Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Morality and the Romance Writer

Do we owe a certain code of morality to our readers? Okay. I know what you're all thinking: "Bethany, you don't usually READ, let alone WRITE inspirational romances. But, that's not what I'm getting at here. The CBA has its own set of standards for what is and is not acceptable in a romance, what the characters can't do and say. However, for the mainstream market, there is no such code of conduct. Which, admittedly, is a wonderful thing, bursting with the promise guaranteed by the First Amendment and delivered with only the censure of the free market.

So, why then, do I, a card carrying ACLU member, have morality on the brain? I recently finished a book that had the pregnant heroine drinking. Not just once, but several times, after she had a positive test, and more than one glass at a sitting. I liked the book, I liked the characters, but this just rankled me. It underscored for me that perhaps the author is out of touch with her modern readers (this book has a 2006 copyright).

Another recent read seemed less novel and more vehicle for the author's anti-organ donation stance. I just couldn't make it past the first two chapters because it became apparent that her own bias was driving the book, not that of her characters.

A favorite of author of mine has a penchant for unprotected sex. No mention of condoms, no excuses, no slips, just no condoms. Period. I get the whole danger-appeal of slips and playing Russian roulette between characters with an ongoing relationship, but to omit even a mention of safe sex leaves an icky taste in my mouth. Pun intended.

I'm also having more and more of a problem with smoking heroes--and I don't mean the looks too hot to handle. Sure, there's an appeal in heroine's love being enough for him to quit cold turkey. But, I just have a hard time believing that he'll be successful, and love scenes with ashtray mouth just aren't appealing. (For a while, in the 80's certain category books loved to glamorize kissing an ashtray with flowery descriptions of the spicy scent and taste of cigarette breath--ick.). The hardest though is when his smoking isn't addressed or resolved--he's still got his addiction at the end of the book.

Many books feature heroes with drinking problems of various degrees--too much partying, too much drowning his sorrows, too much fast living. It's almost never the heroine with this issue, and many books walk a fine line between character development and alcoholism. When a book starts to glorify hero's excessive drinking as sexy, I tend to start skimming ahead.

Now, here's the kicker--I have no problem with historical heroes who drink, smoke, visit prostitutes, or have other nasty vices. I love a good unrepentant rogues gets his comeuppance story. But, somehow, I expect more from our modern heroes. I want him to know better. I want the heroine not to settle for a man who seems likely to slip back into bad habits.

I don't want the realities of modern life glossed over. Unsafe sex kills. Alcoholism is a serious illness. Depression isn't always cured by the love of a good (wo)man. Smoking shortens lives. Illegal behavior has consequences. I don't want a morality tale or a health class lesson, but I do want an acknowledgment of the risks of bad behavior.

Does this make me a prude? Considering that I regularly read very spicy stories, I don't think so. And I will march to defend your right to write smoking-alcoholic-prostitute loving-hitmen heroes. But, as a reader I find myself developing certain preferences and certain pet peeves.

Am I simply getting older? Gasp. Will I soon be clucking over "the things those kids today are writing!" Gasp.

What do you think? Do you have a problem with certain scenarios that go against your personal code of ethics? Do you have bad-behavior pet peeves? Do you feel obliged to acknowledge certain things like safe sex in your writing? Thoughts? Comments? Slaps upside the head?


Karen Duvall said...

Interesting topic, Wavy! Hmm...

For me, as a writer and a reader, I'm okay with a major character starting off with a bad habit or immoral behavior, but he/she must acknowledge it, for one thing. Then nix it at some point in the story for another. It goes toward likeability and relatability, IMO. Flawed characters are interesting people, but too far on the dark side and they start sinking into villaindom, IMO.

Skies the limit for villains and other bad guys. But you can't have a hero be a "recovering" pedophile, for instance. Or a rapist. That's serious mental impairment, not to mention repugnant from a morality standpoint, and it turns everyone off. Everyone.

A recovering alcoholic or drug addict, on the other hand, can be forgiven, especially when the character's backstory supports their reasoning. They've learned their lesson and are bettering themselves. But tension is heightened at the thought they could slip back at any moment. That's powerful, IMO.

You'll find ethically damaged and immoral sorts of MCs most often in literary fiction. Genre fiction, not so much.

Elisabeth Naughton said...

Interesting post, Wavy. And I'm probably the last person who should comment considering the vocation of my hero but....what the heck. You know me. ;) I always have an opinion.

