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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Beyond the Slap

If you read historical romance, you’ve no doubt come across a scene where the heroine becomes so frustrated, she slaps the clueless hero. Often, this is a turning point, which brings the hero to realize the error of his ways, so he can make the changes that lead to the Happily Ever After.
I’ve never been a fan of the slap, or its near-twin, stomping on his foot, though I’ve heard all the arguments for it. The woman is too small to really hurt him. She is so constrained by society she has no other means of her expressing her displeasure. But I can’t really see the hero opening his heart if he expects to get whacked upside the head every time they disagree. And as a writer, the slap looks like the cliché I’m trying to avoid.
Intimate relationships are, by definition, physical. What’s thrilling to one lover might be shocking to the next. Go too far with your hands-off policy, and your romance loses its sizzle.
I once had a contest judge tell me the hero was abusive because he grabbed the heroine’s arm to stop her from leaving. A friend received the same remark about a hero who raised his voice. In both cases, the scenes would have fallen flat had we followed the judge’s advice and removed the offending behavior.
On the other end of the spectrum, I recently read a story where the heroine punched the hero in the mouth. As he sprawled on the floor, wondering if he should get stitches for his bleeding lip, he thought, “Wow. She still hits as hard as she used to. I can’t wait to get back with her.” In my mind, he didn’t look heroic, he looked stupid.
There’s a world of difference between a playful pat on the bottom and the full force paddling I’ve read in western romances. So where do we draw the lines?
I’ve come up with two basics tests to judge my own work. First, if we turned the situation around, would both characters still look heroic? Second, if I saw my teenage kid in this relationship, would I tell him to get out?
Applying these questions to the previous examples: If the hero slapped the heroine, he would be condemned, no longer the hero, but the antagonist. If my teenage son came home with a bloody lip, I would tell him to stop seeing the girl who punched him. So in my book, both of those scenarios are out.
I realize this is a controversial subject. Before the hate mail begins, let me explain. I am all for the kick-ass heroine who fights to defend herself or serve her country. In the real world, violence against women should be universally condemned. Today we are only talking about fiction, mainstream romance writing, and expressions of anger in an otherwise loving and committed relationship.
So what’s your take? Please post a comment and tell us: Are you for the slap or against it? How do you show anger between the hero and heroine? And how do you know when you’ve crossed the line?


  1. I'm not a fan of the slap (though I sometimes want to do it myself!). With anger, I usually use throwing things,icing out (not speaking), or the usual yelling episode.

  2. Thanks so much for the comment, Candyland. I hadn't really thought about throwing things. Hmm. I guess it depends on what you're throwing them at.

  3. I really don't like the slap. For the same reasons you stated. And for the same reasons we don't tolerate it in real life. It shows disrespect and an inability to deal constructively with your problems/disagreements. Anger, like other emotions, is the most difficult thing to write. But plot can be a useful device. Think of clever ways to thwart the hero, talk back etc. The reader will know the heroine is angry. The slap is a shortcut. (But didn't Scarlet slap Rhett at one memorable moment?)

  4. Hi Carly,
    Thanks for the comment. I think you are right. It is much harder to think of clever ways to thwart the hero. Anger as a plotting device is a great concept. So often we think of plot as "This happens, then this happens" but if we could tap into that emotion at the plotting stage, the action might go in a completely new and unexpected direction. I'm seeing all sorts of possibilities for my next WIP. Thanks for the tip!

  5. Gail: That photo is priceless! I had a good chuckle. Even though the subject itself is not funny.

    Wonderful thought-provoker, as always. Your posts are always interesting.

    I have a teenager too, and I wouldn’t want him to ever hit a girl – nor tolerate being slapped himself. Teenage squabbles can be a harbinger for domestic violence, which leads to an intergenerational cycle of violence.

    The slap is a cliché. Couldn’t agree more heartily. Clichés means no surprises, more predictability, more formulaic characters and plots.

    Yet, I use it in my own story, and I’m hoping it’s natural reaction on the part of the character, rather than being a cliché. Violence is often being an expression of intimidation, of threat. In a romance, to me, it’s often an indication of passion spiraling out of control. In my current novel, the lead is impulsive, slapping is more natural to her. In my other novel, the female lead has her emotions on a tight leash, she’s a thinker, very cautious.

