Laurie’s News & Views Issue#72

(May 1, 1999)



We’re going to go through a variety of discussions today. The first comes from a reader question that all of a sudden came into focus for me. Next is a discussion of The Big Secret, mostly as seen through the eyes of Beverly Medos (who wrote Beverly’s Book Basket for AAR from of mid-1998 through late 1999), and Karen Wheless. Then, AAR Reviewer Kate Smith takes on secondary characters. This column is extremely long, but I think you’ll find it worth it. Feel free to read it in two sittings, or print it out to read in a more comfortable setting than your desk.



Grabbing & Groping Guys:

“Sometimes I wonder if I’m abnormal. Why in a romance novel does the hero grab the heroine’s breast the first time, and every time he kisses her? Now, I went to college in the early 80’s and although I didn’t really participate heavily in the sexual revolution, there was a whole lot of smooching going on. And I don’t recall any guy ever grabbing my chest the first time we kissed. Wouldn’t this get irritating after a while, someone grabbing your breast during the first or second kiss? Am I the only woman in this world who doesn’t like to be grabbed all the time?” — Lynn

For some reason, I had never particularly noticed this groping phenomenon until I read Lynn’s query. Then, all of a sudden it struck me – she was right! Every single contemporary romance I’ve read in the past month has featured second kisses (and sometimes first ones) accompanied by heroes feeling up heroines. Now, I realize I haven’t been on the dating scene since 1983, but have things changed that much since then? Or is this lack of subtlety supposed to indicate depth of feeling on the part of the hero? That he’s so drawn to the heroine he cannot exercise any kind of restraint?

I’d like for you to consider this question when it is time to post to the message board. If you haven’t noticed this before, pay attention to it now. And, if you have noticed it, do you like it? Does it draw you into the sexual chemistry of the characters or, now that you think about it, should there be more subtlety in the first smooches shared?



The Big Secret:
One of the most oft-used romance devices, aside from The Big Misunderstanding, is The Big Secret. In many cases, a big misunderstanding is based on a Big Secret, but they two are not synonymous. To my mind, romance novels feature one of two disparate types of Big Secrets, the first of which is a secret kept by either the hero or heroine from the other that is shared with the reader. The second is a secret in which the reader is also kept in the dark until it is revealed to the other lead character.

This second type of Big Secret is, I think, more difficult to carry off, although when it works, it can be wonderful. Geralyn Dawson’s The Kissing Stars, for instance, featured more than one secret kept by the heroine from both the hero and the reader. Each secret was meted out at a frustrating pace so that by the time I had finished the book I wanted to tear my hair out by the roots. As I said in my review, “Had the woman just spoke the truth, the whole truth, originally, it would not have seemed like torture to read the couple hundred pages as she eventually reveals them.”

Additionally, authors run the risk of having readers guess all or part of the secrets before she plans. That was certainly the case in The Kissing Stars; guessing a secret before the author plans to reveal it is like solving a mystery in chapter three of a twenty-chaptered book.

On the other hand, sometimes the revelation of a Big Secret can pack a powerful wallop. In Katherine Sutcliffe’s My Only Love, a huge secret is revealed right before the ending of the book. Perhaps it worked for me because I didn’t know there was a secret to be revealed – it hit me between the eyes just as it did the hero, and was wonderful.

Big Secrets work for me more often when I’m in on the secret. I am privy to what the hero or heroine is hiding, then, and empathizes with his or her plight. Keeping the secret makes sense to me, and I can identify with what the character is living through. I think that’s why I thoroughly enjoyed Julie Garwood’s The Secret, Lisa Kleypas’ Then Came You, and Connie Brockway’s All Through the Night. It might also explain my penchant for Mail Order Bride romances with a twist, like Sharon Ihle’s The Bride Wore Spurs.