In my first book coming out from Dorchester, my hero is a thief. He makes no apologies for this. He doesn't feel bad about what he does. He's good at it. By the end of the book he's not a thief anymore, but it's not because he had some moral epiphany or decided he'd give up that life for the heroine. He'd already made that decision before meeting the heroine, and it wasn't because he was 'doing the right thing' but because his life was going in a different direction. That may make him sound shallow (which he is a little at the beginning of the book), but his character arc still grows even without that moral dilemma for him. His moral dilemma is a different matter entirely. One of my favorite movies is The Thomas Crown Affair, and in it, the hero is (also) a thief. He steals because he can and because he wants to see if he can get away with it. And he doesn't give the painting he stole back because of some moral aha! moment. He does - again - because he can.

I'm not wild about alcholic characters, and I don't think I've honestly ever read a book where one character was a chain smoker with no intentions of quitting. (My old CP writes a great recurring character - a detective - who struggles with quitting. It's endearing, the battle he goes through, but he never actually quits.) And like Karen, I don't think I could read a book about a pedophile or a rapist and believe they "recovered".

But the safe sex (or non safe sex) thing doesn't bother me at all. In many books (and most movies too, think about it), the only time safe sex becomes an issue is if the heroine is going to wind up pregnant and it's going to impact the plot. I've never written a book where the heroine's become pregnant, so the whole condom thing hasn't been an issue for me. In my little corner of the fiction world, there are no such things as STD's. That's why we call it fiction.

Of course, you may disagree with me, and that's totally fine. But in my head, if I'm going to be morally correct about the safe sex thing, then I should also be morally correct about the thief thing. Would it be okay for me to morally harp on the importance of safe sex in my book while at the same time imply stealing is okay? One seems to go against the other. If that were the case, I'd be in serious trouble because without my hero being a thief, my hero and heroine would never have met (and there'd be no book!)

I love these deep topics and look forward to hearing what the rest of you have to say. ;)

Genene said...

Gee, Wavy, glad you picked a fluffy blog topic! LOL!

Karen made good points that I agree with.

A distasteful or dangerous habit can definitely be used as symbolic of a character's struggle with an emotional issue and highlight his/her growth. That's what I plan in one of my story ideas for a single title book with a hero who smokes at the beginning of the story.

I also agree with you that I will defend an author's right to write what they want to. I will also defend my right to buy -- or not buy -- what I want to.

Capitalistic as it may seem, perhaps the balance (pun intended) is at the cash register.

Thought-provoking blog topic!

Alice Sharpe said...

See, I do support the right to write a book with a recovering pedophile, smoking, boozing arsonist hero who seduces puppies on alternate Tuesdays.

No, I don't want to read the book. No, I don't think any of it is ethical and it's all either just plain gross or morally repugnant.

However, I grew up when libraries were getting rid of books like Catcher In The Rye because someone decided it wasn't appropriate material for a kid to read. When the school wouldn't allow me to carry around a copy of Mao's little red book. When a poem I wrote was picked up by the school's poetry publication but the first verse was omitted because it sounded like I was endorsing drug use (this was 1968, I didn't even take aspirin -- this still rankles me!)

So, no thanks to censorship. There are always going to be people who can't tolerate erotic or a book about deviant behavior (Like a serial killer hero -- Or a movie, how about Grosse Point High, for instance) or big game trophy hunting (Me, waving a hand) or on and on and on.

A book is disgusting? Vote with your checkbook, vote with you condemnation of it, vote with your own good work.

There's nothing wrong, in my humble opinion, about indulging your pet peeves when it comes to book selection. I don't want to read about a woman drinking when she's pregnant, and btw, the author would have to have been deaf to developing information for over fifty years not to know about the dangers of alcohol on a fetus. This is not exactly breaking news.

I always address condom use in my books because of the danger of bringing a baby into the world who deserves better. Diseases, too, but the sexual partners are presumably adults, they can take their chances, I'm rallying for the babies. In one book, I didn't mention birth control and when I tried to put it in during galleys, the editor said, "Just let it go," which I did and which I now regret. I won't do that again.

All that said, I agree this is a tough subject. Where does society's right not to have a predator among them start and the individual's right to read about child molesters in great detail end? I suppose then it becomes a matter of content and "voice" and perhaps legality. Is the book gratuitous, is it a manual for abhorrent behavior, is it a cautionary tale? Is the same material condemned on the one hand when handled differently, acceptable?