    A good, meaty drama simmers with conflict and potential violence. “The Sopranos” comes to mind, not merely the mob horrors, but the arguments between the leads, Tony and Carmela. They’d often manage to control their tempers, but the rage bubbled like lava… resulting in the occasional explosion. Their clash (season 4, episode 13, “Whitecaps”) was riveting television, when Carmela said: “Who knew all this time you wanted Tracy and Hepburn?”

    The original film of “Twelve Angry Men,” had palpable conflict, with twelve jurors cooped up in a stuffy room to debate the outcome of a young man’s life, (a teenager accused of killing his father). Henry Fonda was the cerebral voice of reason, persuading others to his conclusions, making his ‘opponent,’ played by Lee J. Cobb furious, and on the verge of violence. What I especially love about this movie, is how rage flares even as characters rationally discuss violence.

    I suppose, when something’s at stake, when people make it “personal,” stronger emotions prevail.

    Fundamentally, to me, the person who erupts with violence is surrendering to his or her Id, the lower functioning brain. I see a person who is able to contain their violent impulses as mature and responsible. The real adult, so to speak, not a tantruming toddler. Let’s face it, all of us wrestle with tempers. We humans are still animals, but our brains can be taught logic, reason, decency, responsibility. We’ve all got to contribute to society as a civilized whole, be tolerant, polite, etc.

    I’m not sure I always buy into the kick-ass heroine. The film version of “Charlie’s Angels” had me rolling my eyes. In a self-defense class I took, the instructor explained a man has superior upper body strength. My ex-roomie’s father was in the military, and she said that male soldiers could carry supplies on their backs, their shoulders, backs and arms were stronger, even if a woman worked out. A woman’s physical advantage is her balance. The self-defense instructor said a woman can use her superior balance to her advantage, by tripping a man, placing a kick behind the kneecaps. Otherwise, if a woman is too close, a perpetrator could easily subdue with a stranglehold.

    Good Lord, sorry I’m being a blowhard. I wrote about workplace violence once, and researched pretty heavily.

  6. I'm a little mixed on this one, Gail. For me, once my characters are in a committed relationship, any sort of physical violence is out. It would have to be a very extreme situation for me to write a scene where either character slapped the other, at that point.

    However, I have written a scene in one of my MSs where the heroine did slap the hero - and I don't think it would be appropriate for these two characters to take it out. It happened at a point where the hero pretty much forced the heroine's hand. He did something that put her in a situation where she had no choice but to marry him - against her will. And he did it in a very public setting. Slapping him is the very least that their audience would have expected.

    That said, for me, it all comes down to the characters and their level of development. For you and me, living in the modern world, slapping is not acceptable. However, if we have historical characters in historical situations, and it is early on in their character arc, then I'm not entirely opposed to it. I just think it has to be handled delicately.

  7. Again, it all depends on your characters. Is it a cliche? Not really. I've used it in a few of my historicals. In a contemporary, I had the heroine chuck paperback books at the hero and smack him with a Nerf bat. In a sci-fi book, the heroine actually shot her man in the shoulder.

    Depends on the character :-)

    No one wants to read about a woman who just stands there like a lump just because it might tick off a reader.

  8. LOL, lady of controversy extraordinaire! Love it Gail. I use a slap in one of my many ms. I don't agree with it but in one of my blog posts about tough heroines which can be found here http://ladyscribes.blogspot.com/2010/02/tomboys-bad-girls-and-everything-your.html you can't insert just anything to make a heroine tough for the fun of it. You have to have a reason for everything. Including a slap.
    My heroine was forced to be an outlaw at the age of four, it's a life she's always known. In this particular ms she can shoot, track and quite possibly - though I haven't tested this theory - kick the hero's tush. So the scene with the slap was her little warning to the hero to stop being a ... you know what to her. It wasn't meant to hurt, or degrade in any fashion, it was her little chance to say hey you're pushing it buddy. And it worked. It got him to thinking you know I really have been a jerk to her. Is it pushing the limits? Possibly. Will I remove it? Probably not simply because it's moves the plot forward. It caused a reaction in the hero and that's what good characterization does.
    Do I agree with it? No. Would I condone it for my children? No. And as a woman who has taken multiple self defense courses the man who slaps me had better run. Yes, men are stronger than me but you can bet your pretty self they'll come away from it with a bruise or two as well.
    Once you live it, and practice it you start to understand how a really tough heroine works. My husband’s family is a military family where both his sister and mother served- his mother was a sheriff’s deputy for years - and size is of no importance when you live this life. The person who wins the fight isn't always the stronger or bigger person, it is often the smartest. Using all your assets is your greatest gift.

