Thursday, June 9, 2011

How dark can a romance be?

My forthcoming Kensington Zebra, To Touch The Knight, has recently been reviewed by Romantic Times. The reviewer liked it and said Compelling characters and suspenseful moments will keep readers well entertained, but added, the dark motifs and plague plotline may be too somber for some.

Fair enough, but it set me thinking. I've set my novel against the backdrop of the 1348 plague, now known as the Black Death, a time of great hardship and terror when over a third to a half of the population of Britain died from the plague. My story does have dark moments, to reflect this. However, my romance is also a triumph of love over adversity, where a lonely, troubled man and a woman who has seen too much horror learn to care again and love. Others in their company also find love and hope and happy endings. To me, such joyous outcomes make the novel a victory for life and love and as such a true romance, whatever the other dark motifs in the story.

I am fine with the review and understand why the reviewer added such a warning, but still it intrigues me.

What do you think? How dark can a romance be?

Lindsay Townsend


Rosemary Gemmell said...

Hi Lindsay - an interesting question. Personally, I like a little bit of realism with the romance and this makes me intend reading your book!

Vonnie said...

I agree with Rosemary. Realism and a few dark twists keep me reading. Otherwise you're left with froth and bubble and no meat. I guess I'm not a vegetarian.

Linda Acaster said...

Oh for goodness sake... Do readers want history or Hollywood? If someone in a novel ends up on a 'rack' and is released is it expected that he'll rub his shoulder and murmur, "that hurt a bit"?

I don't believe in airbrushing history; how do we learn from it if it is forever being sanitised? And readers do learn from historical romances. For many it is their first delve into a period they don't know about.

Don't deviate from your path, Lindsay.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

It depends on your core target audience even among the romance community. Some readers appreciate realism and texture of life as it was, while others would rather have the Disney version and stay entirely with the escapism. I always preferred the former. My favourites were the romantic historicals crafted by such as Roberta Gellis or Grace Ingram. I have come across gentle readers on the Amazon boards who would rather keep it very lite. So I guess you decide who your main buyers are and work to their preference?

Paula Martin said...

Any novel set in a 'dark' time in history must have that darkness portrayed realistically, otherwise there's no point in setting it during that particular period! Did the reviewer expect you to 'gloss over' the horror of the plague? I agree with the other commenters and, as an historian by profession, I love Linda's comment about not 'airbrushing' history. I cringe every time that's done, especially in movies.

BrennaLyons said...

Honestly, it depends on your audience. I've written DARK. I've written so dark that some publishers that say they take dark came back and said, " mean DARK. We don't do that kind of dark." One of my books was described as "starting Stephen King dark and going darker." And it's a romance. Horror romance, but romance.

I have villainous heroes/heroic villains. Even I am not comfortable calling a tragic "hero" that takes out his madness at losing his soulmate for the fourth or so time by (yes, I wrote this) breaking the arms of the bishop who was responsible for killing her, having the bishop's young assistant beat him nearly to death (that assistant eventually became one of his most loyal sidekicks as a vampire), and then burning the bishop alive in his own church and standing around outside, listening to him beg for death. My readers and reviewers insisted the man was a hero...all the way, and even I wasn't comfortable saying it.

Can you go dark? With the right audience? Sure. Go as dark as you need to go.


Lindsay Townsend said...

Hi Rosemary, Vonnie, Linda, Elizabeth, Paula, Brenna -

Thanks so much for the comments and feedback. I understand the reviewer feeling it necessary to give that caveat and I agree that historical romance does tend to fall somewhere between the very 'lite' and darker, more gritty and realistic. That's one of the aspects I enjoy in the genre, that all shades tend to be welcome.

Long may it be so!

Linda Banche said...

Depends on what kind of dark you have. I don't like graphic horror. I expect to see the realities of the time in a romance, but you don't have to dwell on them. I also expect the hero and heroine to rise above them. That signals heroism to me.

The hero, especially, can't be anything less than decent. While I expect him to take revenge against someone who hurts him or the heroine, his actions can't turn him into a sadistic monster, otherwise he's no longer a hero. I would NOT classify Brenna's "hero" as a hero.

A fine line to tread here.

Lindsay Townsend said...

Hi Linda,

Thanks for your interesting comments. I agree with you re the realities of a period and I also like a hero to be both caring and compelling.

