Rules of the What What

Barbara Ferrer (aka Caridad Ferrer) emailed me a link to her recent rant about the Rules of Romance after Selah March ranted on her blog regarding appropriate rules of behavior for a hero in a romance.

Describing what she calls the “magic hoo-hah” rule (which Candy and I LOVE. Who wouldn’t wish for a magic va-woo-hah?) which dictates (har) that the hero cannot have sex with anyone else during the course of the story, even if he hasn’t met the heroine yet. Seems a writing friend of Selah’s received scathing feedback regarding her allegedly humpy-eager hero and his inappropriate schlong-wanderings because he dared boink another woman in the course of his love story.

Is that a huge no-no? I don’t think so for my own reading tastes but in terms of writing, I’m not sure. We’ve written much about the redeemable hero and how far he can sink before we can’t accept his deserving of a happily-ever-after, most particularly in the mondo discussion of rape in romance.

But off the top of my head, I can think of several books wherein the hero boinks another woman even after meeting the heroine, but they are, as Selah points out, rather old-school. The one that pops to the forefront of my crapful memory is Catherine Coulter’s Midsummer Magic not only does Lord Hero have a mistress (who is a bluestocking, natch) but in the end I believe the mistress and the heroine MEET each other and join forces to do something rather dastardly humorous to the hero while saving his humpy behind. Granted this hero had other issues that damaged his credibility with me, but having a mistress wasn’t one of them.

Is this a newer standard among the unspoken rules of romance, that the hero can’t shake his tailfeather with anyone but the heroine? I know there’s some question as to whether the heroine can have a happy sexual past without regrets, even in a contemporary novel, but the hero? I’m not advocating for Lord Slut of Humpinghershire to make a rapeful comeback (please, no), but have you encountered this cautionary scolding?


Random Musings

Comments are Closed

  1. Najida says:

    I’m 10 days older than dirt, a mean ole’ broad and I read romance for things I don’t have or haven’t had in RL.  So fidelity is way up there on my list of “makes a book good.”  Even if the couple haven’t met yet, I want the book to be about them.  Another woman just makes me think “yeah, and as soon as I close the book, he’ll be wandering back to her.”  I’m cranky that way.

    I know it’s not realistic, but if I wanted ‘real’ I’d read my diary.  These books are to make me happy.  And a man who’s Happy HumperPants doesn’t make ME happy.

  2. Teddy Pig says:

    I think this rule is breakable depending on focus.

    Did you write it so he looked like he was having too much fun?

    In other words a rule of degrees might be appropriate here.

  3. Teddy Pig says:

    This mightd conflict with having a hero who was sexually experienced which is another rule out there. Am I right?

  4. Najida says:

    I think either party being sexually experienced is OK with me, as long as the book is about the two characters we’re supposed to care about.

    It sorta gets old school Rosemary Rogerish-Ginny-Steve-Everyoneintheworld if we know about previous and current humperinks.

  5. Anon says:

    Hoo-hahs are many things, but rarely are they magical. So, no, I don’t believe that the hero must somehow only want to sleep with the heroine as soon as he meets her. I’ve read just about as many books where the Magic Hoo-Hah idea worked as those where it seemed contrived and forced. “

    March brings “Claiming the Courtesan” and its “out-and-out rape scene” into the equation though. I’m pleading with writers not to bring back the “rape in romance.” I just cannot believe in an “emotionally satisfying ending” after the hero has raped the heroine. It’s not edgy characterization, it’s not creating something new. It’s a woman deluded. We’ve been there, done that.

  6. Selah March says:

    Couple things, just to clarify:

    In my friend’s story (she’ll be along presently to out herself, I’m sure), the stand-in for Lord Humpinghershire actually HAS met the heroine before giving his mistress one final tupping and sending her on her way. But only once, with the meeting. Very casual. Found her attractive but somewhat irritating. Certainly didn’t recognize her as his TWUE WUV.

    And in fact, the contrast between the heroine and the mistress in question seems to be one of the things that piques his interest. He’s a complicated dude, is Lord Humpy. Difficult. Conflicted. Which is what makes it a STORY and not a VIGNETTE about nice people doing nice things while they nicely fall in love. Zzzzzzzzz….

