Creative Writing · Literature

Don’t Let the Specter of Bella Swan Keep You from Writing a Romantic Heroine Who Actively Has Romance On Her Mind (Or Something Like That)

So, before I get to that sweet, sweet romance post that I was working on before it got ruined and I opted for a post on revenge instead, I want to address something that otherwise would have been a tangent in said romance post. And to be honest, I’d rather get this out of the way first, because this one’s something of a thorn in my foot.

If I haven’t mentioned already, I’ll mention it now: yes, I have all four Twilight books, and I have all five of the film adaptations, in my possession. And I actually do re-watch those movies, bad acting and all.

At best, I can defend the franchise by passing it off as the brain equivalent of junk food. Moreover, I can’t fault Stephanie Meyer for having the good fortune to tap into something that apparently a good size of the reading market was thirsting for (no pun intended, lol). Honestly, that seems to be one of the biggest factors in becoming a literary success, that you’re just lucky enough to build off of something that the masses didn’t realize they wanted until you gave it to them.

My guess is that at the time Twilight was coming out, there were a lot of readers (most of them straight female, but not all) who were tired of logic and just wanted a man-angel who struggled with a “dark past” to sweep them up in their arms and let them know that they were going to take care of everything, and hold back their animalistic urges to suck blood just for them.

Ha, ha, sorry guys, but anime beat you to it.

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Plus, mechanically speaking, Meyer’s not a bad writer. Whether you like the stories she tells or the subject matter she brings up, she’s got a grasp of taking the English language and fashioning a book out of it. (Whether there’s anything about the style that “sparkles” (he, he), I’ll leave up to your personal taste (ahem–but between you and me, I thought the films sparkled more ha ha).)

But yeah, on a practical level, she knew how to write this quadrilogy so as to make it worthy of binge-reading.

I’ll also admit that when I first read Twilight, I was A) rather forgiving of Bella Swan’s character as far as her idiocy goes, because I remember being a naive teenager, so I cut her a little slack, and B) I was already swept up in the romantic tropes offered by vampire romances, care of all of the Christine Feehan Carpathian novels I’d been shamelessly devouring thanks to my bestie introducing me to them (man, you want something trite and formulaic made worthy of binge-reading!), so my mindset was ripe for being taken in by this most recent literary sensation being, at the time, hailed as “the next Harry Potter” (uncomfortable coughing).

And despite all the backlash Twilight has suffered over time, I can still get hooked by the vampire romance premise (something that led me to revisit underrated gems like The Silver Kiss by Annette Curtis Klause, and pick up other underrated gems like Nocturne by Syrie James, both of which should be appreciated for the fact that (SPOILER) the sexy vampire and the human woman who falls for him DON’T end up together, which is really the only other realistic outcome apart from turning the woman into a vampire too (a.k.a. the “Twilight route”).).

But I’m not naive enough to forget that vampires are still monsters that suck human blood either. Lucky for me, there are an abundance of vampire anime (apart from the above-memed Vampire Knight) that can be both romantic and legit hardcore (the way vampires are supposed to be) so I can have my cake and eat it too (thank you Hellsing and Shiki).

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Getting back to the actual story of Twilight though, here’s where anti-Twilighters really like to cut their teeth on the thing. Not only is Bella Swan an idiot, but she’s a tool too, rendered embarrassingly useless without her freaking vampire boyfriend.

It’s pretty insta-love when she and the cold and mysterious Edward Cullen meet, and from there she’s got a pretty one-track mind as far as wanting to spend the rest of her life with him, even after finding out he’s a blood-sucking vampire. And the moment he tries to cut ties with her (to “protect” her) of course, she’s like a puppet with her strings cut, barely able to function and pining for the guy to the point of pissing off her friends (and rightly so, actually).

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Gah! Okay, who put those wings there so Edward would look like a friggin’ angel? Jeez, subtle guys.

And the only thing that gets her somewhat functioning again is her friend Jacob, who predictably turns out to be a “werewolf” (except not really because Stephanie Meyer likes to do stuff like that). Which gives us the theme of trying compare the plot of New Moon to Romeo and Juliet, and Eclipse with Wuthering Heights (I imagine William Shakespeare and Emily Bronte both shivered in their respective graves).

So she’s beyond passive as a character. Pretty much the only active thing she manages to do is to get herself into mortal danger so one of her pretty boys can save her. She makes the very life-changing decision of wanting to shed her humanity in favor of becoming a vampire just to be with her vampire boyfriend (dude, you’re giving up, like, chocolate for crying out loud!), without a second thought, and deflects pretty much every good reason that other people give her (consciously or unconsciously) not to go through with it (or at least give it a bit more thought). She turns the emo up to eighty-leven when one of her boys isn’t around, and while this is some fair emotional turmoil, she acts like she was in some kind of mortal pain before she met Edward, and then he changed everything.

