Ah, the Romance

For those venturing unwary into this realm, be aware the meaning of romance has changed a lot in the last few decades…. er… century, whatever.

In my grandfather’s day what Dumas wrote and what Sir Walter Scott wrote were romances.  They were more or less what we’d call “fanciful adventures set in another time.”


Now things have changed, but perhaps not the way you think they have.

PARTICULARLY if you’re a man who has never given a thought to reading romances, and for whom romances are pink-covered books in some woman’s shelf (in Portugal they were mostly blue covered and at least the imprint my older cousin read was mostly about bullfighters, or at least that’s what I remember.  Also the Portuguese notion of happily ever after is that he dies a brave death, possibly because of her, and she mourns him the rest of her life and possibly becomes a nun.  Chacun son gout) your notion of romance is possibly completely far afield.  As is your notion of erotica, I might add.  (And since this is mostly about placing things on Amazon where potential readers can find them, please don’t tag things “erotica” of mature content.  Put some warning on the description, but do not tag them that way, or no one will be able to find your book, sometimes not even with a direct search.  You’ve been warned.)

Romance is not just a story in which two people find each other.  Or even a story in which there is a couple who fall in love.  Those do not count as romances, and please don’t even SECONDARILY tag them as romances, unless you REALLY like a lot of bad reviews.

Romance is THE story of two people finding each other.  All other plots (and there are often a lot of them and I’ll get into it in later posts.  In fact, when historical mystery was declared no longer welcome in traditional publishing, 12? 15? years ago, a lot of the writers moved on to historical romance.  I was delighted to find them again, and didn’t mind that the thrust of the book had changed.  Of main importance now was the romance, and the mystery was the subplot.

Mind you, some authors balance it so carefully that you have to think hard whether it’s romance or mystery, and it could be both, but if you’re aiming to write (and tag) a book as romance, you still need to give the romance AT LEAST equal weight.

We all know the plot of romance, right?  Boy meets girl (or boy.  Girl in this case just means the love interest, same as boy.  It’s easier to do it this way, but there are plenty of m/m and f/f romances out there.  And some of them even sell) boy loses girl, boy gets girl.

This plot sketch is about as accurate as saying that science fiction is about “new gadget changes things; guy solves gadget problems; guy is hero” or mystery is “Murder happens; person solves murder; the end.”

There are beats in romance, there are cookies, there are various things the readers expect.  Romance stretches from historical to near erotica (erotica is something different) and they’re no more the same than the various type of sf or fantasy or mystery.

Romance is normally despised, not particularly because it’s a genre for women, but because it’s both a genre women like and that intellectuals and feminists despise.  My brother, one of each, ditto, told me romance was the opium of womanhood, and that I should not read it, with the result I didn’t find Heyer until my friend Dave Freer shoved her under my nose and demanded I read her, well into my thirties.

I’m not a hundred percent sure why this is, except that feminists seem to believe a “perfect” liberated woman is a sort of ersatz man. They’re caught in the cross hairs of women being better and being EXACTLY like man.  I say it’s spinach, and I say to hell with it.

Several tests have shown that women (STATISTICALLY, this does not mean the woman down the street or any woman.  It means the statistical woman which means perhaps nothing for one woman, a little bit for another, and a whole lot for another.  Not understanding and yet using statistics is the bane of our age) PREFER stories about people and interconnections between people, while men prefer stories about events.  When teaching writing (voluntarily) to my sons’ classes starting in elementary I can tell you that preference starts very early, and no, I’m not going to discuss whether it’s innate or not.  It’s lots of fun to discuss “if we made society gender neutral” but cultures are not so easily taken apart and replaced with another and all events in which this was tried throughout history ended in mass murder.  So it’s a nice thought experiment, but no.  If it happens it will be over millenia (and it might, since safe, reliable contraceptives have changed that equation and if we get artificial wombs it will change again more so) and is of no interest to us just now, except to those who write such speculative things.

There could be said to be evolutionary reasons for that too, but a lot devolves into just so stories.

