The Romance that should (never) have been

Are you tired of romance?

No, I don’t mean tired of your spouse or significant other. I mean tired of seeing romance in book after book, movie after movie, show after show, as if every writer thinks he or she invented the thing.

No? That’s fine, too.

Let me clarify: I love a good romance. Anything from Jane Austen to rom coms—if the story is tasteful and well told, I’m in. But looking at media today, you’d think that the only thing audiences cared about was watching fictitious people fall in love—or, in some cases, just fall into bed. What’s unique about romance, as a phenomenon, is that it pervades literally all other genres in ways that other genre-phenomena don’t. Aside from the actual market of romances, this theme sells itself by seeping into stories of all kinds.

For example, having a couple of car-chase scenes will probably make your film a thriller. Send a tumbleweed blowing across the screen, and you’ve got a Western. Add just one alien to the cast of characters and, well, you’re in sci-fi territory now. But you could add love to any one of these stories without making it a proper “romance” novel or movie.

A masterpiece that weaves together elements of both a romance and a murder mystery is Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. If you look it up, you will see it categorized as a “crime/drama” story… even though it ends with the protagonist’s happy and long-anticipated marriage to her true love. And yet somehow the presence of romance in this story does not define its genre.

Why is that?

Well, Bleak House, like many other stories with love in them, tells a story much bigger than two people falling in love. The plot’s primary tension lies elsewhere. But what I find interesting is that so many stories that are not “about” love feel it necessary to incorporate romance in some way, shape, or form. No doubt this is partly because romance is one of the most core human desires, and a story that depicts at least a little romance will hold a broader audience. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Here’s the issue I see with a number of non-romances that play the love card:

The problem isn’t the presence of romance in the story, but rather the placement of the romance between the wrong characters.

I would argue this mistake is easier to make in cinema than in literature. When reading a book, we expect and accept that we do not witness the entirety of the characters’ lives. We do not watch the characters’ facial expressions, although the narrator may describe them. We cannot see a character’s face and body in order to decide whether or not they are attractive—or more importantly, whether they might hold romantic appeal for another character. Our impressions of romantic chemistry are much more malleable in literature because we only know what the author tells us.

In cinema, though, we are granted the illusion of seeing it all. (And sometimes, we see way more than we really ought to.) We can size up a pair of actors and look for the glimmer in their eyes when they share the screen. We can notice when it’s not there.

But whether or not we as audience members decide if a pair is visually well-suited, the fact remains that a character’s romantic attachments paint a fuller picture of him or her.

While the romance may be somewhat peripheral to the major plot, it does shape the characters. Or, in some cases, misshape them.

The misshaping happens when a character’s visible convictions, values, or goals are contradicted by the way he/she governs his/her love life. That being said, I am fully aware that human beings are living paradoxes. Not everything we do makes sense to us or to those around us. But there is always a reason behind the apparent inconsistencies between our behaviors, whether we can identify it or not. The trouble is that stories rely heavily on their characters in order to communicate anything meaningful—and unless a story’s point is to illustrate human inconsistency, it doesn’t help itself by injecting romance between two characters whose relationship is better off without it.

Perhaps this is residual from my frustration with the over-eroticizing of human relationships (sorry, Freud). But I see many meaningful relationships in the real world with no element of romance—and they are better that way! Just because a story features a male and female alongside one another does not mean they have to fall in love (or bed) in order for the story to be worthwhile!

Unfortunately, I think many readers and viewers out there are more interested in seeing tension built and resolved in the form of a sexual encounter than they are interested in any message the story has to offer. And many writers are all too willing to give it to them.

What do you think?

Are there any stories you know where the romance just didn’t work? Or where it detracted from the main themes?

2 Comments on “The Romance that should (never) have been

  1. An interesting observation. I think it ties well with your last post about unlikely romance between rivals. Sometimes the romance part really doesn’t make sense. I cannot think of any movie in particular, right now, though.

    You pointed out the reasons why people keep writing romances into the stories – widening the audience and satisfying emotions of the viewers. Yes, if a couple of characters is being chased by an alien, we fear for their lives. But, when they are related (husband and wife), then we are that much more invested because we don’t want one of them to die while the other one stays behind. It’s a dirty trick, but if it works…

    • You’re right! There is that added level of empathy on the audience’s part when they see a relationship that could be torn apart. And yes, I suppose I’ve had love on the mind these days– at least as it pertains to storytelling! XD

Leave a Reply