“Romance,” says James Scott Bell in Writing Great Fiction: Self-Editing and Revision, “is about the characters trying to get love.”
Every romance writer who reads that will cringe. Getting love? Like it’s a medal you win at the end of a race, or a prize you earn for doing everything correctly? It sounds absurd. It sounds boring. It doesn’t sound like anything I look for when I pick up a romance novel.
This kind of thing comes up over and over, if you read enough books on writing. Here’s Steven James on constructing the opening scene of your manuscript: “If you’re writing a romance story, they [readers] want to see normal life for the young man or woman who’s searching for love.” Again: love as a singular aim. Straight as an arrow. Dull as dishwater.
Off the top of my head, I find it hard to think of many romances where love is the hero or heroine’s one and only desire. “Searching for love” is so painfully vague! On the other hand there are thousands of romance novels where people are desperate to stay away from love—books where a newly blossoming basket of feelings does nothing but cause trouble and mess up everyone’s plans and lives and expectations. Love in a romance is narrative kudzu. It takes root and grows and grows until it engulfs the world.
Think about our favorite tropes: The widowed duke whose history of familial abuse means he keeps his emotions carefully walled away. The governess who simply intends to teach her difficult charge and live a quiet, peaceful life far from the secret scandals of her past. The cupcake-loving heroine who has her hands full running a small bakery and can spare no time for dating. The billionaire who thinks a committed relationship will only slow him down from being a ruthless competitor. Even in that classic romance Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth’s goal is not really: “search for a loving and worthy partner.” It’s more: “don’t get railroaded into marrying total assholes just to keep from starving.”
It would be far more accurate to say not that romance novel characters are looking to get love, but that love is looking to get them.
It’s no wonder if writing guides leave romance out. The genre breaks a lot of cardinal rules simply by existing. For instance, the trouble with protagonists.
Protagonists, the guides tell you, are singular. Two representative citations:
- “It’s best if you have one protagonist.” — Deborah Chester in The Fantasy Fiction Formula (which features a glowing introduction from Jim Butcher).
- “There is usually only one protagonist in a given story. Sometimes there are two: Consider Romeo and Juliet.” — The Modern Library Writers’ Workshop (Stephen Koch), which will drop a Stephen King or Ray Bradbury quote alongside Proust and Trollope and Anne Lamott, but which apparently considers any romances from the past four hundred years unworthy of literary notice.
But in romance, multiple protagonists come standard. You must have at least two; more if you’re writing ménage or poly romances. . The h/h, I like to call them, to be gender-inclusive. Multiple protagonists means mulitple central goals — so romance writers are already at least doubling the amount of work we have to do to craft a successful story. And it’s more fun for everyone if those multiple goals share either a plot connection or thematic contrast. Continuing with Austen as an example, Elizabeth’s goal is “don’t marry assholes,” and Darcy’s goal for pretty much all of the book is “marry Elizabeth.” The conflict? For most of the book, Darcy is an asshole! Instant dramatic tension.
Sometimes you can skirt the issue by pitting your h/h against one another. Author Gerri Russell once said in a workshop: “If your hero’s a firefighter, your heroine had better be an arsonist.” (Sadly, I have yet to read any arsonist heroines, though if someone knows about one they should drop a note in comments.) The h/h are often on opposite sides of a conflict: the billionaire developer and the earnest environmentalist, or the playboy ballplayer and the uptight publicist hired to buff his tarnished reputation.
It goes deeper than just plot mechanics. Sexually tempting heroes in m/f romances are often described in sinister, overwhelmingly devilish terms. Hell, I wrote one romance like that myself! Pretty sure there’s a whole essay about this in Jayne Ann Krentz’ Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, too. And of course there’s Gothic romance, where the hero is by definition suspected of being the villain. Darcy certainly doesn’t look like the hero in the first half of Pride and Prejudice. He looks like a pompous, self-absorbed jerkface with more money than manners, who destroys his friend’s budding relationship for what amounts to shits and giggles. He looks, in short, like the villain.
It goes without saying that a romance hero can’t really be a straight-up villain, or the book ceases to be a romance (no matter what nefarious trendsters are trying to sell you). So the plot solution can’t simply be to have one H defeat the other — romances where one H’s whole world is destroyed tend to read like the rigged games they are. The plot needs to resolve in a way that answers both protagonists’ story questions. The transformations of both characters must feel balanced.
Writing a good romance therefore means solving two central problems at once, in a way that is both emotionally satisfying and not too easy or obvious. Because if it were easy or obvious, your characters would have handled it in chapter two and never found themselves trapped in that gazebo during that thunderstorm, when the duke finally opens up about his tortured backstory and the governess finally allows herself to give in to the desires a mousy virgin never admits to having. And that night’s outcome means the duke starts telling his troubled teenage son how much he really loves him, and the governess rebels against the suffocating role society demands she play, and both their lives are transformed by story’s end. They do not end up with the same goals they began the book with; they end up with something better. Love always comes along to knock the h/h off-course.
See, for contrast, this love plot description from Deborah Chester: “Often you’ll find stories where the protagonist and antagonist are in love with the same individual. In such triangles, winning a relationship with the love interest may serve as the goal and story question. Certainly the conflict will be focused and directly oppositional.”
That phrasing rings all my feminist alarm bells: “winning a relationship,” ugh. It has Nice Guy written all over it. How many of you suspect, as I do, that despite the neutral pronouns the protagonist/antagonist of this love triangle are probably men, and the object of competition is probably a woman?
Notice how this love triangle description actually makes the love interest a horribly static character: it implies she doesn’t have a story goal of her own, but is merely a linchpin for the story goals of the two main characters competing to win her affections. Even when such craft books are speaking directly about courtship plots, the concept of a romance arc balanced between two equally weighted parties somehow fails to materialize.
This is a failure of imagination. A singular protagonist has a singular goal with two outcomes: win or lose, comedy or tragedy. Romance has double the protagonists, double the story goals, and the firm rule that both of the h’s have to win for the game to count. And this is the genre that detractors dismiss as uncreative! It’s like having an Olympian hopeful’s flawless series of triple axles, Lutzes, and Salchows dismissed by the home audience because the sequins mean she can’t possibly be a serious athlete.
But really the hero only masquerades as an antagonist. The real villain of any romance novel is love itself.
Love, much like rhythm, is gonna get you (boo!). It has to be treated as a character in its own right. You have to describe what it looks like, what it does to the unsuspecting h/h, what it forces them to confront, what makes them struggle against it, and what makes them ultimately turn and embrace it whole-heartedly. It is rarely kind to its victims. It makes them suffer and weep and work out problems they’d rather ignore. It forces them to grow, to learn, to take risks — just like any worthy villain by Deborah Chester’s definition: “the character most intent on wreaking havoc on the protagonist’s life and happiness.”
And maybe this is the problem so many non-romance writers have when they try to talk about romance. They think of love as this passive thing, sitting around like an artifact waiting to be picked up. Romance novels know love is active and mischievous. Love stalks in like Hans Gruber, prepared to blow up the building floor by floor until the h/h — stripped down, bloodied, and battered — finally come face to face with how much they mean to one another.
Love is such a superb and timeless villain that we’ve dedicated an entire genre to its exploits. We have taken something broadly scorned as passive, feminine, unserious, and profoundly less-than — and made it all-powerful and irresistible. That is how romance is subversive. That is how romance is revolutionary.
That is why we need it now more than ever.