A Clash of Titans: Love vs. Honor in the Romance Novel

Red rose besiegedAlmost as soon as we can understand stories, we are taught to recognize the conflicts that drive them. Heroes are pitted against villains; natural settings are pitted against the encroachment of humankind; the temptation to do the profitable thing is pitted against the drive to do the right thing.

Many genres are shaped by the conflicts that appear most frequently within them. The American Realist movement, for example, is well-known for its focus on the conflicts between humankind and the unfeeling vastness of nature. Meanwhile, Modernist literature can be loosely defined by its obsession with the conflict between the act of linguistic representation and the object being represented.

Those of us who aspire to greatness in the romance and erotica genres, however, are typically more interested in the age-old conflict between the characters’ feelings of love and the characters’ senses of honor. Although this conflict may seem like a very basic battle that has already been discussed thoroughly in Romeo and Juliet, it is in reality a complex and powerful theme that can be used to fuel a wide variety of plots.

‘Honor’ means different things to different people, and it certainly means different things to different narratives. In historical settings, ‘honor’ often refers to a heroine’s ties to her birth family and the duties that come with them. In modern settings, the part of honor can be played by a host of social requirements, from a lawyer’s obligation to stay distant from her client to a billionaire’s sense that he shouldn’t be too friendly with his housekeeper.

Whatever form honor takes, it is always love’s job to turn it on its head for the sake of desire. Love is a loose cannon; love mucks up the line of succession and interferes with professional obligations and generally relieves our heroes of their dignity at every turn. Although it can be sweet and gentle and monogamous, it doesn’t have to be. In terms of narrative structure, the CEO who yearns to be disciplined by his secretary is just as much in love as the Laird’s daughter pining for her pirate captain. The important thing about love in a romance narrative is not that it swoons or broods or writes poems in a particular way, but rather that it picks a fight with honor and wins.