The Big Secret is a topic near and dear to both Karen Wheless and Beverly Medos. So much so that they took on The Big Secret and studied it thoroughly. They interviewed readers and authors and developed the topic in a manner I think you’ll find relevant and fascinating.



The Big Secret

By Karen Wheless and Beverly Medos

We decided to work on this article for Laurie cooperatively. Karen collected reader responses to the original AAR Listserv thread and developed an overall outline from them. Then, Beverly filled in the gaps while trying to incorporate as many reader responses as possible. Karen went back through things and added her own comments and made sure we didn’t miss anything important. Each individual’s contributions will be noted at the beginning of their sections, but things may get a little blurred at times. What is The Big Secret?

Beverly: In a romance, The Big Secret is a dagger hovering over the heart of the romantic relationship. It’s that unknown which can tear the lovers apart . . . if it makes it into the light. On occasion, it can even do more damage if it remains hidden. Or the Big Secret could just as easily be nothing more than a totally ridiculous worry about an unimportant, insignificant detail on the part of one or both of the pair.

It all depends.

Depends on what? Well, on what the Big Secret really is, of course. At this point, I do feel like I’m chasing myself and leading everyone in circles, but the thing is that that strange circular logic is, as much as anything else, a very important element of romantic plots which use the Big Secret as a major theme. Here’s an example of a very common secrecy cycle in a romance:

He’s afraid to tell her about his past, or even his present, because he’s afraid it will make her turn away from him. So, instead she turns away because he doesn’t trust her enough to share the secret with her. But that’s only if he doesn’t realize what’s happening soon enough and does decide to trust her. Then they may have to deal with the repercussions of her being in on things too soon. In which case, he could turn away from her to protect her or because he can’t deal with her knowing. Which puts them right back where they were to start with, emotionally if not physically. Of course, she could convince him to trust her . . . or didn’t that already happen?

And around and around we, the readers, go.

With an occasional reversal of the pronouns in the above example, this kind of plot could have us flipping pages so fast we couldn’t see our hands move because we have to know what comes next. Or it could just as easily result in the banging of our head on the nearest solid surface. As well as the not infrequent banging of the book against the wall when the point of acute disgust with the very stupidity of everyone involved is reached.

The thing is, though, that for all its apparent weakness as a plot device, the use of a secret in storytelling, any kind of secret and any kind of story, is almost irresistible to the human brain. There are just so many possibilities for emotional highs and lows in the pattern. Combine the secrecy angle with a romance and the force of attraction we have for these kinds of stories is almost hypnotic.

Celia describes this state of mind extremely well:

“I love secret arrangements, secret meetings, secret secrets, secret skeletons any type of secret you care to conjure up in a book. I would love to read about them. These kinds of books keep my interest going, my focus sharper; I tend not to put the book down near so easily as I might one that is just the bare facts, so to speak. Of course my enthusiasm for The Big Secret is because I want to find out what it is finally all about. Makes sense, no? And if The Big Secret is well written by the author…. Wow!!!! Do not come near me until that last page I have turned over.”

Beverly: Yes, exactly. We have to know what the secret is. Or we have to know if someone is going to figure it out. Or we have to know if the relationship will survive the ultimate explosion. Take your pick. Any of the above can and do make for great stories, again and again. Combine them all and, wow – a fantastic romance can ultimately develop. The gradations in types of secrets from characters having mysterious pasts to present secret lives to masked or unmasked secret identities to, well, whatever the author wants to throw into the mix, are virtually unlimited.

Karen: Any romance has to have a conflict. We all hope to avoid problems in our own lives, but without them books would be pretty boring! A secret can be a terrific conflict, because it goes to the heart of a relationship – Who am I? Who are you? It forces the characters to look at each other, and consider what is truly important. Suppose Mr. Rochester had told Jane Eyre about his secret wife on the first page. Would there be any conflict? Most likely she would have run in the other direction, and the book would have ended on page 15. But when his secret is revealed 200 pages later, after she has fallen in love, the story gets interesting. What will she do? Will she place her passion above her principles? It’s kept readers turning the pages for 100 years.

