, a Wrong Man, to whom my heroine responded with a little too much pity. As my writing progressed, I inched him closer to 'a black-robed devil' so that I could preserve her integrity in my readers' minds, and protect her, and keep her focus where it ought to be. His being too complex and attractive (and pitable because of his painful past) was a real writing challenge. I showed that she responded with authentic shock over the kind and extent of her feelings toward him too. In the end it seems that the Wrong Man is a temptation that requires a lot of prayer.

  6. Jennifer, I hope it is all right with you that I nominated you for The Versatile Blogger Award. You can do as little or as much as you like in response.
    Lord bless you!

  7. The problem with human love of any stripe (that being, not actively abetted by the Son of Love) is that it's object (McCartney, et al. notwithstanding) will ultimately be Self. Desdemona might be thought the victim of two such passionate wills, but was it not concern for her own stature that first led her to the Moor's bed? The lover as sadist is compelling, yes, but much less common than the lover as masochist. To realize that to fall even one micron short of perfection is still abject failure, and that perfection is unattainable, is better called prudence than pessimism, save for the words of the Creator in the garden: "It is not good." And yet the apostle wishes that all men were as he is. Without overstating the case, it's enough to set one completely at a loss.

  8. Self. While this thought crossed my mind several times as I hashed out this post, Chewie, I'm afraid the fact, the cult, the religion, of Self was far too large a topic for me to handle alongside writing the passionate impulses of the depraved. It's a religion as old as Eden, more pervasive than any other, and goodness knows I couldn't do it credit in so few words.

  9. Perhaps I am completely off track, but you did say "Writing a fellow like my antagonist (I do hope I am not alone in these endeavours, and I would love to hear the attempts of others)..." reminds me of my wizard in my fan-fiction (maybe I have mentioned him to you before?) But I have never been able to figure out his motivation (aside from self I suppose.) Aside from the utterly creepifying picture (which seemed right for the topic) this was a brilliant post! It almost reminds me of BBC Guy of Gisborne in his twisted blackness yet love (want?) for Marian.

  10. Good post, Jenny-O. :D I agree. Most of my romances aren't quite as dark as the story of Hades and Persephone, but that story, for some reason, was one of my favorite tales in the little "Greek Legends" book that we had, once upon a time. (It was also one of my least favorites. "Why oh why did she eat those seeds? Then she could flee back home! And why didn't they send an army after her?" were the thoughts that would always go through my young head...that and her name made me think of phones. >.O But that's completely off subject.)

    Beautifully written, as usual, Jenny. ^.^ The story you talk about sounds very intriguing!