JAFF novels are like batches of cookies. A few years ago, someone took a beloved old recipe and created a tasty new version with their own slightly different spice mix. Others did something similar, and readers like me enjoyed the burst of unique flavour that came through each time a writer added their own spice, even if they sometimes weren’t top quality literature.
But when the cookies became popular, opportunists’ taste buds couldn’t discern the subtle aspects that came from rare ingredients and a complicated method. Instead, they came up with their own simplistic recipe using only the most basic ingredients.
These cookies have been rolled and flattened by different hands, yet they use the same bland formula. There are bite size and colossal versions, some with so many layers you can’t eat them in one bite. A few have substituted efficiency tools for old-fashioned mixing to the right texture. Too many have put a ton of sprinkles on, thinking sugar is surely as good as spice. But this alternative cookbook has one thing in common: after we’ve tasted these cookies, we find ourselves wanting something interesting for dessert.
I bow to authors who constantly try new recipes, and readers who enjoy the taste rather than scarfing them down just because someone put a plateful in front of them.
In my opinion, this proliferation has caused a weakening of the sub-genre of Regency romance that we call Jane Austen Fan Fiction (JAFF). Of course, in order to avoid problems, it’s best to know how to recognize them. The following are over-used scenes or tropes that I’ve seen in many other novels, both older and newer and admit to either using or using something very similar. Now, many of these come from canon, but they can be overdone, and I am among those who has been caught.
Over-used situations I’ve used at one point or another:
- Darcy at the mantle.
- Darcy pacing the perimeter of the room.
- Darcy fiddling with his signet ring.
- Too much of Elizabeth as a “good walker.”
Similar weak points I’ve seen as a reader:
- Elizabeth’s lip chewing.
- Darcy looking out the window.
Over-used tropes I’ve used:
- Elizabeth or Mr. Bennet teases Darcy for the insult and/or Darcy says he didn’t think she heard or knew she heard and says he changed his mind and apologizes, saying she’s the most handsome woman of his acquaintance.
- Accidental meetings in a book store or the opera.
Over-used tropes can offer a bit of warmth and commonality to Jane Austen Fan Fiction, but some that are not consistent with Austen are used so often, readers confuse them with Austen’s work. Some items that are not in Austen’s work are:
- Older sons and younger daughters for Mrs. Gardiner (in canon, it’s two girls aged 6 and 8 and two younger boys).
- 50- to 60-something ages for the Bennet parents and the Gardiners (these would be Elizabeth’s grandparents’ ages).
- Darcy walking down the gallery with a candelabra.
- The Lake Scene.
- The Look (one I like to refer to!)
- Some of the above mentioned like window-gazing and ring-twiddling.
- A consistently sparkling, perky, and positive Elizabeth (she sulks, runs away, avoids, doubts in canon).
- A consistently reticent, scowling, and proud Darcy (he smiles 8 times and engages in light banter at Netherfield) or one who is overly gallant (he admits his awkwardness at Rosings).
- Character names like Richard (Colonel Fitzwilliam), Fanny (Mrs. Bennet), Madeline (Mrs. Gardiner), Lord Matlock for Colonel Fitzwilliam’s father, or any given names for Mr. Bennet: all of this list are NOT canon. Mr. Gardiner is Edward in canon.
What can we do about this? As authors, when we use tropes, we must be aware of them and consciously make the decision rather than automatically follow fashion. Better yet, try something original rather than leaning on what other authors have done to death. As readers, be aware of what is canon and what is not and not chastise authors who, for example, choose a name other than Richard for Colonel Fitzwilliam or Fanny for Mrs. Bennet.
Story lines that have been done over and over CAN suffer, even though the new author’s intention is to make it fresh. You’re asking for comparisons to past versions, and additions to the premise may well have been better done in another story as well. In addition, readers may just get tired of the same premise over and over!
It’s always better to try a new premise than to rehash an old one. Two examples in my reading experience where there have been flops in newer versions are the forced marriage scenario and “compromise” scenario. Curious that in the Regency, the word compromise did not mean what authors think it does, and many authors apply Victorian standards to set up their Regency ruin of a single lady.
What examples have you read that have been over-done and suffered in the latest copies, even by very popular authors?
Another pet peeve is the conflict-free story. I don’t mind a sweet romance if it has a soupcon of dramatic tension to keep the reader’s interest, but I don’t see the point in a straightforward, no strings attached, problem-free romance that’s basically taken away all the barriers to the protagonists’ getting together and adds nothing more of interest than a happily-ever-after, leaving the reader unfulfilled. Some authors think by writing sex-free, they must write sexual tension-free and drama-free. It’s not the same thing. Austen’s books all had numerous subtle flavours to them, some dangerously salacious, and all had dramatic tension! Your readers can take it, and there’s a whole lot more readers out there who will latch onto your stories when they realize they will keep the reader on his or her toes—or those toes curled in excitement! Remember Lesson #1: As an author, your goal is to provide a reading experience with the greatest level of satisfaction that is within your control.
Where to get fresh ideas? Lesson #15 was not just for the sex scene! Get inspiration from others for those difficult-to-write scenes, i.e., read. Re-read Pride and Prejudice, of course! Read the other Austen novels, the Juvenilia, and Austen’s letters. Read nonfiction in your era, such as Regency history, fact books, and history blogs for ideas that come out of real life characters, laws, or events. Read other romance and JAFF novels, including unpublished works, and look for the plot holes and what-ifs within them. (I know some authors avoid reading JAFF to avoid any influence in their writing, however, knowing the genre is critical to finding a niche and finding new ideas, e.g., discovering you did not invent that particular scenario!)
