De-Romanticizing the Romance

Earlier today I was messaging a friend on Facebook who I often float ideas off of. I told him this:

I think I want to try writing a romance. Just for the challenge of it.

The challenge, of course, is that I am extraordinarily unromantic (I don’t call myself Malcolm the Cynic for nothing), and that with rare exceptions I don’t like the genre of romance.

This got me to thinking: What ARE the romances I enjoy, and why do I enjoy them?

After much thought, I could only come up with four romantic media I am actually a legitimate fan of. By “romantic media” I mean that the stories are, at least as a major aspect of the plot, loves stories, and are looked at as such by virtually the world. The four are, in no particular order:

  1. Casablanca
  2. Romeo and Juliet
  3. Wall-E
  4. To the Moon

So what about these stories made them different from the romances I DON’T like, the “Notebooks” and “Twilights” and Harlequin novels of the world?

All right, let’s see:

  • “Casablanca” was a thriller, in my eyes, more than it was a romance (at least, I appreciated that aspect more). That said, the romance worked, even if as the (relatively) weakest aspect in an absolutely brilliant movie. The reason, I think, it worked is because it’s so counter-cultural to modern ideas about romance: As it turns out, it’s not worth it to give up everything to be with the one you love (you can see how this would appeal to my black, cynical heart). Romantic love is a high ideal, but there are more important things. The final image of “Casablanca” is not Rick and Ilsa, but Rick and Louie. In fact, it’s really the perfect cynic’s romance, at least the way I use the term: There is hope, but you still need to turn your face aside and see your tears wet not your bow-string…just as Rick, finally, did.
  • “Romeo and Juliet” is actually cheating a bit. It’s not really a romance. People just think it is. Like “Casablanca” is strips away illusions surrounding romantic love and reveals how destructive making an idol of it really is. It’s “I can’t live without you” taken to its logical and tragic conclusion. Shakespeare was a man of all ages.
  • Now we get to the more “traditional” romances, which is ironic because one is a cartoon and one a video game! Wall-E of course, is partially the story of how humans displaced from Earth for centuries decide that it is time for them to return home. But the more fundamental story is the romance between WALL-E and Eve, which I actually thought in this case worked better than the sci-fi aspect (though, while both were good, neither aspect outshined the stunning first half of the movie that took place with almost no dialogue).

    So why did I like the romance in Wall-E? This was a tough one for me to puzzle out. One reason is that the writers sold me on it. This is odd to say, as it flies right in the face of all of my natural inclinations: Eve is the robotic version of the Strong Independent Wymyn, and Wall-E the classic simpering beta, but in robot form. But Wall-E’s love is so pure and unselfish, and he is so obviously sincere, that it’s pretty much impossible not to root for him.

    And realistic or not (don’t make the mistake of thinking that characters don’t need to act realistically just because they’re robots), the writers do a good job selling Eve’s reaction to Wall-E. Her earlier dedication to the all-important plant, and Wall-E’s protection of the plant, as well as her sudden awareness of just how far Wall-E was willing to go to protect her, make for strong character moments (“Directive” was an absolutely perfect line, and those who saw the movie know exactly what I mean). Whether or not it’s believable for Eve to suddenly fall for Wall-E after all that is almost besides the point, because deep down humans WANT to believe that such selfless devotion will be rewarded with true love. That the ending is very moving despite being predictable is a testament to how successful the writers were in selling the sincerity of Wall-E and Eve’s emotions.

    So, to sum up: What made the romance in Wall-E so successful was Wall-E’s sincerity and effective manipulation of viewer wish-fulfillment. That’s not an insult. Wall-E is a great movie. But it is true.

  • And now the last, and the best: “To the Moon”. To anybody who has not played this game, I urge you to go out and buy it now.

    Don’t play video games? I don’t care. Get it now. It’s not really a video game, it’s an interactive novel, and probably the best I’ve read since “The Book Thief”. And I first read that book years ago.

