As most of you probably know, Mel and I are huge fans of Cruel Beauty (which Ellis hasn't read yet, so you could, you know, go after her with pitchforks later). It's seriously one of my favorite books of all time, and it has one of my favorite romances of all time as well. And today's kick-off post by Cruel Beauty author Rosamund Hodge explains exactly why: it's creepy, but not "too creepy," and it's realistic and Ignifex is complex and fantastic and ah, I could go on for hours.
But this is Rosamund's post; so now, find out how Rosamund Hodge managed to make her romance in Cruel Beauty creepy but not too creepy!
(Warning: this post will contain mild spoilers for Cruel Beauty.)
When I started work on Cruel Beauty, I knew that writing the romance between Nyx and Ignifex would be a challenge. The novel centers around their relationship, so if that didn’t hit the right notes, the whole project would be a failure. Luckily, I knew exactly what I wanted:
Creepy, but not too creepy.
There is no point to writing a romance starring a tyrannical demon lord and making it all happy fluffy unproblematic bunnies. Nyx spends a lot of the novel feeling guilty and conflicted over her attraction to Ignifex, and I wanted her guilt to be justified. I wanted her conflict to be real. Where is the dramatic conflict in loving somebody who’s just misunderstood? Well, okay, there can be conflict—but it’s the exterior conflict of your friends and family disapproving. I wanted Nyx to have to fight herself for the right to love Ignifex.
But I also didn’t want to write a romance that was too problematic. Cruel Beauty is a love story. I wanted people to be happy every time Nyx and Ignifex grew closer. I wanted to be happy every time they grew closer, and I wouldn’t feel that way if their relationship was toxic. I wanted Nyx to feel guilty when she kissed Ignifex, but I didn’t want to feel guilty for writing this kiss.
So how to do that? I decided on a few rules.
1. Nobody would ever forget what Ignifex was, and nobody would think it didn’t matter. Not the reader and not Nyx.
Well, okay, the reader is beyond my power to command; but I did my best by making sure that Nyx never forgot. When she meets Ignifex and notices that he has “one of the most beautiful faces I had ever seen”, she remembers that he’s her captor. When she first feels actively attracted to him, she remembers “who he was and what he’d done.” When she first kisses him, she thinks, “He was my enemy. He was evil. He wasn’t even human.” She thinks and thinks and thinks about it, possibly ad nauseum.
Even more importantly, at no point does Nyx think these issues don’t matter. Sometimes she tries to kill Ignifex. Sometimes she tries to find a way for them to be happy together. But she never, ever thinks that what he’s done is unimportant; she may love him in spite of her duty, but she always believes her duty has a claim on her.
2. Nyx would always be the one to escalate the relationship.
The most problematic thing about Nyx and Ignifex’s relationship is not that he’s the evil ruler of her country; it’s the amount of power he has over her personally. Nyx is a prisoner. Ignifex could kill her by snapping his fingers. That is a really awful situation.
Power is attractive. Power over you, power that doesn’t allow you to say “no”? That is scary and creepy and humiliating. I decided that it wouldn’t be enough for Nyx just to say “yes” to Ignifex; she would have to be the one asking all the questions and making all the demands.
In the earliest drafts of the novel, Ignifex initiated their first kiss. The scene went like this: Nyx is thinking that he’s hot, he kisses her, and she takes the opportunity to steal his keys before she kisses him back. But when I thought it over, I realized that since Ignifex isn’t psychic, he has no way of knowing that Nyx wants to kiss him. And since he has so much power, kissing her when she hasn’t given any sign of wanting it is honestly abusive. So I re-wrote the scene: Nyx thinks he’s hot. She asks him to kiss her, steals his keys while he’s distracted, and then enthusiastically carries on with the kissing.
Ditto for the rest of the novel. Every time their level of intimacy increases, it’s Nyx who initiates. Nyx has spent her entire life being deprived of choices; it was very important to me that she should get to be in control of her relationship with Ignifex.
3. But Ignifex would not always be a gentleman.
He does annoying things like giving her a quick kiss on the back of her neck to make her jump. He does scary, threatening things like locking her in a room with all his dead wives. And he does awful, nasty things like reaching up her skirt to get her knife and then laughing at her for being freaked out. Nyx goes to her wedding expecting to be raped, and while Ignifex is definitely better than that, he is also definitely not an exemplary love interest.
(KIDS, DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME.)
4. And Ignifex would always be unilateral in his affections.
I didn’t want to write a stalker boyfriend. But I did want to capture some of that appeal, so I decided that Ignifex would make a unilateral decision to love Nyx. He doesn’t force her to reciprocate his affections. But he also really doesn’t care if she rejects him. He loves her and he’s going to keep on loving her and nothing she says or does—including murder attempts—ever changes that.
So that’s how I set about trying to write a “creepy, but not too creepy” romance. Whether or not I succeeded is for each reader to decide. But I had a lot of fun in the attempt.