Romance Novel Pet Peeve: Stereotypical Psychology

Sorry for not updating for so long. School has been overwhelming. But while I should have been working my way through Charles Dicken’s BLEAK HOUSE…which is like…the size of the bible, I read a romance novel instead, and it got me thinking…

I’ve always been interested in psychology, but I’m no expert in this field—Noelle is, as she teaches this subject. But, as a demanding romance reader, it sorta bugs me to see how some romance authors simplify the psyche of a hero or heroine so much. As if the mind wasn’t so complex. Heck, if that was the case, why are there psychiatrists? They exist to help us figure out why we are who we are. I doubt that we know for certain the root of all our emotional issues—though the hero and heroines in some romance novels do.

One of the most overused psychological techniques to add drama to a story:

Come Hither….actually… Go away (a.k.a, Commitment Phobia): This is a common “malady” but, if not dealt with carefully in a novel, I feel it turns “stereotypical”. Example:  John Doe, midway through the novel after growing intimate with the heroine, begins to shun her when she says the word “I love you” because he has commitment phobia. And here his psychology follows a formula: The cause of (A) is due to (B). (A) = commitment phobia. (B) = His mother left him when he was young so he knows that the heroine is going to leave him. Hence, he is reluctant to love her back, as he doesn’t want to be hurt again.

Now, I totally understand that this psyche is possible in real life. Men (and even women) do have commitment phobia because of their childhood or due to a bad, bad experience with another woman. While I would certainly appreciate a more complicated twist to this formula (like: The cause of (A) is due to (B) with a dash of (D) and a twist of (C) and (E)…), this formulaic psychology IS emotional read of IF a complex twist is added to give depth.

 I truly, truly do not believe that our minds work in such a simple way. Yes, the result of the hero’s commitment phobia is the consequence of his mother’s adultery, or his parents’ divorce, or what not, but it is also the result of the CHOICES he has made in life.  This kind of phobia is a gradual result. Yet this progressive phobia is not always addressed.

So I’ve come to my most major pet peeve about commitment phobic men in romance novels. We are given the reason for why the hero is as he is: because of an evil mother or girlfriend or wife, etc., and without ever solving the core issue that gave rise to his phobia, the story ends. The solution, according to the novel, was that he totally forgot, or got over his phobia when the heroine nearly got killed by the villain. (Well, this can be argued)

This solution does not flatter the hero (IMO). It’s unflattering for a hero to blame someone else for who he has become. This is what I call peevish. It’s unflattering for a hero to act as if he did not have a choice but to continue being influenced by his past, because: “There are two primary choices in life: to accept conditions as they exist, or accept the responsibility for changing them” (Denis Waitley).

This who entry boils down to: I appreciate complex characterization, and not a character I can figure out too easily.

One of the authors who deal very well with romance AND psychology is Susan Elizabeth Phillips (the romance actually revolves around how the hero is able to overcome the root of his commitment phobia—the root being his mother, or his father, or his wife) and Teresa Medeiros.

Have you picked up on any over-simplified-psychological-forumlas (oooh, long word)? Do you prefer the formulas or do you think it’s overdone?

Listening to:

Writing Update: So far I’ve revised four chapters of FALL OF THE SPARROWS (original title: Be Still, My Heart). I’m absolutely loving this story and where it’s going. I wasn’t too happy with it at first, but those who have been reading my work helped me straighten the story out with some great critiques. I want to get this revision done before I send it off for my CP to read.

28 thoughts on “Romance Novel Pet Peeve: Stereotypical Psychology

  1. I love Susan Elizabeth Phillips! I think ‘It Had to be You’ is one of my top faves. I think being commitment-phobic is a common problem, and has to do with a fear of intimacy and of being dependent on someone.


    • I LOOOOOVED that book. Seriously, hers is one of the few romance novels I read more than once.

      Yah, commitment phobia is common. I just feel like if it isn’t dealt with in the novel, like how to somewhat solve his issue, it’ll contaminate his marriage life after the book is over haha.


  2. That is a terrific post, June. I really can’t believe people get away with publishing books like that. WERE I still writing, I would feel slightly 1) annoyed and 2) comforted. As it is…I’m laughing my head off.

    Do read Bleak House though. I love that book so much. It’s an interesting study in POV and how emotion is carried by showing from a distance. I love the Dr. And when he finds out how Esther got sick…Oh…it made me cry.



    • Sometimes I wonder if I’m too demanding as a reader of romance…:/ I mean, it’s the ROMANCE genre, not a psychological romanve novel. But still…! Of course, not all writers completely avoid being realistic.