    “To the Moon” is a combination sci-fi/mystery/romance, with strong elements of comedy in the background. With that said, of the four great romances on my list it is the only one where I would say that the best part of the story is the actual romance, the love story between the two main characters (or rather, two of the main characters). The game has three extraordinarily moving moments – I’m talking absolutely gut-wrenchingly awful and beautiful – and all three of them are directly related to the romance more than to the sci-fi or mystery.

    But why? What is it about “To the Moon” specifically that I felt worked so spectacularly where it failed in “Twilight”, the ridiculously cheesy “The Notebook”, or “Fifty Shades of Sexual and Emotional Porn”?

    Well, for a start, despite the power of the romance it still satisfied the cynic in me by not lionizing the relationship, or the idea of romantic relationships in general. The love between the characters of Johnny and River was pure and true, but it is very much debatable whether or not Johnny’s romance with River actually improved his life, or hers.

    For another, the majority of the game is backstory. Those three moving moments all come deep within the second act, and all are very careful payoffs based on very strong set-up. I believed the romance because the game spent so much time making us care about both characters, and getting to know them. When bad things happened to them, and when they were in trouble, we already liked them quite a lot.

    This next point is related to the first point, but another major point in “To the Moon”‘s favor is that the romance between them was believable. This sounds generic, almost tautological (What type of romance would it be if I didn’t believe it?), but I mean something specific. “Wall-E” was successful precisely because it was not believable. It was extremely well-written wish-fulfillment. “To the Moon” is the opposite. River has issues, and Johnny has issues with River’s issues, and this makes a real difference in their lives. Johnny and River’s marriage has the problems you expect a relationship such as theirs to have. That they still love each other despite this is part of the reason you, the reader (I’m going to refer to the player as reader here since I’m expressly analyzing the story aspect, which is written, not spoken), sympathize and even respect both of them so much.

    And it is this set-up, this careful establishment of the terms of their relationship and the severe issues they’ve faced, that makes the climax of the story so heartrendingly sad. You’re rooting for them. You want the solution of the problem to work for both of them. So when the character of Eva comes up with a solution to the problem that doesn’t involve River, you’re absolutely horrified. The writing is brilliant – you’ve become so engrossed in the love story that somewhere along the way you’ve stopped caring about the original problem, and instead of leaving this plot point hanging the writer, Kan Gao, utilizes it to stunning effect. The reader is left dazed and blindsided, but in a way that feels as if he’s still played by the rules. We just forgot what they were.

    And after that point…well, if you weren’t invested before, you are now. Kan Gao manages to pull off a bittersweetly happy ending that works because it feels earned. Johnny and River deserved their ending, and when they get it you care because you care about them.

So, what are the particular elements that make up my personal favorite romances?

I’m tempted to say “realism”, but this isn’t quite true. I loved Wall-E, which had an almost aggressive optimism too it that was rather refreshing. Optimism, of course, is not always unrealistic, but Wall-E was definitely not a realistic portrayal of how such match-ups normally work (beta guy+alpha girl tends not be a recipe for long term success, especially not when the love is based directly on ‘look at the things he did for me’).

But then, I do generally prefer realism to wish-fulfillment. Wall-E only worked because it was robots. I’m fairly sure that if they were humans it would have only annoyed the Hell out of me. So I tend to like realism in my romances. In other words: Romances that aren’t romanticized.

But there’s another, more important aspect to romance than that which MUST exist for the romance to work: I must believe in the characters.

Once again, that seems vague and obvious, so let me explain.

Characterization is pretty hard. “The Notebook” presents us with an ideal: Hunky husband with pretty young wife who grow into aged but utterly devoted husband with extremely dependent wife. It’s the female wet dream: A hot man who will do literally anything for you no matter how you look. I’m not saying such a thing never happens, I’m sure it does, but as far as drama is concerned “The Notebook” is all external. The relationship itself is practically flawless, the characters flat and uninteresting (in my personal estimation).

