Romance Novels “Telling” Me the Characters are in Love

For most of my life I was never interested in romance novels. My preferred genres are fantasy, sci fi, mystery, and spy thrillers. However, I’ve started reading more romances within the last couple of years because of a combination of two factors: one, I know a number of romance writers online now, and two, I’ve been exploring romance subplots as part of my Arcana Revived series. This has given me the desire to learn more about the genre and what does and doesn’t work in it.

So far I have two main complaints, both of which are directly related to each other. The first is that often times, I don’t really believe the characters in the story are in love.

A lot of this comes down to “show, don’t tell.” I look at the characters’ actions, the way they treat each other, and the way they behave in their relationships, and I just don’t see love there. Instead, I usually see the characters’ thoughts when they think about how much they love their partner, how devoted they are to each other, how they can’t live without each other, and so on. But reading a character thinking, “I love her more than breath, more than life itself,” tells me nothing. I need to see the love. Just like I don’t want to read a character thinking, “I’m so happy.” Instead I want to see their breath catch, their eyes light up, and their honest reactions to what is going on around them.

The second issue I have with these stories is, I believe, the cause of the first. So far, almost every romance story I’ve read has a male lead whose only desirable features are his gorgeous eyes, chiseled abs, long, lustrous hair, and muscular arms. The male leads in these stories are never ordinary men. They’re Greek Gods carved straight from marble and blessed with the most amazing sexual prowess imaginable. The stories inevitably focus a great deal on what happens in the bedroom (even if the book isn’t erotica), with the man able to perform three or four times a night, bringing the woman to heights of pleasure she never thought possible.

There’s lots of complaints these days about unrealistic media portrayals of women, with models and actresses being ridiculously thin with perfect bodies and flawless skin. The male leads in the romance novels I’ve read are basically the same thing. They’re unrealistic, too perfect, and set an unattainable standard that an ordinary guy like me could never hope to achieve.

These men also often have little personality, or at the very least, they don’t do anything to win a woman’s affections other than being gorgeous at her and waiting for the magnets in their abs to pull the ladies into their beds.

I think this is why I don’t believe the characters are in love. I believe they are in lust. The female leads of most of these stories melt into puddles under the gaze of their perfectly-figured man, and from the first moment they lay eyes on each other they’re filled with uncontrollable desires. That’s not love. It’s lust.

Especially considering the large number of these women who cheat on their current boyfriend or husband, who is less attractive and not as good in bed. Yet this infidelity is often praised based on the idea that the new man is “her one true love.”

I’m certain there are some excellent romance novels out there that don’t follow this formula, and I admit that I’ve only read a comparatively small number so far. I’d like to find some that have more well-rounded characters, imperfect men, and more of a focus on showing me why the characters are in love instead of telling me that they can’t live without each other. I’m eager for any suggestions anyone has of a skilled romance author that can tell this kind of story, one with more of a focus on personality, heart, and intelligence than on pectoral muscles and other well-endowed body parts. Please let me know if you have any recommendations.

In the meantime, I’m continuing to explore the romantic entanglements of my own characters. Being that romance isn’t my strong suit, I won’t in any way make a claim that my romance plots are better than any others. But after reading a number of romance novels, I’m starting to learn what I believe I shouldn’t do, and hopefully what I should. Hopefully this means that when these stories are complete, I’ll never need to tell the reader that the characters are in love. They should be able to see it for themselves.

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22 thoughts on “Romance Novels “Telling” Me the Characters are in Love”

  1. The older I get and the more I understand about love (that sounds super cheesy, I know, but I mean it), the harder it has become to believe romances in books. As in, I often think, “These people JUST met and don’t know the first thing about each other. How can they be in love?!” I agree with you saying that they are most likely in lust. Good way to put it.
    When writing (I like to throw in some romance here and there), I find it very difficult to develop a romantic relationship. I tend to jump into the being “in love” part too quickly. If I do that, I tend to make the characters already friends at the beginning of the story. Otherwise, I wait a long time so they actually get a chance to know each other.
    I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, which is why I am rambling on. Interesting post, Jason. 🙂

    1. “Being in lust” is actually a good angle I decided to use in my current WIP. I’ve got two characters who just met, and as of the part of the book I’m at now, they’ve known each other about a week. They’re highly attracted to each other and there’s been some kissing. But at least one of them knows it’s not love . . . not yet. And because of other complicated extenuating circumstances, she also knows a lot of her desire is more about being lonely and craving human contact.

