Poppy Nwosu on the Mr Darcy conundrum
YA author Poppy Nwosu reflects on the enigma that is Mr Darcy, and the challenges of writing realistic, swoon-worthy romantic heroes for teen readers.
Love stories have existed for thousands of years, yet the culture surrounding romance has changed hugely in that time.
Recently, a work colleague told me her young niece had watched an adaption of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and expressed a desire for her very own ‘Mr Darcy’. This gave us both pause. In this day and age, is a ‘Mr Darcy’ all that desirable?
An iconic romantic hero, he’s been beloved by generations of readers as the ideal love interest. And yet … he is also undeniably arrogant, entitled, rude and lacking in empathy. Or at least, he is at the beginning of that well-known love story. By the end of the tale, of course, we see how Elizabeth’s love alters poor, misguided Fitzwilliam Darcy for the better. He is a changed man!
Do we really want today’s girls to buy into the idea that their love for an arrogant, entitled jerk could, potentially, possibly, (maybe) cause him to fundamentally change into a person worthy of their love? If I had a daughter, I’m not sure I’d want her to believe it. Because as we all know, change is not a given. Change is fundamentally hard.
And yet … here is the real issue.
I, like so many other women I know, cannot deny that I do in fact absolutely love and adore Mr Darcy. I’ve swooned over him, discussed him, watched him and read him. Pride and Prejudice, in my opinion, is a powerful tale of a woman’s love morphing an arse of a man into something better. To be honest, it is one of my favourite romantic stories ever. Which … makes me part of the problem?
So now I must ponder the strange balance that exists between romantic ideals in stories and our real-life wants. Or, the real-life things we should want. For instance, as an avid consumer of books and romance in general, I have noticed an abundance of strange (yet strangely popular) sub-genres. Bully romances, in which the hero bullies the young heroine – fiercely, viciously – until he finally admits it’s because he’s actually in love with her (Surprise!). Possessive hero types, such as Edward Cullen of Twilight fame, and of course those manly aggressive types, like the hero in the smash hit Netflix YA adaption of The Kissing Booth, a rather strange story that is both repulsive and addictive, and that I have often heard described as an utter guilty pleasure. The hero in that one spends quite a lot of time smashing his fist into things. Walls. Cars. Other boys (he was jealous though …. so it’s romantic …).
While I, as an adult with a lovely marriage to the world’s nicest man, can watch such guilty pleasures with enthusiasm, joy and an appropriate level of swoon, I am also quite capable of separating the fantasy escapism of stories like these from my real-life wants. For instance, I do not want a creepy boy to watch me all night while I sleep. (That is both gross and unappealing.) I have the experience of a healthy and happy long relationship, in which I’ve found the best quality for a man to have, is niceness (a trait that seems endlessly under-appreciated in media).
But as much as I covet it in real life, I must admit that niceness is not exactly a staple quality of romance stories. Nor would I particularly want it to be. Why? Because it would be boring. And yet what is the alternative? The development within young romance consumers of a rather unhealthy and unrealistic view of what a relationship should be? The worst part is that I am absolutely, 100%, utterly and irretrievably part of this very culture that demands romantic stories to satiate my escapism fantasy needs.
Which brings me back to the Mr Darcy conundrum.
If I was a teenage girl, would I want a nice love interest? Or would I perhaps want a passionate, complex and difficult affair with a man who learns and grows and changes through my guidance and love (and sharp wit!). I’m fairly certain I know what I would have chosen. Which proves I certainly don’t have any answers to this strange problem within our romance-loving culture. But the difference between me and the average consumer of guilty-pleasure romance is I am also an author. I write romance. Specifically for young people. Which lends itself a certain level of responsibility.
How do I write a story that has that swoon-worthy romance that I love, that appeals to me and my guilty-pleasure sensibilities – yet can still give young readers a realistic and healthy idea of what a romance can be, of what a relationship can be. Of what love can be.
In my latest YA novel, Taking Down Evelyn Tait, I certainly struggled with this balance. In fact, I struggled with it so much that I was forced to stop writing over halfway through my first draft and begin again (very frustrating). In attempting to write a positive romance for young people, I had written a romantic hero whose single personality trait was being nice. Needless to say, that obviously didn’t work.
So in my rewrite, my hero, Jude, became a bit sharper, a bit more troubled and bit more assertive then I had initially planned. He’s still essentially nice, but it’s not nearly that simple.
Romance in real life isn’t without problems and difficulties either. I think it’s okay, and healthy, to write about those aspects too. In real-life romance, things are not always perfect and swoon-worthy. No hero – not even a ‘nice’ one – is faultless. Those ideas are just as unrealistic as assigning the word ‘romantic’ to a wall-smashing, possessive lunatic who watches you sleep.
So I guess my struggle between portraying realistic healthy relationships for teens, and writing for my romance-loving guilty-pleasure sensibilities will continue.
But when I worry about whether I’m getting the balance right, I think about the judge’s comments on my YA debut, Making Friends With Alice Dyson, which was shortlisted for the Readings Young Adult Book Prize, and I am comforted. ‘Nwosu bypasses toxic and high-stakes romantic tropes for a refreshingly nuanced and realistic dynamic, while still giving readers the slow-burn romance they crave: a gloriously heady mix of tentative self-consciousness, bittersweet longing and simmering tension.‘
I suppose I must be doing something right! And maybe that is enough. Because I certainly don’t have any answers.
I know there is escapism in all stories, and us romance-lovers will love what we love: whether it is right or wrong, good or bad. But as a writer with a young teen audience – like my colleague’s Mr-Darcy-loving niece – I want to ensure the impact of my books is ultimately positive. And so I’ll continue on my quest to portray love interests that are nice, realistic … and still at least a little bit flawed.