Beverly: Use them incorrectly, however, and . . . ugh.

So, when is it right and when it is wrong. What is incorrect?

Well, it all depends . . . now aren’t you sorry you asked? Secrets & Romance

Beverly: They go together like bread and butter . . . now where did that come from? Before discussing what works and what doesn’t for us as romance readers, maybe we need to understand why secrets and romance go so well together. For one thing, for the human psyche, to know everything about anything is to be bored, quite frankly. How much more true is that in a relationship, any kind of relationship? One of the most appealing aspects of romance in the first place is the slow unveiling of the hidden self of the one or the other of the main characters or even both. Let’s face it, none of us are truly what we seem at first glance. We love to have this romantic unmasking of the character’s hidden strengths and weaknesses happen in front of our eyes in the stories we read – even if it’s only a figurative unmasking and not a literal one.

Jo Beverley provides an interesting observation about the popularity of the secrecy plotline in romance from an author’s perspective:

“I remember years ago on another listserv a discussion that came to the conclusion that a good historical romance has to have one or both characters in disguise, masked, or with a secret/dual identity. It astonishes me how this so often happens in my own books, though not always. Forbidden Magic didn’t have this element, and nor will Devilish. It is astonishingly common whether it’s a masked ball; she thinks he’s the local preacher when he turns out to be the local gunman; he dresses up as a monk to infiltrate a group; she writes novels under another name; he is both Sir Percy and the Scarlet Pimpernel. . . .”

Beverly: It’s true. Whether the characters simply have withdrawn personalities, are inadvertently misrepresenting themselves due to that handy mistaken identity, or are flat-out hiding something important, show me a romance where the couple learns nothing new about themselves or each other and I’m not going to think it’s much of a romance. Let’s face it, falling in love and being in love is about discovering secrets in one form or another. They may be mild and benign in most cases and stories, but they will be there even if not technically called secrets.

Oh, but, an honest to goodness real secret that can’t be immediately revealed, what we’re labeling here as The Big Secret, is another thing entirely. It adds even more spice to that process of discovery – tantalizing, intriguing, occasionally humorous and, more often than not, ultimately dangerous spice, but definitely spice, all the same. A well-written Big Secret creates a very intense emotional and hence romantic threshold to cross. Unlike the mild, ordinary, everyday variety, the revelation of that Big Secret to that special loved one can literally be a choice between intimacy and solitude. Trust and fear. Love and betrayal. If the final choice is to not cross that all-important threshold, how can love possibly survive?

Karen: A character who is hiding a secret can never take love at face value. They are always wondering, always questioning. In Connie Brockway’s As You Desire, the hero seems to be bold, confident, and always in control. But when he reveals his dyslexia to the heroine, there’s another voice behind his bravado, asking, “will you accept me as I really am?” I think we can all identify with that feeling. Reader reactions to secrets are very mixed

Beverly: Most likely, love can’t survive a secret that remains hidden too long or for the wrong reasons. At least not realistically, and that’s where readers tend to divide with regards to how authors deal with those all-important Big Secrets. Especially with how the secrets are concealed – from the characters and from the readers. For the most part, I personally adore secrets of all kinds. From secret identities and occupations all the way over to simple (or is that complicated?) secrets from the past. I don’t always like the way the stories are developed because the temptation to use a lot of emotional angst is such a strong part of the pattern, but I love discovering all the variations on the secrecy theme.

However, reader Emily most definitely doesn’t agree and complains that The Big Secret is one of her pet peeves: “I really hate it when the hero or heroine have a big secret, which is constantly hinted at. I hate the Big Secret more than I hate the Big Misunderstanding.”

