No, Seriously, Stop Thinking About the Children

In the course of writing The Book, I’ve done a lot of thinking about why I read romance, and what it is that I’m looking for when I read romance. After spending way too much time contemplating my reaction to romances, I came to the conclusion that I love romance reading because I like being induced by a skilled writer to feel and empathize with the characters, to care about what happens to them, with the unwavering reassurance that no matter how bad it gets, how scary, how awful, how heartbreaking, it will all be ok in the end. There will be a happy ending.

However, a recent trend, and by trend I mean, ‘I’ve read this technique in a few books and it’s pissing me off,’ is profoundly upsetting me, and I am ranting about it.

There are a couple of tv shows, particularly the crime dramas, that I have lost patience with because the writers were relying on cheap and easy methods to demand an emotional response from the viewer, methods I could not tolerate because they were weak and easy, and because they, if I could indulge in a moment of presuming the writers’ motivations, demonstrated little respect for my intelligence, my sensitivity, and my ability to care about the plight of adults.

Of course, it’s tv, and generally the set in my living room doesn’t stand up when I sit down, proclaiming to one and all that I am to be presented with the finest in erudite entertainment. Unless, of course, I am watching Thirteen or my local PBS affiliate, because then it is usually “Game on, Bitch. Hope you brought your brain with you.” Most of the time, when I watch tv, I am hoping to engage in entertainment, not in having my heart handed to me by thoughtless and inappropriate pathos in the dramatic narrative.

That thoughtless pathos has made its way into romance of late, and I have to say: stop. Stop it. Stop it right fucking now.

Stop using the unresolved and shabbily revealed death, injury, and irrevocable harm of children for dramatic impact in your stories.

Knock it the hell off already.

Romance novels are not hour long television shows that can introduce a secondary story and forget to give it closure. I have higher expectations of romance than I do of most tv shows, which is why I am presuming to write an open letter to writers of romance to beg them to back away from the same cheap, easy, thoughtless pathos.

It is not entertaining nor enjoyable to read about horrible, hideous, dreadful things happening to children, particularly when that backstory is used as the slowly-developed basis for a rather grumpy or wounded character, but even more specifically when the big theraputic reveal of the reason behind the emotional wound is at the end of the goddam book.

For example, I could not review The Secret Passion of Simon Blackwell no matter how many times I sat down to write it, even though it was a book I should have loved. It touched on all my favorite romance tropes: wounded hero! Secret passions! Hidden depths! Rar!

But (spoilers alert) what was the secret passion of Simon Blackwell?

More like secret pain that was revealed in the last few pages of the book: his children and first wife were killed in a fire, and his last memories of his toddler son are of the boy crying for him because Simon had scolded him, then gone out to tend to the horses. While he was gone, the building his family was in caught fire, and his family died.

I can’t even think about it without feeling ill. That final twisting of the emotional screw in the last pages completely dissolves the happy ending for me. Grief is not the feeling I want when finishing a romance.

This is not to say that hearty emotional damage has no place in romance. That’s not my point at all. What infuriates me is what I call The Cheap and Easy Hurt Child Pathos. Specifically, I hate the placement of that pathos in the backstory of a character, so that it is revealed in full in a big historically anachronistic therapy session so the character can get over it just in time for the happy ending – leaving me, the reader, just beginning to deal with the fallout of the mental image. No happy ending. Just grief.

It absolutely enrages me. Books hit the wall for this reason. I could love every other element of a book, but one dose of The Cheap and Easy Hurt Child Pathos drops a book any number of grade levels, and I feel more like warning people, “OMG, Prepare to have your heart thrown at you” than examining what worked, because what didn’t work left me feeling fucking terrible. I can’t review a book when it means giving away the ending and discussing how much it depressed me.

So please, consider this a plea from the sensitive reader: don’t think of the children. I know in historical times, children were kept in horrible conditions, and certainly there are numerous examples of how children in the backstory of a character helped craft the hero or heroine that readers loved, but the last-minute denouement of cheap and easy pathos to reveal and heal the character’s pain over a hurt or lost child comes at the expense of this reader’s happy ending. Please. Don’t think of the children.

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Ranty McRant

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  1. 1

    *applause!* I’ve blogged about this exact thing many times. It makes me absolutely furious when the death of a child is used as a cheap plot point or shortcut to emotional response. For a while it seemed like almost every book I picked up had a female MC who’d lost a child. I wanted to scream. Especially as a mother…I just can’t take it. It’s lazy and it’s mean. If you can’t make me care about your character because of the way you’ve written her/him instead of using a crappy device like that…I don’t want to read your book.

