The Allure of the Two-Hanky Romance

August 25, 1997

August 25, 1997

The two-hanky romance is a favorite for readers. There’s something about a romance that helps us get rid of those “toxic tears”. Author Karen Ranney, whose 1995 release Tapestry, is a favorite Two-Hanky Read with readers, talks about the allure of the sad but ultimately uplifting romance:

A woman flees in the darkness, terror the impetus for her maddened flight. Her heart thumps loudly in her chest, her breath is tight, constricted. She looks back only once. He’s too close. His shadow fills her range of vision, a looming darkness like that of some hideous malformed monster. A scream is choked from her, a soft pleading cry before the pain.Do you care?

A man holds his head in his hands, shoulders jerking spasmodically with his sobs. The sound of a child crying in the smoke dimmed distance echoes the scene of devastation. He bends, sweeps the lifeless body of his wife into his arms, and stumbles to the side of the creek. Once, in a better time, they’d bathed there, laughing and splashing like children. . .

Do you care?

If you’re the author and you’ve been successful in crafting your characters, the reader feels every emotion the character feels. If you’re the reader, and you feel them, you’re lucky. Lucky?

To me, empathy for the characters is the single most important thing an author can construct. As readers, we truly want to care; we open the covers of a book already prepared to suspend belief, to be transported to another world, a different place. Reading is the purest form of virtual reality. We relish the idea of adopting a new psyche for a few hours. Maybe even falling a little bit in love. When we care about the characters, it’s possible to slip inside their emotions and for a little while, make their experiences ours.

Readers identify on some level with the characters from the beginning. There must be some element about them or their circumstances that makes us nod subconsciously and say – “Yep, been there, done that, have the t- shirt to prove it.” If the character acts in a way that’s unrealistic (for us) in that shared circumstance, we are immediately turned off. That’s why some people hate a book that the next person loves. Remember virtual reality? Every one starts from their own marker. And that’s why reading (and writing) is so subjective.

It’s up to the author to allow the readers to form that relationship. Have you ever read a book in which you’ve rooted for the heroine to be killed by a runaway carriage, or hoped that the hero came down with the French pox? If you have, it’s because the author didn’t make you care about the characters.

If, as a writer, I can’t establish a bond with the people I’ve created, I cannot expect the reader to care about them. While I never plot out characters, simply learning them as I go along, there are times in which I know it isn’t working. Writing is a fascinating process, one which seems as much based in sorcery as it is skill. Most of the time, I can see these people in my mind, watch their lives, tell their stories, until a certain point in the book is reached. Then it seems as if they turn and look at me and shake their heads – a sure and certain notice that I’ve spied long enough. But sometimes the connection doesn’t happen, and I know either I don’t like the character, or they’re acting in ways contrary to their own nature and they simply won’t do what I think they ought to do. See why I think it’s half magic?

When there is a bond between me and the character, when I know them and like them and care about them, I suffer as much as they do when something happens to them. Sometimes, life isn’t fun or delightful or charming or amusing. But I believe that the power of human emotion and the endurance of the human spirit can overcome every obstacle. Even death. The baby scene in Tapestry was excruciating to write. I couldn’t see the monitor because I was crying so hard. The pain of it was real to me, the very great grief Laura felt a tangible thing, and I experienced it as if it happened to me. Many readers have told me the same thing, which makes me wonder. Do I have to cry, in order that the reader does? Maybe not, but I have to care.

Just as I dislike violence for the sake of violence, I dislike the use of tragedy as a plot point. Bad things happen to good people, but the essence of a book should not be the tragedy, but how it changed the characters for good or ill, and what result it had in their lives. Did Laura’s grief in Tapestry ever go away? No. But the same thing happens in life. The trick is to rise above it and go on.

It’s easy to become immersed in sadness, but that’s like looking at a banquet table and only focusing on the fish. You miss the fact that there is a lot more to be sampled than just sturgeon. Even in the midst of sorrow, there is humor. Maybe sometimes only a touch of it, a hint of better times. It’s an undeniable fact that the sun will rise, the snow will fall, there will be beauty in the spring. Grief will be replaced by resignation and even that will fade in time. Remember the scene in Steel Magnolias and that priceless line? Laughter after tears is my favorite emotion, too.

Some people say they read for escapism and consequently choose only light romances. I say they’re missing out on a wonderful experience. We remember the books that led us to tears. And I don’t think it’s because we like to cry. We want to become involved, connected. We want to feel, and for awhile, be. And when the cover is closed, and the tears are dry, we feel as if we’ve been on a long and difficult journey and escaped unscathed.

When I read, I want to learn, become immersed, experience, savor. As a writer, I can only strive to achieve to write the kind of book that will offer this.

There is no greater compliment to a writer than to have someone cry because of what you’ve written. Or laugh. That is virtual reality and sorcery all rolled into one. . .

Karen Ranney

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