Writing Romance as Wish Fulfillment?

My most consistently popular post on this blog is 7 Favorite Movies about Writers and Writing (and Reading). Last night I finally watched Becoming Jane (2007) starring Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy and now I find I must add it to my list.

To me, a movie makes the cut in the same way a book does — if when it ends there’s a little ache in my heart, a little place inside that now feels empty and full at the same time. This was such a film. When I turned off the TV at midnight last night, I found that I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t even close my eyes even though the room was dark, I was in bed, and it was certainly time to retire for the night.

If you’re a fan of Jane Austen’s novels or of their film adaptations, you should pop over to Netflix and watch Becoming Jane, either alone or with a sympathetic companion.

I don’t read genre romance and I don’t write genre romance, nor do I aspire to. But I do like romantic elements in book or a film. I have, in the past, viewed the writing of romantic plots or characters as perhaps too common, not quite literary enough. I don’t know why — perhaps simply because the books one reads as an English major (other than Austen and Shakespeare) don’t tend to be terribly romantic.

Perhaps it is also because a lot of category romance in our day is overtly sexual. I’m not interested in stories like that. I am of the mind that sexual tension is far more interesting to read about than sex, and once characters get together, whether by marrying or sleeping with each other, the story is done in my mind. Think about it. Wasn’t The Office far more fun to watch before Jim and Pam got together?

There’s also a stereotype that women who write romantic stories are trying to fill some void in their own lives. But why should that have to be so? Doesn’t everyone want romance? Doesn’t everyone enjoy that lovely, terrible, desperate feeling of being utterly at the mercy of another person’s glances and smiles? Why do otherwise sensible people jump out of perfectly good airplanes? Because we like the feeling of falling. And that’s why we like romantic stories — we get to fall along with the characters.

There is some truth to the notion that writing romance can be wish fulfillment for an author. It was for Jane. And that’s what makes her story so beautifully sad. But it isn’t in every case.

When my husband first read the manuscript for I Hold the Wind he commented that it was a far more romantic story than I’d written before. I hadn’t thought about it, but I had to admit he was right. My initial reaction to this comment was to be a bit defensive. I didn’t write a romance! And then it was to worry that he might be a bit offended, that he might think I’d written something romantic because I was lacking romance. After all, we had been married for more than fifteen years at that point.

Of course both reactions were wrong. I didn’t need to be defensive. I should rather be glad that he thought it was romantic. That means it made the reader have a bit of that feeling, that feeling of falling. Zach likes romantic stories, especially when people get back together after a falling out.

And I didn’t need to worry about the writing being some unconscious wish fulfillment. I was simply following the story and the characters as they developed. I didn’t set out to write a romance — I set out to write a story about the books that stick with us. It became a romantic story naturally, because a guy and a girl were sharing and discussing books, which can be an intimate exercise.

It also became a romantic story because our relationship to the books we love can be like a romance. We fall for books like we fall for people. There are books we will never fully get off our minds, just as there are crushes in our youth (whether on a person we actually knew or a popular musician or actor whose poster we had on our wall) that we’ll always remember, no matter how many years we’ve been happily married. I know I have nothing to fear over Rebecca St. James and Zach knows he has nothing to fear over Donny Wahlberg (Mark Wahlberg, maybe). We don’t love those old crushes, forsaking all others. But we’ll never completely shake them. They are part of what makes us us.

Same thing happens with movies and actors. Zach and I have discovered recently that we have some mutual celebrity crushes (Jake Johnson, Chris Pratt, Zooey Deschanel). And because we’ve been watching movies with each other for 22 years, we love many of the same films and TV shows. Sure, we have our own separate flings — I will never understand his attraction to Burn Notice and he will never understand my attraction to Under the Tuscan Sun or The Last Unicorn — but by and large, we fall for the same shows: Breaking Bad and Downton Abbey, Gosford Park and The Boondock Saints.

I doubt he would fall for Becoming Jane, though I won’t tell you why. Maybe that film is just my little affair. But I do know this: I shan’t shy away from the romantic in my writing if that is where a story wants to go. Because we all like the feeling of falling, our characters included.