  2. 2
    Leah says:

    THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    I had a hard time with stories involving bad thing happening to children before, but now that I have young children of my own, I CANNOT deal with it!  I don’t know how many suspense and romantic suspense novels I have decided not to buy because the plot involves some horrible thing inflicted on a child.  This also goes for “young people/children perpetrating horrific crimes.”  Which explains why I hated Elizabeth George’s treatment of Lynley and Lady Helen’s baby, and did not read What Came Before He Shot her.  I skimmed through The Suspicions of Mr. Wicher and got rid of my copy of The Devil in the White City.  I’m not stupid; I know these things happen—my mom works for Child Protective Services, after all, and one of my sisters works for CASA.  Several of my friends were abused as children, as were two younger sisters whom my parents adopted. So it’s not like I stick my head in the sand.  But when it comes to entertainment—books, TV, movies, I am not going to choose work that’s going to make me sob through the whole thing.  Case in point:  the movie Vantage Point.  Did they really need to put that little girl in there?  I know she ended up being ok, but I still bawled just about every time she was onscreen.  Obviously there are plenty of people who either like or don’t mind this kind of thing, but count me out.

  3. 3
    snarkhunter says:

    YES. I’m almost obsessively careful about what I read most of the time, because I can be hyper-sensitive and honestly don’t need to be thrown off-kilter for days because of a novel I read for fun, so I’m not sure I’ve encountered this recently, but when I have…UGH. Something like your example would absolutely gut me—and yeah, there’s no way you can get a satisfying HEA if that’s revealed at the end of the friggin’ book. At least if it was a significant part of the backstory that he dealt with throughout, you could ALMOST justify its use. (But why? Why do that? Why that crying baby? That’s disgusting.)

    I feel the same way, often, about rape or sexual abuse as a plot device. It’s often just shoved in there to make the character more vulnerable, or to give him/her an “interesting” (that is, traumatic) past. It can be done well, but when it’s just thrown in there for no reason other than to manipulate the audience’s emotions, I find it reprehensible. (And I find tv drama is particularly bad about that.)

  4. 4
    Becky says:

    Jennifer Weiner ruined Certain Girls for me by killing off a character at the end.  (Not a kid.)  She ruined my weekend, too.  I won’t be reading the sequel.

  5. 5
    CM says:

    So does the same thing bother you if it’s revealed halfway through the book, and the rest of the book is spent cleaning up the aftermath of the revelation?  In other words, is it the cheap-trickness of the emotional tug that you hate, or is it the brushing over of consequences in a fairly unrealistic way?

    I think I feel the same way about the books that end with the nice-guy hero shooting the villain to protect his girl.  Any reasonably well-adjusted person is not going to just walk away from killing someone else—no matter how little choice they had in the matter—and blithely go pick out china sets.

    Actions and backstory should have consequences, and admitting the problem is really only supposed to be the *first* step, not the last one.

  6. 6
    Julie says:

    I am currently slogging my way through Brenda Joyce’s awful to my mind The Perfect Bride.  (That Publishers Weekly raved about it gives me pause, not as to my own sanity but to the reviewer’s.)  Sure enough, the heroine is deeeeeeply traumatized by having witnessed as a child the brutal pitchforky death of her mother, complete with flashbacks that leave her, our damaged protagonist, writhing on the floor in anguish in front of her two hundred twenty-eight suitors.

    Sound like something you want to read?  Yeah.  It’s exactly that excellent.

    Brava on the rant, because, damn, that shit is wack.

  7. 7
    GrowlyCub says:

    I agree with you if it’s something that’s sprung on the reader close to the end of a story and left hanging there unresolved for the reader.

    I don’t have an issue with it, if it’s part of the backstory like in Rachel Lee’s Miss Emmaline and the Archangel and several of Paula Detmer Riggs’ books.

  8. 8
    SB Sarah says:

    So does the same thing bother you if it’s revealed halfway through the book, and the rest of the book is spent cleaning up the aftermath of the revelation?  In other words, is it the cheap-trickness of the emotional tug that you hate, or is it the brushing over of consequences in a fairly unrealistic way?

    Speaking for myself, it doesn’t bother me if the trauma is revealed in a way that allows the reader time and space to grieve alongside the character, if that makes sense. This is all predicated on the idea that I read romance in part because I like the freedom to have all sorts of messy emotions about the characters, knowing that it’s all ok in the end. So it’s both the cheap trickiness and the unexplored consequences that piss me off, as well as the fact that the character with the painful past is healed up nicely, thank you much, as if finally sharing the deep hurt makes it go away. It’s like a transfer – off the character, onto me. No! Do Not Want!