    Wha? Huh? Sorry.

    ANYWAY – the other thing? I in no way have endorsed CLAIMING THE COURTESAN. Haven’t read the book, have only read the buzz. In fact, this is what I say about THAT subject, right there on the blog post in question:

    “Note: this is not an endorsement of returning to the bad old days of “rape in romance,” wherein the only way a nice girl could enjoy a good poke was if the hero took her by force. It’s merely an example of how things shift with the times within the genre.”

    I have no idea whether I’ll think CTC is a good book, a bad book, or not worth my time to finish. My point was only that the pendulum swings, baby, just like the bell tolls. And these days? It sounds like it’s tolling for a shift in the “rules.”

    As to realism in romance? Some folks like it. Some folks don’t. What say we make sure there’s enough to ready for everybody?

  7. Mel-O-Drama says:

    sometimes I wonder if it’s not just the judgey judgey folks who have issues with real life cheating/bed-hopping that they can’t stop themselves from being judgey judgey even if it’s a fictional story.

    My thing is, people scream for realism in their fiction, but then when they finally get a realistic story, they scream “but I wanted escapism!” Well why can’t you have realism and escapism.

    People sleep around. Even people who fall in love. And sometimes, those people (being human and all) make mistakes and have sex with someone other than the one they love because (being human and all) it’s human nature to fuck up. And sometimes judgey people can’t get past that. (and I’m being judgey too, I know. but I’m okay with that.)

    If the heroine can forgive the hero for sleeping around after they met or got together, then that’s a testament to their love and the the power of open communication and moving forward(even in fiction). And that can be the most romantic part of the story, IMO, because the heroine knows the hero is human and she accepts him for that. And they live happily ever after. And there you go, realism + escapism = HEA. The best math on earth.

  8. CM says:

    I’ve seen books where the guy sleeps with girls after knowing the heroine.  This is true for alsmost every May/December book where he’s known her since she’s 12.  But it’s true for other sets as well.  Doesn’t bother me at all.  Cheating bothers me.  Getting laid does not.

    I sometimes think that romance authors have different views about what’s publishable than the “romance public.”

    I’ve seen Elizabeth Hoyt say that for her first book, The Raven Prince, romance authors said that her hero was too ugly and had a temper so he’d never fly.  But readers obviously said otherwise.

  9. Psyche says:

    I just finished Emma Holly’s Beyond Innocence, in which the hero has sex with another woman shortly after meeting the heroine.  Personally, I thought it worked well.  The author could stick in some hot sex early in the novel without disrupting the romantic tension between the hero and the heroine.

    But then, the idea of infidelity just doesn’t bother me as much as some of the other faults that heros routinely get to have, like being an arrogant, condescending jerk towards the heroine, or being a generally violent person, or that whole awful, vile, revenge plotline.  But I recognize that some of that is personal preference.

  10. Najida says:

    No one likes a jerk for a hero, and like I said, fidelity is a deal-maker for me, personally.  Getting laid pre-heroine relationship, sure, maybe, but it doesn’t do anything to the story for me.

    Again, I know it’s fantasy, and I also know that it gives me comfort to a degree.  So I like alpha males who are honorable, protective, heros etc…. Hell, a guy who gets up on the roof to fix broken shingles (so I don’t have to for the umpteenth time) does it for me!

    Romance book men are like giant squids——- I’ll never see one, but I’ve heard they exist 😉

  11. Wendy says:

    Depends.  How’s that for a cop-out?  If the sex happens before hero and heroine make any sort of emotional connection I’m cool with it.  In fact, it’s practically a cliche in western romance circles for the hero to have at least one encounter with a prostitute. 

    (Off the top of my head Rosanne Bittner, Nay Ryan and Ana Leigh have written such scenes.  There’s probably a lot more but dang I’ve just had lunch and I’m sleepy)

    Hey, maybe that’s why westerns are “dead”?  The prostitute thing is upsetting the fantasy?

  12. Candy says:

    Eh, Susan Johnson has written plenty of books in which the hero boinks other women after meeting the heroine. And let’s not forget Eloisa James’s books. Laura Lee Guhrke and Karen Ranney have also written books in which the hero doesn’t just sleep around after they meet the heroine, they actually cheat on the heroine after they marry them.