      Is there a love story in Bleak House? That might help me get through it. So far, it’s reallly dryyyy


  3. Heh heh…I’m an expert, am I? Have you finished reading Gemini (er…I mean, Stars in the Night)? 😀

    Okay, I’m going to address this one paragraph right here: “So I’ve come to my most major pet peeve about commitment phobic men in romance novels. We are given the reason for why the hero is as he is: because of an evil mother or girlfriend or wife, etc., and without ever solving the core issue that gave rise to his phobia, the story ends. The solution, according to the novel, was that he totally forgot, or got over his phobia when the heroine nearly got killed by the villain.”

    From a purely behavioral standpoint, it actually does work. Now, not everything can be broken down solely to behaviorism, but I am going to simplify it that way. When we have something happen to us in the past that changes our behaviors(classical or operant conditioning), like Mom running out, we tend to avoid situations like that in the future. That’s human nature. (You should have seen my daughter screaming at her flu shot just today…same thing). The more we avoid, the more ingrained that belief gets. By the time a person hits their 20s-30s, it’s pretty deep. And the belief continues because the anxiety/risk goes away each time they avoid, reinforcing the belief. Better yet, if they risk putting themselves in that situation again and the same result (abandonment) happens again, the person is going to run screaming from any other potential situations which may cause the hurt again, reinforcing it further.

    With me so far? Good.

    In a romance novel (if its plot is well written), there’s going to be some driving force keeping the hero or heroine from being separated and thus unable to avoid. One of the best ways to kill a phobia is to show the person that their expectation is not going to happen. Someone with a fear of flying will be best treated when they can be in a flight situation and nothing bad happens. Over. And over. Eventually, the decondition the response.

    This is what’s happening in a romance novel (I hope). The H/H are forced together long enough for whomever has the phobia to see that *this* person is different and won’t hurt him/her. Or, in the case with the almost dying, the fear of living without the other trumps the initial childhood fear. (*ahem* like in Gemini).

    So, yes, it is simplified, but behaviorally speaking, it works. (And yes, phobias can be dispersed that easily…from the therapist’s perspective. It’s never “easy” when you’re the one with the phobia. ;o) We also do a lot of relaxation training to reduce anxiety in the situation, too).

    Now, if you want to get psychodynamic, I’ll have to brush up on my theory, but we can go there, too. 😀

    I have to add, though, that I agree the stereotypes get to me sometimes, too. I like characters that are more complex, and who don’t always know why they’re doing what they do. (But *I* always know why).


    • That was a FASCINATING explanation!!!!

      “Or, in the case with the almost dying, the fear of living without the other trumps the initial childhood fear. (*ahem* like in Gemini).” Reading this made it all make sense. The fear and the overcoming of it is actually tied together–the trumping of one over the other. I never reallyyyy saw this connection until you mentioned it.

      You truly are an expert on this field. Reading your comment, I was thinking to myself–It would be awesome to have a romance course at university. You know. Study the psychology behind it all, and what the content reflects upon the female population that reads these books…… And the readings–pssh, I’d finish the book in one night!

      it’s nearly my winter break, which is when I’m going to read Gemini with a cup of hot chocolate by my side. I’m so incredibly excited 🙂 Are you done revising? That way you can just send the whole story to me.


      • You know, there’s an association for the research of popular romance and a whole journal on it. Once I get my doctorate, I’ve considered doing something with them under my real name (cos it’s academic, then), but I’d be looking at the psychology behind the things you said–why we see it as an escape and why we love them so much, characterization, stereotypes, etc. If I’d known research like that existed, I might have rethought my dissertation to begin with! LOL

        I’m glad it helped. I’m sure there are as many explanations as there are theories (and there are a LOT).

        I’m done revising so far, as I’m waiting to hear what the other two agents with fulls say. I have one revise/resubmit from a great agent, but until I hear from the other two, I’m not touching it. All that subjective stuff. 😀 I’ll send it, and the link to the Association (one of the founders is a reviewer for Dear Author).


  4. I love the new title ‘The Fall of the Sparrows’ and I’m glad to hear it’s going well! 🙂 Hope things at school start to settle down.

    I loose interest if the motivations of the characters are so simple, particularly if it’s to do with the main plot of the story like a romance.


    • Yay! I’m glad you like the new title 😀

      Yah, simple motiviations and simple characters–it’s hard to go deep into the story without some complexities


      • “The Fall of the Sparrows” is brilliant. I didn’t care for the other title too much, but I realize you have to have something to start working with.

