melo·dra·ma noun ˈme-lə-ˌdrä-mə, -ˌdra-
a work (as a movie or play) characterized by extravagant theatricality and by the predominance of plot and physical action over characterization
dra·ma noun ˈdrä-mə, ˈdra-
a composition in verse or prose intended to portray life or character or to tell a story usually involving conflicts and emotions through action and dialogue and typically designed for theatrical performance.
I am contemplating these two words as I write my Bledington Park trilogy and as I muse on Downton Abbey. Having watched all of season three as it unfolded in the UK, I can say that the “plot and physical action” has overtaken the characters by leaps and bounds. I gnash my teeth, grow frustrated, and roll my eyes over some of the implausibilities of certain plot twists (Matthew’s sudden windfall anyone? And sweet, selfless Lavinia somehow writing a letter on her deathbed absolving Matthew of his perfidy with Mary? Ha!), yet the method of Julian Fellowes’ madness–his sheer genius, in fact–is that he still manages to “portray[s] life [and] character” and “tell[s] a story…involving conflicts and emotions” within the over-the-top melodrama. The little moments, like Carson’s little song and dance over the positive report from Dr. Clarkson during Mrs. Hughes’ cancer scare, or Edith’s happiness over the hustle and bustle of Downton finally being all about her, or even Violet’s quips, all braid themselves together to make you care about the characters even when they’re being put through a contrived and hackneyed wringer.
Though Bledington Park is not a romance romance, that is the writing community I know best, and I must admit that sometimes the critical voices calling for more realism, more seriousness, more gravity, more anything that does not feed the stereotypes of romance readers as sex/man-starved, cat-owning, bon-bon eating repressed housewives and spinsters, can be smothering. Especially when I read books touted as flouting those stereotypes and conventions and find them too careful, too safe, too self-conscious (but perhaps my reaction is because I come to the books with the burden of “This is different!!! This is quality!!!”). I definitely like a bit of realism, a bit of gravity, and a bit of boundary-pushing in my romance reading, but I don’t want to give up the thrill of the drama–or perhaps even the melodrama–that takes my breath away, makes me teary-eyed, or makes me angry. So perhaps writers should not be shy of letting the plot take the characters for a ride, or worry about angering or frustrating readers, and perhaps you don’t always have to reinvent the wheel to write quality fiction–perhaps at the end of the day, our concern should always be with writing great, unforgettable characters.