    One example of a show that does this reveal of trauma so well is NCIS, as I just wrote in an email to someone who commented to me directly: in NCIS, the lead character (Mark Harmon) became an NCIS agent after his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident caused by a sniper who shot the driver of their car after the wife witnessed a drug deal and called the cops. The death of his first wife and daughter have been a very, very slow reveal, and he’s still dealing with it. It’s done so, so well, because it’s clearly the distant past for him, but his current grief matches the audience’s as the sad story is revealed in full. Of course, the show has the luxury of long, long seasons of story arc, while a novel does not, but the room for viewer/author grief and empathy means that I can watch it and trust the writers not to leave me hanging while healing up the character nicely.

  9. 9
    Silver James says:

    Gah! I’m right there with you on this one, Sarah! Rant on!

    For some reason, I have blank white space instead of the spoiler…hrm… So I went to the link and read the reviews. Damn but this book sounds rather blah. I like the one review that kept saying, “And then nothing happens…They meet..and nothing happens…They get married..and nothing happens…” I shan’t be wasting my time or money on this tome of unyielding…nothing.

  10. 10
    LeaF says:

    Once again, well said. I cannot stomach books using that type of horrific, thoughtless pathos involving children. As parents, when our children experience the “little hurts”, we internalize that hurt. It feels like “arrow to the soul”. There is no need to capitalized on what we all feel for our children by dramatizing some horrible thing done to a child in a romance story.

    I try and research the nature of a book carefully before purchasing and reading, because the type of emotional response provoked through the types of narrative you have described just leaves me feeling traumatized instead of uplifted. It really turns me away from ever reading the author’s work again.

    I have to preface this by saying, that I think if the heroine in the main storyline is a physician, for example, who saves a sick child as part of the backstory in a well written romance then it can be satisfying and uplifting.

    my spam filter is: son28 – interesting eh?

  11. 11
    hollygee says:

    Thank you.
    Recently on Lehrer’s News Hour, there was a long recap of the Rwanda Massacre with interviews of survivors and the hell they went through. I had to turn it off, but I heard enough to know exactly why I read romances with those lovely happy endings. There is plenty in life to prove otherwise, but I want a HEA for all.

  12. 12
    mearias says:

    I’d be interested in how you feel about Linda Howard’s ‘Cry No More’, as the premise of the book is pretty dark.  I absolutely loved this book, but my co-worker wouldn’t even finish the 3rd chapter; she found it pretty disturbing.  I think for me it was that the heroine was triumphant and expressed her pain for all and sundry, or just that I love Linda Howard :)

  13. 13
    Beth says:

    For me the problem is using the pain of children as a shortcut to a true emotional connection to the story and characters. 

    I think it can be done really well in the right context, like in Laura Kinsale’s the Shadow and the Star, in which the hero survives child prostitution, Susan ELizabeth Phillips’s Dream a Little Dream, in which the hero has lost his 5 year old son and wife to a drunk driver and cannot bond with the heroine’s 5 year old son as a result, and Lydia Joyce’s Voices of the Night, in which the heroine, poverty stricken in Victorian London, has survived child abuse and neglect and is trying—not always successfully—to prevent the little family she has cobbled together from suffering the same.

    I hate those exploitative books and TV shows which feature child harm for shock value. They end up diminishing the real harms done to kids and desensitizing the viewers to all kinds of violence.

    I’d be interested in readers’ examples of romances in which the author used harm to children in this cheap way, because I can’t actually think of any at the moment.

    Great rant!

  14. 14
    RfP says:

    I don’t understand why the outrage is stronger when children are involved.  Isn’t it equally aggravating when that manipulative yank on the heartstrings comes from the *heroine* being traumatized, or from violence or fear?

    I think female characters are routinely treated that way in fiction; the occasional baby doesn’t particularly increase my ire.  But I’ve stated essentially the same disagreement here before, so I won’t argue it into the ground.

  15. 15
    karmelrio says:

    Stop using the unresolved and shabbily revealed death, injury, and irrevocable harm of children for dramatic impact in your stories.

    If the child’s death/injury/harm motivates the character in some meaningful way, I have no problem with it.  To me, deft and effective technique on the part of the writer is key to not feeling emotionally manipulated.

  16. 16
    Zoe Archer says:

    My strongest aversion comes with unmotivated and gratuitous cruelty to or killing animals.  Not sure how often that comes up in romance, but I know I’ve seen it elsewhere.