Karen: Even though I hate the Big Misunderstanding, I think a Big Secret can work if it’s done well. I can think of several books where a secret was revealed slowly over the course of the book, and it helped me identify more with the heroine or the hero when I didn’t “know all” either. One that comes to mind is The Keeper by Margot Early. Even though we are given clues to the hero’s illness throughout the book (especially in the introduction), we don’t really find out what is wrong until the heroine does, about two-thirds of the way in. That made the book much more gripping for me. I knew there was something, but when the hero broke down completely, it was a shock to me just as it was a shock to the heroine. If the “secret” had been explained from the beginning, I don’t think it would have had the same impact.

Here we offer two contrasting views about being kept in the dark:

“Some secrets are best revealed over time instead of used to bop the reader over the head. For example, if the secret is that the heroine is functionally illiterate, the author could shout that to the reader in chapter one. That might work fine for novels. But why not reveal that over time instead? Make the reader wonder, ‘Why is she having difficulty at work? Why can’t she follow directions?’ Of course, the writer must plant clues before revealing a surprise.” — AAR Reviewer Anne Marble

“The Big Secret drives me bonkers. I think the reader shouldn’t be kept in the dark like one of the respective heroes and heroines. It is fun to watch one of them squirm, but not me. In Julie Garwood’s The Secret, the reader knows the secret from chapter one. I think one of the reasons I finished that book so quickly was so I could see how all the secondary characters and hero reacted when they found out.” — Reader Carmen

Karen: I think the reason that the secret in The Keeper works is that first of all, it’s a real problem. It’s not some silly thing that could be explained away with a quick conversation. And secondly, the hero has a good reason for keeping his secret. His motives in keeping quiet are reasonable.

For reader Margie, how well the secret is done is the most important aspect for her. She wrote, “This is the key for me – if it’s done well. There are themes I enjoy, such as secret occupations and secret identities, for example, but they have to be handled right.”

And Greta recommends a book by Sharon Harlow, For the Love of Anna, adding that, “it had a ‘Big Secret’ plot element that was handled rather well. When the secret was revealed about halfway through the book it was appropriate and moved the story on nicely. The heroine is quite likable, as is the hero; the children were also appealing.” When The Big Secret Isn’t So Big

( . . .or deciding when and how to reveal)

Beverly: When dealing with Big Secrets in romance, authors must exercise a great deal of skill in knowing when (and why) to reveal the truth after having kept readers and characters in the dark. A truly Big Secret demands an appropriately dramatic revelation, true, but the reverse is also extremely true and many times overlooked. If the secret doesn’t live up to reader expectations as being big enough to create all the hoopla in the first place, those same readers will be left with bad tastes in their mouths if the entire revelation sequence is overplayed as well. As Margie put it, “There is also the type of secret where the ‘Big Secret’ is made to appear very ominous and relationship-threatening, but when revealed, was silly and a big disappointment. Made me feel cheated for all the time I spent reading on until it was shared with the reader.”

Exactly. Something that shouldn’t destroy the relationship simply shouldn’t do so when revealed. That’s where my own aversion to the overuse of angst in secrecy themes normally comes into play. I generally end up feeling that authors are just yanking my chain for the drama of doing so and not because it fits the personalities of their characters. People are a lot more adaptable and smarter than many stories give them credit for. Unless the hero or heroine literally turns out to be the villain of the piece, so to speak, how many things are really important enough to qualify as relationship shattering? Difficult to handle, maybe, but bad enough to cause the kind of heartbreak that splits couples up the way it usually happens after a big revelation scene? That’s an entirely different thing. Sometimes even temporary break-ups are difficult to swallow after the revelation of secrets that honestly qualify as big. Those kinds of secrets do exist but they are few and far between.