Anyway, so, women who like romance don’t like it because it’s fluffy, or silly, or whatever the few remaining chauvinists (some of them male feminists) think, but because it is about the relationship between people.

And for those of you who are smacking lips, waggling eyebrows and going “eheheh relationship.  Is that what they call it now?” Stop that.

Romances CAN be near erotica.  They can also be “traditional” or “sweet” meaning ALMOST no sex.  True, traditional publishers (no doubt afraid of being considered prudes) gave these short shrift, but they’re blooming in indie, like other despised genres such as historical mystery and military sf.)  Don’t assume “romance” means erotica.  That’s a stupid assumption.

So what defines a story as “romance” across the various subgenres?

Well, you remember that formula above?  Find, lose, win?  What it’s missing is the connection between those.  A romance is the story of two people becoming worthy of each other and of loving each other through and despite trials and flaws.

The BIG emphasis in romance is character growth.  Now, it’s specifically character growth with a view to love and happily ever after, in this case.  But it’s the psychological growth of both that makes it a thing.

Next up: Jane Austen, mother of the romance genre.



    1. Yeah. It’s always described so mechanically. There’s only so many ways you can say “Insert Tab A into Slot B.”

      Contrast that with what Lois McMaster Bujold did in the Sharing Knife series, which has a lot of Romance notes. She describes sex emotionally, about the reactions and interactions, rather than physically. Much more palatable and probably the first time I’ve read a sex scene without giggling at the ridiculousness.

      1. …and I still found those scenes embarrassing to read for the writer as they were equal parts boring and risible. Not a fan of that series, though, so if you liked it, the scenes might not have seemed so bad.

        Bujold did a much better job with the sex scenes in Convos With Cordy, The Frontier Romance. She was able to capture the emotional reality of sex for those involved (critical for a tight 3rd viewpoint) rather than the mildly ridiculous, messy, grunting reality it is for those with no skin in the game.

        Most I like detailed sex scenes as much as I enjoy detailed scenes of tampon management and digestion. Less is more.

  1. On Jane Austen, I still have trouble believing that Northanger Abbey is hers and not Georgette Heyer’s. For some reason, that’s the place where their writing styles are closest.

    My mom got me Cotillion by Georgette Heyer when we were on a long car trip through Wyoming. I made the expected face (I think I was twelve) and she explained that there’s romance and then there’s romance. Or, more specifically, “Read it, you’ll like this one.” Not only was she right, I still have that copy with the Laramie used book store stamp.

  2. Second Attempt:

    I confess to having read a historical romance, and for historical research at that. Before anyone rolls their eyes, it was Eugenia Price’s The Beloved Invader, which actually as some solid history to go along with it, because she did the research. It was a jumping off point for actual research.

    The most noteworthy thing here is that Miss Price didn’t understand how men think. I really doubt Mr. William Earl Anson Phelps Dodge II had a great desire to hug a tree, but it’s in there. While I agree that men are more event driven, and romances concentrate on relationships, this failure to grasp how men think is another major turn-off for men. The other side of that is whether we men are just as guilty with that and our women characters. I suspect we are.

    This sound like SJW territory, but the SJW argument is that it’s an insurmountable difference for writers, and I don’t buy that. I do increasingly wonder how we can reliably think like a different type of person, and that extends beyond writing. We’re seeing that all around us right now where different factions think the most asinine things about, and think that’s a true picture of reality.

  3. (chuckle) There’s a lot of irony in this subject, considering that the original meaning of “romance” was an adventure:

    “A species of fictitious writing, originally composed in meter in the Romance dialects, and afterward in prose, such as the tales of the court of Arthur, and of Amadis of Gaul; hence, any fictitious and wonderful tale; a sort of novel, especially one which treats of surprising adventures usually befalling a hero or a heroine; a tale of extravagant adventures, of love, and the like.” — 1913 Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary.

    Well love has always been an adventure of sorts…and perhaps more so now than ever before.