“Casablanca”, by contrast, presents us with the cynical but ultimately honorable Rick, a character who burns himself into our memory almost immediately. Ilsa is milquetoast in contrast, but who cares? It’s all about Rick, and he’s one of the most iconic characters in movie history.

Wall-E is instantly likeable and Eve becomes more so as the movie progresses, making them extremely easy to root for.

“Romeo and Juliet”, well, you know. Shakespeare.

And, of course, the best romance of the bunch spends almost the entire time setting up the relationship between the main characters before dropping its emotional payload.

So, to sum up, what I like in a romance:

  • Generally, conflict from within the relationship, not from without. Besides stories like “Wall-E”, which really only works because they’re robots, it can also work in “lost lovers reunited” scenarios, but if you want to focus on the relationship itself, in itself, I’d prefer for the lovers to have realistic issues resulting from the relationship.
  • A realistic idea of the joys and pitfalls of romantic love, which is closely related to my first preference.
  • Strong characters that I really, really root for. This one is the most important of all. Every other preference can theoretically be dropped if I care about the characters enough. Conversely, if everything else exists but I don’t care about the characters then I know I won’t like the romance.

So now all I need to do is write a romance with conflict that stems not only from without but also within the relationship, does not overly romanticize romantic love, and has characters I WANT to see succeed.

Easy, right?

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8 Responses to De-Romanticizing the Romance

  1. Ilíon says:

    Have you heard of or seen Sommersby?

  2. In other words, you like manly romances, not girly romances.

    And I trust you haven’t seen the Princess Bride as that’s the only possible excuse for leaving it off the list.

    What about the first 20 min of Up? 2nd best romance put to film.

    • Ah, yeah, “The Princess Bride”, though I never thought of it as a romance.

      The first twenty minutes of “Up” are brilliant, but that’s just twenty minutes, not a movie.

    • Syllabus says:

      As an aside: I was watching Princess Bride the other day, and something struck that hadn’t ever before. Namely, Buttercup is really not very bright, in either a learned or a common-sensical way, whereas Westley is at least the latter. I may have some rather peculiar tastes in such matters, but I don’t think such a union is destined to success, but rather reliance (Buttercup–>Westley) and eventually mild contempt (Westley–>Buttercup) after the idealization period is over. (Since it never really got a chance to finish in the first place, before Westley left or else throughout the film.)

  3. Ilíon says:

    What’s the difference between ‘manly’ romances and ‘girly’ romances?

    It seems to me that the primary difference is that ‘girly’ romances are about the emotion of “being in love” (*), and that the emotion needs to be overwhelming, such that one allegedly has “no choice” in what one does in consequence — whereas ‘manly’ romances are about commitment and duty … starting with an overarching commitment to “doing the right thing”.

    To put it another way, ‘girly’ romances are solipsistic and are, effectively, “emotional porn” (which may explain why they generally involve the explicit depiction of a lot of sex, while there may be no depictions of sex at all in a ‘manly’ romance); whereas ‘manly’ romances are “other directed”, emphasizing making a decision and living with its consequences, via mastery of one’s fleeting emotions.

    (*) I detest that phrase, and all that is implied by the way it is primatily used in modern culture

    • Seems fair to me.

      Mrs Wright once said that “Romance is about overcoming taboos” – I’d call it, “overcoming obstacles.” That is, for romance to “work,” something must be keeping apart the two people who should be brought together.

      By my estimation, girly romances usually seem internal oriented – that is it is people and their emotions et al that are keeping the two apart. Manly romances seem to be externally oriented – that it is circumstances or the world itself keeping the two apart. (of course the Bible is a giant manly AND girly romance)

      Which leads to some irony because while they are packaged towards men & women respectively, Inception is a bit more of a girly romance while Serendipity is a manly romance (probably why it’s one romance I can stand watching).

      And of course the Princess Bride is both, another reason why IT’S SO AWESOME!

  4. Ilíon says:

    Of course, I do recognize the “am too!” nature/purpose of the OP 😉

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