  9. My female characters have wanted to slap the hero and I've made the comments while critique work that I would like to slap the hero. However, I don't think I have ever actually had a heroine slap the hero. My heroine has slapped the bad guy, but not the hero. I think I use the reference of "oh, I could just slap him" to show the aggravation.

  10. In my current WIP the heroine tries to slap the hero for his audacity but he catches her wrist just in time. It's a medieval setting, with the girl terrified about her future. She feels threatened by her growing feelings - so on reflex she puts on a defence.
    This is fairly early in the story, and he feels suitably chagrined and put in his place. The relationship hasn't started yet, otherwise I wouldn't use physical violence but rather have her give him the cold shoulder and bang the doors. ;-)

    I think it depends on the setting. If it sounds cliched, leave it out. If it helps understand the FMC's despair/fear/outrage, then it could work.

  11. I'm going to say that the cliche slap - um, no thanks.

    However, I'll pull from real-life here. There was a very complicated situation once where a guy I was dating and I got super mixed up in a serious situation. I was informed he had done something rather unforgivable, and when I tried to call and talk to him about it he unknowingly agreed that this thing had happened when he really wasn't paying attention to me (his mistake he later laughed about). So, when he showed up at a very bad time I was very upset, and punched him. (I was very wrong) Now, he knew me and knew that something was not understood and did the very manly thing... and sat on me. We had a long talk about communication and in the end the relationship was strengthened even through our bad behavior, though it did eventually fizzle out.

    In the end, I'll say go with what is right for the characters. In real life some people aren't perfect and they are too physical, but you can use that! You can have your characters address that issue and show character growth and it can be a good thing, but the cliche face-slap - eh, there's probably a better way to do it.

  12. Thank you all for your great comments. I think I'm seeing a pattern. If you're going to use the slap, it has to be early on before there's a real relationship, and the farther back in history you go, the more acceptable it is. Great advice and great stories. Thanks!

  13. I don't mind a slap as long as it has a purpose. In my MS, I'm about to write in a physical altercation of some kind between my hero and heroine. No, I don't mean something violent or abusive. But I do need my heroine to express to the hero that he cannot take particular liberties with her. She's lived on the streets for most of her life, so slapping him--or even punching him--is certainly a believable reaction from her.

    When I don't like "the slap" is when it could have been avoided altogether.

  14. This is a very thought-provoking blog, Gail. Someone mentioned in a modern setting they wouldn't use a slap. That resonated with me.

    In today's world women may not be treated completely equal to men, but we are on a more level playing ground. Historically, the power difference was so vast - women were property, essentially - so it doesn't bother me as much if the female slaps the male when provoked to the extreme since she had no other recourse, and really even slapping the man could have dire consequences for her. I'm not for domestic violence any more than I am for dueling, but I can feel some empathy for a woman during that time period. Now, not so much.

    I remember an ex-boyfriend telling me the story behind this couple whose wedding we attended. The guy had always been the modern equivalent of a rake, but when he met his future wife and cheated on her, she slapped him and told him never to disrepect her again. Apparently that is how he knew they were meant to be together. Hmmm. I think maybe she hit him harder than she thought. I always thought that didn't bode well for their future, but maybe that's just me. That whole concept of hitting anyone is foreign to me.

    It is interesting that no one brought up male on male violence. It seems pretty accepted along all time periods for men to be violent toward other men.

  15. I recieved some feedback once that almost made me fall off my chair. A contest judge disliked the teasing my hero engaged in and suggested he was abusive. He was hardly that. Later in the story (the unjudged part) the heroine actually does slap the hero but not before she's sorely provoked. I suppose my hero might meet your criteria - while he might not like her actions, he does not go all gooey eyed about my girl. That comes much, much later.