Readers, Writers and Protagonists Setting Healthy Boundaries

Warning: This post makes references to violence and sexual assault. If you'd rather skip this post, we completely understand.  Note: Much of what I share in this post I've learned from taking empowerment self-defense and martial arts classes at an organization called El HaLev. Learn more by reading or watching "Beauty Bites Beast" by Ellen Snortland. Melina Kantor ~ By Melina Kantor It seems to happen more often than not. I'm getting into a book, grateful for some much needed down time, and then. . . The hero shows up unexpectedly and unwanted someplace where the heroine feels safe. Maybe it's her home. Maybe it's her workplace. Maybe it's a coffee shop where she goes to unwind. The heroine asks him to go away. He doesn't leave. And then a few lines later, he's kissing her. Worse, the heroine finds this romantic. And I'm not talking about erotica, romantic suspense, adventurous paranormal romance, science fiction or even dark romance. I'm talking about my favorite genre - contemporary romance. The most recent book I've read with this scenario has a pink cover with cupcakes on it. Nothing bad is supposed to happen in a book with cupcakes on it. Right? In my opinion, which I admit might be unpopular, behavior like this is completely and totally unacceptable and belongs in one of David Schwimmer's videos on sexual harassment, not a romance novel. Am I being over sensitive? It's fine if you think so and I might not convince you otherwise. Just please consider this. As romance writers, our audiences include: Think that last one is the exception and not the rule? I wish it were. Sadly:
That is a huge percentage of our readers, and I believe that it's important to be aware that a woman who has experienced certain types of trauma (or any woman, for that matter) might see certain gestures, like showing up outside a woman's window while she sleeps and blasting a love song, or a sudden, surprise kiss that comes out of absolutely nowhere, as more intrusive than romantic. [caption id="attachment_7904" align="alignright" width="336"]Riley and Ben kiss Ben, who Riley has had a crush on since childhood, kisses her by surprise. Look at her hands. Does she look happy or comfortable? (Photo Credit: Baby Daddy, ABC Family/Free Form)[/caption] The good news is that we, as authors of contemporary romance, have a great opportunity to write protagonists who set healthy boundaries and serve as comforting role models. Even better, we have the honor of providing women with tools they can use to keep themselves emotionally and physically safe. But how do we, and the characters we bring to life, figure out and set healthy boundaries? The answer to that is all about assertiveness. Before we talk about what assertiveness is, let's talk about what it is not

The Passive Protagonist

We all need to be safe before we can thrive.

~ Ellen Snortland

The passive protagonist allows her boundaries to be crossed. "Love and War and Snow" is possibly my favorite episodes of Gilmore Girls. It's so cozy and delightful. [caption id="attachment_7888" align="alignright" width="234"]Max and Lorelai Photo Credit: IMDB[/caption] Except for the part where Lorelai puts up a boundary, which literally involves her front door, and then proceeds to let Max, a man she hasn't known long, trample all over it, much like the guy in the song, "Baby it's Cold Outside."
LORELAI: See, I have really strict rules about dating. I keep my personal life totally separate from my life with Rory. You know, I never want her to feel unsettled or like her life could just shift at any moment.
That could not be more clear, yet Max starts to push:
MAX: What if I promised you that if you let me in, all I'm expecting is a cup of coffee, that's it. Nothing weird or funny. Unless, of course, you're into weird and funny. . . LORELAI: Max!
And then he pushes even more:
MAX: At some point in your life you're gonna have to decide that some guy is worth opening that front door for. I am just volunteering.
Here's Lorelai's passive response:
[Lorelai opens the front door and starts to walk inside. She turns back to him.] LORELAI: Would you like some coffee? [Max smiles and follows her inside]
The next morning, Rory is not exactly thrilled when she finds Max, her teacher, asleep on her couch. At best, Max's behavior is severe chutzpah. At worst, behavior like Max's could, in some cases, be a precursor to date rape. Either way, in this situation, Lorelai is not safe emotionally or physically. So how could she, or the relationship possibly thrive (even with the help of a thousand yellow daisies - which were a problem in themselves)?

The Aggressive Protagonist

When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or a choice.
The aggressive Protagonist crosses other people's boundaries. For example (language alert):
  No doubt Sally had a right to be angry. And she was dealing with Harry, so there was no real threat of physical danger. In real life though, and by extension our books, a slap like that, with swearing to top it off, could escalate the situation and put Sally in danger. (And imagine if Harry had slapped Sally. Not cool.) Here are two more classic scenes that we all love but should not use as examples for our own protagonists. 1. Julia and Ray Don:
  Hilarious, right? Not to mention entertaining. The problem? Julia's rant was filled with things Ray Don could argue with or even just comment on, which could make the challenge of staying at the table and pushing Julia's buttons more appealing. The rant creates a game that has the potential to become dangerous. And by being insulting, she's crossing his boundaries when all she needs to do is put up her own. 2. Dorothy and Stan:
  Again, classic and fabulous. The problem is that a door slam, like Sally's slap, has the potential to escalate the conflict. A door slam is aggressive and, as you can see, does not prevent Stan from returning. So how could Sally, Julia, and Dorothy have addressed specific behaviors instead of attacking Harry, Ray Don, and Stan? To answer that, let's talk about what assertiveness is.

