Friday, February 12, 2010

Genre Blending and Your Character’s Love Life

French_Pressed-CleoCoyle A former journalist, Alice Alfonsi is a multi-published author in several genres and a New York Times best-selling media tie-in writer. Under the pen name Cleo Coyle, she pens two nationally bestselling mystery series for Penguin in collaboration with her husband, Marc Cerasini, the first of which, On What Grounds: A Coffeehouse Mystery, is now in its fourteenth printing. Her most current project under her own name is an adaptation of the screenplay for the upcoming feature film Tron: Legacy into a junior novel.

Genre Blending and Your Character’s Love Life

Cleo Coyle_CoffeehouseMysteries-color photo Differences in genres are sometimes easy to recognize and sometimes not so easy. A small percentage of bookstore customers may puzzle over why the trade markets something as a fantasy versus a mystery, especially when the fantasy has a mystery in it and the mystery has a fantasy element. Most of the reading public probably doesn’t care. They simply want to be told a good story.

To an author seeking to publish, however, the question of what defines a genre is not a casual one. Understanding why a publisher puts a book in one genre as opposed to another may mean the difference between an acceptance call and a rejection notice.

A short time ago, mystery author Mary Jane Maffini posed a question to a group of published mystery authors. She then conveyed our answers in a workshop for a group of aspiring writers. To paraphrase MJ’s question:

“What is the difference between a romance with a mystery and a mystery with a romance?”

As I typed out my answer for MJ, I realized it would make an informative opening for a blog post on genre blending. Given Sunday’s date, let’s start with romance…

What defines a romance?

In the most basic terms, the main plot of a novel in the romance genre focuses on the protagonist's love life. Countless permutations are possible in such a novel: small casts, epic tales, historical or contemporary settings. The style of the telling can be poetic, colloquial, melodramatic, stream of consciousness, epistolary. The couples involved may be straight or gay.

The protagonist in a romance may have other ongoing concerns. The book may feature additional subplots—a mystery or thriller element, a family drama, terminal illness, struggle for societal standing—but the love affair is the driving force. The engine of the plot is driven by encounters between the protagonist and his or her love.

Ultimately, what defines a romance is this primary plot question: Will the main character win or lose love? These days, romance novels almost always deliver a happily ever after ending for the reader.

What defines a mystery?

Again, in the most basic terms, the plot of a novel in the mystery genre focuses on the main character's quest to uncover the guilty party after a crime has taken place, usually a murder but not always. The engine of this plot is driven by the protagonist following clues toward the solution of the crime.

Many writers describe the ultimate goal of a mystery protagonist as finding justice, but I don’t think that’s the best way to define the genre for writers who are new to it. I’m not entirely sure that all mystery protagonists are out for justice, which can be a complex and subjective idea.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, for example, Poirot reveals the murderers and allows them to walk away. Were the murderers executing justice upon the victim? Certainly that can be argued, especially given the lack of a defining jurisdiction on the train. From an objective viewpoint, however, one can also argue that killing a man in his sleep is closer to vengeance or vigilantism.

Antiheroes in the mystery genre may not seek justice in the traditional sense, either. What they will always seek in the course of the story is the truth. The mystery protagonist may be involved in other subplots and have other concerns, including a love affair, but the main desire line for the protagonist should be discovering the guilty party (or parties), uncovering the lies, untangling the schemes, and excavating the answers to any questions surrounding the crime.

Sex and the Human Condition

Every day when I sit down to work, I do so with the understanding that I am writing a novel in the mystery genre, but ultimately (regardless of the apparent rules and strictures of genre) I am writing a novel.

A work of parody or avant-garde surrealism may intentionally use caricatures and stereotypes with little depth. For the most part, however, today’s readers expect multidimensional characters in their novels. This is where genre blending has served me well.

As experienced writers know, in order to portray a character as dimensional (characters that feel real, if you will), we must create traits that humanize him or her. A character’s sexuality is a powerful way to convey your character’s humanity—certainly not the only way, but a compelling one for many readers.

Exploring your character’s sexuality does not mean your character is “sexy” or even that your character will engage in sex during the course of the story. For many authors, exploring a character’s sexuality (and the basis or “back story” for it) is simply a way to build dimension.

The protagonist of my first series (Clare Cosi) is a divorced single mother in her forties. Clare didn’t have much of a love life in the decade before the series began. For years, her main concern was raising her daughter, and she subverted her own needs to that end. As Clare’s newly adult daughter moves along with her own life, however, Clare begins to explore her post-forty sexuality, which is complicated to say the least. BTW…Age need not be a factor in the romantic arena: The Coffeehouse Mysteries also feature a lively but fickle octogenarian (Clare’s former mother-in-law) who is presently on her third beau.

Exploring Character, Building Depth

Even asexual characters can yield fascinating back stories when you explore the reasons for their human condition, for instance: aversion to being touched because of past abuse; a failed marriage with residual hostility toward the opposite sex; contented virginity; unbearable virginity; impotence; frigidity; an expression of religious belief.

In my second mystery series, my protagonist is a widow in her late thirties (Penelope Thornton-McClure). Pen has a young son and no sex life. My widow has sexuality. For various reasons, including her lousy marriage and husband’s suicide, it’s repressed.

What Pen does have is a fantasy life in the form of a ghost. At times she wonders whether the ghost is real. PI Jack Shepard seems to have stepped right out of the pages of the Black Mask-era hardboiled mysteries that she sells in her book store. Has Jack appeared in her life as an alter ego, a kind of imaginary friend who will express her deeply repressed thoughts and feelings and fulfill her acute psychological needs? Or is Jack a true manifestation of a paranormal phenomenon? With every new title in The Haunted Bookshop Mysteries, Pen and the reader must decide for themselves.

The Best of Both Genres

Finally, if you do decide to blend genres and unfurl a romantic subplot for the main character in your mystery, this storyline should not dampen your character’s burning desire to solve his or her crime. Nor should it take away from your painstaking plotting of the mystery. If you blend the genres correctly, your protagonist’s love life should simply be part of the creation of a dimensional character in a well written novel.

Do you blend genres in your writing? Do you enjoy it or find it problematic? Comments welcome or come join the discussion this Sunday when Dead Air author and clinical psychologist Mary Kennedy shares insights into developing her character’s personal life at

Text copyright © 2010 by Alice Alfonsi

Cleo, thanks so much for this terrific and helpful post. It makes me want to do some genre bending, too! So how about it—do y’all blend genres? How is it working for you?

Be sure to check out Cleo’s awesome website (I haven’t seen an author site to rival it). She blogs with me at Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen and her posts always POP with fun.