When you read romance, you’re an armchair psychologist. “Oh, he’s got some commitment issues here” or “She’s still experiencing that inadequacy and body image baggage from before she lost the weight” are comments that run through most readers’ heads as we pick up the hints and character shadowing the writer has so carefully placed for us, like a trail of breadcrumbs leading us through the emotional forest of the story. Like all fiction readers, romance enthusiasts are damn smart – let’s face it, are you going to try to masquerade as your twin or not communicate after a misunderstanding? Nuh-uh, because you’ve seen how great that goes over in a relationship in the books you’ve read. We learn through reading.
Romance authors should have a fictional therapy license bestowed upon them, as their job involves metaphorically putting that character on a couch and listening to their deepest fears. Of course, their role is a more challenging one as the writer takes that understanding and translates it into visible action which hints at the mental makeup of our hero or heroine.
But I’ve begun to worry that the creation of characters has grown to be based on secondary or tertiary sources (other romance works or stereotypes) rather than primary material (the personal experience of writers or actual psychological research). This makes a lot of romance reading derivative, like that moment when you say, “Yes, he’s a billionaire playboy doctor with mommy issues” and know every move said hero is going to make because, hey, you’ve not only seen it before, you’ve read it before, and so has the author writing the story. *bored glance to the left*
One of the areas that is super tricky for romance writers is the ephemeral moment of attraction or, even more complicated, when one of the characters decides that this person is IT with the writing solidifying the hero or heroine’s holy-cow-I-can’t-get-enough-of-this-person feeling. What really attracts two people to get them to that point? Enter a fantastic source for romance writers and readers everywhere, Mating Intelligence Unleashed: The Role of the Mind in Sex, Dating, and Love by Glenn Geher and Scott Barry Kaufman. Both authors have Ph.D.s, Kaufman in cognitive psychology and Geher in social psychology (with a speciality in evolutionary psychology) and fortunately for us, both men are highly entertaining and thorough writers.
The book, published by Oxford University Press in January of this year, reads as a literature review of all the major research done recently on why people are attracted to one another, with the focus on what evolutionary advantage it offers us to be attracted to certain people. (Naturally this means that the research is heterosexual in nature – I really wanted to read about same sex attraction, but that wasn’t the focus of the book.) This in turn, offers an amazing insight into some key features of the process of mate-choice, insights so illuminating it made my mind reel with possibilities from a romance writing perspective. [Please note, I used both the paper version and the Kindle version of the book, so the references are sometimes the traditional page number or the Kindle location. Sorry that they vacillate!]
As Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University puts it in the forward, “We are witnessing the true fusion of biology and culture, of psychology and brain architecture, of personality, neurochemistry, genetics and evolution, of brain and mind.” (Kindle edition, Loc 45 of 5908) What better basis than to take the science of attraction and overlay with the thoughts and actions that make up a character? It would lend an authenticity often lacking when a couple goes from hot glances to tangoing between the sheets with minimum preliminaries.
Geher and Kaufman have their own reasons for pursuing the topic (I’m sure they weren’t thinking about romance readers and writers), namely that human mating is undeniably important (duh) and that “mating success” is the biggest predictor for life satisfaction and happiness – more than your education, how much money you make or your occupational status. Keep in mind that they mean “mating” in the purest sense – all life has one purpose and that is to reproduce and have a genetic line (yours) continue, whether you are a bacteria, an orchid, or a stockbroker. Even in a modern age where many people choose to not have children, our partner choices still are driven by our biology, even when we don’t realize it. While I could easily do ten blog posts on all the awesome research, here are some of the highlights.
“I Just Knew It When I Saw Him/Her”
Physical attraction is based on a few key factors, with strong physical predictors for men and women regarding what body and facial types characterize the most desirable mates, and these traits supercede dominant cultural expectations, crossing racial lines into universal ideals of beauty. For women, full lips, large eyes, thick hair and smooth skin are all elements men choose as being “beautiful” and highly attractive. When choosing the future mother of your offspring, these factors give you clear indication of where the woman is in her crucial reproductive years as these are the physical factors which degrade over time, giving a window into whether the woman is nearing the end or passed her prime reproductive capacity. Keep in mind that when presented with pictures of the same woman at various points in her menstrual cycle, men are able to pick out – with astonishing accuracy, I might add – when women are ovulating since that is when they seem most attractive to them. They are simply picking the image that shows that woman at her most appealing, but biology is sending men a message that this moment means “get your sperm in this woman ASAP.” How’s that for the basis of your key sex scene ending in a baby epilogue?
