I’ve written some dreamboats in my books, and the reason I started in the first place was because no man really seemed to be like the ones you read about in books. Which is fine, we live in reality, we don’t expect Prince Charming. But here’s a few things I’ve noticed about the dreamy male characters in books, and maybe they’ll give our real life counterparts some ideas.
They’re capable of explaining how they feel.
It’s usually way after something silly has happened, but these guys have enough self knowledge to explain why they’ve done something. That’s always nice, instead of sitting there in confusion, like a real person.
Some shit happened, but they’re over it.
There was a crazy ex, a business deal gone wrong, parental issues. We always meet our leading men at the right time, when they’re done with all that stuff and can move on. In real life, we meet people when we meet them, and we’re usually dealing with our own stuff too. Which is where the understanding that real people aren’t perfect comes in.
I think people often mistake what power means. I personally didn’t find Christian Gray a decent male character, he didn’t make me swoon. Neither did that soppy vampire. People were attracted to their power over their women, and in Gray’s case, his money. It’s easy enough to say ‘Oh, he flew her about in a private jet’ or whatever, but the truth of power is the ability to arrange things. To book dinner, to make plans. Whether that’s a private jet, or a private booth at Burger King.
Even control freaks like myself want a little surprise every now and then! My male leads are able to make sweet gestures that aren’t so over the top you want to vomit, but make a difference. Who doesn’t love a surprise?
Understanding their girl.
Your dreamboat male knows what’s going on in his love’s head. Not always, that would be boring and unbelievable. But he knows enough about her history, her quirks, her story to figure out why she’s suddenly freaking out, or why she’s not happy. Understanding goes a long way.
They Give and Receive.
No, I’m not being dirty. A working relationship with a fictional dreamboat involves give and take. Your main man can’t come in and solve all her problems. Why, you ask? Because then she has no purpose. If she can’t offer something, if she’s not what he needs back, then there’s no point. Again, back to Fifty Shades of Shit, she’s poor, he’s rich, she’s innocent, he’s experienced. She likes nice things, and he likes beating the shit out of a willing sex partner.
Also, I refuse to let my leading man sweep in to solve my leading lady’s problems- I write strong, kickass women who can save themselves. They sometimes need some help figuring out how to be vulnerable, but they don’t need a man on a white horse.
That leads me nicely to number seven- they have to have something wrong with them! You know how boring it is to be with someone perfect? Tends to give your self esteem a bit of a knock too. Whether he leaves biscuit crumbs in the bed, or has a tendency to flirt, he has to be human.
He sees her.
This is a really simple trope that real life men could learn from. Notice something about your partner and identify that you are paying attention. It could be as simple as Julia Stile’s ‘hey, your eyes have a little green in them’ in Ten Things I Hate About You. It could be Harry’s list of things he knows and loves about Sally in When Harry Met Sally (‘The little crinkle in your forehead when you’re looking at me like I’m nuts!’ Aw) but noticing goes a long way. It shows your male is smitten and your leading lady is worth watching.
Sometimes, when you write stories, life starts to seem like this weird symbolic thing, where everything has relevance. That guy you exchanged glances with at the cornershop when he was buying jaffa cakes, and you had a pint of milk, well, clearly, you were destined to see him again. The necklace you found after months of looking for it, signified an emotional change, and the feeling that you were going to get what you wanted. Raining on your birthday? Accidentally hit a guy in the face whilst twerking? Meaningful.
The fictional world is one full of signs, so that when you look at the real world, you can tend to see where things are going. And often, things that appear to be problems are really only different archetypes in storytelling. So here are the main things I’ve learnt about relationships from writing romances.
Passion matters. Attraction, desire, whatever- it’s important. In a lot of stories, we often find characters who don’t notice this attraction until halfway through the story. I personally think this is bullshit. If you’re attracted to someone, then you’re attracted to them. You can stamp down on it, but you can’t create it out of thin air. Chemistry only happens when you have the right ingredients.
Good partners listen. They explore what the other person is about. They have a basic curiosity about who and what this person is. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Always freaking ASK- if you think they’re being unfaithful, if you heard a rumour, if you don’t know how they feel. So many terrible story lines could have been avoided if the main character had grown a pair and just asked their partner what the hell was up.