    And didn’t Derek Craven of Dreaming of You fuck some prostitute who looked a lot like Sara when he decided he couldn’t have her? Kinda creepy, but also kinda romantic.

    It’s strange to hear cries from some quarters about the asshole behavior, because let’s face it, Romancelandia is inundated with assholes—always has been, and likely always will be. (Oh lordy, what a mental picture.) The manifestations of asshole behavior will change according to the times. Asshole heroes used to rape; now, asshole heroes just do emotionally shitful things and browbeat the heroine. We love conflict, and well-adjusted people don’t lend themselves to particularly interesting drama. There are exceptions to the asshole hero rule, of course—Patricia Gaffney is probably THE queen supreme creator of the non-asshole hero who still manages to be deeply interesting. Loretta Chase does a decent job as well, as do Laura Kinsale and Jennifer Crusie.

    There’s also a corollary to the Magic Hoo-Hoo rule, and that’s the Penis of Potency law that’s adhered to a LOT more strictly in Romancelandia, i.e., No Cock For Heroine After She’s Experienced The Hero’s Cock. Long separation? Divorce? Thought he was dead? Sorry, can’t fuck anyone else. Even more infuriating than the Magic Hoo-Hoo, really.

  13. shuzluva says:

    CM and Mel have hit on the two important points for me:

    1. People are human and fuck up
    2. Fidelity is important

    Caveat to #2: Fidelity is important to me once the H/H have made a commitment to each other, be it a legal contract or a mutual understanding. Prior to that, well all bets are off. If the hero sleeps with someone else ‘cause she’s hot, realizes that he’s an idiot and might have to grovel to get the heroine back, or the heroine must (and actually does) forgive the hero his stupidity, well so much the better.

    As much as I like the escapist element of romance, a touch of reality never hurts. (Most) men are idiots and make mistakes – and so do women! I’ve yet to see a heroine that’s slept with someone other than the hero after meeting him in mainstream romance. But I’m sure that’s just flying off in some other direction.

    My submit word is passed35. NOT QUITE YET, BUDDY!

  14. Ann Aguirre says:

    I don’t see why it’s an issue if there’s no relationship yet.

  15. Keziah Hill says:

    In romance if it has an emotionally satisfying ending and is well written I say anything goes.

  16. Robin says:

    ANYWAY – the other thing? I in no way have endorsed CLAIMING THE COURTESAN. Haven’t read the book, have only read the buzz. In fact, this is what I say about THAT subject, right there on the blog post in question:

    “Note: this is not an endorsement of returning to the bad old days of “rape in romance,” wherein the only way a nice girl could enjoy a good poke was if the hero took her by force. It’s merely an example of how things shift with the times within the genre.”

    I have no idea whether I’ll think CTC is a good book, a bad book, or not worth my time to finish. My point was only that the pendulum swings, baby, just like the bell tolls. And these days? It sounds like it’s tolling for a shift in the “rules.”

    As someone who has read Claiming the Courtesan (and I reviewed it on Dear Author if anyone’s interested), I think it is a bold and thoughtful book.  That it’s being called an endorsement of rape or an old time bodice ripper in various places makes the top of my head feel like it’s separating from my brain!  IMO it is a book *about* those old bodice rippers (a meditation on them, really), and one I found to be very impressive.  Oh yes, I understand that people hate it.  And yes there are parts of it that are oh so twisted (and self-consciously so, IMO).  But objectively speaking, I truly cannot comprehend some of the comments and reviews this book has gotten.  Hate the book and the characters by all means, but IMO it’s virtually impossible to read this book accurately as an endorsement of Romance rape OR a standard bodice ripper. 

    More generally, I think there is a conflation of subjective and objective reader response with certain Romance novel scenarios and themes and characters that creates this knee-jerk recall of “the rules” y’all refer to them.  So the nuances of any *particular* book become eclipsed by a general fear or sense of discomfort that may or may not be directly connected to specific books or even the genre as a whole.

  17. >>I’ve yet to see a heroine that’s slept with someone other than the hero after meeting him in mainstream romance.