      I think that loneliness and craving is something a lot of these romance heroines have, but they mistake it for love.

  2. Magnets in their abs, Lololol!

    I agree with this post 1000x over, and this is one of the big reasons why I don’t write a lot of romance.

    Here’s the thing: Love, real capital-L Love, takes time to develop. Lust at first sight I will believe in, but not love. And when writing, even an epic novel, you just don’t have the page space to really show the kind of time it takes to develop those feelings.

    This is why I think readers are trained to sort of suspend their disbelief and go with the love-at-first-sight scenarios. When you think about it that way, romance is very comparable to fantasy–either you just convince your reader that dragons can exist, and expect them to come along for the ride; or you must convince your reader that fast Love is possible, and trust them to follow along.

    And to further that comparison, I think it’s the same skill set being used. In fantasy, you convince your reader that dragons can be real by dripping in just enough information about dragons to make them seem like an accepted fact of life, without making it seem like you’re over-explaining.

    So, in romance, you drip in just enough information about the relationship (the random little moments, the inside jokes, the pet names) to make Love seem plausible without being ridiculous.

    Additionally (Jesus, I should have written my own blog post, sorry Jason!) usually even in contemp romance, there are some kind of higher intense stakes going on. A kidnapping, a murder, a stalker, something. And generally during very high stakes situations, it’s easier to believe that ppl were able to come to Love very quickly. Emotions running high, adrenaline, etc…all affects the speed at which the relationship can really develop and still be believable. If I were in some kind of end-of-the-world situation, and had to rely on another person for my life, particularly a single person that I was attracted to, and we went thru hell and back together, yeah, I can see there being intense feelings quicker than in a usual dating scenario.

    I’ve rambled enough in your comments; great post Jason!

    1. First, never complain about rambling in your comments. It can never be too long! (TWSS)

      I do believe intense feelings can build in a short amount of time. I’ve fallen in love with a girl I only knew for a month . . . then lost her a month later and was devastated. It’s my belief that there’s two main stages to falling in love. First there’s the all-consuming blazing inferno that threatens to eat you alive. Anyone can fall into that in a relatively short time period. But it’ll burn out quick if you don’t add more to it. The second stage is when you build connections with each others, stability, and the foundation of a strong relationship. That takes time and effort.

      Falling in love is easy. staying in love instead of burning out, that’s hard. I think maybe some romance novels only show the falling in love part, and don’t stop to consider that without a strong foundation, the characters will have a blazing breakup in three months instead of living happily ever after.

      1. Well yeah, bc staying in love is work. It’s dedication and selflessness and looking past flaws and remembering to take out the trash. Who wants to read that?

      2. Also I think that you’ve got to remember that romance novels are fantasy. Not in the dragons way but in the bow chika bow way. We want to escape for a minute into a world where that all consuming burning love can last.

  3. I absolutely agree with everything you said here, and I’ll add that this is one problem that I’ve really noticed about romance novels. What selehenbauer said is absolutely right- it’s fantasy, in its own right, and it does rely a fair bit on some suspension of disbelief to make it work.

    And to go on that point… the main characters acting that way are, if you ask me, very much in a similar vein. It’s fantasy material, and so the male leads tend to reflect that, not unlike how female leads tend to reflect it in more male-dominated genres. You’ll also tend to see plotlines follow a similar arc, too, for much the same reasons. For some people, that works REALLY well. For others… well, not so much.

    You will see a fair bit of ‘falling in lust’ stories as well, and the genre has diversified a lot over the years, but that’s just how the romance novels go. I do salute you for doing the research, though- if you can avoid any heaving bosoms, I think it’ll all be worthwhile. *laughs*

    1. You make a good point about these stories needing some suspension of disbelief. And normally I can wear my suspenders pretty loose. But these last couple of novels required more suspension than I could give them.

