At the Back Fence Issue #257

March 12, 2007 – Issue #257

From the Desk of Anne Marble:

Oh, Brother…Oh, Sister!

Have you noticed that brothers and sisters abound in romance novels? They do. Where would the Carpathian series be without devoted siblings? Where would historicals be without the Bridgertons and Bedwyns? Or contemporaries without Concannon sisters, Quinn brothers, and Marcelli Brides? Sometimes siblings betray each other, sometimes they support each other. It’s sort of like real life, except that most of us have never been sold into slavery by our evil twin sister.

Quick, think of a romance where the hero or heroine suffered because of an evil sibling. It’s not too hard, is it? Evil twin sisters, greedy brothers, conniving sisters, you name it, they’re out there. Just as in fairy tales, romance siblings are often dangerous, if not outright evil. In romances, it’s often safer to be an only child.

Evil siblings have always been a part of the literary landscape. Most readers can relate to the stormy relationships within families. When a brother or sister turns bad, this ramps up the emotions of the story. The frustration that Lydia, the heroine in Carla Kelly’s With This Ring feels in dealing with her spoiled (and beautiful) sister, Kitty, is recognizable to just about everybody who reads the book.

AAR’s Ellen agrees that Kitty is the classic bad sibling, gorgeous yet vapid, and that her mother is evil as well. “Kitty is so stupid and silly and the mother is so evil that I really wanted to snatch them bald. I don’t think I’ve ever disliked a sibling more than Kitty.” Isn’t it wonderful that evil siblings can make us feel such high emotions? Maybe this is because when the betrayal comes from a sibling, it feels worse than if it had come from a cousin or best friend.

But it doesn’t always make a book entertaining. Sometimes it can be just plain annoying. Have you ever found yourself reading a book and enjoying the romance, only to have the evil sibling intrude and hijack the story for many chapters? Have you found yourself rolling your eyes when an evil sibling cooked up unconvincing plots? While I have often disagreed with my brothers, neither of them has tried to sell me to a wealthy old earl. This happens in Jo Beverley’s Forbidden, but, fortunately she pulls it off. It takes a good writer to make me me believe in truly evil siblings.

Too many evil siblings have come across as “eeevil” rather than evil. One of my first memories of a truly “eevil” sibling was the odious twin sister in Lynda Trent’s The Tryst. In this book, the heroine takes the place of her sister and marries the hero. Late in the book, the evil sister kidnaps the heroine and takes her place. Then she has sex with almost every man in the hero’s castle! (Needless to say excepting the hero and his most trusted servant.) This plot twist struck me as needless, gross, and not a little bit silly. To finish the book I endured paragraph after paragraph of comic book antics. I wanted my romance novel back! Worse, the heroine suffered from a malady all too common in romance. Until getting kidnapped, she had no idea that her sister was so evil. What, she never noticed? How could anybody be this clueless about someone who must have been taking advantage of her for years? I know which brother takes longer to eat dinner and which one likes to tease Dad about making the coffee at family gatherings. Surely I’d notice if one of them was psychotic.

Heroes can be morons about their brothers, too. Years ago I read a review of the SF novel Pure Blood by Mike McQuay. The hero’s half- brother was named “Ramon,” and, as the reviewer pointed out, with a name like that, you just knew the brother was going to turn out to be evil. I had the same feeling when I started Kay Hooper’s fantasy romance Summer of the Unicorn. I’d been looking forward to this book because fantasy romances were rare at the time. Then I learned the hero was named Hunter Morgan, and his rival for the throne, his scarred half-brother, was named Boran. Come on, you know a horribly scarred half-brother named Boran is going to turn out to be bad, even if the hero insists that they’re friends. This was one of those cases where I wanted to shout to his brother, “Can’t you tell he’s evil?”

Siblings like Boran are the sort of guys who have sadistic sex with unwilling servants. While there really are Borans in this world, it’s easier to accept bad siblings like the frivolous, spoiled Kitty in Carla Kelly’s With This Ring, or even someone like the insanely jealous Lady Alice from Brenda Joyce’s The Conqueror. Compare Boran to the hero’s younger brother in The Inconvenient Duchess by Christine Merrill, nominated by AAR’s Linda as “really a very bad guy.” This brother tries to manipulate the heroine, poisoning her mind against the hero.

I can relate to those characters because I know people with siblings like that. I don’t know anyone whose brother or sister keeps trying to kill them. Some evil siblings make my willing suspension of disbelief go “boing.” That’s why, like other readers, I’ve often complained about too many books with evil, as opposed to annoying, siblings. But these evil characters often do serve a purpose in a story. Any brother or sister, good or bad, is a sign of the growth of romance. In the Gothic tradition, heroines were often orphans with no siblings to turn to for help. When they did have siblings, they tended to be like the cruel Reed cousins in Jane Eyre, clearly a bad bunch. Early romances followed that pattern. This left the heroine without any support and often put her in the power of the hero. As romance changed, heroines became stronger. They became individuals and were more likely to have siblings they could rely on. In other words, they became more like people you might actually know than orphans out of a melodrama.