    Jennifer Crusie—‘Fast Women’.  Totally believable, and doesn’t affect the HEA, or the amazing sex she does eventually have with the hero, one bit.

    Personally, I have extreme monogamy fantasies for romantic fiction, so I’d rather no one had sex with anyone until the H/h have sex, but I’ve read and enjoyed plenty of romances which went by lots of different rules, so this particular plot wouldn’t stop me reading the book.

  18. CM says:

    Let me add that “what bothers me” is not synonymous for “the Plot that Must Not be Named.”  Infidelity is not Lord Voldemort.

    Why shy away from conflict, if it can believably be resolved?  People change.  They grow up.  It works.

  19. Eva Gale says:

    Heh. Barb, darlin’, c’mere?

    That insane person who doth have her Hero humpintydumpin’ his mistress whilst fantasizing about the TO BE heroine-would be moi. There is no infidelity, there is yet to be a relationship.

    And the mistress is a long time one-showing his fidelity to one person-but she happens to be a shallow bitch. Of course. Because I want you to luurve the heroine.

    Behold, the Rules of the Magic Hoohoo.

  20. Kalen Hughes says:

    I know there’s some question as to whether the heroine can have a happy sexual past without regrets, even in a contemporary novel

    Really? You mean I’ve broken a rule and I didn’t even know it? Damn.

  21. Eva Gale says:

    And I’m not a fan of infidelity in romance either. I can’t imagine anything more painful. So, although the Penis of Potency is a true thing in Romancelandia, once there is bargaining/vows/intent I’m in the fidelity camp. Till then it’s all fair though.

    Hmm. If my above post came off a tad jagged it was because I ws flying out the door and little people were screeching. It halts my thought process.

  22. RandomRanter says:

    Imogen beat me to it on Fast Women.  I know I’ve read others where the hero sleep with another/others before meeting or before relationship establishment.  While in a romance I am typically expecting the pages to be about their relationship, I don’t have an automatic problem with heroes or heroines having sex with other people.  I agree I’m am not usually a fan of infidelity, but that’s not what we’re discussing here.

  23. O dear!  I guess this discussion puts the kabash on my dreams of writing the great polyamorous romance of our times.

  24. Barb Ferrer says:

    Eva, baby!  How you doin’?  Who knew, right?  The powers of the Magic HooHoo and a few Ranty McRantypants blogs.  😉

    You know, ultimately, what this whole debate boils down to, for me, is that I feel every reader has every flippin’ right in the world to read the style(s) of romance that most makes their little hearts go pitta-pat.  And to shout out to the world, “This is how I like my romance and heroes, by golly!”  God knows there are plenty of styles out there to suit every taste, no matter how varied. 

    However, someone tries to tell me that as a writer, I have to craft my stories and plots and characters in a way prescribed by some tightly defined set of “rules”— that only by following these rules will I have written a True Romance that is accepted wide and far, uh… nope.

    I’m not in the personal wish fulfillment business.  I’m in the business of crafting stories that are well thought out (to the best of my ability) with characters we can identify with and hopefully like, even if they do some unlikable things, and ultimately, be happy with their ending, regardless of what form it takes.

    When it comes down to it—I’m a storyteller and frankly, I’d get bored telling the same story over and over again.  And I’m also a reader and while I have certain styles I prefer over others, I’d get bored, reading the same story, over and over again.

    Just my take on it.

  25. Barb Ferrer says:

    but have you encountered this cautionary scolding?

    Sarah, to answer this specific question, yes I have.  (And my women’s fic is of the contemporary variety.)  I never set out to deliberately break rules—I don’t know of any “rules” to break, until someone says, “Uh, you can’t do that.”

    Why?  Yes, I have my people making choices—sometimes painful, damaging choices, with consequences.  I think this makes the ultimate resolution of any given story resonate that much more powerfully—if I feel that the characters have really had to fight to get to where they are at the climax (no pun intended).  If I feel that they’re going to cherish their resolution and treasure it and ultimately take better care of it for having gone through whatever trials and tribulations my twisted Girls in the Basement have cooked up for them.  But I only ever follow those impulses if it serves the story—never for sensationalistic purposes.

  26. Shaunee says:

    Naturally, I can’t think of any titles off the top of my head—wait, let me have some wine.

