Not too long ago, I wrote a piece discussing how, among other things, I wished that I could see more authors speaking publicly and candidly about books and the romance genre. Now we here at AAR are very happy to be running this interview between Jill Sorenson and Suzanne Brockmann(whose works will be appearing together later this month in Passion and Peril) in which they talk about writing and a variety of topics in romance. – Lynn
(JS) Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview! I’ve enjoyed so many of your books, especially the Troubleshooters series, and I’m very excited about our upcoming release, Passion and Peril. It’s a dream come true to get bundled with you.
(SB) Thanks, Jill! I’m jazzed about this 2-in-1, too! I think it’s a really fun pairing!
(JS) I wanted to interview you for a couple of reasons. We have a book to promote, so there’s that. You’ve also been a huge inspiration to me, and I thought you might have some helpful insights for anyone interested in writing diverse characters.
Let’s start with secondary characters. I loved the geeky teen romance in The Unsung Hero. The drunken hookup between Sam and Alyssa took my breath away. I’ll never forget Jules and Robin’s first kiss. You have a knack for creating a strong supporting cast, and sometimes I’ve been more invested in them than the main players. Readers have said this about my books as well. Do you think writers should try to limit the influence of secondary characters?
(SB) Short answer: No.
Why? I think it’s important to look at the reasons why some readers are more invested in the secondary characters, to understand where that emotion comes from. I believe it goes back to the fact that the romance genre, like all genres, has its rules–and that the main rule of romance, the guaranteed happily-ever-after, can often make a story seem predictable.
That HEA rule is both a blessing and a curse. Frankly, I read romance because I know the book will end with love triumphing, and that’s important to me. But at the same time, the writer *must* keep the story fresh by spinning the elements of the book (story, characters, plot, conflicts or all of the above) in different and new directions, *because* I know that everything’s gonna work out in the end.
And IMO it’s really easy for romance novels to feel stale because the writing needs to be a balancing act between the surprise of the new and the comfort of the familiar.
Do keep in mind that my idea of “stale” could be another reader’s warm, fuzzy, beloved comfort-read. Most of the time when a book doesn’t work for me, it’s not the book, it’s me. And that’s true for all of us as readers.
With that said, I would never advocate for genre romance authors to provide that “surprise of the new” by denying that (sometimes stale-feeling) guaranteed HEA to their readers. Take that away, and the book is not a romance.
Still, early in my career, as I was analyzing the romance genre and really breaking down what worked (and what didn’t quite work) for me, both as a reader and a writer, I started thinking about the tragic-love-story genre. Nicholas Sparks type-books. BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. It’s not by accident that those love-stories-with-unhappy-endings are so popular. We experience completely different emotions when presented with stories that, for example, end in sacrifice.
One of my all-time favorite romantic movies is CASABLANCA because I love the bittersweet way that movie ends. My heart breaks every time Rick and Ilsa make their sacrifice–and I love feeling that sorrow-tinged emotion.
I came to the conclusion that we, as romance authors with our guaranteed HEA, cheat our readers out of experiencing satisfying, cathartic emotions that come from stories that are bittersweet.
Now what I did, starting way back when I wrote BODY GUARD, and then again in the books in my Troubleshooters series, was to add less-traditional stories to my romance novels via subplots. I knew I had to maintain that ironclad guarantee of an HEA ending–but only for the main characters.
But for anyone else in the book…? Any major secondary characters? Their HEA ending was up for grabs.
It didn’t take readers long to recognize that my secondary characters were *not* all going to be neatly paired up at the end of my books, like in a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but again, it’s just not for me!) Then readers realized that I might even kill off a secondary character, that some of the subplots ended in permanent, unfixable separation–and the stakes grew even higher.
I believe, at least in my books, that the possibility that the secondary characters’ story won’t have that guaranteed HEA makes that subplot more dangerously enticing to some romance readers. They honestly don’t know what’s going to happen and they like that.
Contrast those feelings of intense uncertainty with the feelings that we have when we *know* the hero and heroine (or hero and hero, or heroine and heroine) will end up together. It feels very different to us as readers, right?