All the subjects you spoke about, however, are a matter of poor judgment, bad taste or prejudicial author intrusion (the organ donor.) There's nothing to be done about these books but speak out against the behavior -- you have a right to free speech, too -- and not to contribute financially to the publisher or the writer. Write the publisher of that book (the pregnant drinker) and tell them you thought their de-facto endorsement of such known dangerous behavior was unacceptable to you, the buying public. Publishers do listen.

Interesting, thought provoking blog, Wavy, as always...

Elisabeth Naughton said...

One thing I forgot to mention...

We all have make-or-break elements. For me it's not smoking or alcohol or safe sex, it's adultery. I don't care what the character's motivations/history/spousal relationship is, if the main character in a book is having an affair of any kind, I won't read it and I won't buy it.

Paty Jager said...

Interesting blog, Wavy and intersting answers, ladies!

Off the top of my head, I can't think of a book that has had something in it that morally bugged me. Oh wait! It was a historical I read years ago where the hero tied the heroine( who was deaf) to a bench and took her against her will. I hated that scene and didn't even finish the book.

As for smoking, drinking, and the like. There are bits and pieces of that in my historicals because, no one knew any better then. But I never have my heroes or heroines smoking or being drunks. Although maybe getting drunk once...

As for the safe sex, again, in my historicals I don't think about it, beacuse frankly they didn't think of safe sex, they just worried about a baby and usually after the fact. In my, one so far, contemporary, I didn't think about it- because, I just haven't had to worry about that for many, many years and we've only mentioned the prospect of using safe sex to the boys, since the girls are of a stronger moral fiber like their mother and not horn dogs like their father and brothers. Oops, I got off course.

The one thing that still eats at me, was the editor of my contemporary made me put a child's carseat in the ranch truck in my book "Perfectly Good Nanny". She insisted in this day and age there had to be a car seat. She obviously hasn't been on any ranches. Ranch trucks are beat up old things that rarely get off the ranch. But I put the car seat (albeit a rickety old one) in and still shake my head.

I figure you have a right to write what you want and we as readers have to determine whether or not to purchase or read a book.

Elisabeth Naughton said...

In my, one so far, contemporary, I didn't think about it- because, I just haven't had to worry about that for many, many years and we've only mentioned the prospect of using safe sex to the boys, since the girls are of a stronger moral fiber like their mother and not horn dogs like their father and brothers.

Paty, I am rolling on the floor, tears are streaming down my face and my 3 yr old is wondering what the heck is so dang funny.

I LOVE it!!!!!

Alice Sharpe said...

Paty, I coudn't believe that line, I had to read it twice. LOL. It's great.

And how come everyone else managed to stay in the spirit of this and I had to drag out a soapbox?

Now, wait, no one reply to that, please.

Elisabeth Naughton said...

Alice, one of the things I love about you most is that you have this uncanny way of seeing things from a different perspective - often several different perspectives all at the same time. You're right...just because we would choose not to read something - be it because of sex or adultery or drinking or drugs or seducing puppies - doesn't mean someone else has the right to censor our freedom of speech. I didn't grow up in an era where books were burned or reading material was condemned, and maybe if I had I'd look at this topic completely different.

AND...I've yet to have one of my pubbed books out on the shelves where people can take pot shots at what I write, so I'm SURE my opinion will change as I move forward in my career.

Never feel odd because you look at things from a different view. I, for one, greatly enjoy it.

wavybrains said...

WOW! Awesome answers ladies. I think what a lot of you are saying is that context is key--when the character's back story gives a good reason for the bad behavior it's easier to forgive. And if it's a situation where letting something slide makes more sense than to hit your reader over the head with it (ala carseats), then you don't notice it so much.

Eli--I totally agree about adultry. Also, if a hero cheated on a previous spouse/serious relationship, I have a hard time getting beyond that.

Alice--your comments about censorship were very inspiring. I agree--we need to vote with our dollars, not with more restrictive laws or policies.

wavybrains said...

Oh and re: safe sex--for me it comes down to a matter of respect. For the hero to not at least ask if the heroine is on the pill comes off as disrespectful. Now obviously heat of the moment and all that--but he should at least feel a tiny bit of remorse. If the hero doesn't seem to care one way or other other, it makes him seem slimey to me. Also, I don't want to have to worry about little illegitimate heroes running around.

Alice Sharpe said...

"Also, I don't want to have to worry about little illegitimate heroes running around."