    I remember Marilyn Robinson at the Writers’ Workshop saying that hurting or killing animals within a story or novel is a cheap means of getting a visceral reation from readers, and I concur.

    When I read Coetze’s Disgrace, I felt as though the author was trying to engender a response that he didn’t earn.  It seemed nakedly manipulative, and so I have avoided reading any further works by him.

  17. 17
    Lori says:

    For some reason, I have blank white space instead of the spoiler.

    Just highlight the blank area & you’ll be able to see the spoiler.  “Spoiler font” keeps people from reading the spoiler by accident since you have to deliberately highlight the area to see it.

    In terms of the Cheap Pathos, it’s the cheapness & bad writing that bother me.  I hate it when it feels like there should just be a note in the margin that says “Cry Here”.  I really hate feeling like I’m being manipulated and I think using a child is just a common way to do that.  I tend to agree with RfP that I notice it as much or more when a woman is used that way. 

    There’s a long tradition in action stories   (books, TV, movies) that I refer to as The Dead Girlfriend.  The story starts with the hero having the perfect girlfriend/wife.  She’s beautiful, smart, kind—the whole package, but she exists for the sole purpose of dying horribly so that the hero has the proper motivation to go off on his epic Lone Wolf righteous vengeance spree.  I have a whole rant about how much I hate this.

  18. 18
    elianara says:

    I’m with Beth, I don’t like the use of the pain of children as a shortcut, but it can be done really well. I have very mixed emotions about this, I don’t mind it as much if it’s revealed slowly, so that I have the time to heal too, but using the pain of children to shock and anger, I just can’t stand it.

    I have the same feelings about rape and violence against women in romance, I can’t stand really explicit rape scenes. I can’t say I like rape in books, but it can be done really well, and easy on the reader too, so you, as a reader have time to absorb and heal.

    I know both child abuse and rape happens, and more often than what you would like to think, but when I read, I like to be entertained, not shocked and angry and hurt. I like my HEA, or the HFN.

  19. 19
    Stephanie says:

    I bought The Passion of Simon Blackwell before a trip and read it, but the book seemed unwarrantedly emotionally shallow. I’m not a mother, so I wasn’t reacting to precisely the same things you were, SB Sarah, but yeah, I can understand it. I wouldn’t recommend it.

    Eloisa James handled it fairly well in one of her early books, I think; but then again, she had actual experience about that which she was writing. That may be the difference; it’s hard to treat the injury/death of a child lightly if you’ve experienced it first-hand.

  20. 20
    Lyvvie says:

    This is why I won’t watch CSI Miami. They seem to have a kid kill quota.

  21. 21
    Yvette Davis says:

    Oh come on, we read them for the vicarious thrill and the sex. It’s not like you can get that from your husband all the time. Husbands are imperfect creatures, fantasy romance novel guys are not. What did Andy Warhol say about sex?

    Fantasy love is much better than reality love. Never doing it is very exciting. The most exciting attractions are between two opposites that never meet.
    Andy Warhol

    and…

    Sex is more exciting on the screen and between the pages than between the sheets.
    Andy Warhol

    If we are looking for a moral story, there’s always Dickens, or for a more emotional romp, Austen. Or if you want flowery speech, Garcia Marquez.

    The trick, I think, to making romance also readable and also have a story line is to invest heavily in characters and their conflicts.

  22. 22
    Suze says:

    It’s not the hurting of the child that bothers me, as much as it’s the clumsy handling of it.  Which is not to say that I enjoy it when children get hurt.

    I expect and even want my fictional friends to suffer great pain and anguish so that I can come along for the ride as they recover from it.

    But one of the reasons I choose to read Romance is that I know I’ll end up feeling hopeful or uplifted or contented.

    I do NOT want to finish a book and feel like my heart’s been ripped out and stomped on, and then wander around in black depression for an unreasonable length of time afterwards.

    Say what you like about the HEA, but I absolutely require a positive, emotionally satisfying end to a Romance.

  23. 23
    sandra says:

    I think it depends how well the book is written.  If the death of a child is used as an easy explanation for the hero/ine being screwed up, it ranks right up there with the dead wife everyone thinks the hero adored having been an evil slut.  Been there, read that.  On the other hand, I thought Cheryl’s St John’s PRAIRIE WIFE deals with the aftermath of the death of a child in a realistic manner.  Both parents are devestated, and both have a hard time getting on with their lives.  The fact that they love each other doesn’t help much. Spamword gave96; well, I’d give it an 80.

  24. 24
    CM says:

    Just fixin’ the old italics problem.

