Readers Answer: What Is a Romance?

(1997)

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Earlier this year I began a page for authors to define a romance novel, and if they so desired, to included what a romance should and/or should not be.

I believe the logical adjunct to that page is one for readers to do the same. A few readers have provided their definitions so far, and I am re-printing here the definition I gave in Issue #38 of my column:

A story about the growing love relationship between a couple that has an HEA ending. There may be other elements, but the love relationship and its progression should be the focus. Because of this, there should not be lengthy separations between the lead characters. There should be, however, an emotional bond with the reader that develops out of their story, and it doesn't matter whether the bond is laughter or tears or a strong sense of lust. Here's what other readers had to say:

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Carolyn Williamson:
A romance is the story of a developing relationship between a man and a woman that evolves into a deep abiding love girded by a lifelong commitment to each other.

Karen Williams: (TX4love@aol.com)
The story of two people who need to find validation in themselves and others and are only able to do so by giving and receiving unconditional love and trust.

Elaine Grimes:
A romance novel is the romantic story of how a relationship develops between one man and one woman that ends happily in spit of significant problems.

Susan Cass (susanc@columbia-center.org):
A romance novel to me is a book that has a compelling story about the relationship between a man and a woman. It may or may not include love scenes (both Linda Howard and Georgette Heyer write romances), but it has to have an HEA. Anything else (suspense, paranormal, etc.), is gravy.

Sandy (Shenry3@aol.com):
If a book is labeled romance, then I expect it to be about the relationship between the h/h. I want to feel what they are feeling - their struggles, their surrender, you know, the rollercoaster ride of falling in love. Secondary plots, or well-rounded secondary characters are fine; as a matter of fact I think these can make for a better story.

But the main focus is the romance of the h/h, and of course a happy ending.

The ending doesn't have to have them gushing, or with a baby, but with the expectation that there are lots of years of happiness ahead of them.

As an aside, I think that an author's style has a lot to do with how well you relate to the h/h. Some authors can really make you feel what their characters are feeling, and this is what makes a wonderful romance novel.

Margie Wilhelm (dreams@ns.net):
A romance is just like any other type of fiction out there; it can be mystery, suspense, science fiction, historical, western, comedy, even horror. The only differences are that the story concentrates on the relationship between the lead male and female, and the book is guaranteed a happy ending."

That is why romance is my first choice of reading material; I get variety, it deals with emotions, and I know that it will always end happily.

Angela Pearson:
Heart pounding, palm sweating, explosive. . .and that's just the first chapter. I wnt to love the characters as much as they love each other.

Linda Mowery (lmowery@startext.net):
What is a romance novel?

If I were able to wave a magic wand and redo most of our lives, I'd fix it so that we all were heroines in romance novels. We'd be cherished, supported, understood, loved. We'd be somebody's best friend, lover, helpmate. We would complete each other and make each other better. That's what a romance novel does for me for that brief time I'm engrossed in it. I'm enjoying the benefits of that magic wand being waved over all that I see and feel. I'm transported into what could be.

What do I look for?

I look for a time period I can relate to and enjoy reading. I look for a plot which is credible to me. Never having had amnesia or known any surrogate mothers or anyone who had a marriage of convenience, I shy away from something that doesn't ring true to me.

I look for maturity in my characters. Sadly, that has nothing to do with actual age. I also look for humor.

I've been reading long enough that it's always a pleasure to read certain authors. If the plot sounds interesting and I like the author, then the book goes home with me.

I do not look at covers, but the back blurb has quite an influence on me. I look for the author's name above all else.

What do I like most and least?

What I like most is a hero who never gives up. Some of my favorite stories feature heroes who see the heroine and never waver in their quest to win her love. The unwavering guy gets me every time. But let him show the least little doubt, and the magic is gone.

What I like least are victims. I try not to read books where either of the leads is suffering from a past trauma. While the lead characters can have tragedy in their past, I want survivors. I also abhor characters who are immature. When real love comes along, when someone cherishes you above all else, then appreciate it and grab it. Could that be why I hate internal conflict? Probably.

Katy Cooper (madellio@msn.com):
What is a romance novel?

A romance novel is about the development of a permanent pair bond (doesn't that sound nice and stuffy ) between a man and a woman. While I have enjoyed a story that had as a component the development of a permanent pair bond between two men (Ellen M. Kushner's Swordspoint), it did not move me the way a heterosexual relationship might have (I didn't really have any point of identification with either of the men). Another untraditional romance is explored in Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness - it's about love that grows between the human, Genly Ai, Emissary of the Ekumen, and Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, his androgynous sponsor in the kingdom of Karhide on the planet Gethen. Because that story is not entirely about love and because I spend so much time trying to imagine what true androgyny must be like, this is not the emotional experience I consider essential in a good romance.