Men have even more pressure physically since their anatomy must not only transmit how virile they are, but also audition them for role of protector (and keep in mind that an astonishing number of children of long-term relationships would not pass a paternity test – women often choose different men for the impregnating versus the person who financially and physically supports your offspring). Men who rock the short-term dating scene (see your romance shelf for books starring the reformed rake or modern manwhore) are tall, extremely masculine in appearance (chiseled jaw indicating testosterone up the wahzoo), facially attractive and socially dominant. For men who would like to go beyond the one night stand, they need to demonstrate kindness, warmth and loving – what the authors call going from cad features to dad features in order to convince a woman her children will be well cared for.
Other physical elements include one that romance readers will be VERY familiar with – that moment where the smell and taste of the other person is so drugging that all good sense is lost and it’s all about getting down to business. But there is serious biology at play in this moment, as we can actually smell and taste the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) of one another. MHC is important because biology has set us up so we are not attracted to people whose genes, when combined with ours, would not produce strong offspring. You think I’m joking? A famous study took college men, analyzed their MHC and had them sleep in the same t-shirt for multiple days in a row, sealing the shirt in a plastic bag and sending it to the lab. Scientists then recruited college women after checking their MHC, and asked them to smell each t-shirt, rating the smell of the shirt to determine which ones they thought smelled the best. To the letter, each woman rated the t-shirt which had been worn by the man most genetically compatible with her as smelling the most desirable and the shirts they labeled least desirable were the ones where the genes of the man were too close to her own (offering no genetic advantage if mixed). In addition to scent, we can also taste MHC compatibility in the process of kissing or even tasting a person’s skin, so close contact is vital to determining good mate selection. See my post on the Science of Kissing for more information on this fascinating quirk.
Yet it’s not just looks (obviously) that determines attraction. Traits such as intelligence (people are more likely to be attracted to a mate of similar IQ) and creativity are extremely important in mate selection. Geher and Kaufman present the scientific hypothesis that many of the arts were developed by our ancestors to not just express ideas but to…wait for it…attract a mate. Missing out on that shoulder to hip ratio, Cro-Magnon man? How about delivering the old “come back to my furs and I’ll show you my cave paintings” line? It probably worked. This explanation of creativity as a mating lure could explain the magnetic pull of various rock stars and artists who are not the slightest bit physically attractive, yet inspire the lingerie sections of entire department stores to be thrown in their direction. (Mick Jagger or Keith Richards anyone? It’s a scientific fact that creative people, even the average ones, have more sex partners, although this seems to apply to mostly men.) You want to pass those creative genes onto your offspring, although probably not the lips or susceptibility to addiction.
Which also brings into play the concept of emotional or social intelligence. “Mating clearly includes socially relevant tasks such as acquiring and keeping a mate, and it inevitably involves a degree of social interactions and navigation. Not only must an individual possess the ability to read another’s thoughts and feelings, but this individual must also possess proficiency in interpreting complex social stimuli.” (Kindle edition, Loc 402 of 5908) A mate candidate who has this type of ability is one demonstrating their openness to experience, their agreeableness, social competence, the quality of their relationships as well as how well they can control their emotions to suit their mate’s needs and a social situation. The types of courtship displays which transmit this ideal are usually related to music, art, poetry, acts of extroversion or visible kindness.
My favorite area of research is the one relating to humor. Both men and women indicate this is important to them, but when someone lists “good sense of humor” on Match.com, they mean very different things by gender. “Women tend to prefer men who make them laugh, whereas men tend to prefer women who laugh at their jokes.” (Kindle edition, Loc 677 of 5908) But what does humor indicate in a mating context? Once again, it’s about an individual’s ability to function in society (which helps your offspring). In addition to indicating a person’s playfulness and their creativity, humor also demonstrates a person’s emotional IQ (Did you ever date someone who was a lame joke teller? They clearly couldn’t read the room which made you think about how they weren’t going to read you too well either). Humor transmits feelings of interpersonal warmth and someone laughing at your jokes is one of the early indicators of sexual interest. Interestingly enough, the research suggests that if a person happens to be of high social status (see previously mentioned billionaire playboy doctor) he or she should probably adopt self-deprecating forms of humor in the mating marketplace as this is what makes him or her approachable to potential short-term or long-term mates.