Stephanie Burkhart said...

I think Elizabeth put the issue in perspective (at least for me) there's realism and then there's Disney cookie-cutter escapism. I prefer realism. I don't mind darkness, but some may read for the escapism. Heck, true history is much more interesting than some the escpism history we get on TV. Make it real and I'm there.

As for dark, I don't mind dark, but my "dark" heroes have a line they won't cross because ultimately, they have to be heroes.


BrennaLyons said...


I didn't call him that either. The fact was, the man in question was insane, and I never shied from that fact. Apparently, my readers are more forgiving than I am.


Lindsay Townsend said...

I like that description, Steph - cookie-cutter escapism.

I do feel both approaches are valid, and I write both for different sorts of readers.

Heroes and anti-heroes - another fascinating topic. I could never work out if Mr Rochester was a hero or an anti-hero.

Savanna Kougar said...

Lindsay, I can't add much to what's already been said. I prefer realism when it comes to historical romance, and think your premise is brilliant with a B.

And, as you realize, the reviewer gave the caveat for those readers who prefer the Disney version.

One of my books is definitely DARK, as far as the circumstances of their world. The actions of the heroes toward the heroine reflect this. While the book has gotten fives from some readers, other readers, I believe, are shocked by the grittier realism. It's not a lighthearted read, except for some of the interactions between the characters.

This conversation is rather synchronous to a conversation we had at ShapeShifter Seductions... Superman, as a viable hero type VERSUS 'say' Brenna's non-hero hero type.

From a psychological perspective, I can understand why some readers are attracted to Brenna's antihero. In our current times, there is often little to no justice to be had. Corruption reigns, and understandably any measure of justice [retaliation, revenge], no matter how extreme, is welcome. And, of course, there are simply readers who prefer that type of dark read.

In my current WIP, the heroine is out for retaliation, and she won't stop until she gets it, even knowing it won't heal her heart. A human friend of hers was ripped to shreds through no fault of her own, and Z'Pasha intends to end the existence of the two Tiger Yakuza shapeshifter ninjas.

It really comes down to reading preference, as has been stated.

Shanti said...

I think realism makes a novel very believable, thereby making the love story more believable too. Without realism it it is just another novel; the same ol same ol type thing comes to mind. I'm thinking that too many get stuck in a rut of mainstream writing and when realism is present, even with some dark moments and not so pleasant authentication, the love then within the story becomes much more powerful when the hero and heroine conquer unthinkable feats together. What makes a novel good to me is a realistic feel, a genuineness, and though there may seem to be unpleasant spots within the story, they add a much needed depth. Often many novels are lacking this depth, I think this is what sets a good writer apart from a brilliant one.

Unknown said...

Lindsay--very interesting question. Many romance novels are set with the backdrop of a major war, disaster, or epidemic. The Civil War in the US was horrific, and my goodness, how many romance novels have that setting? Both the World Wars, too, produced much suffering and dark moments, and once again, served as settings. Maybe the Black Plague conjurs up more "ewww" moments for some readers.
I just finished a Civil War novel by Linda Swift and it was filled with blood and gore (yes, my sweet friend Linda wrote this)--however the compelling story kept me glued to the page.
Right now I'm reading a Western Historical that also is filled with gruesome dark moments. Still..I read on!
Maybe the reviewer couldn't find anything in particular to say, so used that as an excuse.

Lindsay Townsend said...

Thanks, Savanna! I'm chuffed by your comment.
Love your ideas re the shapeshifting tigers.

Celia - interesting thoughts re the US Civil war and realisim in romance novels.

Hi Shanti - I agree with you re realism adding to romances and a 'genuine' feel deepening a romance story.

Barbara Elsborg said...

I actually wonder if there is a difference between the UK and US market in the matter of darkness in romances. I've had some very dark things happen in my books - which are all HEA - but was asked to tone them down by the American publisher, yet I've read far darker things in UK books. An example - I had the hero make love right at the start to a 16 year old girl - who'd told him she was 18 but in fact was 14. It was used as an example of what a profligate life he'd led - sex drugs rock and roll type of thing. I had the girl die of an overdose. I was asked not to let her die and to make much less of the age thing.

I think if you're dealing with historical facts, even in a fictional situation, you should be true to the time - so no, Lindsay, I'd have no problem with dark elements in your story!