The Assertive Protagonist

"No" is a complete sentence. ~ Anne Lamott
The assertive protagonist does not allow her boundaries to be crossed. I hope it goes without saying, but assertive does NOT mean bitchy. More importantly, leather jackets, combat boots, or even the ability to fight don't necessarily mean much (and can even turn readers off). What matters is that our readers connect and identify with protagonists who set and protect their boundaries, regardless of their personalities or body types. The examples of boundary crossing that we've talked about so far could have been taken care of with two simple words: "Go away!" ("Back off!" and "NO!" work too.) Or by simply just walking away. And when "go away" or the more polite "please leave" don't work, the phrases can be repeated until the boundary crosser gives up. They work because:
  1. There's no way to misunderstand, misinterpret, argue or contradict those statements.
  2. They aren't accusatory.
  3. They are clear.
  4. They don't present a challenge.
  5. They show that the encounter is over, thus ending the power trip and thrill.
Remember that volume is important, but it's possible to be loud and firm without hysteria or yelling. Here's another Gilmore Girls example in which Chris crosses Lorelai's boundaries by forcing his way into Lorelai's childhood home. The problem isn't the argument itself. The problem is that Lorelai engages him by arguing, which is why he doesn't leave. But look at how Emily solves the problem: Here are some more examples of protagonists who "used 'no' as a complete sentence." (Notice that there's no need to turn to Wonder Woman or Supergirl, as wonderful as they are, as examples). Cher:
  Bay:

Creating an Assertive Protagonist

Your protagonist can be sweet as pie, polite and soft-spoken, and extremely kind, yet remain assertive. When we create character profiles, many of us spend time figuring out things like what our protagonist carries around in her purse. But we can also do exercises to help us figure out what gives our protagonist confidence, and what she values about herself. Once you've figured that out, you can start figuring out what her boundaries are. Why not start now? Exercise 1: On a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being relaxed and feeling completely safe, 5 being completely freaked out and uncomfortable, how okay is your protagonist with the following scenarios (feel free to leave a comment with additional scenarios):
  • A man she's just met tells her that her smile is sexy.
  • A coworker, either male or female, returns from a trip and greets her with a hug.
  • A guy she's been on three dates with shows up at her house without calling first to drop off an earring that fell off in his car.
  • A guy she's been going out with calls her every night and texts her at least 3 times a day.
There are no right or wrong answers here. Your protagonist gets to decide what's okay, without providing one word of justification or feeling even one ounce of guilt. Exercise 2:
  • Write a scene in which your protagonist sets a boundary.
-- and / or --
  • Write a romantic scene in which your hero respects a boundary set by your heroine.

Consent is Romantic

We don't need surprise unwanted visits, kisses or sexual advances to add romance to our novels. One of the most romantic things a hero can do is be aware of your heroine's boundaries, which can be even more romantic than knowing her favorite type of chocolate or coffee. A true hero understands when a woman needs a night to be home alone, do her laundry and order A true hero understands when a woman needs a night to be home alone, do her laundry and order take-out, and that some nights, a woman might want to watch her favorite show with him but not talk and not touch. See? How sweet, not to mention hot, is this?
 

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Here's to Us:

So. I think the time has come to raise a glass and make a toast. Here's to our safety, the safety of our protagonists, and the safety of our readers. Here's to true, boundary-filled, love! To those things, we can all shout, "YES!"

*What are some of the boundaries you set for your characters (or for yourself)? Please share in the comments!

* If you'd like to continue talking about boundary setting, I strongly encourage you to join the group Women Setting Healthy Boundaries, which is run by one of my fabulous self-defense teachers. You'll love the videos she posts every week, and I promise you'll be inspired. *

Melina writes contemporary romance with a pinch of oregano and a dash of chutzpah. She loves to travel, especially to her family’s village in Crete, and turn her adventures into research for her novels.  In July of 2012, she moved from New York to Jerusalem with her adorable but sneaky cocker spaniel. Her family now includes an incredibly sweet yet troubled rescue puppy. Melina likes the color pink, baking, daffodils, teaching girls to code, running her small business, learning to use power tools, practicing self-defense, Krav Maga and karate, and breaking cinder blocks with her fist. All three of the protagonists in the trilogy she's currently working on study empowerment self-defense. You can visit her at http://melinakantor.com.