If I had a dollar for every time a romance hero or heroine had been abandoned by a parent, had emotionally detached family members or was a foster child, I wouldn’t have to work my day job and could just stay home and write. While so many of the characters we love and admire have made the best of crappy life situations and showed their inner steel, in actuality this is a major uphill climb. For men, a father figure bowing out of the picture early gives a tendency for increased delinquency and aggression for boys, and even accelerates the onset of puberty for both sexes. (Loc 115 of 5908) While boys are more likely to manifest increased aggression and delinquency, girls demonstrate greater levels of manipulative attitudes, more risk-taking behavior including sexual promiscuity, as well as a lower attachment to romantic partners and offspring.
Attracting a person, as we can see, is all about putting your best face forward and while that clearly has a physical connotation, it also includes personality traits that prove you are a good bet in the mating game. Gehrer and Kaufman cover the research regarding combinations of traits that are particularly influential in attracting mates. Some are tagged “meta-traits” because they combine personality factors, for example, stability, which is defined as “a blend of emotional stability (low neuroticism), conscientiousness, and agreeableness…Those who score high in stability have a need to maintain a sense of order in their lives.” (Kindle edition, Loc 1177 of 5908) The second meta-trait is termed plasticity and is a blend of extraversion and openness to experience.
Not only do people want both stability and plasticity in a mate but “they also tend to seek mates who are somewhat higher than themselves in terms of their own perceived mate value in levels of extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and emotional stability. People apparently want to feel as though they ‘acquired’ a partner of higher quality than themselves.” (Kindle edition, Loc 1199 of 5908) I’m thinking here of all the romance novels where each partner brings out something in the other which was underdeveloped or hesitant, helping that person become a healthier, more engaged person making positive decisions. Stability and plasticity at play, people.
Keep in mind these traits also are directly correlated to actual love. Psychologist Robert Sternberg has actually developed a triarchic theory of love (don’t confuse it with a love triangle), demonstrating how different components produce various types of love. Prepare to be blown away:
Intimacy alone is “liking,” passion alone is “infatuation,” and commitment alone is “empty” love. Intimacy and passion combine to form romantic love, intimacy and commitment combine to form compassionate love, passion and commitment combine to form fatuous love, and if you can combine all three components, you get consummate love. (Kindle edition, Loc 1291 of 5908, emphasis added)
This fascinating theory reads like a litany of past relationships for either party in a romance novel, complete with lessons learned and the mistakes they don’t want to make again. How about the reunion trope which usually involves two people who had some form of romantic love (passion and intimacy) but lacked the commitment to make it the consummate ideal. Clearly the goal of the romance reader (and the writer) is to see the hero and heroine achieve consummate love which is going to sustain them in forming a successful mating partnership.
Crafting Your Villain: Using Narcissism
We all know narcissists, those extraverted people who seem like they love the social scene, but in actuality these people have a high level of self-focus, self-importance and a sense of entitlement, always seeking to surround themselves with people who cater to their ego and avoiding anyone who might want to tell them the truth about themselves. (pp. 158-159) Narcissists suck at long-term relationships (the only one they want is with themselves) and fail at intimacy in general as their goal is always dominance, yet they inherently lack the self-control necessary for real success. While adolescents are naturally narcissistic (that feeling you had walking through the lunchroom when you were certain everyone was looking at you), it’s a stage we all grow out of. Well, not all of us.
There are different types of narcissists – check this list for the types that you have met:
- leadership/authority – enjoys being a leader and being seen as an authority. Woe betide someone who challenges them or criticizes their work. You see these individuals not just in business but in classroom and coaching positions, as well as in doctor’s offices (and I’m not talking about the receptionist).
- self-absorption/self-admiration – focus strongly on their appearance and others’ perception of said appearance. Think of the date who spent her time admiring her reflection in a spoon rather than looking into your eyes, or the guy who spent more time looking at himself in the rear view mirror than making conversation.
