The “Too Stupid To Live” heroine is so common in romance novels that there’s even an acronym: TSTL. You know who she is. And by the middle of the story, you’ve either tossed the book into the Donate box, sent it back to the library, or kept reading to see if the story gets better. It never does. What a waste of time!
The TSTL heroine doesn’t start out as a birdbrained dunderhead, but as the novel’s complexity grows—as the writer works herself into a corner (I speak from experience!)—disasters mount and she just sits there, blinking. She’s tied to the track, and here comes the train. Even her screams for help are insipid. Do we care? Nope.
A damsel in distress is not the problem. We don’t mind a heroine longing to be rescued, right? Drama and tension are exciting. What we hate is unintelligent helplessness—and the TSTL gal is usually as spiritless as she is dumb. She could easily rescue herself (or at least make an attempt), but it doesn’t occur to her.
So today’s lesson for the writer is this: don’t write stupid stuff. That is, contrived plots that rely on dimwitted heroines. Readers will forgive you many things. The TSTL heroine isn’t one of them.
Today’s excerpt had me scratching my head. I do write stupid characters, but purposely. And they think they’re smart, which increases the fun. Who better illustrates this than Sir Walter, the male version of TSTL? He’s not the hero—but don’t waste your breath telling him so. He won’t believe you.
Here he is visited by a physician who offers inpatient care for the well-born…for a price. Does Sir Walter realize he’s being led down the primrose path?
“Now, then, Sir Walter, how have wee been feeling lately?” Mr Savoy came to Sir Walter’s bedside and placed the branch of candles on the small table. “Might I say, your daughter is a charming woman.”
“That,” said Sir Walter, “is debatable.”
“She is most concerned about your recovery.”
“I do not see why she should be.” Sir Walter’s eyes followed Mr Savoy’s movements. “Have you daughters?” she said. “Mine are the veriest plague! Ungrateful, demanding, scheming vixens, all of them!”
Mr Savoy placed a hand on Sir Walter’s brow. “it is in the nature of women to coddle and cosset us,” he said.
“And to plague us to death.”
“And that, too,” said Mr Savoy. “As for myself, since you ask, I have found daughters to be extremely expensive.” He paused, his pale eyes intent on Sir Walter’s face.
“Hah! Do I not know it.”
“The demands for new finery, for society and entertainments,” Mr Savoy felt Sir Walter’s wrist for a pulse. “Why, there seems to be no end to it. But daughters offer much in return. They are charming and companionable.”
“I suppose they can be,” grumbled Sir Walter. “But mine…why, you would not believe it if I told you! If only Hargrave had not confined me to this bed—”
“Matthias Hargrave? Has he advised a stringent convalescence?”
“Oh, you would not believe the strictures he has imposed! No society whatsoever—for an entire month! Not so much as a single card party. “Sir Walter pursed up his lips before adding, “He insists that I have a complete rest. It is cruel, too cruel!”
“Indeed, I quite agree.”
“You do?” Sir Walter’s eyes popped open. “And my youngest daughter, whom you have met already, has come to Bath to make certain that I am kept confined!”
“A prisoner of your daughters and of your physician.” Mr Savoy shook his head. “Sir Walter, that is criminal. You deserve better, sir.”
“Eh?” Sir Walter sat up straighter.
Mr Savoy cast his gaze to the ceiling. “How can you be free to regain your health under such philistine conditions?”
“How indeed? That is exactly what I have been asking myself.”
Mr Savoy drew nearer. “But you need not be a prisoner, good sir. You are not ill, not truly. You simply need care, very special care, while you regain your robustness.” Mr Savoy brought a hand to his chest. “Your spirit needs to be free to soar. When that happens, your body will likewise follow. You will be restored to complete and vigorous health.”
“Indeed, Mr Savoy,” said Sir Walter, “you have no idea how shabbily I have been treated by my family.”
“Then I suggest that you take matters into your own hands. You need not remain here against your will. You are the master of your fat.” Mr Savoy smiled more broadly. “There are alternatives…”
Tomorrow’s letter is U, which stands for Ukelele! (Or, those adorable foibles in your hero.)
[excerpt from Mercy’s Embrace: So Rough a Course by Laura Hile, 2009]