Spoilers for Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston.
Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston is a very fun book. It is so fun, I picked it up for a weekend read (in February), finished it in a day, and am still obsessed with it. It is a queer love story between Alex Clairmont-Diaz, the fictional First Son of the United States, and Prince Henry, a fictional member of the British Royal Family.
The characters are delightful, the pace is breathtaking, and the story is genuinely heartfelt. You root for them to get together, to be happy, and you hurt for them because they have to keep their love a secret lest the world find out their sexualities. It is the kind of novel I’ll reread on a bad day for many years to come. It’s rare to find books that comfort you like that.
And yet–and yet, there’s one thing I can’t reconcile with:
Their incredible privilege.
I mentioned this briefly in my post Books I’m Obsessed With This Quarter, but I’ve been rereading it and it’s been on my mind again. The incredible privilege these characters have makes it genuinely hard to relate to them sometimes. I’m not sure where the line is for me: I understand that they’re famous and wealthy, I know they have very exciting lives and a lot of people looking at them. That’s fine. That’s just what you get when you pair a First Son with the Prince of Wales.
I want to deconstruct this because I think these are good pointers to remember while writing privileged characters.
Losing Your Relatability
There’s a YouTuber called Drew Gooden who posted a very interesting video called Losing Your Relatability. He was talking about YouTubers who made it very big and became very rich, and how that went to their heads, thereby affecting their content. His point was that if people can’t relate to you, they’ll stop caring.
At no point do I stop caring about Alex and Henry. I care about them so much, I’m hoping McQuiston finds it in her heart to write a sequel. I just simply need to know what happens to them next. I want to live in their world forever. I want to be very clear on this point: I LOVE this book. I love it, and I will recommend it to anyone and everyone.
But, as I said, there are moments where I find these characters hard to relate to. It isn’t just their positions. It’s the people around them. Alex’s mother is the first female US President. His step-father is a retired tech millionaire. Alex is sexy, charming, smart, ambitious, and fun. He throws yearly “Millennial Correspondents Dinners”–hot ticket parties with all the coolest celebrities. His best friend, Nora, is the Vice President’s granddaughter and has parents who got rich investing in Apple in the nineties. He makes a throwaway a mention about casually phoning up Taylor Swift.
NONE OF THIS IS RELATABLE. TO MOST PEOPLE.
This isn’t bad. It really makes sense that someone running in such high circles interacts with others as privileged as him. But there’s something a little…cocky, about the way it’s written. Maybe it’s just me, but it irritates me a little.
But Alex is the more relatable of the two, primarily because he’s the main character and we see the story from his perspective. We see his strained family relationships, his loneliness, his memories of a childhood growing up in a broken home in Texas. His mother’s story, particularly, is a story of rags to riches. She is a political underdog who becomes the US President and we find her inspiring.
Henry, however, is another matter.
Henry is a prince. He is born to his power. His best friend, Pez, is a literal eccentric billionaire. His late father was a Daniel Craig-style actor who played James Bond. At one point, he takes Alex to the Victoria & Albert Museum in the middle of the night (he just happens to get a hold of the key). He lives in a palace and goes around the world giving speeches and lives in luxury hotels the whole time.
He is sensitive and kind and aware of his privilege, and I really like Henry. But also, come on. I once drank coffee at a luxury hotel cafe and I can still remember the bill. The numbers haunt me.
Keeping It Real
I write a lot of privileged characters. Quite a few of my main characters are princes, or the sons of industrialists, and it is genuinely hard to keep them relatable. However hard you may stan a certain celebrity, you can’t entirely empathise with their lifestyle. Not many of us have millions to throw away on clothes and travel, not all of us are media babies. Writers need to bridge that gap between their readers and their privileged characters if they want people to root for them.
I think the way to do that is to deep-dive into their conflicts. It’s implied, for instance, that Henry suffers from depression. I really would have liked to see more of that. It is mentioned on and off, and described lightly, but we don’t really see the full extent of it. We know that his father’s death is a deep wound and that he’s not entirely comfortable with his role as a prince, but none of this is excavated as much as it could have been. I wish that it was, because it would have grounded a character whose lifestyle is otherwise unattainable.
We see a bit more of this with Alex, as I’ve said, because he’s the main character. Alex is definitely very neurotic. I won’t go so far as to say he’s anxious, but he definitely has a restless streak. His family life and childhood give him depth, something to see ourselves in, but I wonder if it’s enough.
One of the key traits about these characters is that they both care about “people”. I put quotes there because I felt it was very ambiguous. “People” is often a vague concept in their lives, something they’re using their enormous privilege to fight for. I would have LOVED to have seen them actually working for the benefit of others. We do get a scene of Henry talking to a child with cancer, in my opinion, it just wasn’t enough. By the end of the novel, Henry starts a charity, but I think the book would have benefitted enormously from showing us more of how these two characters serve humanity. It would have done wonders to deal with this relatability problem.
I wish more could have been done to ground these two rich boys. Their lives are so far away from us common folk, which is why their problems can sometimes seem irrelevant. They have so much power, charisma, wealth, and fame. They start their stories where other characters would end them.
I don’t think this is bad. The takeaway isn’t “don’t write privileged characters”. It’s simply, if you want readers to root for them, work VERY hard to make them relatable. Most privilege is a random accident of birth, but show us how these characters work to acknowledge that and use their power for good.
Red ,White, and Royal Blue did that, but it could have done more.
I will still recommend this book to everyone, though. It is a deeply satisfying story. It’s fun and real and escapist all at once, and it’s as smoothly readable as butter. It has become my go-to favourite novel, something I will treasure for years to come.