Posted On February 1, 2012 by Print This Post

Dark Matters: Cultivating Creative Cruelty in Romance Fiction by Damon Suede

Morning, RU Crew! Today, I’m uber-happy to welcome back a returning Visiting Professor from last fall. Damon Suede is a joy to work with as a guest, and he really looks into the heart and soul of romance fiction. He’s a thinker and a man with an opinion. My favorite type of guy!  Damon’s going to share with us how darkness can make romance even sweeter.

Welcome back, Damon!

Romance writers are sadists at heart. They have to be, because romance needs genuine suffering to produce the transformations and emotion that make for memorable reading. Sure…romance authors need to love their characters, but even more essential is the capacity for extended imaginary sadism that’s pushes beyond the box. If we can admit that bad stuff happens to good people, then really hideous misfortunes happen to great people…and romance characters need to (by all accounts) seem doomed from the get-go.

Depression, disaster, and disillusionment are the secret throbbing heart of romantic fantasy. As Hitchcock once pointed out, “The stronger the evil, the stronger the film.” While it may seem obvious to apply that rule to the crime genre or action-adventure, darkness is the mainspring of all stories: fear, anger, brutality, and deceit. Think I’m bonkers? Look to the personal suffering that drives your people and the bigger shadows cloaking their world. In a real sense, the thing that makes romance compelling is not the happiness of its ending but the gloom that make that ending possible and satisfying.

Every love story has a painful core that makes its pleasure possible.

Haven’t we made the McRomance mistake at some point? One of the most common traps for young romance writers is to invent two dazzling protagonists, concoct a saucy meet-cute and then let them have exactly what they want as they march in lockstep to their predetermined life as cheerful automatons…which is about as entertaining as watching oatmeal simmer. Without highs and lows, grist and grit, nothing can happen…no one can changes… Hell, without friction even SEX doesn’t feel good.

The thing is, for a romance to feel satisfying, protagonists need to change and develop, and in fiction (as in life) real growth is never a cakewalk. Who’s gonna take your hero’s epiphany seriously if it doesn’t come with a cost and a real impetus? Certainly no reader who has ever faced adversity, that is to say, anyone who has ever drawn breath. To get your characters out of their status quo you have to hit them where they live and hit hard. Destroy their old selves so that their new selves can emerge, together. The satisfaction in romance fiction is not that the ending is happy, but that it overcomes overwhelming odds by unlikely people.

To put it another way: love stories are unleashed not by license, but limitations.

Take a look at your work-in-progress. All catastrophes are not created equal and every story deserves its own distinct shading. It’s up to you to determine the lower limit you’re willing to broach: whether it’s cutting glances from trusted friends or madwomen in attics. The dark patches don’t have to be violent or event depressing, but they need to provide chiaroscuro for your fictional folks. Evil produces context and sets up the limits of the world you’re building. The personal voids within each character draws on the powerful forces shadowing the book and vice versa. What is the worst thing that could possibly happen to your characters and how soon can you make it happen? I’m only half-joking.

In the weakest romance fiction, perfect couples amble through a few mild complications before snicking into place like a greased lock. In essence these books telegraph their endings from page one, not because they end happily but because they start happily and stay that way for long stretches. A jog through the daisies, as some folks would have it…contentment but not joy. Most books that fail for me blow it by wrapping all their characters in cotton wool and completely skipping the kind of “Dark night of the Soul” that might transform the protagonists and their world.

Love hurts.

Think back over romance novels you’ve loved or the genre-defining books that drive our industry. The most unforgettable stories and characters spring from crushing opposition. What we remember about romance novels is the darkness that drives them. Three hundred pages of folks being happy together makes for a hefty sleeping pill, but three hundred pages of a couple finding a way to be happy in the face of impossible odds makes our hearts soar. In darkness, we are all alone.

So don’t just make love, make anguish for your characters. As you structure a story, don’t satisfy your hero’s desires, thwart them. Make sure your solutions create new problems. Nurture your characters doubts and despair. Make them earn the happy ending they want, even better…make them deserve it. Delay and disappointment charge situations and validate character growth.  Misery accompanies love. It’s no accident that many of the stories we think of as timeless romances in Western Literature are fiercely tragic: Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Cupid and Psyche… the pain in them drags us back again and again, hoping that this time we’ll find a way out of the dark.