Characters…with insight from a writer we should know, Erin Bartels

Check out my thoughts on character development over at Andrea Peterson’s blog today…

Andrea Petersen Blogpost

Characters …They must be unforgettable. When the reader connects with them – whether it’s by loving them, or hating them – they invest in the novel. When the characters breathe and live and jump off the pages they become a part of your reader’s life. The characters we create must   be faced with a challenge and a journey – it’s up to us, as writers, to decide what that will be, and how they will discover their strengths to overcome all that holds them back from getting whatever it is that will make them complete.

There have been characters I feel so deeply for, I dream of them. Some stay with me even if I have to put the book down, and, when I’m invested in my character, putting the book down is very hard for me to do. They are part of my circle of friends, my family…

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The Courage to Be Yourself–in Life and Writing

I had an important realization this week as I made a big, life-changing decision (i.e., which “first day of kindergarten” photos to post on Facebook. I know, I’m still reeling from all the pressure.)

In my mind I tell myself that the pictures of my life and the life of my family should be “normal” and “pleasant.” Something you could put in a frame. Something you could send to parents and grandparents. Something like these:






So I ask my son to “smile for real” and hear a lot of “c’mons” come out of my mouth. But in reality, these are the kinds of pictures I generally end up getting the best responses to when I share them (and they’re the ones I really enjoy sharing):






Why? Because they are more interesting. They have personality. They’re truthful. We’re kind of strange and we like it that way. Not to say that we’re not a very pleasant family and even pleasing to the eye at times, but beneath that thin veneer of propriety, we’re really…well, like this:


Here’s where this parallels writing. Sometimes there’s pressure (internal or external) to make characters or stories “pleasant.” You hear from a writing group member or an agent that your character isn’t “sympathetic” enough. Or that your story is a real downer. Or “Can’t you just write a happy ending for once?”

Though he’s supportive to a fault, my husband will sometimes come to the end of a story of mine, look at me with…well…let’s say concern, and breathe out a little “Sheesh!” I actually love this reaction, but there is still a teensy-tiny part of me that starts to question…

Will people be put off by this?

Will people think I have done or would like to do some mean or immoral thing that one of my characters has done?

Will people think I’m a bad person?

Will people start avoiding me?

Will people think I have psychological problems when they read this?


Generally, I’m happy enough with the literary results of my efforts that I simply shrug, upload a new story to Amazon, and hope that people will have a good reaction to it. And in my mind, “Sheesh!” is a good reaction. Being a little creeped out is good. Feeling kind of sad is good. Feeling is good.

When stories are too pleasant, wrap up too neatly, or are just a touch too sweet, I get the groans. I’m bored or I’m unsurprised or I’m simply closing the book and never picking it up again. And you can be boring even if you have an interesting plot simply because your main characters have no faults.

Here’s a useful tool to examine your own writing. If you have to answer yes to more than two of these questions, your protagonists may be suffering from pleasantitis:

Are they always attractive (even if they don’t see it themselves)?

Do they have overly-interesting eye colors, especially involving descriptors such as “the sea on a stormy night” or “flecks of purest gold?”

Do they have gorgeous, Pantene-commercial-worthy hair even if they lived in a time when no one showered?

Do they have beautiful teeth and winning smiles even if they lived in a time when EVERYONE had bad teeth?

Do they always know what to do in a given situation?

Do they always get the girl/guy/promotion/bad guy/treasure/best cuts of meat at dinner?

See what I’m getting at here? Too much “pleasant” or “normal” or “perfect” or “happy” and the rest of us mortals can’t really identify with them. Flaws are essential. Flaws in your characters are like the conflict in your plot. If there’s no conflict, there’s no story and if there are no faults, there are no believable characters. Real flaws, not just that she has to wear glasses or he once broke someone’s heart.

How about she has a secret and almost insatiable desire to ruin her sister’s life? Or he suffers from near-crippling anxiety around his father because he fears he’ll never measure up? Or she compulsively corrects everyone’s grammar and so her friends actually loathe her? Or he neglects his own children because he’s so focused on his own advancement and amusement?

Then you take your flawed character and you find something in them, some trait or some believably terrible backstory, that will make them sympathetic without having to be perfect. (Aside: If you want an excellent example of this type of character, watch the hugely underrated movie Young Adult.)

Perfect people aren’t sympathetic. They’re kind of annoying. And anyway, they’re not really perfect either. They’re simply afraid to be real.

Be yourself. Let the real you come through your writing or art or whatever you do.

No matter how weird…


…or silly…


…or generally off-putting.