Karen: On the other hand, sometimes I think romance readers look at problems and secrets from the perspective of an all-knowing reader. We know that the hero is truly heroic, we know that the heroine is a nice person underneath, because we have access to their inner thoughts and feelings. But the characters don’t read minds and they don’t have This is a romance novel stamped on their foreheads. If our books are supposed to reflect real life, then the characters should react as real people would. I find it realistic that a secret could cause a couple to split up, at least temporarily, especially if the romance was new. After all, if you had just met someone in real life, and they suddenly revealed that they were hiding something, wouldn’t you be skeptical? Wouldn’t you wonder if they could be trusted again? Even if a character has a good reason for keeping a secret, finding out that your lover has been lying to you would throw anyone into turmoil. But the reaction has to be in proportion to the gravity of the secret.

Emily complains, “I really hate it when the hero or heroine has a Big Secret that is constantly hinted at. Why? The ‘unforgivable thing’ is always forgivable. Understandable. Excusable. So why keep it a Big Secret from us, the reader? I can’t think of one author who does an effective job keeping me in suspense – I just get more and more annoyed.”

Anne also agrees: “This may cause me to skim a book. I usually do this if the back cover blurb says something like, Would her secret keep them apart? I don’t want to read the whole book only to find out that the secret was something stupid. Unfortunately, it usually turns out to be stupid, so I leave the book there.”

About Those Issues of Trust

Beverly: Trust is probably the toughest aspect of the secrecy theme to analyze, especially when talking about the romance/secrets combination. Were romance novels solely about falling in love, the trust issue might not be as important. We all know that isn’t true, though, because romances are about building relationships and relationships without trust aren’t much. On the other hand, an inherent part of keeping secrets is the antithesis of trust. Notice I didn’t say distrust or lack of trust, because it’s more complicated than either of those. Hiding something, especially in a romantic relationship, isn’t so much about not trusting the other at times as it is about not trusting ourselves. Again, there’s that intimacy threshold at work and dealing with it can be a tricky thing for authors to work into a story where a major secret is involved if they want to readers to believe in the relationship ultimately.

Margie observes:

“There comes a point in a story when the secret could tear apart what has become a trusting, loving relationship. The hero or heroine (whoever is harboring this secret) then starts to dither, ‘Should I tell now? No, it would ruin what we have. I’ll wait a little longer.’ It’s at this point that I start gritting my teeth, because you know that this is exactly the right time to say something, and more often than not, he or she doesn’t. What does that say about this character’s trust and belief of the other’s love and understanding? And by not saying anything at this crucial moment, we are, naturally, treated to recriminations, accusations, even separation, by the other party. Perhaps it’s meant to be the conflict of the story, but I’ve never found it to be a pleasant one to endure. These are the ones I rewrite in my head, thinking of creative ways an honest revelation by the ‘guilty party’ could have been used to further the story in a different manner.”

Karen: This is the trickiest part of a secret plotline. If it’s not handled correctly, then the reader is left wondering, “why didn’t the characters trust each other?” However, when the characters begin to trust each other, and then let down their guard and reveal their secrets, this is the special moment. Suddenly the characters have become intimate, they have opened up their souls to each other. (Often, it is paralleled in sexual intimacy – as the characters open their bodies, they find the courage to open their hearts.) In Mary Jo Putney’s Silk & Secrets, the hero has a dark secret, which he gradually reveals to the heroine as he begins to trust her. On their wedding night, he muses about the intimacy of marriage: “Vaguely he had assumed that marriage would be rather like one of his brief, intense affairs. . .amusing, physically satisfying, and uncomplicated. Instead, marriage seemed to involved a mutual peeling away of masks and a shocking amount of vulnerability. . . And that was dangerous, for he could not afford softening. In the future, he must keep his guard up, keep her at enough distance that she could not slide under his skin again. . . .”

Of course, she does continue to “slide under his skin”. It’s the revealing of secrets that brings the characters together, that demonstrates their growing intimacy.

What About When the Mask Isn’t Figurative?

