Writing Taboo Subjects
(October 3, 1997)
Author Paula Detmer Riggs is no stranger to controversy. Her 1996 release, Her Secret, His Child, involved a very politically incorrect act – date rape. (A link to the Desert Isle Keeper Review of this book by author Sara Jarrod can be found at the end of this page). While rape can be found in the old, ’70s style bodice-ripper romances, many readers believe it is a topic that absolutely does not belong in modern romance. (For further discussions on political correctness in romance, please click here for Rifs on Political Correctness.)
I asked Paula about writing on taboo subjects. Here is what she had to say:
Remember the good-old-days of black and white TV when most of us really thought Father knew best and Mother truly belonged in the kitchen? When “traditional values” were simply a given, rather than a shimmering, vaguely defined ideal to be hauled out and waved like a cudgel at a confused electorate or baffled parents?I do. I also remember when romance fiction reflected those same ideals almost exclusively. Those books, like those grainy black and white /wp-content/uploads/oldsiteimages on a flickering screen, confirmed everything I was taught to hold dear. Like the situation comedies, these were soft, sweet books that rarely challenged or angered or provoked deep thought. Essentially, they were nice feel-good reads that seemed utterly appropriate for the prosperous post-war years.
Shortly thereafter, westerns galloped into our living rooms in their own cloud of idealistic dust, exemplifying the bigger-than-life hero, who like Superman and his ilk, righted wrongs, protected virtuous women, and rarely put more than three or four words together at any one time. Aha. Since we now had the archetypal woman in distress, we had to have the archetypal hero who prevailed against all odds. In many ways those stories were a metaphor for the all-powerful, idealistic nation we had become.
It was perfectly natural, then, that an element of suspense and adventure crept into series romance. We had jungle stories, harem stories, secret agent stories with larger-than-life, all-powerful heroes who swept us-as-heroine away to exotic places and of course saved our cute and perfectly-proportioned fannies in the process. Like TV adventure series, these were non-threatening, entertaining stories, but with a generous dash of excitement thrown in as a plot device to reveal characterprimarily the hero’s.
Over the years many of these books have achieved the status of classics – and deservedly so. Those of us who love romances have our own favorites. I, myself, have several shelves devoted to the older books. My battered treasures, I call them. Reading them taught me to appreciate the skill that went into crafting an entertaining, often deeply moving story within rigidly defined parameters.
The so-called formula.
Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl, and they live happily ever after. Nothing really subtle or controversial. Or particularly risky, from a writer’s perspective.
Ah, but then things changed.
The feminist movement changed romances as well as lives. Women were suddenly out of the kitchen, eager to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, corporate players, and astronauts instead of acting as sideline cheerleaders andshudderadoring helpmates. In other words, the “girls” of earlier times had become liberated women who were no longer content to stand in a man’s shadow. Suddenly, very few of us wanted to be Donna Reed or June Cleaver, nor did we find those women particularly admirable. In fiction, as in society, when a heroine wore pearls and spiked heels, it was because she was arguing a case before the Supreme Court, not vacuuming.
So, for a while, we readers and writers struggled along with those determined women, watching as the archetypal “she” stood toe-to-toe with an archetypal chauvinistic “he” who muttered the “B(itch)” word a lot, while trying very hard not to admire the dynamic, determined female who was at the same time trying very hard not to fall in love with a MCP (male chauvanist pig). Talk about a ready made conflict!
Now, in the last turbulent years of the twentieth-century we are faced with two new trends: a newly defined version of traditional values emphasizing parenthood, babies and the quintessential strong, but sometimes not-so-silent cowboys; and a darker, more hard-edged reflection of society’s brutal realities as it relates to the traditional one-man/one-woman relationship. Those are my favorite. The books I love to read. The books I feel compelled to write.
They are, of course, more reality than fantasy, yet there are still idealized elements. The heroes are still larger than life, and thus, have larger than life flaws. The heroines are strong, loving women with high standards and compassionate hearts. And, the formula remains the same. Man meets woman, man doesn’t deserve woman (due to previous and grievous mistakes he’s made), and thus loses her, man redeems himself and gets the love of his life. But along the way, the path to happiness is mined with some gritty elements of today’s life.