        1. You are correct. Ran across the French word recently in a course that I have been ignoring this week.

        2. Also German as well, where they have a longstanding tradition of publishing fiction series in small-magazine-sized weekly installments called “Heftromane” (“magazine-novels”). See, e.g., this web page https://perry-rhodan.net/produkte/erstauflage/erstauflage at the publisher of Germany’s most (in)famous SF series, Perry Rhodan. Though thankfully these days you don’t have to bother with getting the magazines shipped from Europe and can just download .epubs instead.

  4. Hmm…I was going to say here that I’m one of those women who’s not a romance fan. I was pretty sure that I detested the genre. But the last line of your posts made me reconsider, because I do love Jane Austen. Maybe I only like really, really well done romances.

    I think my main problem with the romance genre is that the sense of inevitability of the main couple often prevents me from really buying the relationship. Now, some of that may be because the couple really isn’t believable (really, the modern-day nurse is going to come to believe that the Viking who kidnapped her via a time-portal and repeatedly raped her is the paragon of manly virtue?), but I think there’s also a sense that it’s considered so obvious that the couple must end up together that many romance writers really don’t bother with subtly growing the connection between the characters. That may be why I enjoy romantic subplots in other genres (Owen Pitts + Julie Shackleford = Twu Wuv 4 evah!) but really don’t care for books where romance is the focus.

    Well, that and the fact that romantic “comedy” always strikes me as neither romantic nor comedic. I’m left cringing at most of it, feeling embarrassment by proxy for characters who seem incapable of feeling it themselves..

      1. The former I can tolerate in small doses. I wouldn’t say I like them particularly, but they rarely offend me, and I’ll admit to having tuned into, say, one of the Good Witch films if I need something to keep myself entertained while I fold the laundry, and the only sports option is pro basketball.

        I don’t think I’ve ever read anything specifically under the Harlequin imprint, but pretty much every novel I’ve read that turned out to be romance, I’ve hated (classics like Austen and Shakespeare excepted).

      1. I have to admit, even if it gets me the pitchfork & torches crowd chasing me… I don’t like Heyer. Or Austen. Or any of the Bronte sisters. Really, I tried them… people like them so much I even picked up three different Heyer books, thinking “Maybe I started on the wrong one?”

        And I really didn’t care for ’em, and put ’em down within fifty pages. I stuck it out for almost a hundred pages once, and it didn’t get any better.
        I tried the Pride & Prejudice miniseries. I was done by the second commercial break. I’ve tried P&P retellings in scifi & fantasy, and they were… okay… at least, the two I managed to finish… I can vaguely remember their existence, if not any of the characters or even titles…

        I also don’t like most romance. The necessity of the couple getting together and the girl-loses-boy mean so many authors work in the most contrived, constrained, or thin reasons and reactions that I end up giving up on both the idiot-ball plot and the Characters that are Too Stupid To Live. And both of those end up getting books walled, or deleted from my account.

        *shrugs* I tend to read when I’m tired and in pain, and want to visualize this wonderful little movie in my head of being elsewhere, or elsewhen, with other people doing interesting things. I don’t want to have to deal with idiots there, either; I get enough of those in real life.

        1. Heh. I like Austin and Heyer, but I don’t love them. And it’s because they spend, usually, enough time with everything else than what the main couple thinks or feels about each other. More modern romance novels seem to concentrate mostly on that, which is why, when I feel like something romantic, I tend to go for (often older which certes have no sex, sex scenes bore me) mystery or adventure books which have a romance in them. I do like Mary Stewart and a few other older romantic mystery writers, due to the fact that they do spend enough time with the mystery. Now when something gets advertised as romantic mystery or similar they tend to be way more romance/sex than mystery.