Only if you let your characters get lost will we get lost in them. And that, more than anything else, is what romance can and should do for its protagonists and its readers: lead us through the labyrinth, skirt the monstrous despair roaming its halls, and find our way into daylight.


RU Crew, how do you create anguish for your characters so they really deserve that HEA at the end of the story?

Join us Friday for Extreme Makeover, Writer’s Office Edition with Jeanne Adams.


Bio: Damon Suede grew up out-n-proud deep in the anus of right-wing America, and escaped as soon as it was legal. Though new to M/M, Damon has been writing for print, stage, and screen for two decades. He’s won some awards, but counts his blessings more often: his amazing friends, his demented family, his beautiful husband, his loyal fans, and his silly, stern, seductive Muse who keeps whispering in his ear, year after year. Get in touch with him at

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21 Responses to “Dark Matters: Cultivating Creative Cruelty in Romance Fiction by Damon Suede”

  1. Welcome back, Damon. Torturing my main characters is my favorite part of the writing process. 🙂 Whatever horrible thing they’ve sworn off in the beginning I make them face it at the end. It’s great to see their transformation.

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | February 1, 2012, 5:33 am
  2. Hi Damon,

    In my current WIP, my heroine started out as suicidal. Not on purpose. The depth of her despair was overwhelming. To compensate, she has two potential heroes. They keep her busy and help her heal.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | February 1, 2012, 6:48 am
  3. I agree. I love torturing my characters.

    Posted by Mercy | February 1, 2012, 8:06 am
  4. Great post. When I first started writing, I tended to be the “sunny” writer. One critique partner even remarked, “Your dogs don’t even bark.”

    I learned to torture my characters, and it is much more fun–and makes for better reading.

    Posted by Janice Lane Palko | February 1, 2012, 8:10 am
  5. Morning Damon!

    I have a tough time with making things difficult for my characters. I force myself to do it, then go back and think – how can I make it worse? I know they have to go through the torment, but maaaaaan is it hard to write! =)

    Thanks for the great post!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | February 1, 2012, 8:38 am
  6. Thanks, y’all!

    I’m in the middle of drafting something that’s forcing me in intense directions and I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot. It’s just so damn easy to get seduced by that Happy Ending and want to have the whole book be dessert. For weeks on this project I flailed around trying to keep things sunny when I KNEW they needed to be radioactive…and then once I stepped into the shadows the whole thing started to sizzle. It was a good reminder…and then Kelsey and I were chatting about darkness getting short shrift, and we thought, “What the hey?” LOL

    And Janice I love “Your dogs don’t even bark.” I’m totally quoting that in the future!

    Posted by Damon Suede | February 1, 2012, 9:12 am
  7. Thanks for a great blog, Damon! I was first introduced to this idea by Anna Campbell, who posted details from a Donald Maass workshop on her blog. I refer to this constantly when I’m writing – I wish I could brand it on my brain!

    Here’s the link:

    Between her post and your blog, I’m inspired to wreak havoc on the characters in my current WIP. Wish me luck!

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | February 1, 2012, 9:17 am
  8. Hey, Damon –

    Welcome back! This is a perfect time for me to read this as I’m revising a novella that most likely needs a little more darkness.

    Can you share with our reader how you brainstorm all the pain you bring down on your characters? I’d love some tips to get my brain clicking on my current characters!


    PS – strangely enough, I have little problem with real life conflict, but a harder time with it in my fiction. Go figure!

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | February 1, 2012, 9:47 am
  9. Sure!

    I always think of characters in terms of VERBS. A good juicy verb gives you plenty to run with and makes friction easy to generate. If two characters have similar verbs, they’re not going to do very much interesting stuff. BUt if Blanche wants to conceal and Stanley wants to penetrate, if Frodo wants to melt the Ring and Gollum wants to possess it…things are gonna get ugly, right?

    So when I’m looking at my chartacter I start with the verbs and find ways to undermine those actions. Characters that need to stabilize need to be handed earthquakes, firebrands need dousing, shameless sluts need chastity and and impotence.