And we-the-writers can twist those emotions, too. One reader hit the nail on the head when she wrote to me after reading THE DEFIANT HERO (TS #2). This book had a WWII flashback subplot, just like THE UNSUNG HERO (TS #1), but in book #1, that WWII subplot was a tragedy. It involved a love triangle between two American GIs and a female French resistance fighter–and we find out that the young woman died saving the two men’s lives. (War and death tend to go hand in hand.)
In the next book, I also wrote another WWII flashback story, and readers braced themselves for this story to end tragically, too. But (SPOILER!) the WWII subplot hero returns from a POW camp at the book’s end.
This particular reader wrote to tell me that because my subplots don’t have a guaranteed HEA, when I delivered a happy ending, she was not only surprised, but the emotions she felt were heightened–unlike anything she’d experienced before when reading a romance novel.
I thought that was very insightful.
But I think most readers don’t analyze their every thought and emotion the way that this reader did, and the way that I do! LOL! So I’m pretty sure that most readers don’t understand *why* they find my secondary characters so compelling–they just know that they have a stronger (i.e. different, new, fresh) emotional reaction to them than they do to the “traditional” main characters.
In my books, the main characters are, by design, the “traditional romance novel delivery vehicle.” My main characters are intentionally *familiar.* I make their journey more traditional in order to create the stability I need to take readers outside of their romance-novel comfort zones in the uncertain subplots that feature my secondary characters.
So I’m okay with the critiques–because they’re proof I’m succeeding! All of my characters–main and secondary–are doing exactly what I’ve intended.
(JS) I wasn’t planning to add my own commentary to the interview, but you make so many interesting points. I can’t resist. I love what you said about bittersweet endings and higher stakes for secondary characters. I’m a plotter, which means I outline the main story before I begin, but my subplots aren’t as carefully planned. I have more freedom with them. Some end happily, others don’t. I enjoy the tension of not knowing how (or if) everything is going to work out. I can also experiment with less traditionally heroic character types. I think I’m attracted to YA novels and younger characters for the same reason. I like that feeling of uncertainty. There is no guarantee of a happy ending.
Of course, I also love happy endings. I think I need both.
The problem with strong secondary characters is that readers expect them to have their own books someday. There are several sequels I’d planned to write but haven’t. This is my failing, and the downside to leaving loose ends. I’m so glad to have had the opportunity to write connected books for my Aftershock series. It’s been very fulfilling to revisit secondary characters and deliver those anticipated HEAs.
(JS) Before Jules and Robin, I’d never read a romance between two men. I really liked their storyline and found them sexy together. I remember gushing to a friend, “I didn’t know I was into that!” But later I tried a more explicit m/m story and felt like a voyeur. So I started reading f/f and lesbian romance instead. While m/m has become popular, f/f is largely ignored. Do you have plans to write any LBT characters? What’s your advice for authors seeking to break down this barrier?
(SB) I think part of the problem starts with the fact that early on, m/m got lumped into erotica, a sub-genre where the focus is on sex, sex, and more sex. I believe that there’s a demand for sweet m/m–but it’s hard to find. I know that my son hasn’t found much m/m romance that completely suits his subjective less-sex-more-romance tastes. (More about that, below.)
I’m the same way. While I appreciate the fact that many, many readers love erotica, it’s just not for me. I want to read about people who are falling in *like,* not just falling in lust.
Again, it’s all about the individual reader’s personal, subjective comfort zone–and I’m really glad that you discovered what you liked!
But I’ve gotta say: There’s a really great m/m book out right now by new author Alexis Hall, called GLITTERLAND. I loved this book, and not because it’s m/m. It’s a lovely, beautifully written romance, period. It’s pubbed by RipTide, a small press, but it’s like an H/S category romance in so many ways–in length, in sweetness, in the heat-level of the love scenes… I’ve been telling my readers: “If you loved Robin and Jules’s story arc, but have maybe been a little shy about picking up another m/m book, GLITTERLAND is for you.”
“While m/m has become popular, f/f is largely ignored. Do you have plans to write any LBT characters?”
How do you know I haven’t already? And that wasn’t meant to be snarky or rude–I’m just fascinated (discouraged?) by society’s tendency to *assume* that all characters are straight. (We do this with the people we meet, too, don’t we?)
