When Fiction and Reality Collide

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I think one of my favorite cliches about the “Ruthless Character with a Heart of Gold” is to what lengths an author might go to show no, really, he’s a super nice guy; he’s just emotionally tortured and misunderstood. The whole “Character A walks in on Character B playing a heart-felt instrument solo and suddenly sees Character B in a different light” scenario gets me in the feels every time. If “the feels” are somewhere around the upper intestines and share characteristics with bilious indigestion, I mean.

But I digress.

The point of this week’s series, in a nutshell, is this:

Dear World,

Please stop glorifying abusive behavior.

Thanks and Kisses,
Kate

And I’ll readily admit that I might be too serious about it. What some consider harmless escapism I consider mental programming. I’ve witnessed manipulative, destructive relationships firsthand. I’ve seen the damage they can cause even years later. I’ve seen otherwise bright, intelligent women on the receiving end of abuse, harrowed of mind because they somehow failed to please someone who was hellbent on treating them like an object from start to finish.

Their relationship was supposed to be “Happily Ever After,” just like in the stories. Except that it never was.

It’s all fun and games in fiction, because the man reforms by the end of the book. Not so much in real life, where emotional patterns become etched upon a person’s heart. That’s not to say that an abuser can never reform, can never break bad habits, can never change for the better, but it’s an endless uphill path, and it requires a relationship with a Higher Power for true success.

That Higher Power, sadly, is not the undying Lurrrve of a submissive woman desperate for affection.

The Honeymoon Phase of any relationship is just that, a phase. When the dust settles and the infatuation dies, both parties typically revert to their former behaviors. If that behavior included abuse before, it will likely include abuse again. “The rats in the cellar,” as C.S. Lewis calls them, don’t disappear just because we haven’t gone down the stairs in a while.

Part of good literature is that it propels our minds into the unknown that exists beyond the lines on the page. We don’t have to take an author’s word for it that their characters lived happily ever after when the pattern for such a life exists in the story. When that pattern is false, though, when it goes against every instinct and statistic, when it undermines worth or objectifies individuals, its “unknown beyond” becomes a sinister wasteland. Sometimes this is what the author intends. Sometimes it’s a byproduct of superficial storytelling.

Sometimes we close our eyes and pretend that the wasteland is all sunshine and butterflies, just like an abuse victim might pretend that their abuser didn’t really mean it, won’t do it again, and loves them more than anything.

I prefer to keep my eyes open. Don’t expect me to cheer for a character whose only positive traits are external. Wealth and good looks might make a nice addition to any love interest, but coupled with destructive behavior, these attributes create only a cheap veneer, easily cracked by those who dare to look at the monster that lies beneath.

The book that invokes such a character is not a great romance. It’s not brain candy. It’s not escapism.

It’s a prequel to Sleeping with the Enemy.

Yikes.

Be smart. Choose better patterns. Maybe someday we can finally let this trope wither and die.

12 Responses to When Fiction and Reality Collide
  1. Kristen says:

    Beautifully written and well said. I enjoyed every word of it. Thanks!

  2. W.R. Gingell says:

    I have to say, one of my favourite authors is occasionally guilty of this one. Georgette Heyer writes wonderful, hilarious books, but every so often there is a hero I just can’t like–especially seeing as when she does a lovely, kind hero, she does it so well! When I was younger and reading them it didn’t seem reprehensible–I loved every hero, and the unkind words and other warning signs just seemed romantic. Then I got older and began to realise how little I’d like it if a bloke treated me like that. Now there are certain of Heyer’s books I simply don’t read any more because of how uncomfortable and angry they make me.

    Unfortunately I also have some first hand experience of emotionally abusive people and it’s definitely not something I want to be promoting in my books. Sometimes it takes years to realise what that kind of person has done/is doing, and I certainly don’t want it to be seen as normal and/or romantic. When I master the talent I’ll probably include one or two characters of that kind in my books, but it certainly won’t be as the hero/heroine.