          The one thing I really, really hate, and which seems to have become way too popular with newer writers: the love triangle. The heroine has two hot guys competing for her attention, and it’s not a case of one-certain-Mr-Wrong vs Mr-Right but two who both would be good enough. And then she just can’t make up her mind and commit to one. If she seems to something happens and (usually) her chosen leaves her and then she turns to the other except then he comes back and rinse and repeat. Especially if it’s a series the thing gets dragged on and on and on and on… I have dropped a few series I otherwise would have liked well enough for that (Janet Evanovich for one… also nothing ever seemed to change otherwise either in her series, it was very much rinse and repeat with only minor adjustments, or at least the ones I read before getting bored were. And Stephanie Plum is an idiot, but at least entertaining enough an idiot that I could – almost – like the character. But the main problem was that damn permanent love triangle, plus with that series the relationships took so much space that they really should not be called mysteries, in my opinion. Way more romance or something similar than mysteries, but it could have been something I could have gone for my romance fix if there had been only one guy, at least for a few more books).

    1. But the last line of your posts made me reconsider, because I do love Jane Austen. Maybe I only like really, really well done romances.

      Based on Mrs Hoyt’s essay above, I am coming to think that well done romance requires it truly well written series of human interactions, one in which the characters involved are well realised, interesting people one would want to learn more about, or be friends with. Their character development and emotional have to be drawn with deft strokes and not require a lot endless navel gazing gazing to get across.

      You need the characterisation that CS Lewis provides in the Screwtape Letters or Dickens’s, used in the service of “…two people becoming worthy of each other and of loving each other through and despite trials and flaws.”

      And you still need a halfway decent setting, and something interesting happening to them as well, otherwise there is no story.

  5. I nibbled some of the Harlequin™ romances my grandmother had. Meh. I did like Mary Stewart and others of her ilk: romance, but touches of gothic, touches of adventure, and the women stood on their own two feet. But were still ladies, not wymyn.

  6. I loved the Mary Stewart romances that I read as a teen – because she did write more than just how the relationship developed. She put in lashings of the adventure, and wrote so very beautifully about places – Greece, Provence, Corfu and Crete … but the usual Harlequin fodder left me totally cold – and I had never looked at Georgette Heyer until lately, thanks to encouragement here.
    For my own books, I have largely male fans – possibly because I write equally about events and interpersonal relationships? Or ‘write grittier’ about life, the universe and everything, Or maybe channel male characters well? Dunno – but it seems to work in attracting both male and female readers.

    1. I was introduced to Mary Stewart with The Crystal Cave and its sequels, so it was interesting to delve into her romances. (Which are often also thrillers.) She has a very good sense of place; none of her locations are interchangeable and all feel quite grounded in specific detail.

  7. I’ve enjoyed some romances: Austen and Heyer spring to mind. But, I don’t read a lot because I don’t need more romance in my life, because I have a solid relationship with my partner. What I don’t have is enough excitement and adventure in my life, and I’m driven to want to live in the future, which is why I read SF.

    1. Eh. I read romances when I’m “fried” because they’re predictable and light.
      I also have a really good relationship with my husband. I’m not sure whta that has to do with reading romance.

      1. It depends whether you’re reading for vicarious pleasure or for some other reason? I don’t want to read predictable and light, if my brain is fried I’ll watch TV. I’m probably not a proper fan, since media has always been one of the things that I’ve enjoyed, but my peers sneered at. And it should be said they sneer at romance, which I think is pointless, because who am I to judge what others may like? I can only speak to what I own i.e: my reasons.

        This might be why one on my Beta readers feedback amounted to my story was complex and complicated. I’m probably doomed to a readership of one.

  8. I like romances so long as they’re interrupted by sword fights and giant robots.

    1. Mixing relationships with events, eh? Trying to appeal to everyone at the same time may be a lot more difficult.

    2. Mechromancy: the art of reviving long dead and overused romance plots by sprinkling in the right amount of giant fighting robots.

  9. I quickly devoured all of Ruby Lionsdrake’s books after she was mentioned here (she’s Lindsay Buroker’s pen name for Indie – not a spoiler; it’s in the reviews). Lindsay’s The Emperor’s Edge series got me started with her. Very definitely background romance on those. Ruby’s are equally definitely romance-romance. Good SciFi plot in the background that stretches across the series while each book is focused on a particular couple.

