Years ago, when I was a wide-eyed eighteen-year-old dating this really cute guy, we were hanging out at his house for a movie night. He asked if I’d ever seen Sleepless in Seattle. I said no. A shame since I love You’ve Got Mail so much. He dug out the VHS tape—yep, that’s right, kids!—and we snuggled through two hours of rom-com goodness.
Fast-forward from there about eight years. This same cute guy (now my husband) and I are lounging in bed. I’d been in bed all day and for a good reason—round the clock morning sickness. The only thing that proved to somewhat distract me from the onslaught of 24/7 nausea was a marathon of romantic comedies. The hub was scrolling through Netflix and found Sleepless in Seattle. Remembering how much I had enjoyed it that first time back in the day, he selected the movie and we snuggled some more. Only…this time I wasn’t quite so charmed. Yes, Tom Hanks and his son are adorable. Both the hero’s strengths and flaws are written and played to perfection, as far as I’m concerned. However, I found it difficult to relate or even sympathize with the Meg Ryan character, Annie Reed. Maybe it was the negative side effects of early pregnancy getting me down. Maybe it was the fact that I’d spent years studying up on character and motivation and had worked hard to write properly motivated and relatable heroes and heroines. As charming as Meg Ryan tried to make her character, I still couldn’t get on board. First of all, she’s got a ring on it. Not only that—her fiancé is a perfectly lovely man. Other than a case of severe allergies, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with him. She brags a good bit about the man she’s going to marry, how great he is, and how right their relationship is. All the while, she, in essence, spends weeks stalking a stranger she hears talking about his deceased wife on the radio. The whole time I’m rewatching this movie I’m thinking, "If this were a book, I’d have stopped reading before the midway point."
Sleepless in Seattle is a beloved rom-com. Like You've Got Mail, it's a Nora Ephron film. There are countless individuals who no doubt include it on their Favorite Movies list. Once upon a time, I might have been one of them. Which means at some point or another I let this sort of heroine behavior go. Why? I’ve noticed through the years, particularly in modern romantic comedies, that heroes and heroines are often allowed to do things they would never get away with in books if they wanted to avoid crucifixion by book reviewers. This puzzles me a bit. Why is there so much leeway for characters like Annie Reed? Because she’s so darn plucky?
Speaking of my husband…he isn’t an avid reader nor does he tend to scrutinize character and GMC like I do. But even he has as much trouble watching some modern-day rom coms as I do. He refuses to watch one such movie, Because I Said So, because the main character, Milly, dates two guys at the same time without either of them knowing about the other. Even from a modern day woman’s perspective, there’s a definite ick factor there…especially when you consider that Milly is also sleeping with both of these men without their knowing about the other.
A bestselling novel by Emily Griffin that was recently turned into a successful rom com, Something Borrowed, provides another example. The protagonist, Rachel, spends much of the story pining for her best friend’s fiancé, Dex. It’s true; she saw him first in college. It’s also true that her best friend, Darcy, is actually kind of terrible. Why then is Rachel still friends with Darcy? Much of the plot tries to establish Rachel as the “good girl” and Darcy as somewhat of a villain. Not that any of the above justifies the protagonist when she begins dating and sleeping with Dex behind Darcy’s back. Sorry, but for me, another ick factor….
Good characters doing bad things isn’t just visible in the present—and not just in movies either. What about those infamous alpha males from 1970’s romance novels? There was practically an entire era of bodice-ripping alpha heroes who did bad things. How did they get away with their forcible shenanigans for so long? Apparently because back then there was a readership surrounding them. Otherwise, why would editors and writers let this fly?
Going a bit further back to classic literature, we find Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. (To the diehard GWTW enthusiasts reading this, forgive me.) I am a HUGE fan of both the book and the movie. I especially love the character of Rhett Butler. But even I’ve got qualms with the scene toward the end where he gets, in his own words, “very drunk” and forcibly carts Scarlett O’Hara up the stairs of their Atlanta mansion despite her flailing protests. Everything fades to black and we, as the audience, can only assume what’s happening. In the following scene, a sober, ashamed (and, one can only assume, hung-over) Rhett apologizes for his behavior. I admit, I’ve overlooked this part of the story through the years because, as I’ve confessed, I love Rhett Butler. I’ve noticed, too, that this scene isn’t widely discussed amongst other Gone With the Wind fans. Why, even in modern times, aren’t more people asking questions or at least saying, “Bad, Rhett Butler! Bad!”? Is it because he IS RHETT BUTLER? Something to think about, particularly when you consider how bad a rep Scarlett gets for her own bad behavior. Is it really any worse than this? (*ahem* Also, Ms. Mitchell? Perhaps you could explain to me how Mr. Butler performed so well under such heavy intoxication? This seems quite unlikely, even for a character of his magnetism.)
A couple of years ago I read a historical romance novel set in the Highlands of Scotland by a well-established author with many credits to her name. The hero and heroine both intrigued me. Their romance was sexy and sweet in all the right places. To summarize, the two wind up in a marriage of convenience…but also in love. I enjoyed the first two-thirds of the book wholeheartedly. Not a lot could have coaxed me to give it any less than a five-star review. Or so I thought. In the last half of the book, the hero sustains a head injury and is lost amongst the Highlands with amnesia. The author then describes in detail the wild sex he has with random women along the way. Let me reiterate the fact that this is a historical romance novel. No, it is not erotica or anything else that would explain such explicit and socially unacceptable character behavior. I understand that the book takes place in the historic Scottish Highlands. People and morals might have been looser then, particularly for men. However, these wild sex scenes between the hero and women who were anything but his wife/heroine seemed out of place, so much so that they jolted me out of the story. (On a related note, I’m not sure a man should engage in such wild, amorous behavior following a severe blow to the head….) When his memory finally returns and he goes back to his heroine, the hero neither confesses to what happened while his memory was lost nor does he seem to feel any sort of remorse for it. I read reviews posted by other readers of the book who also seemed to think these scenes were a bit taboo considering that the book was lauded by both its author and publisher as a traditional romance novel.
How ‘bout it, readers? Have you ever been frustrated or disappointed by a good character behaving badly? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic….
Oh, and Friday I’ll be unveiling the gorgeous cover art for my October Harlequin Superromance novel, Married One Night, at the SuperAuthors site. Stop by for an exclusive first look at my next romance novel!
Amber Leigh Williams lives on the Gulf Coast. A southern girl at heart, she loves beach days, the smell of real books, relaxing at her family’s lakehouse, and spending time with her husband, Jacob, and their sweet, blue-eyed boy. When she’s not running after her young son and three, large dogs, she can usually be found reading a good romance or cooking up a new dish in her kitchen. She is represented by Joyce Holland of the D4EO Literary Agency. Find out more at her website: www.amberleighwilliams.com.