- superiority/arrogance – overestimate their own abilities. In adolescents this is very common, and I see teenagers all the time who have bought into their parent’s belief in how utterly special they are – hook, line and sinker. They usually are special but not because of the reason they think. This is the person who repeatedly says, “I’m really great at ________” but all evidence points to the contrary. They also have the gall to be super puffed up and arrogant about it. Barely okay in a 10 year old, and completely unacceptable in a 30 year old.
- exploitativeness/entititlement – enjoys manipulating and exploiting others and expects favors from other people. My guess is that there are a lot of these people in politics (Lyndon B. Johnson fulfilled several of the narcissist criteria) but you can find them everywhere, sadly. From a mean girl clique to the White House, this brand of narcissist is around every corner.
I bet your blood pressure went up reading that list, because we all have known narcissists, but would it interest you realize that as a group they are more successful, at least initially in the mating game? Narcissism and attractiveness tend to go together and narcissists exhibit adaptive traits which offer success in the short-term mating game. If you want to spread your genetic material around quickly (leaving someone else holding the bag, or rather the baby), being a narcissist was probably a great evolutionary development. Narcissists are seen as being more attractive (they spend more time on their appearance), move with confidence, and are seen as being cheerful and outgoing. (p. 160)
But longer-term acquaintance has the scales falling from people’s eyes. Narcissists are sexually coercive, experiencing more fantasies about coercion and sadism and engaging in behaviors which support manipulation and power over the other person. Since their goal is to maintain power in any relationship, this can take the form of conversational narcissism (where they focus the topic always on themselves, use exaggerated hand gestures, a loud voice and express disinterest when others speak) or sexual narcissism when they are not focused on anyone’s gratification but their own (and BTW, there are more male narcissists than female ones – ladies, I know you are not surprised).
Promiscuity is the strategy that allows these people to maintain their hold on control since it enables them to feel like they have the most power by being the least committed (the other person needs to earn their loyalty). The more their partner is committed, the more likely a narcissist is to cheat since they believe they are more likely to get away with it. They get a rush out of high-risk behavior like cheating or in convincing their partners to perform behaviors out of their comfort zone. This entitlement has the flip side of narcissists becoming aggressive when sexually rejected, wanting to punish the person who denied them what they felt was their right. (p. 165)
There are some related disorders that romance villains seem prone to – Machiavellianism is the psychological trait of manipulating people (which involves a certain level of Emotional IQ) a quality that can be used for good, but often isn’t and psychopathy, which involves being callous or insensitive (wow, I think I just described several Harlequin Presents heroes!). The combination of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy is known in psychology as the Dark Triad. These traits are applied to individuals who will stop at nothing to manipulate others for their own gain and there is even a twelve-point assessment to determine where your villain/narcissist lands within them.
Arrogant Alpha or Laid-back Beta?
In the world of romance novels, we are far more likely to see the dominant alpha male than the supportive beta, but that beta is showing up more and more. The problem? Women seem to think of the beta as a “nice guy” and any chess player can tell you that particular label is the kiss of death. If the alpha qualities of dominance, pride, and ambition – maybe combined with a hesitancy if not an antipathy to being tied down – are crack cocaine to women, are we just attracted to the bad boy to our detriment? Or is there actual science at work here?
When surveyed, women clearly indicate that they want a “nice guy,” but as Geher and Kaufman state, “…when it comes right down to it, women choose the bad boy.” (author emphasis, p. 179) A main source of confusion seems to stem from early psychology studies which clearly interpreted non-dominant men as exhibiting truly submissive behavior, characteristics which naturally women did not find to be sexually attractive in a potential mate. More recent studies have narrowed women’s specific interest to men who fit the following description.
