I love romance. I really do. I live for the tension, the slow burn, the soft “Oh” when one of them finally realizes the other loves them, the first kiss, the cuddling and the softly spoken words and the quiet peace when they finally get a moment alone together to just bask in each other’s company.
Why, then, do I have such a difficult relationship with romance novels? I think, in a lot of ways, it’s because authors forget to put any actual romance into their romance novels. They mistake the trappings of romance, fancy dinners, heroic rescues and grand gestures for actual romance, without ever giving the reader any reason the characters love each other, or worse still, showing us that they care about each other.
I remember a book I read once, I won’t give the title because I don’t want this to be about calling out a particular author, but the whole book’s plot hinged on the fact that these two characters were supposed to be in this forbidden romance, and that they were willing to basically rewrite the rules of their worlds just to be together. The problem is, there was never any reason for the characters to actually care about each other. One of them gets in trouble (the tiny little woman with the big attitude and bigger mouth) and the other, (the big, hunky elf lord) comes along and rescues her. The elf lord and the tiny woman argue a bit, and then, bam, they’re suddenly supposed to be in love.
Except I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t think of any reason these two characters would want to be in the same room with each other, just less why they would want to twist the laws of reality so they could spend their lives together. The characters never showed any affection toward each other that wasn’t making out or having sex. They didn’t sit and talk, they didn’t share any interests, they didn’t even seem to want to spend any time together.
And the thing is, I see this a lot. It’s usually the forced romantic subplot between the leading guy and leading lady in movies, books, etc., but in creeps into romance novels with alarming regularity. Straight romance, queer romance. A lot of authors just seem to think if you throw to characters of the appropriate genders into proximity, then you’re written a romance. And let me tell you, as someone who loves romance, it sucks.
When I sit down and start working on a romance, my first question is, why do these characters fall in love? What is it about these characters that makes each one appealing to the other. If you really want to write a romance, that’s the place where you have to start. And the place where far too many romances fall down is that the appeal for each of the characters begins and ends with ‘their hot’.
Physical attraction isn’t a recipe for lasting love. Not in real life. Not in fiction. People get old, they gain (or lose) weight, they lose their hair, they get sick, they get a new haircut, they get scars, they wash of their makeup, or the newness wears off. All sorts of things happen that can make a person less of an incarnation of some arbitrary standard of hotness. Physical attraction fades.
Lasting love, lasting relationships, are built on emotional and intellectual connections. They’re built on intimacy and communication and trust. If you, as a writer, want to make your reader believe in a romance, if you want to make them swoon, you have to show them those connections.
Why does character A appeal to character B? Maybe it’s because character A is kind and considerate and selfless. Maybe it’s because character A makes them feel like they can let their mask drop and be there true self. Maybe it’s because character A takes care of them, and no one has ever done that for them before. Why does character B appeal to character A? Maybe it’s because character B accepts them for who they are instead of demanding they change. Maybe it’s because character B makes them laugh. Maybe it’s because character B protects them from things that have been hurting them for so long, they’ve forgotten what it feels like to not have that pain in their life.
Romance is what happens when two people find out that their lives are better when they’re together than when they’re apart, and they begin to long for their better state. And if you put that on the page, then the readers will swoon at every near kiss that gets interrupted, they’ll melt when the first kiss comes, and they’ll smile when the two of them finally get their happily ever after.