    That got me trying other authors and romance sub-genres. (Who knew that Gay Werewolf Romance was a thing? Yes, it’s mostly as bad as you would expect.) I _highly_ recommend Kindle Unlimited to find authors. There is a lot of dreck out there. So far, I haven’t come across any without explicit sex scenes.

    There are a lot of acronyms in this genre. For example, HEA is Happily Ever After. The reviews and descriptions can be a bit opaque.

    1. I was looking at the names Ruby Lionsdrake and Lindsay Buroker for about half a minute before I realized they were anagrams. Cute.

  10. The romance genre as a whole is highly stylized. So you tend to have some romances where it’s all about the couple, and nobody outside the couple is really a character. There are also love triangle books, which sometimes devolve into “Mary Sue with harem” (if they can’t bear to choose one or break up), threesomes, or a different love triangle in every book in the series. And so on.

    Like I say, people can get away with stylized books that just hit the beats and give the cookies, because romance readers read quickly and voraciously. But that doesn’t mean that it’s the best way to go.

    OTOH, because it’s a stylized genre, an experienced reader can “get” subtle points of difference, or literary references playing off against other romances, that will blow right past a casual reader. Since I’m a casual reader, I’m not really the one to ask about this!

    But romances generally have a sort of dreamlike quality to them. Reading them is supposed to be a “vacation from reality,” filled with a willful suspension of disbelief on every possible level. That’s why non-consensual stuff can be portrayed as a mere misunderstanding or a meet-cute. That’s why manners that would be annoying in real life can be portrayed as seductive. Romance has its own “magical realism” conventions, which have something to do with psychology but not much to do with actual behavior.

    1. Anyway, it is possible to make the experienced romance reader stop suspending disbelief, but it’s usually easier to do because of irritation than for any factual or psychological reason. That’s why there is so much definition of subgenre going on; people only want the dream they are in the mood for. Anything else is “Do Not Want,” even if they would normally like it.

  11. > A romance is the story of two people becoming worthy of each other and of loving each other through and despite trials and flaws.


    1. So Outlander isn’t a romance?
      After all, the female lead is an out-and-out sociopath, and spends the entire book manipulating the male lead.
      (I freely admit this book is the only modern romance I’ve read. I’m not entirely sure whether the runway success of this book, or of 50 Shades of Greg, bothers me more.)

  12. Ah, I remember Heyer, if you are talking about Georgette Heyer. The summer I was 14 I read all her books, along with Barbara Cartland and Emile Loring. Then I snuck and read all my Mom’s Angelique (\sp?) books which were quite risqué for the day (early 70’s). I had run out of reading material you see, could not yet drive, and had read the World Book Encyclopedia the previous summer. I was in withdrawal and needed words in a row. That said, they were not a bad thing for a 14 year old to read. Because you learn what some women want, and for the most part, it is the kind of woman you want to be able to relate to, if that makes sense. It stood me in good stead a few years later. I blame my Dad for not having the entire Louis L’Amour collection, I was still finding books he didn’t have into my early 20s. If you want a good romance novel, read Zane Grey, his westerns were almost romance novels at times.

  13. At some point I need to look up what pseudonym Mark Anthony is writing romance under. (Yes, that’s his actual name. He used to be one of my husband’s coworkers and was shy of talking about his fantasy series, so by the time I found out, most of it was already in print.) Denver author, which shows in his portal fantasy; I have no idea what subset of romance he’s writing.

    1. He’s writing romance? He’s a sweetheart. At one time he spent most of a conference babysitting my then 8 year old who WANTED TO TALK. Not that we asked, but Robert was into Dickens at the time, and Mark was the chosen victim TM for the lecture. He seemed rather amused.

        1. I have the “Mrs. Quent” (my name for the series) books and knew that they were written by Mark Anthony… but never considered them romance books. 😉

          Oh, they are good reads. 😀

Comments are closed.