PHS columnist, Vanessa North, is talking about what happens when escapist romance meets the tougher subjects in life.
Romance reading, for many of us, is escapism, a guaranteed happy ending—something to leave us feeling fulfilled and satisfied and believing in the power of love. So why would one choose to include tougher—possibly even taboo—subject matter in an escapist read?
As a writer, I’ve tackled alcoholism and drug abuse, domestic violence, divorce, infertility (and unplanned pregnancy), child abuse, anxiety and depression, the aftermath of both suicide and accidental death, and a man grappling with his Christian faith and his life in the closet. Any or all of these subjects could be deemed controversial. To me—humanity is messy, and even escapist fiction offers a chance to examine our own humanity, and that means examining the issues we humans struggle with on a daily basis. For me personally, this doesn’t include writing taboo material—but some writers do, and their work has a valuable place in the market.
But where does one draw the line? How do we decide which issues are fine to explore and which issues aren’t? What is the draw for readers—and writers—to more controversial subject matter? How do you know if it’s serving the story? And should you use trigger/content warnings?
I’m going to start out by stating what should be obvious: everyone has their own comfort level for certain storylines, tropes, and subject matter. If non-con ain’t your thing—don’t read it and don’t write it. If you can’t read or write about spousal abuse, PTSD, violence—step away. No one should ever feel pressured to read or write something they aren’t comfortable with—not for sales, not for peer pressure, never. So the line is going to shift for each individual—and that is perfectly okay.
As for taboos—for those who want to explore taboo material and are curious--I’d posit that if there is a readership for dark, taboo subject material—and judging by Amazon’s bestseller lists, there certainly is—then that market should be served, though there should be sensitivity in how that material is presented to the general market. As a writer—your publication potential is going to be more limited by taboo material, in which case self-publishing may be your best option. As a reader, you may have to seek out indie authors, boutique presses, and even fanfics, depending on which particular taboos you seek. There is truly a story for every reader.
If you’re publishing in a mainstream press, what’s the appeal for a “darker” storyline? What’s the draw for these stories?
For many readers, being taken through a difficult journey to reach the HEA makes the journey sweeter. The contrast between sadness and joy highlights and adds a depth to the joy that makes the story feel more meaningful for some readers.
For others, there is healing in seeing someone facing the same difficulties as themselves overcome them to find their Happy Ever After. Survivors of many kinds—rape survivors, veterans, abuse survivors, etc. can see and relate to a character who has PTSD for the same reasons they do. When that character finds love and makes it last—it’s extra sweet.
For many, the added realism of a not perfect trip from meet cute to HEA makes some of our favorite “fluffy” romance tropes--instalove, yes please! Friends to lovers, Hallelu-jah! Best friend’s older brother—why the fuck not?—feel more believable. Add a little hurt-comfort to any of those tropes, and they feel much more grounded and relatable. It’s not about taking the fluff out of romance, but about adding layers to make the fluff we all know and love stronger.
So, how do you know if it serves the story?
Look, we’ve all read it: the book that gets more depressing every page you turn (hey, it was probably litfic and not romance, but you know you’ve read it). Misery piled on top of misery piled on top of rape and murder and suicide and drug addiction and… and… and… everyone dies in the end. If it WAS sold as a romance, maybe there was a suggested HEA of them being in heaven together at the end, which is totally great if that lines up with your personal religious beliefs, but if it doesn’t, they’re still dead. Sorry, Romeo and Juliet. Even Daddy Shakespeare considered you a tragedy.
Look--those stories have their place on shelves. But in the romance section, we’re looking for HEA. We are not expecting—or happy to see—dead heroes. So if you’re plotting an angstier storyline, and you want it to serve the story, you should probably ask yourself some questions:
Is this angst for angst sake, aka misery porn?
Is my character going to emerge on the other side stronger in spite of setbacks?
Are they using therapy, meditation, confidence with friends, etc to heal or are they healed by a magic penis or vagina?
Misery porn is unnecessary drama that doesn’t serve to develop the character or the plot. If that’s the case—why have it there?
If your character doesn’t emerge on the other side stronger—are you sure you’re writing a romance? Of course HEA doesn’t mean “OMG everything is perfect forever and ever, NOW KISS!” But it does make a promise to the reader that the character is in a solid, steady place in life.
Hey--I totally love sex and love characters who love sex, but human genitals are not magic. If your character is dealing with significant issues socially, mentally, physically, etc, they just aren’t going to get better because of great sex. I’d love it if that were the case, because world peace could totally be a thing with a good vibrator drive. But that’s not the way the world works. If you want to put your character through hell—you have to give them a road back. That road back might be therapy. It might be a circle of close friends to confide in. It might be meditation. But there has to be something. There has to be a road back.
Should you use trigger warnings?
Trigger warnings seem to be getting a lot of press lately, and it’s really a very simple thing—trigger warnings are not spoilers. They are not giving away the plot or compromising your art. Certain things are PTSD or other mental illness triggers. If your work contains rape, domestic violence, child abuse, military violence, or any other common PTSD triggers, it’s very easy to put a warning in an authors note: This book contains material that might be triggering to (group of people). That’s it—it’s not a spoiler.
Another content warning you should consider is any story dealing with eating disorders. Eating disorders are the deadliest mental illness, and they are some of the easiest to trigger. They’re incredibly common and they have their place in romantic fiction—but if your story might trigger a reader, please consider adding a warning. It can’t hurt—and it might save someone.
My take on controversial material is generally simple: if it serves the story, enhances character development, and offers a path to an HEA, there is absolutely no reason not to explore controversial or difficult issues in your romance novel. And no one should ever feel guilt for enjoying those stories. Romance is about the HEA—however your characters arrive there.
Vanessa's latest book, Summer Stock, is out now. For more information about her and her writing, check out her website, or follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
How do you feel about romances which tackle tough subjects? Is it a case of never the twain should meet or is it more about an author's deft touch? Have you read a romance recently which tackled a tough subject and did it beautifully? Tell us in the comments or use #toughsubjects on Social Media to join the #PHS community's conversation on this topic.