I started this blog with a question, even though I’ll be providing some answers below. The thing is, I can only answer for myself, so what I’ll be saying below is my opinion. I’m really hoping we can get some discussion going in the comments section to help me answer this question for more than just myself. I’m also really curious about this subject, not just because I have a vested interest in knowing the market, but because it is an excellent way to learn about the differences between people and their tastes. This helps in all aspects of writing.
So, as a writer, do I have any “street cred” when it comes to readers? I suppose I should establish that first. I am a reader first. The only reason I write is to create the books I want to read. I don’t write for any particular fad or trend, although I am often inspired by such things to write a book that might be similar, but I like to travel off the beaten path with my stories, even if they have elements and characters that are similar to other stories, I like to take them in a whole different direction entirely.
As a reader (and movie patron and video gamer), I have encountered many, many romances. Though this blog is mainly about romance novels, I’ve tried to keep my points relevant to movies and video games too—even when they aren’t solely romance-based.
I’ve been reading romance novels since I was a kid. Believe me when I say it gives you a pretty skewed way of looking at human relationships, but then again, fairytales are also misleading, so whatever. You grow up and realize that your hero also happens to produce dirty laundry and leave candy wrappers on the end table. The books just miss those details. 😉
I’ve had many favorite romances, and I’m not going to mention any specific ones in this blog, but I’d love to discuss them in the comments as well as hear other opinions on favorites.
I wouldn’t call myself an expert on romance, per se, but I definitely feel qualified to comment on what I’d like to see, and I’m pretty confident that I can point out some trends. So what does a reader want to see in romance?
Remember, this is all coming from my perspective as a longtime reader of romance novels and lover of romance movies and even of romance in video games. Please comment below if you disagree with any of these points. I’d love to hear your point of view on this.
- A hero—duh!
Seems pretty simple, but not so fast! Heroes used in this definition can also be anti-heroes. Some of the most delicious romantic leads are not very heroic. They can almost be villainous.
As long as they are fully faithful and devoted to their heroine (this is what really matters!), there are many flaws that can be forgiven, depending on how well the story and character are done.
- The Heroine
She can be anybody! (Except for a Mary Sue) Please writers! No Mary Sues! Don’t make perfect heroines that everyone loves. It’s unrelatable and dull. Heroines should change and grow throughout the story, but when a heroine starts off perfect, and knows how to do everything that just so happens to pop up in the plot… well, bleh. Unless the hero is really redeemable, these heroines make me put the book down. I want my heroine to lose once in a while. I want her to suffer occasionally. I want other men to not fall all over their feet whenever she’s around! That’s not romantic! If she can so easily seduce any man, what makes our hero so special? I want her to mature emotionally. If that never happens, there’s really no story.
- Conflict between the couple.
This may just be my opinion, but when I read romance, I don’t want it to work out too easily between the hero and heroine (H/H). I can well-remember a beautifully written book with excellent prose, skillful editing, and impressive world-building. It is highly-rated and deservedly so. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get into it. I did read to the finish, but it really felt like a long haul to get there. I like action as much as the next gal, and there were plenty of outside forces trying to break the couple apart and even kill them. My problem was that the romance between two complete strangers had no internal conflict, even from the beginning. Everyone loved them except for the bad guys. They were super-nice and very forgiving, they talked everything out like mature adults, and frankly, their romance ended up being bland. There was never a moment where I feared that they would have a problem last longer than it took for a few words to resolve it. Sure that’s how relationships should work in real life, but for a romance, I want tension between the characters, not just coming at them from all sides. That’s what makes a great story!
The thing is, I’ve read other books that can’t even compare in terms of the talent and skill this author has shown with her prose and world-building. Yet, those other books always have something that keeps bringing back to reread them again, and again. That element is conflict between the romantic couple.
- No stupid miscommunications
I do want conflict between my H/H, but I don’t want that conflict to arise because of stupidity. Granted, the example I gave above makes it seem like that’s exactly what I want, but in reality, I’m looking for tension that arises naturally from the characters themselves, not from a plot contrivance to keep them from being happily-ever-after before the book is ready to end.
The problem with the aforementioned book was that both characters were far too perfect to create any sort of tension with each other that wasn’t stupid and plot contriving. Since the author is clearly too experienced and talented to do that sort of thing, there ended up being very little tension between them at all. This is why characters that are too perfect are not that interesting to me. They don’t create conflict. They just kind of go along for the ride. Or worse, they kill any potential conflict.
A heroine and hero who have jealousy, self-esteem, anger, or trust issues-or any sort of issues-will create tension in their relationship as they must learn to overcome those issues in order to find happiness with each other. An example of this would be a heroine who has been cheated on in a previous relationship. She was badly burned by that experience and is now slow to trust. The conflict arises when she sees the hero talking to another woman over a cozy lunch date that he never mentioned to our heroine. Now, a perfect character would find out who that woman was by simply asking the hero when she sees him next, or by walking up and introducing herself politely, but someone who’s been hurt might jump to conclusions and either break the relationship off immediately in order to avoid getting in too deep and getting hurt again, or she’d march over to them and throw a scene that leaves the hero angry and embarrassed so that he puts the brakes on their relationship, unaware of her history and why she’s acting so crazy.
The lack of communication that could have easily resolved this misunderstanding does not seem stupid to me because it fits into the flaws the characters have. For those characters, their behavior makes sense, even if things could have been handled in a much more mature manner.
- A Happily Ever After (HEA) or at least Happy For Now (HFN) Ending!
Anyone familiar with the genre of romance should already know this. I will not read a book that is supposed to be a romance if the reviews say it ends on a cliff-hanger, or if there is a tragic ending where the H/H do not end up together! No! Just…NO! Those kinds of endings belong in women’s contemporary fiction, or some other genre. Romance has certain expectations. Don’t kill off the Hero or the Heroine after spending the entire book building up their romance. ArrrrrgggghhH!!!!!
Sorry, got a little carried away there. There’s nothing like reading a book, falling in love with the couple, and then discovering that the ending has torn them apart forever. Then you flip back to the cover and see that it’s supposed to be a romance!!!! What?
- A plot to hold together the romance.
I’m pretty open to almost any kind of plot that will bring two disparate people together, but there definitely needs to be some kind of plot, no matter how much it’s secondary to the couple getting to know each other. Something had to bring them together, try to break them apart, and then ultimately push them back together for good. The plot could be something simple, like warring neighbors who wind up falling for each other. That book is certainly a reread on my Kindle!
Of course, there are far more complicated plots which work as well. As long as everything else going on in the story doesn’t undermine the romance, it’s still part of the romance genre. Romantic Thrillers are a good example of this.
I mentioned that this was what matters when talking about the hero, but I will add it as a separate point for the heroine too. It’s just not a romance when they are cheating with other women or men. There might be characters who struggle to let go of past loves, and that’s fine, as long as they don’t go down that road and sleep around with those people. For me personally, that’s a bridge too far. Once they cross it, I’m out. What makes a romance is the H/H’s devotion to each other. Nothing and no one else should come between them. Of course it’s not real life! That’s the point. 😉
These are just seven things I want to see in a romance. I’d love to see some comments with things you’d like to see. What’s important to you when you read a romance novel or watch a romantic movie, or play a game with romantic elements? Let me know what I missed—I’m sure it’s a lot! Don’t forget to share your favorite romances of all time! I think we can get a real fun discussion going on that alone.
I think my next blog will be about what I don’t want to see in romance. That one, I think, will have some people disagreeing with me, because certain tropes have started to bore me, and I have a feeling they will pop up in my next blog. Feel free to get me started on suggestions for that list as well.