    Still nothing.

    However, I distinctly recall being an impetuous youth and reading many a historical romance wherein the Hero, after discovering the utter and complete fabulousness that is the Heroine, fucks all that walk in order to get over his illogical fascination with the chit.

    The rule, The Pee Pee doth wiltith (or some such) around girl parts not belonging to the heroine was generally enacted around the time some viscous and slutty widow’s (really, is there any other kind?) boobs were bobbing around His face sending Him trotting off to emotionally brutalize the Heroine for loving a rake such as he followed by the obligatory Vagina Healing.  Imagine the kind of health care I’d have if my cootch could but heal like the Heroine in a romance novel.  Still, I say the attempt at meaningless sex should count for…uh, something.

    Does any of this apply to the topic at hand?  Have I had too much wine?  Is that even possible?

  27. Little Miss Spy says:

    I remember in a horrrid Beatrice Small book the hero was off sexing many women quite happily in between finding his heroine. I think he even had kids! But the heroine was raped instead by multiple men, and “enjoyed” it after relaxing! she ended up having her own little brood, also being kidnapped by sultans and pirates, etc….It was horrific. Made me spewish feeling. But then again Mrs. Small does that to me.

  28. I doubt I’d have trouble with the scenario as presented. That said, with Fast Women I never did get over Riley and wanted him to be the hero! So while I totally enjoyed the book, I imprinted on the wrong guy. (I also thought heroine and non-hero’s sex scene was the most interesting sex scene in the book. I also thought it read more women’s fiction than romance in many ways.)

    Anyway, there are costs to making different story choices, but sometimes the price paid is more than worth it, and sometimes it’s not. I kinda agree with whoever said, it depends 🙂

  29. Little Miss Spy says:

    I see now I didn’t finish my thought process (A bit tired). So: I don’t really care if heroes and heroines are doing it with anyone else before they are together as long as it is not a rape on either end like in Mrs. Small’s books. Once the two are together, I most def. want it to be full on fidelity. I hate cheaters. On anything: tests, boys, taxes.

  30. dl says:

    I’d almost forgotten Beatrice Small, read her once…too much rape & random fuckfest unto the heroine, never again.  When crusing bookstore shelves, my eye doesn’t slow down or acknowledge her books, yuck.

    I read for entertainment, and since rape isn’t entertaining I’ll pass on CTC along with Ms. Small.

    Consentual sex is fabulous when it moves the story line along.  But, at some point I expect a committment followed by some type of exclusive relationship resulting in HEA.

  31. Gail Dayton says:

    I guess this discussion puts the kabash on my dreams of writing the great polyamorous romance of our times.

    I thought I already did that… Well, except they’re as much fantasy as romance.

    Anyway, I am of the firm belief that there are rules that can’t be broken, but there are only two of them.

    The Two Unbreakable Rules of all fiction writing are thus:



    That’s it. Anything else goes. Cowboys, hockey players, sculptors, magic hoo-hahs, or slutty ones. Hooker heroes. As long as you’re not boring us, or leaving us in utter confusion, you’re not breaking any rules.

  32. dl says:

    Yes Gail, you already wrote it…and I’m impatiently anticipating the next installment!!

  33. Jen C says:

    I feel realllllly dumb, but I swear I don’t remember anyone having non-HEA couple sex in Fast Women, except for Suzy and Evil Ex.  Who am I missing here?

    On topic- I kind of hate non monogamy from the start in romance novels, because I read romance novels entirely for escapism.  If I want to read about real life, I will go read a memoir or something.  In my opinion, the optimal hero has not had sex for a while prior to meeting the heroine (the heroine, of course, is not a virginal ninny). 

    That said, I would enjoy reading a poly romance novel, if someone would write it, and I would rather a hero that fucks others after meeting the heroine to all these heros I keep reading about who kill someone for whatever reason.  It creeps me out, especially since the soon-to-be dead guy is always 100% evil.  I don’t believe in 100% evil, so it doesn’t work for me. 

    I don’t know if I could ever read a romance novel with a hero who cheats after making some sort of commitment though.  It would bother me far too much.  Again, there is a story there, but its not one I can read and still believe in the HEA, and my romance novels need a HEA.