..it seems like the ideal man (for a date or romantic partner) is one who is assertive, confident, easygoing, and sensitive, without being aggressive, demanding, dominant, quiet, shy, or submissive…[other researchers] found across three studies that it wasn’t dominance alone, but rather the interaction of dominance and prosocial behaviors, that women reported were particularly sexually attractive. In other words, dominance only increased sexual attraction when the person was already high in agreeableness and altruism. (p. 182)
What emerges then, is that women don’t like assholes but do want men to be strong and confident, although men who practice dominance toward other men with over-the-top competition or physical force are quickly placed in the “jerk” category. Kindness and assertiveness are not exclusive traits; women feel both traits not only exist in the ideal man, but they are considered the sexiest attractant for both short-term and long-term affairs. Because these traits are heavily associated with prestigious, or high status, males, it’s not just their celebrity status that women find appealing. (p. 183)
If this is the reality then, that kind but assertive males have truckloads of women after them, why does the “nice guy” get such a bad rap? Geher and Kaufman conjecture that it’s because when women slap the label of celibacy on a man’s forehead “NICE GUY” in actuality “they mean overly nice guys.” (p. 184) This moniker speaks more about what the woman feels rather than says something about the guy. Women of high self-esteem and maturity are less negatively affected by incredibly generous behavior but less secure women don’t like how overly nice men make them feel – like they are a bad person but not being as altruistic or that they are unworthy of attention from such a giving man. But people in general don’t like over-the-top nice people – research supports that study participants looked with disfavor on individuals who were extremely competent, who offered too much help, or who adhered to a moral position strongly. (p. 184) Hey, goody-two-shoes, the angels want their loafers back.
But truly nice guys can finish last (and, ahem, often do, as the above generous traits of nice guys have women reporting more orgasms with them, and that they are more likely to perform oral sex on their partner – tuck that away for pondering, ladies). (p. 191) Bad boy traits may be fine for short-term relationships but women in it for the long haul are looking for good genes (men who are assertive, funny and physically attractive) and who demonstrate good parenting potential (kind and considerate). Clearly having both sets makes you a catch, but in studies, when a handsome asshole goes toe to toe with a homely nice guy, the nice guy always wins. (p. 187) Go beta!
So What Does All This Research Mean for Romance Fiction?
Naturally, this is the question I immediately asked myself on finishing the book. While entertained by the authors’ excellent writing and comprehensive approach to the evolutionary psychology of mating, I think they succeeded in blowing a few well-done (perhaps over-done) tropes out of the water.
The first is that I’m calling for the death of the manwhore. A man who truly loves women and goes from woman to woman with intent and friendship (with hot sexy benefits) does not incur my ire, but all too often we get cold alpha heroes who use women like Kleenex and it’s explained away that “they knew the score.” I’m not sure a one-night stand where you barely can recall the person’s face and name actually says anything positive about a hero, who may very well not deserve that label until he can prove his worth. Consider that his inability or choice not to commit is often credited to a particular psychological trauma – his abandonment by a parent(s), a damaging first love, or his whole platoon blowing up in front of him and he’s working through the survivor’s guilt – and we have a recipe for our hero needing therapy, not a just a heroine who has what romance calls “the magic vagina” that cures all ills. Let’s not give the manwhore a pass without acknowledging his emotional damage and demonstrating that it takes more than the insta-lust and the love of a good woman to heal him. I’m just not a believer.
Villains might be able to have great dimension if the idea of the narcissist (or better yet, the Dark Triad) come into effect. There are numerous books on narcissism (and specifically narcissistic men) that have story after story to help flesh out what this personality disorder looks like in the context of women who have had relationships, either family or romantic ones, with a narcissist. When I read so many antagonists who are practically cardboard cutouts, I say, give the villain a backstory! Understanding his or her psychology is a big piece of writing that character well and infusing your story with conflict that will make the HEA that much more satisfying.
Lastly, let’s bring back the beta. A great example of a book using a beta as hero is Nora Roberts’ The Witness. My mother and I not only adored this book, but had an entire conversation about how the small town police chief, Brooks Gleason, was certainly decisive and strong, but how his demeanor of a laid-back, easy going guy bent on protecting his town from any threats was very beta, and it was such a breath of fresh air. Let’s occasionally tone down the testosterone and demonstrate that some men can be the nice guy most of the time, and still show their dominance when they need it (and only then).
But more than anything else, I would ask that romance readers and writers be smart. We each have our own experiences upon which to draw in the world of sexual attraction but let’s not turn away or ignore what science can give us in insight into the dance that is the journey to a happily ever after. Glenn Geher and Scott Barry Kaufman have given us an outstanding resource in Mating Intelligence Unleashed, and we would all do well to use their efforts for good!
Happy reading!! 🙂