BrennaLyons said...


Was the US publisher a conglomerate? If so, I agree. If not, I'm stumped.

Indie presses in the US are much more accepting of dark content. Some of my books don't have a HEA, but the publisher and I (on their site and mine) note when they don't have one. Even if they do have a HEA, if they are dark, there are content advisories for that, as well. I've never had them tell me to tone it down. I've killed off strong secondary characters, had one of the main characters sacrifice her/himself (usually herself), endangered children...never killed children, but endangered them. I've dealt with rape, near rape, torture, madness, abuse of power, religious war... My readers don't see humor from me often, and when they do, it's likely to be sarcasm and irony rather than true humor.


Linda Banche said...

Brenna, I really wonder about your "forgiving" readers. I have no taste for so-called bad boy heroes and I think the only way such "heroes" (I use the word with sarcasm) get away with their bad behavior is because women let them.

I doubt your readers would have been so "forgiving" if the perpetrator in your novel was a woman (old double standard here).

BrennaLyons said...

I HATE Google. I typed out a nice long discussion piece for Linda, and it trashed it on me. So, please bear with the shorthand of my answer.

First of all, it seems to me that you are making assumptions about my heroes. I do not tolerate disrespect between my hero and heroine, and when one does display it, he/she is WRONG. Grade A wrong.

My heroes, on the whole, respect their heroines and any women that aren't villains themselves. But my heroes are often honed in war. Many are abused, betrayed, cynical... Many have lost everything in life a time or six. Some do horrible things to people that endanger their children, wives, countries, society at large...

Some do horrible things in a misguided manner and then learn from their mistakes. Some will always be villainous, in which case, I don't call them heroes personally. Some can be redeemed, at which point, I call them heroes.

But I don't write fluffy heroines, either. My heroines are usually well-matched to their heroes. Either it's a balanced relationship (he's the warrior and she's the psychic powerhouse...he fights men with guns, and she fights otherworldly creatures) or they are both warriors. At the very least, he has the physical power, but she has power over him. Some of the latter have made incredible changes in their respective worlds.

A lot of my heroines are warriors personally, going into battle with weapons, with varying amounts of success. Some have sparred with and beaten their warrior heroes. If the hero gets too uppity, it's not unusual for him to find himself on his backside, staring up at her sweet smile. I've even had a few heroines (which readers have referred to as "female heroes") that did things like assassinating an enemy. So much for the idea that readers won't accept this from the female.


Savanna Kougar said...

Brenna, I have to agree, in terms of your heroines. Some of my heroines are warrior types, and they will do what's necessary in the situation to survive, and to protect their own. Sun Rocket chases and brings in the bad cat shapeshifters in her galaxy. And, if one of them goes after her, and she has to kill them, she will, without hesitation. If they're immortal, well, she'll paralyze them.

Anyhoo, no my heroes haven't walked as dark a path as your heroes, or lead characters. And, I only write HEA or HFN because that's my personal preference. However, my heroes always have the 'bad boy and the good boy' in them. I like what I call 'real men' heroes. Often they've done dark things because that's called living life. It's called their particular circumstance. And, it happens in life, even though I make up their worlds. Life in physical form is similar, to some degree, everywhere in the universe, parallel universes... whatever, all the material dimensions.

However, my heroes never disrespect their heroines. If they dare in any way... well, they'll regret it BIG TIME!!! My heroines are tough, whether it's mind power, mentally strong, or in physical strength -- usually all. The heroes are in danger of losing their heroines forever, if they pull anything like that. As a writer, I won't tolerate that kind of behavior from a hero.

From what little I know, yes, darker elements are far more accepted on the other side of the pond, than here in America. What was that infamous movie, where the rabbit got it? There was one ending for American audiences. And a much darker ending for European audiences.

Good point about epublishing, though. There's a lot more freedom to write what you want, dark or not. As it should be, imo.

Gilli Allan said...

I think romantic fiction can be very dark. I understand that some readers of category fiction (whether histyorical or comtemporary) feel cheated if there is no HAE. I like reality and telling it like it is ... or was. In my own books, which are comtemporary, I don't turn away from uncomfortable images and themes. 'Books for grown-ups' has always been my guiding principle. I even killed off my hero once.