I think we can all agree that that life is stressful and, in many ways, dangerous. Trust is given warily, especially in the age of AIDS. Women and children are at risk even in their own homes. Men are confronted with sometimes violent challenges to their own survival and the survival of their families. Illegal drugs and gang warfare have skewed the mores of society in ways that seem to grow worse daily.
A few of us made the first tentative forays into a more realistic portrayal of life’s conflicts and problems in the late 1980’s. Dell Ecstacy and Silhouette Intimate Moments were two of the first of the series imprints to offer groundbreaking books with heroes or heroines battling alcoholism, espousal abuse or drug addiction. Others from Harlequin American and Superromance dealt with protagonists struggling with brain damage, debilitating illness and infidelity. . .
But remember, I said tentative forays. No one was really sure how readers would view the injection of the harsher elements of human striving. After all, series romance was generally defined as escapist reading. A love story with larger than life characters and strong elements of fantasy. Was it possible to craft a story in such a way that the reader would fall in love with a flawed hero? A man with weaknesses and vulnerabilities who makes mistakes? Serious mistakes?
Well, I’m here to shout, “Yes!”
Give me a man who’s more human than perfect. Who’s been so battered, betrayed or wronged he can no longer trust. Who’s struggled to protect the helpless from violence and depravity for so long he’s become used up and inside. A man whose childhood trauma has given him a nearly impenetrable outer shell. A man who lashes out when he senses attack, or (my particular favorite), a man who rejects the love of the one woman who can heal old wounds and soothe his tormented soul, not because he doesn’t want what she offers, but because he wants it so terribly much he becomes vulnerable if he accepts.
Ah, but what about the reverse? What if the man has done the hurting and, sooner or later, has to come to grips with the pain he’s caused? And what if the woman he’s hurt so terribly is the only woman he’s ever loved or comes to love as the story unfolds?
Wow! Talk about complexity and depth of characterization. Talk about gut-wrenchingly emotional. Talk about irresistible.
To me, anyway.
The hero I love is imperfect in some terrible way. He’s an all too-human soul who’s driven by inner demons far more deadly and cruel than any serial killer or evil empire or double-agent. A man, who, because of a mistake in judgment or action, had done a terrible wrong to an innocent victim, and if that victim is our heroine, so much the better.
Which leads me to explain how I plot.
From that one fatal flaw.
The hero of Full Circle is a former naval aviator badly injured in Vietnam who falls in love with the navy nurse who helps him fight to survive. When he’s shipped home, they make plans to marry in six months (when she will have finished her tour of duty in Japan). The ceremony is to be held on Christmas Eve at the Royal Hawaiian in Honolulu, her favorite place in the whole wide world. She’s there, seven months pregnant with his child and eager to surprise him. He isn’t.
She was, indeed, left at the altar, with only a bouquet of roses and a card from him telling her that he couldn’t go through with it. Sorry about that, honey, but, hey, we’re both grown-ups here. No big deal.
What a heartless bastard! Right? A real loser. Well, not exactly, because, if that were true, who would root for him to find happiness? Who would be hoping against hope the heroine would ultimately come to forgive him?
In fact, he was acting out of the best of intentions, and yes, love. During his recovery and unbeknownst to the heroine, he had become addicted to the morphine prescribed by the doctors who saved his life. He’d become a sorry excuse for a man who would have willingly sold his soul for a fix. The one decent thing he managed to do was keep the tawdry mess that was his life from spilling over onto the woman he still held in the one bright spot in his black heart.
So when they meet again, it’s nearly fifteen years later at another ceremony, this one marking the opening of drug-treatment center for youth (which he’s founded) located on the outskirts of a town where she now lives with their fourteen-year-old son. The son she’s raised alone, the son he doesn’t know exists. My challenge as an author was to make my readers sympathetic with a man who’d clearly behaved in a cowardly and dishonorable fashion. To do that, I had to portray the decent and honorable man inside. A man who’d taken a look at himself one day and hated the miserable wreck he’d become. A man, who, though he’d resigned himself to never again seeing the woman he loved, resolved to make himself into the kind of man he could face in his shaving mirror every morning.
Imagine what it must have been like, a man who’d lost everything, including his self-respect, starting a long climb back, one step at a time. Fighting every day an ugly enemy that was part of himself. Struggling against demons only he could see, demons of guilt and shame and remorse that tore at him every waking moment and then invaded his dreams at night. Where did he get the courage? The will? The strength?