    Now this is sort of a whole other topic. I almost talk3ed more about this above, but then the post would have tripled in size. LOL BUt I think the verb of a character is directly related to their personal void…the little emptness inside them. A character that craves praise is going to DO certain things to get it (which provides their verb) and in turn you as the author can impede, derail, and provoke them by providing other characters with verbs that interfere.

    If Lizzie Bennett defends her families honor and her own prejudices fiercely, you have to surround her with people who shame and nettle her: a sleazy sister, a foolish mother, a detached father, a haughty hero…their actions rub up against her actions in hideous ways that force her to grow. Does that make sense?

    So for me it always starts with the action of the characters, whatever they NEED should be denied them and whatever they BELIEVE should challenged by other characters who have their own personal agendas. That amnkes for well-rounded casts and well built arcs for all…

    Posted by Damon Suede | February 1, 2012, 10:35 am
  10. Hi Damon. We are of the same mind on this topic. Love it! I’m a huge fan of forcing my characters into situations (emotionally and physically) that scare the hell out of them.

    I’m all over the verb exercise. It’s similar to one I learned in one of Laurie Schnebly-Campbell’s classes. She suggested we pick one word that describes our character’s biggest attribute and biggest weakness. For one character, I picked “loyalty” and then went on to torture him with betrayals and how his loyalty didn’t allow him to see those betrayals coming.

    Wonderful post!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | February 1, 2012, 10:56 am
  11. 🙂 I hear you, Adrienne. One of the reasons I force myself to use verbs particularly is because they demand action and they allow for tactics. It’s a trick I picked up in film/theatre…always looking for the motion, even if it’s internal.

    Posted by Damon Suede | February 1, 2012, 11:25 am
  12. This is my favorite quote of the day: “Hell, without friction even SEX doesn’t feel good.”

    Also, I love the idea of thinking of characters as verbs. That is awesome. When I’m writing, I think of it in terms of ok, what can make this situation suck even more. Usually answering that question helps me twist the knife a little deeper.

    Posted by Avery Flynn | February 1, 2012, 1:43 pm
  13. Welcome back, Damon!

    Terrific post! I write humorous contemporary romance. I don’t have a problem with torturing my characters, but I’m on the fence about how much emotional baggage to give them. I worry about the excess baggage becoming tedious.

    One of my heroines has experienced physical and emotional abuse as a child. As an adult, she’s a pleaser, always cheerful and helpful. Her current lifestyle is a middle finger salute to the kind of life she was expected to live.

    I’m not a fan of long internals so I try to slip in a line or of internals, maybe a paragraph of flashback from a darker period of her life to provide the emotional impetus behind her motivation. But I worry about disrupting the pace. Any suggestions?

    Thanks so much for being with us again!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | February 1, 2012, 6:05 pm
  14. Thanks Jennifer…

    I think the real thing to keep in mind is that you knowing all the backstory doesn’t have to translate into revealing it literally to the reader. In fact SOmetimes I think letting small unspoken hints build up a picture for the reader makes a more elegant impact on their imagination.

    Especially with comedy! So much of comedy is driven by past misery and old scars. Again(i’d say) it comes down to actions (and thence verbs) if your character’s action for the course of the novel is to deflect or disrupt… the kinds of humor she employs the tone of the jokes can reveal much more about the past than a fat slice of exposition cake. As Carol Burnett says, “Comedy is Truth plus Time.”

    Before I’d tell your reader what she suffered I’d have her BURY her history in the jokes and jabs she makes at thosee around her. It will be both funnier and more painful… That would be my first suggestion for that situation. 🙂 The more she HIDES that past the more powerful and scary it becomes.

    Posted by Damon Suede | February 1, 2012, 9:47 pm
  15. Damon –

    I just wanted to pop back in and say thanks a ton for such a great post today!


    Posted by Kelsey Browning | February 1, 2012, 10:09 pm
  16. beautiful post! One that makes my fingers start jumping, craving the keyboard.

    Posted by Rachel B. | February 2, 2012, 10:53 am


  1. […] Damon Suede explores how you should make anguish for your H/h not just love in his post: Dark Matters: Cultivating Creative Cruelty in Romance Fiction […]

  2. […] post follows up on a topic raised in the comments to my last visit to these hallowed […]

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