Beverly: What about when the suit really does come off? Oh, wait, wait, wait . . . I’m completely jumping tracks here, because that’s a reference to a famous line from one of my favorite television series, Lois & Clark: The New Adventurers of Superman. Then again, it is a great way to move the discussion to the use of costumes to hide secrets. The Superman story is also a fantastic example to use here because everyone recognizes the character and therefore knows something very important about him whether they realize it or not – he doesn’t wear a mask.

Or does he?

You see, fairly early in that television series’ version of this modern Superman myth, Lois Lane asks Clark Kent, regarding Superman supposedly taking a shower at Clark’s apartment, “You mean the suit really does come off?” To a great extent, that adorable little quip uttered with the amazing combination of wide-eyed wonder and journalistic brilliance that Lois Lane is known for sums up fairly nicely the contradiction found in our love for disguises being added into the secrets and romance mixture. The truth of the matter is that sooner or later, the costume, any costume, has just got to come off if we want a full romance to unfold. Now doesn’t it?!?

And as a romantic goal, how many are more fantasy-laden than the image of finally getting him out of that suit? (Insert any him that fits your favorite costumed fantasy there.) I mean, the very concept gets right down to the basics behind our love of finding the hidden man underneath all those false /wp-content/uploads/oldsiteimages that our most interesting heroes project. And heroines, too, for that matter. However, the contradiction is that the same journalistic brilliance that posed the question in the first place doesn’t lead her to see the truth behind the answer right in front of her nose. At least, not until two seasons later. What should be obvious never is. Duh, it does come off, ergo . . . and yet nothing. She’s too interested in who’s in the costume at the beginning to connect the dots about the implications that it could come off. Why is that?

Let me ask this first: Does it really matter that Lois Lane, this modern icon of a strong female pitted against the strongest positive male image we can come up with, should see the truth without being told? Well, yes, it does matter to a lot of people. Many viewers, and readers, think costumes in general and masks in particular are the dumbest ways to keep a secret ever invented by our collective human imagination. Common sense screams that they cannot and should not work. And, yet, disguises of some form or another are an eternal favorite romantic element in stories, from dual lives complete with those sometimes ridiculously overdone costumes to the simple social fun of dressing up for a masked ball. Some work and some don’t.

Linda writes:

“I have often thought this masquerade device kind of silly. Even the great JAK has it as kind of a silly device in Seduction. The hero is easily recognizable to the heroine as she dances with him and chats about the fight they just had. Yet, she thinks he doesn’t know who she is just cuz she is dressed like a gypsy with a half mask on. I mean come on!! Now, it was well used in Shelley Bradley’s Lady & the Dragon – the hero keeps a silk half mask on at all times – even his crew does not know his identity. This at least made sense – there were several members of his crew who would have sold him for the bounty on his head. But, quite often I think it is just kind of silly.”

The Romance Reader’s Cathy Sova didn’t agree, though. She wrote, “This didn’t work for me at all in Lady & the Dragon. The silk molded to his skin; even on the cover, it’s pretty obvious exactly what the guy would look like. And because it was such a thin veil, it made her non-recognition of him later into more of a head-thumping ‘how could you not recognize him?’ ”

Jo Beverley gets right to the heart of the problems involved in using masks or costumes of any kind:

“I have to say that I go through hoops whenever I want to use masked identities. I just don’t believe that a simple mask would fool anyone who knew the person well, especially if they’re really intimate. I mean, wouldn’t you know your husband’s body, even if his face was genuinely masked? And consider voice. Isn’t it true that if we pick up the phone and a person starts talking we usually know who they are? So, when Elf Malloren was being “Lisette”, I had her speak French in the hope that would throw the hero off. In Secrets of the Night the heroine is masked. When she’s in danger of meeting him later she knows he’ll know her right off by voice and probably by other things. It’s a fun storyline, but an author has to work really hard to make me believe it!.”