    • kstradling says:

      I love Georgette Heyer, but she does have some questionable heroes. At least when she writes an awful hero, the heroine’s usually not much better. Regency Buck comes to mind: Lord Worth is seven kinds of awful to Judith, but Judith’s not exactly a doe-eyed ingenue. When she gets steamrolled, she steamrolls right back. I loved the book in my younger days because I didn’t question what kind of people I was reading about. Now when I pull it out, I read a few passages and think, “Yeah, they deserved each other,” but I’m definitely not like, “Ooh, that Lord Worth! If only I could find a man like that for myself!” I really just want to give him a well-aimed kick in the shins.

      Heyer at least considers the negative side of her heroes. The Duke of Avon (These Old Shades) is more of an anti-hero; his son Dominic (Devil’s Cub) is a rash and stupid youth who gets his comeuppance for bad behavior in the first third of the novel (my favorite scene is when Mary shoots him, haha). Maybe I’m delving into the waters of a Heyer apologist, but I feel like she didn’t excuse her bad heroes so much as I walked into the novels just expecting them to be ideal. But that’s a pattern with the Romance genre: the reader assumes the male lead is desirable by default, even when he isn’t.

      And yeah, I’m tempted to write this type of character at some point, but not from a normal, default-desirable perspective.

    • W.R. Gingell says:

      I DID notice that, actually! It’s one of the things that made those particular books easier not to read, that I also began to find the heroines not very nice. Regency Buck is the prime example, but Bath Tangle and Venetia are REALLY high on the list, and I’m not really sure how I feel about Lady of Quality (mostly cos I really like Annis still).

      But the Duke of Avon- loved him. Still love him. Part of that is because of Leonie, but the other part is because–exactly as you said–he’s an antihero. Also he reminds me of the Count of Monte Christo, and I love the Count, too 😀
      And I have a soft spot for Dominic, too, though I should dislike him very greatly.

      Totally agree that the best scene in that book is when Mary shoots him. The first time I read that I was literally hooting with laughter and cheering aloud 😀

      • kstradling says:

        Confession: I’ve never read Bath Tangle or Venetia. I read the summaries and felt meh. (Actually, I think I started Bath Tangle but couldn’t get into it.) Can’t remember if I’ve read Lady of Quality, either. (I think I have…? It’s been a while.) Frederica and The Nonesuch were favorites, but I haven’t picked them up in ages.

        I’ll admit a soft spot for Dominic too. I mean, he did get shot, and even his own father approved of it. 😀

      • W.R. Gingell says:

        I’ve been doing a re-read lately, and posting reviews on Goodreads and stuff, but yeah: Frederica and The Nonesuch are two of my real faves as well 🙂 Along with The Grand Sophy, Cotillion, The Quiet Gentleman and The Unknown Ajax.
        (There are other faves, but those are the first that came to mind 😀 )

        • kstradling says:

          And Sylvester, because Phoebe’s a writer. 😀

          Am now telling myself I don’t have time to go re-read Heyer’s body of work. Must… not… succumb.

        • W.R. Gingell says:

          YES! I love Phoebe! She gets sick when people yell and/or are unpleasant to her or around her, just like me. I’d never read a character written so accurately to how that feels, until I read Sylvester. It helps that I didn’t come across Sylvester until I was fifteen or sixteen, and had been processing my reactions to stuff like that for several years. I loved her right away.

          • kstradling says:

            I put off reading it until my later teens because the subtitle, The Wicked Uncle, didn’t appeal to me at all. And when I finally picked it up, I loved it, of course. It serves as a nice reminder for me not to judge a book by its title. 🙂

  3. W.R. Gingell says:

    I actually remember the time when, growing up, I realised that it wasn’t at ALL likely that ‘the luuuurve of a good woman’ (:D) would change a man. It immediately brought me out of any suspension of disbelief that I might have been in. It’s no coincidence that this was about the same time I began to get serious about my relationship with God. There’s nothing that can effect that kind of change EXCEPT for God, as you said. It was knowing how hard it was for things to change in my own life that led to the knowledge that only God could do that in someone else’s heart.

    • kstradling says:

      Yup, yup, and yup. I think part of writing according to true patterns is recognizing those patterns in our own lives. We’re not weak because we need God if we want to accomplish real change. It’s a human condition.

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