The Call of the Overwhelming: American Naturalism and the Wild Setting

Abruzzo - lakeThe American Naturalists differed from the Romantics in the way they responded to a challenging setting. When you see snow-capped peaks and gaping chasms in Romantic literature, the characters are generally being offered at least an opportunity for redemption.

American Naturalism, despite its name, does not look so kindly on the natural world. The builders of this genre, such as Stephen Crane and Jack London, did not share the Romantic opinion that an encounter with the natural world would necessarily make a protagonist better. On the contrary, the natural world of the Naturalists is a threatening force. Although nature promises to change the protagonists of Naturalist stories, the change is almost always for the worse. Although the characters may start out as civilized people with little connection to nature, the natural world invites the characters to give in to their most basic instincts and urges as they become one with the setting.

We cannot read the work of the Naturalists without acknowledging the genre’s roots in the Industrial Revolution. At this point in history, civilization (even with all its ugly trappings) promised to save humanity from the nasty, brutish, and short lives promised by an agrarian lifestyle. Naturalist stories present us with the conflict between the civilized and the uncivilized; while the uncivilized world might tempt the characters with its mystery and vitality, it ultimately promises them a nasty end that can only be avoided through contact with civilization.

Today’s authors, unlike the American Naturalists, are not working in the shadow of the Industrial Revolution. In fact, literature these days is more focused on mourning the loss of the natural world to the civilized world. However, like all literary movements, Naturalism leaves us some handy narrative techniques that we can put to good use in contemporary prose. The conflict between humanity and nature provides us with a simple yet powerful framework for thrilling adventure narratives, and it gives us the spicy backdrop for romance narratives where one heroic character is “tamed” by the other’s affections.

There are as many opportunities for you to be influenced by the American Naturalists as there are opportunities to use natural settings in your writing. Although the conflict between humanity and nature need not be the driving force behind your narrative, it can always help characters learn new things about themselves and get the motivation to bring about a story-changing event. Allowing your setting to be part of your story’s conflict can bring depth to your setting and help you move your plot along without adding a multitude of extra characters.

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.