A romance is also about the adventure of overcoming those parts of ourselves that get in the way of intimacy.

What do I look for?

Intelligent writing. Consistency. Intelligent characters who behave stupidly, when they behave stupidly, out of strongly held if badly thought out beliefs. Going away into new worlds of the imagination. Wit. Compassion. A humane outlook. A strong voice.

What do I like most and least?

I hate the old "I despise you; let's go to bed" style of romance.

I dislike characters whose behavior is dictated by the plot rather than subtle, well thought-out characterization. (Not to slam a particular writer, but I've given up on Heather Graham because in every book of hers I've tried to read, the hero and heroine do not behave with any human consistency. It's as if she plots the book and then puts names on the plot twists. That's a real shame, because I get the sense she's a terrific storyteller. I just can't get past the sense of a puppeteer manipulating her mannequins.)

I dislike over-writing and purple prose; it's like someone trying too hard to be funny. Stupid historical inaccuracy sets my teeth on edge, like a recent book in which a heroine looked at photographs taken of the hero as a boy, playing with his cousins. The problem is that the hero was a child in the 1850s, when any photograph taken of a playing child would have produced a blur. If I know that much, anyone can find it out; this isn't terribly obscure stuff.

Is there anything I like? Well, of course there is. I like smart characters.

I like writers who make me think they're writing the same old story, only they're not. Mary Balogh does a terrific job of taking the stale situation - proud aristocrat marries virgin of his class only to find out she's not a virgin - and making it new by not quite playing by the rules. In the above case, I thought we had a tried and true "hero feels betrayed, is a jerk for the rest of the book" scenario going. The jerk part was over reasonably quickly, as quickly as the character could adjust, given the man he was and given the woman his wife was. Then the story went on and grew and developed. It was quite a surprise.

I like strong voices, writers who use language in fresh ways, ways demanded by the story and not some "Romance Writers Style Book."

I like new and different characters. Heroines who are supposed to be spunky but turn out to be thoughtless, self-absorbed and immature already bore me. I'd like to see different locations and different social classes and different eras; stories about aristocrats in early medieval, Georgian and Regency Scotland and England and about cowboys in the late 19th century American West get wearisome (I read mostly historicals these days). What about the late middle ages, in Germany? What about China in any era?

I like a smart hero. He can be terribly manly, but if he's self-absorbed (only my painful feelings count and they excuse anything I do), he's dull, dull, dull . . . and annoying.

Blythe Barnhill (QDXD00B@prodigy.com):
Let's see. . . how do I define a romance? I tend to waffle on this sometimes, but here is today's definition:

A novel in which the primary focus is the developing love between the hero and the heroine, with a happy resolution at the end. Romance should not have the hero or heroine die at the end! I guess this definition rules out Diana Gabaldon and maybe Bertrice Small.

Falcon (falcon58@ix.netcom.com):
It's a love story
It's an adventure
It's a journey
It's an experience

The love story is the crux of romance novels. The main characters in the story are the central figures that takes the reader on a journey, experiences and the adventures of a lifetime - in another time and place; or in cases of contemporaries - the present. For this reason, the development of that love story is critical in this great adventure the reader is about to embark. The meeting for the first time of the main characters, their time together (lots of it, otherwise how can their love develop if they're not even together), experiences that affect or influence, a journey through time which educates and entertain... In this trip, I want my main characters to be with me, the reader. In their eyes, I want to experience what they experience, feel what they feel, make things believable for me, make me take an interest that I end up caring for this people, events and place as if they were real... The worst thing a writer can do is make a reader apathetic. In my case, if the main characters are not together that much in the story - this makes me indifferent. If a love story were to evolve, then time helps make it so. Not enough time together just doesn't cut it for me. As to the love scenes, that too is an integral part of the story. How can you skip or become bored reading the love scenes? I, for one, do not find it to be the case. A love story without a love scene is like a Roman Catholic church without the Pope.

Authors and readers, please e-mail me with your definition of a romance novel. You can include what a romance should or should not be, if you so desire. Author definitions will be added to the author's page and reader definitions will be on this special reader's page. It should make for some interesting discussion, don't you think?

 

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