People who don’t read and/or write romance constantly tell me there is a formula to writing romance so therefore A) it must be easy and B) any difficulties you are having with your story are due to the fact that you are not following the formula correctly. So, after taking time out to bang my head on the nearest surface, I feel it is important to respond for my own piece of mind.
So, no, gentle reader – there is no formula in Romance Novels. There is a writing truism that says there are only seven stories in the world and we are all writing one of those stories in our own unique voice. Sometimes, the number varies depending on the source but the idea is the same. Love/Romance is one of those essential stories. Romance generally ends with the two main characters together (spoiler alert!) although there is tragic aspect to some love stories where someone dies or goes away. Romance stories are about love and the two people finding each other despite all the challenges. This is defined in the same way crime novels end with the crime solved or a coming of age story end with the culmination of the individual’s growth.
Despite this commonality with other established literary themes, it is Romance that receives constant derision by people who don’t read romance (they always feel compelled to tell me with a little sniff that it’s not their thing) or they have read one book and feel comfortable making an assessment about the entire genre (1.5 Billion dollar annual business and they can only talk about 50 Shades). There are around 25 different sub-genres under Romance – that’s a lot different types of romance books. Plus, there is heavy overlap with Fantasy/Sci-fi and Mystery genres. Mashups rule.
The disparagement by literary establishment of the Romance genre is why Romance writers formed their own association – Romance Writers of America. Sci-fi writers and Mystery/Thriller Authors had to do the same in an environment that can be frankly discouraging to writers in what is called “genre fiction” – you know cause it’s lesser than literary fiction. The main reason for the disparagement of Romance genre is misogyny. It’s a format written mostly by women for women. Books about female concerns and desires cannot be good or that is what society tells us, they have to be trash because they are about women and their desires and concerns.
Sometimes, Romance, just like other fiction, uses well-worn tropes. A trope is a common theme and most often used to refer to a heavily overused theme. But, I have found it to be a trendy appellation to a story that has other problems. A Cinderella theme could be considered a well-worn trope but I have seen it used brilliantly. There are stories that work and stories that don’t…I would prefer less chatter about “tropes” and more focus on the story.
Women want to read stories that reflect female concerns, desires and needs. Reading stories about women’s issues, struggling with all the problems that women face is interesting to women because they are women. Family, sex, love, babies – all are part of what happens in a romance novel. I might use magic and fantasy in my stories but the arc of the story is about love between two people and all the conflicts and problems involved in their lives – jobs, money, age, sickness…life.
Romance focuses on sex and sexual desire because like men, we like sex. Shocking, I know – particularly when the sex is seen from a female perspective. Control and power by women in sex – consensual giving of power in the sexual act – these are things women still struggle to own, we can easily still become victims in the real world SO why not own that shit in fiction. Romance heroines have healthy, vibrant and real sexual lives or sometimes not – sometimes it’s messed up because that is real, too.
Themes of abuse, rape, and marital problems are dealt with extensively in Romance because women in life deal with that shit all the time. The women in Romance novels overcome and triumph and the readers empathize with the heroines even if their own lives are ok, we (women) know the line can be a thin one and there but for a simple twist of fate could be our lives. But Romance – is considered of less value because those women (oh my fucking god) they fall in love and maybe have awesome sex with a great looking man. Really?
Increasingly, men are reading romance because men are finally comfortable admitting interest in more traditional feminine aspirations (love and partnership). Also, more Romance stories now have a POV centered on men, M/M or LGBT themed romance. But mostly, male readership is simply discovering that Romance genre has great stories.
The explosive growth of Gay and MM romance and the fan base of female readers perplex some. But let me tell you, women understand being diminished for who you are, so we can connect to mm/gay/LGBT Romance because the struggle of love, redemption in love and sex are beautiful universals. Romance has provided an umbrella of acceptance in world where Gay literary novels are still received with a vague sense of puerile titillation and a general questioning of value.
Are all Romance books great? No. But you know that’s a stupid question, right?
Men often feel uncomfortable with the fact that often the men in romance are hot, good-looking guys. Anxious much, fellas? These same men want women in the movies they watch to have perfect bodies with perky breasts and be under 30 years old but, seriously, people have said this to me. In some way, women have appropriated the male sexual gaze as their own. It’s fun. I have to say that Romance routinely includes a greater variety of body-types and disabilities then I have ever seen in other books or in movies. Romance loves the damaged hero because (once again) love triumphs over that shit. Romance often features curvy heroines who get the guy because most of women could be defined as plus sized models in this fucked up world. Really, I am a size 6 or 8 – standard for a Plus size models…sigh I will leave that for another blog.
The men in romance are not perfect hero’s – they need their character arcs and growth. Love sometimes redeems them but usually they make the choice to purposefully change for love.
The themes of a women working to support themselves and their families is pretty constant in Romance. Money, the lack of it and how to get it. The rich, handsome heroes in romance are often heavily flawed because you know money doesn’t buy you love and it is only through love that he finds happiness. Maybe that’s the pure fantasy part. Pragmatically, wealthy hero’s expand the story because they don’t have to be in the office by 8, they can be traveling or moving freely. It makes the story more fantastical and that makes the story stronger.
Romance is a narrative that reflects the concerns and the lives of women. The search for companionship and friendship and personal success are themes in Romance. Indeed, my favorite romances often feature strong female friendships that are profoundly deeper than the “best friend” that Hollywood allows females in movies. Hell – women are usually relegated as passive window dressing as a girlfriends or mothers with limited lines.
Romance novels follow only one formula – the story involves love. The rest is up to the imagination of the author and their mastery of the craft of writing.
The image above is just one of my favorite covers this year. Kresley Cole is awesome.