Did you ever read a romance so wrongheaded, so annoying, so stupid, you wanted to re-engineer it? Possibly from beginning to end? A romance with such a domineering hero and such a wimpy heroine that you couldn’t decide which one you wanted to slap around first? Him for being a bully, or her for being so passive and self-hating that she lets him bully her?
Of course you have. Twilight. I’ve read innumerable comments about how utterly creepy Edward is, how stupidly passive Bella is, how terrible the writing is, how disappointing the sequels are, and more. People hated this series. Hated it. And some of us are rewriting this tale in our heads even as I am writing this post. They’re thinking, “What if the first time Bella sees Edward grimacing at her, she challenges his attitude?” “What if he starts trying to eat her in science class cause she’s so tasty?” “What if she slaps him hard and he goes away like a whipped dog?” “What if he just stays in Alaska and she begins to notice the virtues of normal human boys?”
That would be fun. Tell the Twilight story from the point of view of a boy from the high school who sees Bella arrive, thinks she’s gorgeous and tries to woo her, and then sees her fall under the thrall of those weird Cullens and that creep Edward. Maybe that boy—Mike, or Eric, or Tyler—would end the story before any of its terrible sequels by staking Edward out in the sunshine and turning him into a crispy critter. Not exactly a happy ending for Edward, but after all, he kills people.
Or what about something even more Gothic, from classic literature? Wuthering Heights. I longed to have someone tell Cathy to snap out of her selfish haze, and just live her life. To be nice to her husband. She married him, after all. Treat him right. And as for Heathcliff and his household of nasty males, I have an entire novel written in my head about how Heathcliff’s sinned-against wife Isabella beats them all into shape. Yep, she kicks butt, cleans house, and turns those brutes into civilized family members. Who end up happy. Yes, happy. We are happier when we behave well towards each other, and that’s why these stories with mean bullies and passive heroines don’t sit right.
Of course I feel no need to rewrite Jane Austen, because her subtle wit avenges all readers even as she describes overbearing, prideful fools such as Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice. In my family we have taken to heart those famous words about Lady Catherine’s daughter being a piano virtuoso if only she had learned to play. Right. If only.
The “if only” books we’ve read stick in our mind. They had a chance to be good, but went the other way. Into cliché, into sodden sentimentality, into stupid brutality. If only they had not. That’s why they outrage us so. These books get us excited, make us hope for a terrific story, and then they disappoint us. If they were boring books to begin with, we wouldn’t be so outraged. But no, they all contain a seed of something special: a great setup, an interesting plot, the potential for grappling with genuine compatibility issues instead of the superficial, and more. But the authors didn’t pull it off. Or didn’t even know what they had, and did not try to write the better story that we saw tantalizing glimpses of before the rotten plot events that dismayed us so.
Writers sometimes don’t have the vision to understand the possibilities in their stories. They’re following an instinctive tradition by creating certain cliché twists and turns. Sometimes they’re influenced by commercial concerns: Will they be able to sell a Brutish Billionaire Buys Beset Beauty tale if they do not make him overbearing? Will readers expect or demand that the hero be a macho male, an alpha male, an abuser type in all but name? Romances are fantasies, after all. It’s a fantasy that a demure, wallflower heroine can tame the wild passions of a lordly tycoon. Sometimes the melodramatic plot seems de rigeur. And yet who is truly happy when one person domineers over another?
The best romances are those that set convention on its head and tell us something real about human nature. And because this is romance, something positive. That’s why the heroine has to prevail, after all. We want her to find happiness, hoping that if she can, so can we. And that’s why we mentally rewrite disappointing stories. We know which way these characters should have gone and the happiness that should have ensued. So we mentally tinker with what is printed. Most of us don’t go beyond the daydreaming stage, but some people take it a step further and write down their alternative plot ideas. From this impulse has sprung many a new author, who often writes the equivalent of an “answer song” to the book that annoyed her. Maybe some day I’ll get around to writing my much better version of Wuthering Heights.