        Speaking of which *clears throat* where are the next chapters?


      • You’re the “CP” I mentioned above : ) I want to have the whole story revised once before I let you read it all. And..em…the latter half has yet to be written. Well, it’s written, but requires a major rewrite.

        Otherwise, I think I’ll be sending you chapters then suddenly emailing you not to read it as something had been altered haha


  5. First of all, great topic! It really got me thinking about characterization…One of the reasons that I think romance novels have stereotypical psychology is due to the reader. Yes, the reader. Very few people read between the lines. Once they read a the book, they put it aside thinking that they know the characters inside out.

    Exhibit A: “Hamlet” (not a romance novel, but it still fits.) I know people who haven’t studied the play in a literary setting, but have either read it or seen the movie. In this case, most of the people have taken what he’s said to heart. He says he’s going to pretend to be mad and this is what they’ll believe. But when I studied in in my Shakespeare course there was one problem with this assumption. Sure, Hamlet says he’s going to pretend to be mad, but in all honesty he’s pretending to be sane pretending to be mad there are hints of this throughout the play. (Confusing right, but this is one of the reasons it works so well and why Hamlet is often talked about as a real person rather than a character.

    Exhibit B: Readers want to know EVERYTHING! Another reason why romance novels are oversimplified. There just no room for an impossibility. Readers want a sense of assurance, they want to know that the happily ever after will last after the pages of the book have been closed. They want to know that characters well enough to be able to predict what happens. The problem with this is that the writer has to oversimplify reasons for the characters’ actions, actions that can be explained and solved in 300 or so pages.

    Of course, there is the rare romance novel that can overcome these issues, but whenever that’s the case I feel like there’s something missing or the story isn’t complete in some way. Because, frankly, I’m a reader and I want to know EVERYTHING.

    (There’s my long comment – I was one step away from writing an essay on this – but now I must go and read chapter 4 of “Fall of the Sparrows” and comment on that.)


    • “There just no room for an impossibility. Readers want a sense of assurance, they want to know that the happily ever after will last after the pages of the book have been closed.”

      Oh you are so, so right. We do know, based on the formula and from phrases like “he had never desired a woman more than her” that they would end up together in a HEA.

      For me, even though I know there will be a HEA, I want to be left in suspense. And that’s where good, complex characters come into play. And I’ve discovered some such characters in rare novels. But in these cases, when the book does end in one of those “every issue in their lives has wrapped up perfectly to a close” it does leave me feeling as if something was missing.

      So I guess…in the romance novel…yah, it really is an escapist novel. It’s not “really” meant to be a reflection of reality.


  6. I agree with Rika that the reader has a lot to do with it, but I also think it has to do with the publisher and word counts set.

    There’s only so much psychological analysis that can be done in 100k especially if the plot is important. I don’t agree that plot of psychology should be abandoned, but it seems like one is usually harmed in the process :/

    I want to know EVERYTHING like Rika said, but sometimes (and you hear it a lot at the end of my reviews) I always feel like something’s missing or it was too easily wrapped up.

    I know there are some very good romances that are able to walk that fine line (Tessa Dare’s Twice Tempted by a Rogue come to mind*)

    *Btw, I think you should read The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley. I ditched homework and finally finished it. Will post review soon!!


    • “The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie” was a rare read. You don’t find too many historical romances that deal with learning/psychological disorders. The ones that do deal with dislexia: Sabrina Jeffries’ “To Pleasure a Prince” and Julia Quinn’s “The Lost Duke of Wyndham” come to mind. But I think one of the reasons that it worked so well was because Asperger’s is hard to pin down in general and in a historical setting a writer can take a lot of liberties with a disorder that would be relatively unknown at the time.

      On the other hand, I didn’t like Dare’s “Twice Tempted by a Rogue.” Some bits seemed vague…

      But I totally agree with the page limitation, a character can’t be too complex if they’re only getting one novel or you would lose out on the story.


    • I will definately read that book you recommended.

      I know this is a totally bad comparison, as they’re two entirely different markets, but books like “The End of the Affair” which is a classic, has great psychological analyses in less than 100k of writing.

      But yah, bad comparison.

      Like Rika and yourself mentioned, romance novels is all about knowing everything before the story ends. The assurance is needed in order to escape!


  7. Since I detest stereotypes, I can only agree with this.

    I think, in the main, they’re the result of laziness in thinking through the plot and/or a grotesquely simplistic view of history–in the case of historical fiction. (Or perhaps an imposed word count.) Or perhaps it’s treating the past as a fairy story, rather than a place where real people lived.