The MOST BASIC of memes to avoid- You have an argument with your partner. You think it’s over. You’re heartbroken. You get drunk, fall into the waiting arms of whichever jezebel/boywhore you were originally arguing over. The next day they come around to make up, and you’ve fucked it all up. STOP DOING THIS, IT’S STUPID.
If you think you’re attracted to someone else, and you’re going to cheat, choose one of the following options: 1- stay away from said person until the attraction dies (chemistry fizzles when you run out of heat) or 2- break up with your partner. If you step back, you know where this is going way before you do anything.
If you overhear a conversation STAY TO THE END. Maybe they were being propositioned, maybe they were kissed but pushed the other person away, maybe they end up saying nice things about how much they love you. People and situations are complicated.
If you’ve had to stalk them or change for them, it’s not going to work.
Happily ever afters are built, not given. Work at it. Just because the book ends doesn’t mean the drama does!
For the moment, I’ll ignore the fact that ’Chick-Lit’ is an unfair, possibly derogatory term for literature aimed at women, as it clearly doesn’t reflect the true desires of women or portray heroines as real people. And considering WhSmiths have now taken down their ‘Women’s Fiction’ signs, we should now assume that men also like reading books about shoes, shopping and being ravished by a man with or without a handlebar moustache.
Yes, the terminology is incorrect, but the fact that men and women may want to read different (but sometimes equally awful) fiction is fair enough. I don’t tend to call Chris Ryan books ‘shooty shooty bang bang’ books, but that’s only because they couldn’t fit that on a sign in WhSmiths.
The point is that there is equal pandering to the macho males and girly females in the literary world. Publishers like niches, almost as much as they like books that are exactly the same as other books that have made lots of money, but with a few key details, like names, exotic locations and hobbies, changed. Because humans like patterns. And when you identify a pattern, you can automatically tell whether you’re going to like it or not.
Self-loathing writer finds love with snarky publisher on the Italian Riviera? Sure, okay, sign me up! Glamour model goes from rags to riches in Croydon, then marries a footballer? You know what, give me mediocre fiction any day. That right there is an excerpt from a Big Brother casting session.
The problem is that these poor Chick-Lit writers get a really bad rap. It’s not their fault that they happen to be good at creating stuff that is basically the literary equivalent of Marmite- if you do love it, you don’t get how everyone else can’t. You actually can’t comprehend their point of view, because it doesn’t make sense.
It’s easy to be snobbish about Chick-lit. There’s so much of it, and most of it is truly appalling. I say this not only as a (fairly snobby) writer, or as an English literature graduate, but as a female. If you’ve spent three pages describing the Versace dress that the heroine is wearing to some ridiculously posh gala in central London, well I’m sorry, you’ve already lost me. Maybe some people can relate to that world, but I would like my heroines mouthy and funny, and preferably carrying some extra weight and an anxiety or two.
This is why Bridget Jones was a success, surely, and was not relegated to the lowly shelves of Chick-Lit by the powers that be, but held up into the light as something funny and realistic, showing genuine wit and creativity. Which is why I’m so confused that Germaine Greer went all feminist on it’s (sizeable) ass and said that if Bridget Jones was the average woman, then humanity was screwed. Well, that’s pretty much what she said.
Bridget Jones is the average woman, worrying about her weight, and whether she’s smoking too much, if she’s made a tit of herself yet again, and whether she’ll ever get anywhere with her job. She is a real person. A great character. Just because these are the things that some people worry about, doesn’t mean she’s a bad woman. Worrying about whether your knickers are a bit ugly when you’re about to do the deed, that’s a natural female response, isn’t it? I’m certainly not going to feel like a shitty feminist if I worry about that, sorry Professor Greer. I know, I’m a product of my society, and I shouldn’t shave my legs. Whatever.
To return to my rant on Chick-Lit. I do read it, although it’s more that I enjoy YA novels that have a romance element whilst you actually come to terms with some issues, and not every young woman in the city works in publishing or PR. Teenagers and their love affairs are a lot easier to relate to. Maybe that’s just because I’m young, or maybe it’s because the idea of getting on a tube to go work in an office every morning would make me want to shoot myself. I don’t care if your main character gets a cushy london flat, that you’re going to take four pages to describe, out of it. Plus, the teenage characters are more likeable, more unpredictable, less likely to be in a rut. Sexual experience is still a big deal.
