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.