Everyone has heard that expression before. As a scientific principle, it’s true. The pull you feel when you bring two magnets together is the north pole of one drawing the south pole of the other toward it. Yes, where magnets are concerned, opposites really do attract.
But is it true in life, as well?
The romance novel market thrives on this concept. Take a stroll down the “romance” aisle at a bookstore or library and you’ll see titles like these:
- The Sheriff and the Outlaw
- The Officer and the Proper Lady
- The Pirate and the Puritan
- The Panther and the Pearl
- The Scoundrel and the Debutante
I could list others, but you get the idea, I’m sure.
This penchant for throwing “opposites” together is one reason why romance novels are often considered formulaic and predictable. Of course, the bad boy will be changed by the love of the good girl — or the supposedly bad girl will be transformed by falling in love with the right man.
If you’ve followed my Facebook pages or read much of my blog, you already know, of course, that I believe very strongly in the power of love. Yes, love can change us. It can strengthen us, give us courage, and help us become our best. I believe, however, that love works these miracles only when we fall in love with someone whose values and beliefs are complementary to our own.
Love between total opposites doesn’t work.
So why — and how — has this become a standard plot device for romance novels? Why do romance writers insist on promoting the idea that opposites attract?
There are several reasons why the concept works — or appears to work — in fiction.
- Romance novels, like all works of fiction, are built on conflict. Putting together two people who are compatible in all respects isn’t apt to generate much conflict, and without conflict, there’s nothing driving the story forward, nothing to create suspense, nothing to keep a reader hanging on to every word, eagerly turning pages. We read fiction because of the conflicts. We keep reading because we want to see how conflicts are resolved. Romance authors, take this to heart, please. If there are no problems, there are no conflicts, and if there are no conflicts, there will be no readers.
- Romance novels tend to be “larger than life”. Character traits are generally exaggerated in works of fiction, especially in romance novels. A story’s hero, for example, isn’t just a successful fellow, he’s a billionaire. The lovely young lady isn’t merely attractive, she’s drop-dead gorgeous with long, silken hair, an oval face, high cheekbones, and a figure her rivals would kill for. This presents some interesting challenges for romance writers. Today’s readers often complain about “too perfect” characters. Readers want — and need — the ability to identify with the heroes and heroines in our stories. There’s a growing trend toward “less perfect” people in romance. The challenge lies in writing characters who are real yet who still strongly exemplify particular traits. Needless to say, the domaninat traits between hero and heroine tend to be in opposition. Example: She’s methodical and goes by the book; he’s a rule-breaker who doesn’t give a damn about proper procedures. Take these opposite traits, exaggerate them, then let the couple fall in love. Voila! You’ve got a romance novel.
- Romance novels make great use of deception. Many stories focus on characters who must hide their true identities. That billionaire, for instance, might be tired of women chasing him for his money. So, he pretends to be a dirt-poor drifter. The heroine might be pure and innocent, but in order to investigate a murder, she must pose as a hooker. In other words, what you see isn’t necessarily what you get in romance novels, at least, not where true character is concerned. All of which brings up the fourth and final point.
- Romance novels are actually predicated upon the belief that no one is really bad — except, of course, for the evil villains who, as often as not, tend to be unbelievably bad. This principle is the most important one in understanding the “opposites attract” principle in romantic fiction. Perhaps it should be more accurately stated as “apparent opposites” attract. The bad boys and bad girls of romance aren’t bad at all. Underneath their scarred exteriors, they have good hearts. They believe in truth, justice, respect, and law. In short, they’re decent, worthy human beings, ones who are deserving of love. They only appear to be bad, unlovable, or mean because of the problems life has dealt them. As mentioned above, they might be forced to assume roles or to hide their true nature, but in the end, of course, truth always comes out in love stories. So the wild, wicked pirate turns out to be a valiant hero fighting for truth and justice, not a bloodthirsty maniac who lives by plundering and looting. That bad girl who would just as soon shoot the hero as to look at him…well, in truth, she’s just a frightened young woman who’s shaking in her boots, and no she wasn’t really the one responsible for that string of robberies. The heroine who is billed on the back cover as “an escaped murderess” isn’t really a killer, at all. She was framed for her husband’s death and by story’s end will be proved innocent, of course. The gunslinger might have shot a few folks, but only because he had no other way to support himself and the nieces and nephews he took in when his sister died, and, of course, the only folks he shot were those really, really bad sorts.
Romance authors, I believe, have a responsibility to readers. We want to make our stories exciting, suspenseful, and entertaining, and this does require using the “opposites attract” concept, but we should find ways to bring out the real truth. Opposites might attract, yes, but only at a superficial level. What keeps people together are shared values. As heroes and heroines make their way through our stories, they must discover common beliefs and realize how much alike they truly are. They must share similar visions for the future.
Of course, differences should still exist between them, and they should learn from one another. That rule-breaker hero might learn that sometimes it’s best to play by the rules, or maybe it’s the other way around. It could be that the methodical heroine needs to learn a bit about trusting her own instincts. Yet even as they grow and change, their inherent goodness must be evident.
My point in all of this is that while romance novels are exaggerated looks at life with characters whose experiences may be far beyond the norm, we must never go too far in the wrong direction with the “opposites attract” idea. If we do, we run the risk of creating a story that will, at best, be rejected by readers, and at worst, will give readers a dangerously unrealistic idea of what love is all about.
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