  34. SonicLe says:

    I don’t like the idea of the hero sexing up another gal after he’s met the heroine.  I don’t know why – it’s just always bothered me.  It’s like his foot is in infidelity’s doorway…although he’s TECHNICALLY not doing anything wrong.

    Well, screw technicalities.  I read these books for fun and fantasy and having him do some other girl after he’s met the heroine would just make me a little uncomfortable and take some of the fun away from the story.  It won’t utterly ruin the book for me, but it definitely does hurt how I view the book.

  35. Ann Aguirre says:

    I may rant about this on Monday, but I hate the lightning bolts of lust in romance novels. Like the hero takes one look at the heroine and develops a throbbing boner, will do anything to boink her, yadda yadda. Likewise the heroine dissolves into a pile of wet panties and feels a strange desire building in her loins.

    I’d rather read a book where it’s less…cosmic, more organic. They think something along the lines of, “hey, she’s cute” or “hey, I’d do him if he showered and shaved first.” That’s one of the reasons I love Jenny Crusie. I love the way she develops relationships.

  36. Jane says:

    What’s the point.  What does sex with a mistress show us?  That the guy’s an asshole?  That he has a really strong libido and therefore is worthy of the alpha male designation? 

    The romance is about two people getting together and unless there is a pretty good reason to include a sex scene between the hero and his mistress, I don’t see what the point is.

    Then I also wonder what the point of villian sex is – as if kinky sex shows just how very depraved the villian is. Ohh, look, the villian does it doggy style.  NO WONDER he’s into killing and maiming.

  37. Kat says:

    Not usually a fan of non-monogamy, but my fave BDB novel is Lover Eternal and the hero sleeps with another woman. It still worked for me in the context of the story. Mind you, I had to get a friend to read it first then tell me whether I could live with it before I picked up the book.

  38. Robin says:

    I feel realllllly dumb, but I swear I don’t remember anyone having non-HEA couple sex in Fast Women, except for Suzy and Evil Ex.  Who am I missing here?

    Relatively early in the novel, Riley has sex with Tess to “get her back in the game,” to to speak.  It’s not about a relationship for either of them, but later, when Tess and Gabe finally give in to their burning lust, Gabe is monstrously jealous, because he knows about the previous thing with Riley.  In a way, that initial encounter catalyzes Tess and Gabe’s relationship, making Tess care once more about herself and her body (remember how she won’t eat for the longest time) and making Gabe consciously aware of his attraction to Tess. 

    Then I also wonder what the point of villian sex is – as if kinky sex shows just how very depraved the villian is. Ohh, look, the villian does it doggy style.  NO WONDER he’s into killing and maiming.

    I HATE the use of sex to demonstrate the villain’s badness, ESPECIALLY when it’s a villainness and she is portrayed as sexually promiscuous or predatory.  Just one more thing that seems to promote the artificial association of virtue with virginity, IMO.

  39. Selah March says:

    Jane, the sex with the mistress gives the reader several clues about the character, including his outlook on women in general and a peek into his backstory and and level of self-regard.

    Could the author have done it differently? Perhaps. SHOULD she have done it differently because a certain percentage of the reading population doesn’t care for heroes who sleep with others? I don’t think so. Just as many seem to be fine with it, just like many are fine with non-virginal heroines or trash-talking vampires or even “forced seduction,” if written well.

    And many are not. So they don’t read those books.

    Personally, I’m not a huge fan of shapeshifters, but I don’t suggest that authors find another way to express their desire to write animalistic warrior heroes with primal bonding instincts. I just avoid books with shapeshifters.

    True, the average book with a “slutty” hero doesn’t necessarily have that plot point advertised on its back cover copy, so it can be a little tricky. But I think readers are smart. I give them credit for finding what they like, what they don’t like, and making choices based on experience.

    Putting limits on creativity and characterization with artificial “rules” helps no one, least of all the readership.

    And my spam-catcher word is “good11,” which I’ll take as a sign that I’m on the right track. 🙂

  40. Jane says:

    I don’t understand who is doing the stifling?  Write what you want and if it sells, great and if it doesn’t, maybe you have to rethink some issues.

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