      What I think I’m taking away from the “falling in lust” stories is that I may be able to distinguish between lust and love in my current work-in-progress. I have two characters who are very much in lust with each other. But I’m not going to try to pretend that’s anything more than what it is. Time will tell if they evolve past the lustful stage and develop something more.

  4. “Normally I can wear my suspenders pretty loose.”

    Been posing on a cover or two, there? 😉

    More seriously, that’s where I am, too. And ironically, I think that there are a lot of romance novelists who feel the same way. Don’t know if you ever get the chance, but the book “Beyond Heaving Bosoms” was a great resource in that regard.

    “Time will tell if they evolve past the lustful stage and develop something more.”

    I think that’s a great way of handling it. Whether it develops into something more or they eventually move on, there’s the promise of emotion and growth as a result, which usually goes over pretty well. We’ll see how it plays out, mm?

    1. I just ordered that book on Amazon. Aside from your recommendation, the fact that they call it “The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels” is reason enough to buy it.

  5. Great post, I couldn’t agree more with what was said here. I’ve been reading a lot of free books from amazon kindle and wow…a lot of the romance books that I’ve gotten are just terrible when it comes to shallow characters (especially male characters) who have perfect bodies and mentally repeat, “I love him/her so much” over eighty billion times. One good romance that I recently read was by Brenda Novak, it was pretty interesting and the characters felt real. Anna Maxted romances are usually also pretty realistic, my favorite book of hers is “Behaving Like Adults”.

    Great post and hope that helps!

  6. THIS POST.
    Seriously, this is exactly why I have a hard time reading romance novels. That is not usually how love works (I suppose there are some circumstances where it could be plausible…)
    In my own writing, I tend to put characters together and see how they react to one another. I never force them to ‘be in love’ for the sake of the plot. If their passion fizzles and dies then so does that plot line 😛

    1. I kinda took two characters and just put them together to see how they react. So far, there’s no love but a lot of physical attraction. So it’s possible this relationship won’t work out. We shall see.

  7. I have this same problem with YA.

    So, funny story. I was listening to the Writing Excuses podcast yesterday, and Brandon and Dan talked about their experiences writing YA as compared to their adult novels.

    When writing for adults, their editors will cross things out, saying “you showed this up above; redundant.”

    In YA, the editors specifically ask them to tell in addition to showing. They need to include adverbs such as “he said angrily” which go against all Brandon and Dan’s writerly instincts.

    One of the possible reasons they give is that young readers just haven’t lived long enough or read enough books to parse situations as well as adults. They need to be told how the characters are feeling, because they haven’t seen enough of those interactions. For example, seeing a loved one laughing with someone else and the character clenching their jaw can signify jealousy. A YA novel would have to explicitly write “he felt jealous at seeing her.”

    Does that makes sense?

    So yeah, I’m curious why this shows up in Romance, and it’s definitely something that’s put me off a lot of YA books.

    1. I’m curious to know whether there are studies to back up this idea that young readers can’t interpret books as easily or whether those editors are just making assumptions and underestimating a young reader’s intelligence. Though there is probably some gray area in there.

      1. Yeah, when I first heard that it seemed quite condescending. Isn’t the golden rule of YA to “not talk down”?

        Anyway, Dan and Brandon had the same reservations but in the end sided with their editors, since their job is to sell these kinds of books to teens, and it’s obviously working.

        Overall, you’re right. It’s a grey area, and some more data would be nice.

  8. You might enjoy authors like Mary Jo Putney, Courtney Milan (who has a freebie called “The Governess Affair” which ended up addictive and highly expensive because I am buying all her stuff), Laura Kinsale, and Laurie J. King (technically mystery, but has a superb ongoing relationship starting with THE BEEKEEPER’S APPRENTICE). Then there’s Rainbow Rowell’s FANGIRL, which says a lot about fanfic as well as developing a slow, but good, contemporary YA relationship.

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