This is where one of the two authors I trust in this area come into it. Sarra Manning is the author of a bunch of really excellent YA novels that I used to read parts of in J-17. (Younger readers, that used to be a magazine. For girls. Before you all started reading Cosmo at 14 years old). These were the Diary of a Crush books, where wicked-cool girl Edie fell for art boy Dylan and spent a lot of time wanting to snog him. They were funny, realistic, and made you feel less alone. Because, sure you want to get together with that longtime crush…but you also have to worry about fourth period French and what drama your best friend is going through.
These books were my first foray into teen fiction, and they glided me through it like a comforting, witty blanket. So when Manning (who very kindly gave me writing advice when I was 16, via Myspace- young readers, another lesson for another day, myspace happened before Facebook) released an adult fiction book, I ordered it straight away.
I was not disappointed. If more Chick-Lit (and I almost hesitate to use that term) was like this, I think the world would be a better place. The blandly titled ‘You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me’ follows twenty-something Neve as she tries her hand at dating. After being clinically obese throughout her uni years, Neve’s never really had a sexual experience. So, some light flirtation is all she’s ready for. Plus, she’s waiting for the guy she was in love with since uni to come back to England, and she’ll be a size ten and everything will be perfect. So, all she really needs is some practice. Like, a pancake relationship. After meeting a whole bunch of freaks on the internet, her sister’s boss Max, a boy-whore with a heart of gold, seems like a better option than she first thought.
What makes this book is the dialogue, how the characters interact with each other, how real the relationships between siblings, parents and old friends are. Neve is a strong female character, but she doesn’t realise it, because she’s too busy think about how shit she is. So when she finally does understand that she’s a bit of a hottie, it’s a revelation. One we could probably all learn from. No-one wants to shag a whiner. A moaner, maybe, but not a whiner.
It’s funny, witty, pro-woman and you kind of want to jump into that world and snuggle there. Plus, there was a dog. And that’s always good.
My other go-to Chick-Lit read (who, before Manning jumped into adult fiction, was the only person I trusted to do this well) is Jenny Crusie. This obsession started when I needed a holiday read, and knew that the six books in my case wouldn’t last two weeks, and the one in my bag for the flight would be done within the hour. So, around the terminal I run. And I find Jenny. I bought both ‘Bet Me’ and ‘Faking It’ and got through them both in record time. Faking it is still one of my favourite books, focused around an excellent family called the Goodnights, and the trouble that happens when people start sniffing around their failing art gallery, questioning whether there are forgeries. Chaos, hilarity and snippy heroines ensue. Bet Me is about two people who are thrown together, absolutely do not get on, despite the obvious attraction, and seem to need to be together, or the universe will maim them. Crusie’s power is her dialogue, it’s always snippy, sarcastic and clever. You want to be these women, just to be able to think of that right line at the right moment. And sometimes they can’t think of the right thing to say, and you want to cry with joy ‘Oh, you are just like me!’ Her characters are always well-rounded, emotionally and literally- her ‘evil females’ appear to be perfectly slim, with perfect hair and an understanding that they’re perfect. Exactly my type of enemy. Woo.
And the heroes always shun this type of shallow harpy (usually after having been there once and realising it’s not an easy life) in order to spend time with the quick-witted cute heroine. So, yay! Order is restored in the land!
Other points- It’s very rare that it’s just a chick story. There’s usually some sort of mystery case to be solved. I won’t say thriller because there’s not a lot of terror and suspense (although if there is it usually ends in the bedroom) but there’s more to it than ‘boy meets girl. Stuff happens’. Also, she can write a damn good sex scene. Representing female experience in these kinds of books is important, and whilst there is the danger of there being one too many orgasms in a scene, Crusie is very good at displaying the real and using it. Whether that’s sex that is amazing or disappointing, it’s always a crucial point in the story. She’s writing about interactions, and how they affect people, and that’s important.
Her characters are women we can respect and look up to, use as guides. Women who maybe feel that their lives aren’t going where they want, or their jobs aren’t perfect, or they’re hung up on the wrong person. Maybe these are worries that Greer would categorise as anti-feminist, but I would call them human.
Also, there’s always a dog. So, that’s cool.
Anyone out there got any decent Chick-Lit reads to recommend? Or are you all those snobby types who only read Russian Literature and poetry?