Nowadays many romances are filled with great siblings – people we would be proud to adopt into our own families. In 1988 (two years after The Tryst), Miriam Minger’s Twin Passions was a breath of fresh air to me. Both were books about heroines who took the place of a twin. In Twin Passions, the heroine both disguised herself as a boy and pretended to be her sister to save her from marrying a Viking. You can’t get more devoted than that. The most I’ve ever done for my brother was give him a car.

Books like Twin Passions enable me to vicariously experience the fun of having a sister. I don’t have a sister. Just as people with lots of siblings wonder what it might be like to be an only child (for a little while) , I often wondered what it would be like to have a sister, or a younger brother. Would I get along with them? Would I try to boss them around? Would we fight all the time, or would we be devoted to each other? The best sibling books give me a glimpse of what life might have been like had I had a sister or younger brother.

Nowadays, you can’t throw a rock at a romance shelf without hitting family series. In historicals, you have Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton books, Stephanie Lauren’s Bar Cynster, Victoria Alexander’s Effington books, and Mary Balogh’s Bedwyn series, among others. (When you say Mary Balogh and siblings, the Bedwyns come to mind. AAR’s Lisa reminds us not to forget the take on siblings in Balogh’s earlier novels such as Heartless and Silent Melody.) In contemporaries, there are series by authors ranging from Nora Roberts to Diana Palmer to Susan Mallery. These families can be a welcome relief from the bad siblings of romance. In the best of these stories, the reader wants to become that ninth Bridgerton child, or the seventh Bedwyn. I wanted the heroine of Jacquie D’Alessandro’s Red Roses Mean Love to adopt me. Even when brothers and sisters don’t always get along (such as Adam and Wulfric in Balogh’s Simply Married), they add to the story because they inject a dose of realism into the story. You usually sense that brothers like this will work things out before the story is over.

Unlike in real life, brother and sister relationships that are too blissful and too numerous can be a problem in a romance novel. First, there are so many of them these days that you need a scorecard to keep them straight. (“OK, Jane is the studious sister? No, wait, she’s the one who likes horses, isn’t she?”) In some series, the siblings like to visit each other all the time, showing up in each other’s books. (Doesn’t anybody know enough to call ahead?!) I’ve had trouble getting into some of Catherine Coulter’s connected books because I started in the series in the middle and didn’t know why family members kept showing up in the story, and come to think of it, what was up with that cat racing? Yet while reading the same books, long time fans cheered the return of favorite characters — and the cat racing.

Yet whether they race cats or try to kill each other, siblings, both good and bad, can add something to a novel. An extra layer of characterization, a chance to see the h/h at their best, or worst, as they cope with the family they have been dealt with. Heroes and heroines who don’t have siblings sometimes seem to exist in a vacuum, leaving readers to wonder “Who are these people?” By watching the character interact with their brothers and sisters, we get to know them better.

We’re trying something different this time around in terms of questions. With our last column we posted questions throughout the period during which the column was “new”, and it brought a lot of energy to the message board. So, rather than listing all the questions here and now (and on the At the Back Fence Message Board), we’ll ask a few questions today, and add to them throughout the week. Let’s start with these:

Which authors are best at writing families, both loving and evil? Also, are there some authors you avoid because you don’t like the families in their series? Are there other authors who seem to write better families than they do romantic couples?

Have you ever been enjoying a romance and then, wham, there it was again. Either the Family from Hell tried to tear the couple apart, or worse, the World’s Most Loving Family tried to interfere with the relationship? Has this ever gotten in your way of the novel?

What do you think of evil sibling plots? Do you always find them overdone, or are there some exceptions? Do you agree that betrayal by a sibling can make the story more powerful? Or are there some stories where the sibling comes across more as an eeevil stick figure?

The following questions added Wednesday:

Who has your favorite sibling been among all the romances you’ve read, why did you so love them…and are they a part of one of your favorite books?

Do you find a gender gap between evil sisters and brothers? In other words, are most evil siblings brothers or sisters, or is it a fairly equal mix? If not, are there certain types of evil you most associate with sisters…or brothers?

How often have you found a sibling useful in the sense that he or she is able to “explain” things about the hero to the heroine, or vice versa? Conversely, how often have you found a sibling useful in helping their brother or sister accept their feelings for the heroine or hero?

The following questions just added Friday:

What do you think of stories where the hero or heroine doesn’t realize that their evil sibling is evil? Can an author ever make that plot work without making the h/h seem like unknowing pawns to the evil sibling?

Stories with loving siblings can be a relief from evil sibling stories. But are there stories where the loving family is just a little too … much? And these days, when you are introduced to the sibling, do you ever feel that too time is spent setting up future books in a series?

Have you ever started a novel in the middle of a series based on a family and found yourself lost amid the names of characters from previous books? Or do you barrel ahead and try to sort everything out later?

Anne Marble

  Post to the Potpourri Forum

(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

Subscribe to AAR’s weekly newsletter Powered by