NEVER copy ideas. It may not be true plagiarism, but it’s equally as nasty to do so! Instead, get inspiration from comparable era books like Regency romance. Read novels in other genres. Look at what you like to read that’s popular in fiction outside of Regency romance and consider how it could apply—other readers like dragon stories, too. (Sorry, that one’s been done, more than once, too!)
Talk to your friends in JAFF and brainstorm—the craziest suggestion can spark the idea for your next novel and its very fresh, spicy, unique premise! Bon Appétit!
Disclaimer: I’m not a writing expert. I’m just a writer who learned some stuff other writers might like to know instead of learning the hard way. My approach is pragmatic, and my posts are not professionally edited!
LONG BUT GOOD
Compromise meant to come to a mutually agreeable decision, just like today. See the definitions from the Regency period below.
Compromise, from Johnson’s Dictionary of 1839
Co’mpromise, kom’pro-mise, n. s. a mutual promise of two or more parties at difference, to refer the ending of their controversies to the arbitrement or equity of one or more arbitrators; a compact or bargain, in which some concessions are made on each side. To Co’MPRomise, kom’pro-mise, v. a. to make a compromise; to compound, to adjust a compact by mutual concessions, as, they compromised the affair at a middle rate; in Shakspeare it means, unusually, to accord, to agree, as, Laban and himself were compromis’d, [pied, That all the yearlings, which were streak’d and Should fall as Jacob’s hire. Shakspeare.
Johnson’s 1836 Miniature Dictionary:
Compromise, köm’-prè-mize. s. a compact or bargain.-v. a. to settle a dispute by mutual Concessions.
Johnson’s 1806 Miniature Dictionary:
Com’promise, i, a compačt or bargain…v. a. to settle a dispute by mutual concessions
Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary:
COMPROMISE. n.ſ.. [compromiſim, Latin.] 1. Compromiſe is a mutual promiſe of two or more partics at dif ference, to refer the ending of their controverſies to the arbi trement or equity of one or more arbitrators. Cowel. 2. A compačt or bargain, in which ſome conceſſions are made on each ſide. Wars have not waſted it; for warr’d he hath not; But baſely yielded, upon compromiſe, That which his anceſtors atchiev’d with blows. Sh. Rich. II. To Co’MPROMISE. v. a. [from the noun.] 1. To compound ; to adjuſt a compact by mutual conceſſions; as, they compromiſed the affair at a middle rate. 2. In Shakeſpeare it means, unuſually, to accord; to agree. Laban and himſelf were compromis’d, That all the yearlings, which were ſtreak’d and pied, Should fall as Jacob’s hire. Shakºff. Merchant of Venice.
It’s important to note that Austen also used this word in these terms.
In the Regency, it was quite acceptable for a couple to be alone in a room, in an open or closed carriage, or in a park, or for a man to carry an insensible woman, all without being forced to marry afterwards. A woman could write a letter to a man she was not engaged to, as well, and dance more than two sets with the same man without expectations. Examples of these situations exist in Austen’s novels and letters, as well as in books of letters and etiquette from the Regency period. Yet many Regency authors use these situations to set up forced marriages. In fact, the law protected the young people and disallowed marriage without the potential bride’s or groom’s consent (Thomas Edlyne Tomlins’s “The Law Dictionary” 1810). This is easy to say at a time in history when parents had so great an influence. I’m under the impression that there were fewer of these freedoms in the Victorian period, but I don’t write for that period. There are quite a few well-referenced articles by historians on these topics, so it’s best to look this up rather than count on my say-so.
I hope this helps!
Oh, now you have me intrigued – what is a compromise in the regency period then, and to what are you referring when you mention a Victorian compromise?
This is a great subject. I am not a writer and have no intention of ever writing a story. But I do have a pet peeve, and that is Elizabeth as a ” ferocious reader” who speaks and reads at least 3 modern languages and can translate from Greek and Latin. The canon Elizabeth even states she is not a great reader. We all know our girl is remarkable, because why else would Darcy be so attracted to her; but to make her the perfect accomplished women is a bit much.
Thanks, readers Vesper and Jan, for adding some perspective that I hadn’t thought about.
There are some excellent secondary character novels out there that don’t use the caricatures that sometimes fall into the mainstream JAFF books.
I like the old Hugh Thomson and Charles Brock drawings, which have a blond Elizabeth. Many fans see Elizabeth Garvie as the best actress for Elizabeth Bennet in a P&P adaptation, too, and her hair is lighter in colour. I think she had curly enough hair to make her pin curls easy, though. How about an Elizabeth who suffers burns from tongs because her hair just won’t take a curl? Those forehead ringlets were a must for Regency fashion! But tropes always make that Mary’s hair.
You’re welcome, Jan. I hope authors pay attention rather than take offense. As a reader first, I’ve suffered through or abandoned reading those flavour-limited books. As an author, I’ve learned to change my own techniques in response to reviews. There’s nothing more empowering than realizing you can improve your craft to please your readership.
Elizabeth’s constant lip chewing makes me think she must have perpetual bloody lips from the abuse she inflicts upon herself. I also find the arched eyebrow annoying and that she is often portrayed as being so petite as to be approaching midget status. Oh, and don’t get me started on the blonde, blue-eyed Jane with the willowy “classic” figure. Or the red-headed Bingley. Or Elizabeth’s wild and unruly curls. Or Mary’s glasses/spectacles. I don’t mind some physical descriptions, but sometime, somewhere, I would love to encounter a tall Elizabeth with dark blonde straight hair. Thank you for daring to call attention to the advantage of adding some spice to what can often be boring and bland.
Most writers seem to forget that Jane Austen wrote more than just Pride and Prejudice so there are other stories to tell, plus stories of the secondary characters from P&P which are my favourite stories. For me now there are just too many stories being published or on fanfiction sites that I have to restrict my reading now to secondary characters stories which I admit to prefering.