LOL Wavy! You and Paty are on a roll...

Hayley Gardner said...

Great thread! Thinking about what I owe readers, except for as good a story as possible, makes my brain scream out for relief. I have a certain standard of morality--and one or two beliefs that clash with that standard. LOL.

In general, my personal desire for my category romances is to write human characters who are pretty smart and savvy, but who can make mistakes or bad judgments. Most important to me is that the mistakes are utilized in the plot somehow, and not just hanging out there as traits that don't go anywhere story wise. For romances, I like to write the worst, or bad, mistakes or traits as backstory, so that they affect the hero or heroine in the actual story without so bad an "ick" factor for the reader.

If I ever write mainstream... Then the act that I considered immoral or bad I would probably have the protagonist do right there in the story--as long as the story centered around the act as a life or character changing event.

(That's what I strive for, anyway. Don't know if I always succeed. :-) )

PS: Talked to Danita, and I sent in membership app and dues to join your chapter. You all have the best, most writing focused blog I've ever seen--and I love the way you all are striving to succeed as writers/authors so much. It's inspiring.
Flo Moyer

Alice Sharpe said...

Flo -- Welcome!!!! How exciting you are joining us! Are you close enough to come to meetings?

You're right about category, I think. Using bad traits as plot devices or past motivating factors makes sense. The stage is a lot broader in ST or mainstream.

Again, welcome and on behalf of everyone who hasn't had a chance to chime in yet, thank you for the compliments about our -- your -- blog.

Hayley Gardner said...

Alice, thank you for the welcome! I live in Louisiana, so I'm just going to be hanging out with you online. Can't make the RWA conference in San Francisco this year, but hope to be going to the 2009 one and meeting a lot of you there. :-)


Paty Jager said...

Welcome to the chapter, Flo! And thank you for the nice comment about the chapter blog!

Elisabeth Naughton said...

Welcome to our chapter, Flo!! If any of us need southern location research, we now know who to contact. ;)

We're so glad to have you with us!


Danita Cahill said...

Wow, Wavy. Interesting take on things. Don't know that I give bad habits of hero/heroines that much thought.

I'd rather not read about a hero who smokes or drinks to excess, but I won't drop him if he does. After all, at the end of the day, he's not going home to bed with me. hee-hee.

As for the smoker's breath, I don't think about that so much as the morning breath character's would have on so many movies/tv shows, in books. I even think about what their breath would be like after they'd been chased by angry dogs/serial killers/fill in the blank here, without a toothbrushing and a freshening up. But do I let that deter me from writing kisses into my characters after they've been out running, sweating and accumulating mouth bacteria for hours? Heck no. Guess that makes me something of a fill in the blank here.

Danita Cahill said...

Wow, I really missed out by not checking in here yesterday afternoon. What a lively discussion this heated up to be.

Okay, my pet peeves are cheating and strip joints. Cheating is self-explanitory.

As for strip joints? I'm sick of 'em. A stripper scene seems to pop up in half the rated R films anymore and I'm sick of the profession being glamorized and accepted. If it's popping up so often in the movies, I'm sure it's in the books too, I just have happened to miss those novels, thank goodness.

I've known two women personally who were strippers in their past. One was sexually abused by her grandfather, and although she's been happily married for years, she hates sex to this day. The other, a beautiful younger woman, made a butt-load (pun intended) of money at the pole, but had a secret meth addiction and had to quit the stripping scene to move back home with her parents and attend rehab. More than once.

I can no longer think of a stipper without thinking of those two real-life examples, and it makes my skin crawl. Then to think of the stripper-women lap-dancing for all those perverted, fat, sweating, groping men. EWWWWWW.

But hey, could just be me. Ha!

Danita Cahill said...

woo-hoo, it's official then, you're one of us!!! So glad you joined. I think you'll enjoy our loop too.

Of course, we'd love to recruit you to take an empty slot in our blog to write a post once every two weeks. It's a nice shcedule and not overwhelming at all.

Hayley Gardner said...

Thanks Paty, Elisabeth and Danita. :-)

I just thought of something about the smoker's breath thing. I'm old enough to remember (just barely, of course) the "Marlboro man" commercials and ads when he had a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Supposedly that helped make him a man, that cigarette. It was considered mature and sexy to smoke. I really thought that died out when the facts came out about how much damage it does. To hear it's in books now--wow.

Genene said...

Welcome, Flo!

Always nice to have another voice and perspective on the blog and in the chapter!