But okay. I may have written characters who are lesbian, but I just haven’t revealed that yet. Obviously, your question (and one I get asked a lot!) is about romantic subplots for lesbian characters, which is something that I haven’t yet done.
You know, my books are hero-driven for a reason. I really, really, *really* like men. Most of my friends are men. I *get* men in a way that I don’t really understand women, despite being one myself. Writing a story with two female main characters would be quite a challenge for me, so I’ve got no plans to do that in the immediate future.
I’ve just sold a YA book called NIGHT SKY that I’ve co-written with my daughter, Melanie! And Mel and I were *just* talking about including a lesbian character in the sequel that we’ll be writing soon. In fact, we’ll be part of a YA panel at RT’s Teen Day, next May, talking about LGBTQ characters in YA books. (I’ll be sitting on an LGBTQ romance panel at RT, too!)
(JS) First of all, congrats to you and your daughter on the YA project! It sounds great. I wasn’t sure if you’d written any LBT characters but I thought you would correct me if you had. This reminds me of a debate over JK Rowling’s claim that Dumbledore was gay. I didn’t see any evidence of this in the series. I’m not sure it counts if the text doesn’t support the author’s idea for the character.
That said, I recently saw Gravity with Sandra Bullock. Her character’s sexuality isn’t stated (or I missed it). Leaving it open seemed like a conscious choice on the part of the filmmaker and I appreciated it. So I’m not dismissing ambiguity. I just don’t think it can make the same impact as direct representation.
As far as men vs. women. I wouldn’t say that I prefer women over men, but I do gravitate toward female characters and heroine-centric stories. Male POV is inescapable and ubiquitous, so I don’t feel like I’m missing much by seeking out female voices. I haven’t had any luck writing GLBT, other than a few minor characters. I wrote a lesbian subplot for a historical romance (unpublished). I also submitted a proposal for a story with a lesbian best friend, and considered giving her a love interest, but that didn’t work out either! Will keep trying.
“What’s your advice for authors seeking to break down this barrier?”
(SB) No fear. Write from your heart. And avoid stereotypes!
I think some authors are afraid of some mythical “backlash” from conservative readers. But the world is changing, and by including realistic and compelling LGBT characters in popular fiction, we can help it change that much faster.
My personal creative mission statement is to “redefine normal.”
My normal American family includes a gay son who is and always has been accepted and loved. In my family, my husband Ed and I looked at Jason when he was a toddler and thought, “Yup.” So we raised our precious baby boy in a world where being gay was a very real possibility–where we used the word gay aloud, where we had gay friends, and we supported LGBT rights–and we now have a healthy, happy, well-adjusted, lovely adult son who is in a wonderful relationship with *the* sweetest, nicest guy. In our normal, everyday, average American family, I’m hoping to hear wedding bells in the near future for my son and the man he loves. (No pressure, Jason and Matt! I’m just saying that my normal includes that option for you, which is a wonderful thing!)
And that’s the “normal” world I offer my readers, too–a world where parents love their kids, period, the end.
As writers of pop culture fiction, we can impact the real world. If enough readers pick up books where realistic LGBT characters are treated with dignity and respect, then they’ll expect the same thing in their lives.
My latest project is an indie movie that I co-wrote and co-produced with Jason and Ed called THE PERECT WEDDING. We wrote it because Jason was struggling to find a reflection of himself in the characters who people most LGBT movies. He found a lot of angsty coming out stories (he got high-fives and a mini pride parade in our living room when he announced that he’s gay!), and closet comedies–none of which he could relate to. So we wrote the movie that Jason wanted to see.
It’s a sweet little boy-meets-boy rom-com that’s set at the hero’s home over the Christmas holidays. The fact that the two main characters are gay doesn’t play into any conflict whatsoever. (And there are plenty of conflicts in the movie!)
THE PERFECT WEDDING recently got picked up by a distributor, Wolfe Releasing, and the film will be out (appropriately!) in time for the holidays. Watch a trailer at www.ThePerfectWeddingMovie.com or visit our distributor’s page(I’m kinda excited about this project! Writing and then producing a movie was very different from writing novels!)
To be continued tomorrow…