Karen: I may be too much of a skeptic for this plotline. It’s a powerful story. One of my favorite early romances was A Rose in Winter by Kathleen Woodiwiss. The hero has two identities, a crippled dandy by day, and a hero by night. I loved that the heroine, and the heroine alone, could see the good in both men. She fell in love with both halves, not just the muscled superhero. But it was hard for me to suspend disbelief. When I look back at the book now, all I can think is, “How could she be so dumb to be fooled by a costume?”

Beverly: It’s true, the circumstances have to be set up right for any kind of costumed fantasy to work. When done well, however, the many variations on this form of the secrecy theme work extremely well. They are some of the most fun-filled romantic fantasies around and have an amazing potential for packing an emotional punch at the same time. Is it any wonder that many of us love them in romances? Whether they work or not is a matter of perspective to a great extent and that brings us right back to the earlier points about how and why secrets are concealed and revealed.

The Big Secret is predicated on a basic conflict: How to keep a secret safe when it is the revelation of the secret that is necessary for love to flourish. Of course, keeping the secret safe is ultimately damaging to the hero or heroine, who, of course, doesn’t see it that way. Ultimately, it’s about sharing of self with someone else in order to achieve a union of souls. Some readers, ourselves included, thoroughly enjoy The Big Secret as a basis for a romance. Other readers find themselves annoyed and frustrated when confronted with the secrecy/romance double whammy. We invite your comments.

LLB: Karen and Beverly’s discussion of secrecy delved even deeper into the subject as they riffed on masks. To read this discussion, please take this link.



 A Book of One’s Own

Virginia Woolf claimed that the woman author needed a room of her own in which to work. I think the same holds true for secondary characters. If an author finds their story so very compelling, she should give them a book of their own, not bogging down someone else’s plot with their story. Keeping secondary characters from taking over a book can been a tricky situation, but if an author loves a secondary character enough to tell his/her story, then the author should do so – but not within the story of a different hero and heroine.

We’ve all read a sequel at one point or another. It’s very common in romance for a secondary character to end up with his or her own book. It allows the author to tell an interesting character’s story without interfering with the current plot. Take Derek Craven of Dreaming of You by Lisa Kleypas. He started out as a secondary character but was so compelling, Lisa gave him his own book. Some authors, like Stephanie Laurens, write a series of sequels, as in her Bar Cynster series, which revolves around an entire family. Mary Balogh has written several books about heroes who were all friends, having most or all of them appear in each individual book. Other authors choose not to give their secondary characters their own book, telling their story as a plot within a plot. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. Often times I find this secondary story jarring and tedious.

Throwing together two characters on the side, donating no more than a handful of pages to their tale, without disrupting the unfolding relationship of the hero and heroine is one thing. Giving these secondary characters scene upon scene of their own is quite another. Recently, I read The Bridegroom by Joan Johnston. A pretty good book which was ruined for me by the secondary plot. The book was supposed to be about Reggie and her marriage to Clayton. Approximately one third of the book dealt not with Reggie, but with her twin sister Rebecca and her love for childhood friend Mick. Rebecca and Mick could have easily filled their own book with their story. Instead, Johnston interwove it around Reggie’s. I felt cheated. Not only did I miss out on the bittersweet reunion of Mick and Rebecca, but I also missed out on what important elements of Reggie’s story. As a result, the time spent on Mick and Rebecca robbed the book of characterization. Clay started out a jerk and remained one until the bitter end. I couldn’t feel for him or even like him because I felt I didn’t know him. However, I did like Mick.

When I spoke to Joan about this, she said she had wanted the story to be “Reggie and Rebecca together because they’re twins.” The book definitely slanted toward Reggie’s story however, and for me that tipped the balance. Fans of Joan’s work know that she often has a secondary story take place in her books, but not quite to the same extent as Rebecca and Mick’s love story. I think part of the reason it didn’t work for me was that the stories were so separate. If not for a few scenes of family interaction, there wouldn’t have been any need for the two plots to meet.