    Or perhaps it’s due to thinking that the past is exactly like the present, except with different clothes and much worse plumbing. But it wasn’t–there was the first of a remarkable series on the Georgians, narrated by Professor Amanda Vickery who’s written a book about the Georgian private life. And the gist of this episode was that Georgian men were eager for marriage and the establishment of themselves as homeowners. This was when men came into their maturity, owning a home meant they could vote, and had influence, and they put a great deal of effort into buying a home so that they could woo and win the lady of choice, (this is proved by letters and diaries) and they were very much looking forward toward a happy home-life and expected and wanted their future wife to be a superb second-in-command. So there go all our stereotypes of the young Regency male avoiding marriage at all costs…


    • That is actually a really, really interesting point you raised. I guess one of the biggest crimes HR writers (in the perspective of a Historian) can committ is believing that the thinking process now and then were totally similar. The Regency characters basically turn out to be modern folks playing dress-up. While I’m sure there were cases of commitment phobia, I’m quite certain now, according to what you’ve laid out…that commitment phobic men weren’t as likely to shun a woman so immediately.


  8. Ah, June–yes, thanks for this post. You know, for me as a reader (and veiwer) of historical fiction (and film), it’s less about psychological feasability, quite a bit more about historical believability, but most of all about enjoyment. And something can be pscyhologically explicable, historically accurate, and still overdone and boring as all get-out. I think that this is a prime example of that–it can be explained why a character would behave that way, it might work historically, but…well, I’ve seen it. So without a new twist, a new something, or just exceptional execution…it’s dull. Now, your point–that the hero makes choices as well as having the pscyhological mess-up–there’s quite a bit of fertile ground for branching off new plot twists there. The more complex the character and his choices, I think, the more satisfying the result.


    • You perfectly phrased what I was trying to get at — a character’s action can be psychological plausible, but if it’s overdone, then it is still boring.

      Psychological mess up + choices = I think it adds so much more thrill to a story, rather than leaving the hero chained to one decision due to his past.


  9. I don’t like stereotypes. People are so complex–such puzzles! I don’t need issues to be fully resolved, either, if the emotional progression between characters is there. I don’t read genre romance very often, but stereotypes are bothersome in any type of book. I hate the “preachers are 1-dimensional evil human beings” character. I’ve never in my life met an actual preacher like that, and yet they populate books very heavily. For a while there, with the types of books coming out in literary fiction, I might have thought that all dads and step-dads were out to sexually molest their daughters or other little girls.


    • Oh man, the preacher stereotype bugs me too. I’ve met thousands of preachers (as I’m the daughter of a theology prof–his students are or plan to become preachers) who do not at all fit in the stereotype so perpetuated in novels (and the media in general). For years now there’s been this trending negativity towards Christianity…


    • you pin-pointed out all the characters that annoy me…These’s days, maybe due to feminism, a reader won’t encounter too many “weak heroines” but…the opposite has emerged…stereotypical strong, feministic, bitchy (excuse my language) heroines.

      The evil characters with no redeeming characters–yah, they just bore me. One thing I loved about this book called ‘Pillars of the Earth’ is that the author creates truly evil characters, and yet–they’re evil with a touch of goodness. This makes the reader hate, yet sympathize with the villain.


  10. I’ve been out of the loop a bit lately too, June, and was so excited that you’ve retitled your book and are so enthusiastic about where it’s going. You go, girl! I’m trying not to envy your lovely title as I have not found one that really satisfies me for mine. BTW, don’t know if I told you, but I finally did get the first edit of the novel done just before the Thanksgiving onslaught–pheww!
    I just got Bright Star on Netflix and LOVE–I think you suggested it here. It was so wonderful, I could sit down and watch it again if I only had the time! Made me itch to rework some old poems and get them sent out. If you didn’t recommend it (sorry my memory’s so bad) I heartily recommend it to you.
    Keep up the good work.


    • Titles are tricky little things. But they’re not THAT important until you start querying. So for now, just give the book any title (usually that’s what endsup becoming the title as one becomes so attached to it).

      Oh I really, really want to read an expcerpt of your work one day! I still remember getting the shivers (good shivers of intrigue) when you shared with me the summary of your work.

      Bright Star. Ho-hum. I did recommend it in my blog post but I didn’t love love it. I just couldn’t get into it! Mainly because the relationship development between the two main characters were so choppy. But, i must say, the cinamatography (I know I spelt that wrong) was STUNNING!!!


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