(Oh, and lets not forget what a gigantic tease she is to Jacob.)

Even when she finally becomes a vampire, she still lacks the edge she should have. Very disappointing, for all of us who were excited to see her finally get turned.

There have been better spins on the story of teenage-girl-falls-in-with-the-vampire-crowd plot.

Try The Blood of Eden trilogy by Julie Kagawa for instance. The girl gets turned right from the get-go in the first book, The Immortal Rules, because it was either that or die, and the vampire turning her had no inner conflict about either decision she decided to make. Plus later on in the book, she later finds herself traveling with this band of very Christian humans who definitely cling to the concept of “all vampires must be staked”. And our vampire girl in question, Alison, kicks ass. She gets a katana, and she learns how to use it.

Heck, the Parasol Protectorate books by Gail Carriger have a gay vampire (I mean, what do you expect from something steampunk?), and he’s way more macho than Edward Cullen is.

But here’s where we all get the short end of the stick in the fallout from all of this reactionary negativity to Bella’s character (which actually made Kristin Stewart’s stilted acting in the role understandable–seriously, watch her in the movie Zathura, she’s actually interesting to watch in that movie).

Now it feels like there’s all this pressure to write female characters not only as strong, but one of the requirements for being strong is that they “don’t need no man”. At least at first anyway, they’re allowed to still fall in love, but they gotta be tsundere (tough on the outside but soft on the inside) or kuudere (cold) almost about it, either just at first or most of the time. And even then, there are other restrictions to that, like if the guy they like gets torn out of the picture for a bit, she can’t like, wallow in how bad she feels, she has to take it with her teeth ground. Writing her with any kind of dependence on her love interest seems to make her weaker.

At least, from where I sit. I could be wrong. I’m just making this observation because of the Hunger Games phenomenon and its many, many carbon-copies that followed in the fallout of Twilight, when many realized what a tool Bella was and started thinking: “You know, I don’t know if I like the idea of a woman who can’t take any initiative in her life. I want a girl who has agency in her story! Give me a poverty-hardened teen girl with the archery skills of Legolas please!”

(Then again, The Hunger Games was conveniently quite well-written, all things considered. The whole reason I read them was not for the hype, but because I’d gone to this writing con in San Diego and I heard about this one track about evoking emotion in writing, and Hunger Games had been used as a good example of that. And I would say, good example.)

And yeah, she does get caught in a love triangle, but first and foremost, her character is all about trying to survive on her own, because she’s learned through hardship that she can’t expect to depend on anyone else (leastways, not without becoming a “slave to the system”). True, at the beginning of Mockingjay, she’s screaming Peeta’s name every five seconds, but by this point, she’s suffered enough trauma and she and Peeta have been through enough shit that her freaking out about his being captured by the Capitol is warranted.

So, I guess it’s not that she can’t let herself “go soft” for love, but come on, if she loves the guy, and losing him like that makes her feel like crying, let her cry for crying out loud! Let her get rid of all those toxins in her body through the expression of sadness! (That’s a scientific fact, by the by, that crying relieves the body of toxins.)

It’s like there can’t be any middle ground, a girl isn’t allowed to be lovestruck anymore. No, I’m not talking about insta-love, I’m talking about lovestruck, where you just look at an attractive person and go, “Whew! He/She’s hawwwwwwwwwt!”, and then actively decide to flirt because hey, you’re human and you got needs.

The theme of doing things for the sake of love, I think, has been warped here because of all this Twilight mess. And that shouldn’t be. The idea of doing something for the sake of love should be a source of inspiration, and when done well, it can even be done without coming off as corny! Just look at Harry Potter: those books took something that in any other hands could have become some kind of My Little Pony knock-off, but Rowling treated it with the kind of gravity and seriousness that it deserved in the context of her narrative, and made the concept of “love conquers all” a very epic and believable and inspiring thing. (Claps.)

So I’m here to tell you that you should not feel ashamed to write a female character who’s just a little clingy, or just a little flirty. Hell, look at it this way, Bella was a terrible mix of all-clingy and no-flirty, which really worked against her, along with everything else. As long as your female character is charming, can hold her own when she needs to, and doesn’t have a one-track mind about her boyfriend or love-interest (unless it’s for comedic effect, like in my exception to this rule, Gray x Juvia from Fairy Tail) let her love as much as her heart wants to.

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She can still be strong.

Actually, I’d argue that if you can make a female character brimming with love and still have her kick ass, either literally or metaphorically, so much the better! I’d look forward to reading that.

And quit letting Bella Swan’s shadow hang over you every time you put fingers to keyboard or pen to paper. Romance is not for the weak. Good romance isn’t, anyway.

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