I think all of us know men and women like that. Most fail. Those who refuse to give up win. In fiction, as in life, tragedy bring out the best or the worst in all of us. A protagonist that bends but doesn’t break excites admiration in the reader. We root for the guy, who, though bloodied and worn, never gives up.
Think about it. Remember Rocky Balboa? John McClane in Die Hard?
Admirable heroes, certainly. Archetypal heroes. The hero I love best, however, has more in common with Cain than Rocky. And the mark that he will bear forever is the sorrow that shows in his eyes because nothing he can do or say will erase the pain he’s caused. And yet, he tries.
The man he’s become will lay down his life before he ever commits the same sin again. In a romance, of course, he’s willing to die to keep from hurting the woman he loves. He’s also willing to bear her scorn or hatred if that will ease some of her pain. Because love heals all wounds, for both hero and heroine.
That’s the theme of just about every romance that I write, anyway. In essence, love works miracles. But what about a man who isn’t in love with the woman he wronged? In fact, what if he only vaguely remembers her?
That was my challenge in my most controversial book to date, Her Secret, His Child. It’s a traditional “hidden baby” book, as was Full Circle, but in this case, the child is conceived during a one-night stand. A one-night stand in which the hero was drunk and the heroine was pretending to be more experienced than she really was. In fact, she was an eighteen-year-old virgin instead of a twenty something coed. When she said “no” (when things had gone much too far), he didn’t hear her, and he didn’t stop. The quintessential mixed-message. Still, technically, it was date rape. And, hence, an ignoble act on the part of the hero.
Did someone say, “No way will you ever make me root for that scumbag?”
It was a tough call for me, too. I abhor rape of any ilk, and I would never try to portray as a hero a man who practices violence against a woman in the sex act or any other way. But to me, this scenario was unique, and very much of the time in which it was written.
Why was it written? Why choose to frame a love story in such a way? What kind of message does a rapist hero and an irresponsible heroine send to the reader? In my opinion and intention, one of hope. If the people in my fictional world can face their own mistakes, learn to forgive themselves, and rise above the harm they’ve caused themselves and others, so can each and every one of us. Our mistakes are most likely far more benign, and yet, perhaps, just as painful to admit. Most of us have a strong sense of personal integrity, no matter what our religious preference. To violate our rules of decent behavior shames us. It’s often easier to accept our failings when we compare them to the far more serious failings of fictional folks. Living through their pain, seeing them make restitution, and thus find redemption and happiness is often enough to encourage us to do the same.
It’s for precisely this reason that I give my sinning hero a mountain to climb instead of a hill. It’s the proverbial, “If he can do it, so can I.” In the case of Her Secret, His Child, I could have used a near-rape, and in fact, have been criticized because I didn’t, but to me that’s cheating. Thus, instead of soft focus, I opted for the hard glare of reality. But within the constraints of category readers’ expectations. Thus I had to make my careless, self-centered jock realize what he’d done on that long-ago night, realize it in the most painful way possible. In other words, he smashed up against the consequences of his selfish behavior. To this end I brought the two of them together and let him fall in love with her, and the daughter he doesn’t know is his. Then, just when he thinks he’s found real happiness for the first time in his life, he finds he’s done the inexcusable.
The immature, pampered football hero he’d been would have shrugged it off and gone on to the next willing woman. The man he’d become through a life-altering set of circumstances that left him a paraplegic (and a much more thoughtful and sensitive person) vows to earn her forgiveness, even if it takes a lifetime.
She, too, must face some pretty mean demons, like her own culpability in what happened. She must also learn to forgive herself for being human and fallible before she can forgive himsometimes the most difficult task of all.
Both of these things are hard work. Looking inside at the parts of ourselves that make us cringe takes great courage and inner strength. Accepting imperfections and deficiencies, especially serious ones, takes guts. Changing them takes grit and determination.
So why go through all that agony if no one else can see that inner ugliness? Strength of character, certainly, and, even more compelling to me, the love for that one special person, the same love that allows us to ultimately triumph. That’s the message of Her Secret, His Child. That when there’s love, there’s hope. It’s an affirmation that we can change our lives for the better. That courage and struggle are rewarded, and that the power to make those changes is strengthened by love. Love of ourselves, love of humanity, love of one special man for one special woman.
That is the message I hope to give to those who do me the great honor of reading my work. Love indeed works miracles.
Paula Detmer Riggs