  25. 25
    Fiamme says:

    Agree on the Heartstring things.  Even when it’s done well I can be just too disturbed over it.  I stopped watching Cold Case (which I thought was an excellent show) because I was just so very disturbed—I think haunted wouldn’t be too strong a word—over an episode where a desperate mother jumped out of a window with her child.  Kudos to them in that it got me good, it got me /grieving/, which certainly was a response.  It just wasn’t a response I was willing to have wrung out of me over weeknight tv.

    I read the Elantra series recently (not romance, so I had less expectations).  The level of destruction to lives and characters over the deaths in there to me rang more true than the “ooops, dead kid, sniff sniff, ok lets go get married now” level of treatment.

    If you are going to kill someone trusting and vulnerable, as a writer, at least make it mean something to everyone concerned.  Otherwise, have your heroine break a nail, or total the car or something instead.  That said, not all of us will come back for more after you rip our guts out.

  26. 26
    PDX Jane says:

    You are singing my song, missy! We lost our 16-year-old son, our only child, 5 years ago. Until then, I had not noticed how often the death of a child is used as a shorthand device in books and movies. Need a simple reason for angst? Dead child! Need a dramatic moment? Dead child! Hey, let’s kill the mom/dad/sister/brother! Heaven forbid that character development or original plotting occur instead. Lazy writing, IMO. I won’t include my rant on “so-called literary fiction” here. I’ve learned to ask “who dies?” when someone wants to lend me a “good” book or recommend a dramatic movie.
    I can’t effectively analyze when, as part of the whole, it works. Sometimes it does. Maybe it is just the difference between good writing and lazy writing.
    As for Linda Howard’s Cry No More, the portrayal of the heroine’s grief was spot on. It made me wonder what loss the author had suffered in her own life—which is a sign of good writing!

  27. 27
    Tina C. says:

    There are a couple of tv shows, particularly the crime dramas, that I have lost patience with because the writers were relying on cheap and easy methods to demand an emotional response from the viewer, methods I could not tolerate because they were weak and easy, and because they, if I could indulge in a moment of presuming the writers’ motivations, demonstrated little respect for my intelligence, my sensitivity, and my ability to care about the plight of adults.

    I felt the same way about the movie, Pay It Forward.  Oh, how I hate that movie!  I watched for 2 hours or so—watching the kid be all precocious and sweet, watching his harried mother and his emotionally-stifled teacher began to find and heal each other, watching various people helping other people and feeling good.  Yeah, it was kind of sappy, but the acting was pretty good and it was warm and sweet.  And what do they do (because warm and sweet isn’t good drama, I guess)?  They KILL the kid!  For no reason—it’s completely random!  It was at the end of the movie, for chrissake, so it didn’t even move the plot forward in any way!  It was just some writer and/or director deciding that 1) it was so much more dramatic to have a tragic ending instead of a happy ending, and; 2) it was time to rip the viewers guts out and make them feel.  Wow—just look at that!  Bet you didn’t expect that twist, didja?  Now you know it’s great art, because everyone is miserable at the end, despite the feel-good message of the other 9/10’s of the film!  Don’t you feel all sad and, yet, edified in some way??  Balls!  All it made me feel was angry that they tried to manipulate my feelings in such a cheap and tawdry way and pissed that I’d ever invested so much time in the movie.  I turned off the movie right then, with maybe only 10 or 15 minutes left, and I’ve never watched it again.  Just thinking about it makes me a bit pissed, even now.

  28. 28
    DS says:

    I must be very well adjusted—or extremely shallow—because I don’t take on Churchill’s black dog of depression when something bad happens in a book.  I can’t imagine having a weekend ruined—or even an hour—because of fictional trauma—specially bad fictional trauma. 

    The TV trope that used to be endemic in network action television—a female character brings the hero a problem and they develop an attraction.  Then she is disposed of one way or another to make way for the next week’s lovely guest star.  Wash, rinse, repeat.

  29. 29
    Suze says:

    Now you know it’s great art, because everyone is miserable at the end

    I may have posted this before, because it’s a favourite mini-rant of mine, but here it is again.

    I had a conversation (about theatre) with a man who considers himself a patron of the arts.  According to him, dramatic plays are art, comedic plays are not.

    He couldn’t justify his stance, but he stuck to it.  If it makes you sad or depressed or think deep thoughts, it’s quality.  If it makes you laugh or feel happy, it’s commercial schlock.

    Grrr.

    play56!  How does it know?

  30. 30
    SB Sarah says:

    PDXJane: I am so sorry for your loss.

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