In Anne Stuart’s Shadow Dance, brothers Phelan and Valerian Romney pose as husband and wife to keep Valerian from being arrested for the murder of his father. While the main romance in the story involves Phelan and a young woman who dresses as a boy (yes, there’s plenty of cross-dressing), Valerian’s attraction to a local girl also plays a big part. Why does his story blend in with Phelan’s while Reggie and Rebecca’s jarred? Because both stories so intrinsic with each other. The plots are very similar – each relationship involves someone masquerading as something they are not, except that Phelan has seen through Juliette’s disguise while Sophie remains unaware. The emotions between Phelan and Juliette wouldn’t be quite so dangerous if not for Valerian’s involvement. Valerian’s life – possibly even Phelan’s depends on their ruse. Also, Valerian’s story definitely took a back burner to Phelan’s rather than playing along beside it. The book worked for me because the two plots were dependent on one another, and because it was clear that Phelan was the main focus. Valerian did not even come close to overshadowing his older brother. Not like Mick in the Johnston book, who was a much more compelling character.

Lisa Kleypas prefers to keep the main focus of her story on the hero and the heroine. In the past she’s run into some trouble with secondary male characters wanting to steal the show – characters such as Derek Craven and Logan Scott, both of whom ended up heroes in their own books. She says, “When I am faced with a minor character that is so compelling that I have to exert all my will and discipline to keep him from throwing the whole book off-balance, I sometimes take the risk of making him the hero of another novel.”

Risk? Yes. Think about most of the secondary characters you love so much from various books. They are the characters who represent the realistic or odd against the ideal of the hero and heroine. I think this is why many authors allow their secondary characters to take up more of a book than they should. They have fallen in love with this character and don’t want to let him or her go, or risk writing their story in a separate book in case it fails.

We as readers are very accepting of the less than perfect hero or heroine, but what about one that was far from the realm of perfection? Would we forgive the author for creating this hero or heroine who might have very little to recommend them? Personally, I would rather the author write one good book with ideal characters and one not so good book with the less than ideal characters than present me with mediocre work that contains a plot over run by both.



It’s Nearly Time to Post to the Message Board:

histbutGrabbing and Groping: Do romance heroes lack something in the way of sexual subtlety? If you haven’t noticed this before, pay attention to whether or not he “feels up” the heroine on the first or second kiss. And, if you have noticed it, do you like it? Does it draw you into the sexual chemistry of the characters or, now that you think about it, should there be more subtlety in the first smooches shared?

histbutThe Big Secret: Are there two forms of The Big Secret (one where the reader is in on it, and the other where the reader is in the dark)? Do you like The Big Secret? Do you prefer to be left in the dark or to be in on the secret? Do you find that sometimes, The Big Secret is little more than a gnat? What are some good examples of The Big Secret? What are some frustrating and/or annoying examples? Is this a favorite plot device for you, one that you enjoy some of the time, or one you’d just as soon live without? Feel free to praise Beverly and Karen for their magnificent analysis of The Big Secret, and to comment as well on their adjunct piece on Masks.

histbut Kate Smith’s A Book of One’s Own: Secondary characters are necessarily in full-length romances to provide texture and depth. However, unless they are well drawn, they can threaten to overpower the primary characters, alter the flow of the romance by changing the focus of the narrative, take too much time away from the primary characters, or bore the reader to tears. What romances incorporated a strong set of secondary characters? What romances failed in this regard? Like Kate, I found Joan Johnston’s The Bridegroom focused too strongly on secondary characters. Her Captive, which also featured a secondary romance, worked far better for me. And, take this time to talk about sequels if you’d like, especially in this regard: Which sequels failed because their secondary characters (likely primary characters in an earlier book) overshadowed the “newer” primary characters? Alternatively, which sequels worked best for you or were, in fact, better than the book(s) that came before?


Until next time, TTFN, Laurie Likes Books
In conjunction with Beverly Medos, Karen Wheless, and Kate Smith




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