May 8, 2013

What To Avoid In Your Romance Novel

Frustrated as I sometimes am with people who disparage the romance genre, especially without any experience with (quality) romance novels, I can usually forgive them their ignorance. As a reader, what pushes me over the edge are those who write romance novels as though they actually believe those stereotypes both about the genre and about their readers. 

"Just as the role of women in society has changed over the past 30 years, so have romance novels...most romances today feature strong, smart, savvy women. And smart romance characters attract smart romance readers."
Unfortunately, too many new romance authors write not to the smart romance readers, choosing simply to recombine elements from other popular romance novels and hoping that their readers will be too distracted by the sex or the happily ever after—or simply the checklist they themselves have created for what a romance novel must include—to notice.

So, I've decided to create my own (likely incomplete) list, of what one absolutely should not do if writing a romance novel targeted to today's smart romance readers:
  1. Throw every type of trauma imaginable into your character's background
    • Writers do this in an attempt to create sympathy for their characters and conflict, i.e. something keeping this character from happily ever after with his/her intended. 
    • What this actually does is create a character so completely damaged, it's highly unbelievable that these issues can be resolved in the space of your novel. So, either they've already been resolved through intensive therapy (so your character is much older than these writers tend to make them), or your main character is now a psycho (somewhere between an institution and a serial killer). 
    • The fact is, while we as readers do want a sense of struggle before the main characters reach their happily ever afters, we do not want the main character to be a repeatedly beat-down and abused puppy, partially because of the literally unbelievable background this creates and partially because writers then have to make their characters unbelievably resilient to all of these problems in order to tell the story of the relationship which will, quite incredibly, heal it all.
      One (maybe two, or even none!) traumatic past event is sufficient to create a reasonable conflict and to flesh out your character. I promise.
  2. Have your main character forget all about his/her trauma upon meeting the intended soulmate
    • Writers do this to jump into the story of these two characters more actively.
    • Love, even true love, is not a panacea. The right relationship can support us as we deal with our issues, even help us face those issues, but not instantaneously wipe them away.
      • As Anne Browning Walker wrote, quality "romances celebrate how the best love helps us to grow." They do not equate "love" with "a giant bubble around two people into which past trauma doesn't penetrate, rather only brushing against said bubble to move the plot along when convenient."
      Would you really believe that a woman with a history of sexual or physical abuse is going to be perfectly comfortable alone with the big, strong, athletic, testosterone-filled hero the moment they meet just because he's cute and has a nice smile? Remember that whole "smart readers" thing? That heroine would be anxious alone with the hero and planning her escape route. Even if she's had extensive therapy, she is probably carrying mace (or a pistol?) and trying to ensure someone else whom she knows or believes is trustworthy is around. She is not somehow instinctively comfortable around the hero because he has kind eyes. 
      This is just one example. If your hero/heroine has a trauma related to a specific type of person or profession, s/he will, metaphorically or not, run the other way when a similar person shows up. S/he is highly unlikely to ignore the trauma because of pheromones. Your readers hopefully will not expect otherwise.
      These two characters' stories could quite easily start with something other than an instinctual, deep-seated, uncontrollable attraction. Or, your characters could not have trauma that would prevent them from acting on the aforementioned attraction. Both are perfectly acceptable options.
  3. Speaking of smart readers, we do love smart characters—but their accomplishments still have to be believable!
    • I'm not sure why writers do this. Lack of distance from their project? The "these are the elements that must exist so I'll throw it in" approach? Really poor editing?
    • If your main character is a genius, that's perfectly fine. Susan Elizabeth Phillips, for example, has a wonderful book about a genius character called Nobody's Baby But Mine. However, if your character suffered multiple different types of traumas which took him/her out of the academic field for a year or two, and is nevertheless at 25 years old about six years ahead of the academic curve, I don't believe you, especially if this character is simply hard-working and intelligent and not a child prodigy.
    • Academics take time, even if you are incredibly smart and can shorten that time somewhat, you aren't getting your Ph. D. by age 23 without having finished university by 19. This means not only having above-par academic aptitude but also someone being aware of your brilliance and fostering it—and even then, you'd be completing your doctorate rather quickly. So please, even with your intelligent characters, be reasonable!
  4. Have a main character suffer a serious physical trauma and then have sex the instant (or even day after) s/he's released from the hospital. Doubly so if the character is a woman who is a virgin.
    • Exceptions are:
      • Your character has magic healing properties (paranormal romance). Laurell K Hamilton's characters, for instance, generally get a pass with regards to this rule (for both listed exceptions).
      • Your character enjoys pain as part of sex. 
    • Writers do this for pacing, or maybe because they secretly hate the character, but likely because they have no understanding of physical trauma and healing times. 
    • "Ow" I think should cover this point, but in case it doesn't: if your character was hospitalized due to injuries sustained and has sex the next day, s/he will not enjoy it unless one of the two exceptions is true, which your reader should know before this incident. Being hospitalized, as opposed to checked out in an ER, is serious. Sex scenes in romance novels are generally written so your reader can fantasize along. Give your characters reasonable time to heal! This isn't even difficult to do in a novel since a writer can literally manipulate time as necessary with a few words. 
  5. Somewhat related to the previous point: do not have your completely inexperienced, blushing ingenue turn into a sexpot after her first kiss. (Unless there is magic involved. So much can be explained away with magic.)
    • Writers do this's sexier? Because writing a sex scene about a virgin that doesn't resemble bodice rippers is too difficult? I'm open to suggestions here. 
    • For the purposes of this point, by "virgin" we're going to assume people who not only haven't had intercourse, but also have very little if any experience with sexual scenarios. Do not have your virgin character take control during her first time if the other character has experience. (If neither one does, do not write that the male character has perfect self-control and can wait until his partner is satisfied or that the female character is physically pleasured by every part of this experience.) Similarly, do not have a character who has absolutely no experience confidently take charge in teasing and pleasuring his/her partner. Despite the element of fantasy to reading romance, realism matters!
  6. Have your main character be "modestly" or "humbly" unaware of his/her own attractiveness, but really have supermodel looks (unless this is one of the primary issues through which your character will be working), especially discovered off-hand at a photo shoot for his/her new model or celebrity significant other.
    • I believe writers do this partly to instill confidence about themselves in the readers and partly because the "ugly duckling but really a swan" issue has become one of the tropes in the genre.
    • First of all, someone would have noticed by now that your character is gorgeous. I'll believe that your character doesn't quite believe it, or is perhaps oblivious to it, but not that someone who is incredibly self-conscious will suddenly bloom in front of a professional photographer, while surrounded by all the other people on a photo shoot's set, and instinctively take great photos. I will forgive this if this is a piece of one of the primary plot lines, but not if it's simply an ego boost for your character in an offhand scene.
    • Second, why can't average-looking people fall in love?? It's perfectly acceptable for someone who has average looks to find his/her soulmate, and just because you want his/her soulmate to compliment his/her looks, that doesn't mean that everyone else must spontaneously realize that this person was supermodel–gorgeous all along. One of the sweetest things, in my opinion, about love is how people who are perfectly matched genuinely believe that their partner is stunningly beautiful, regardless of others' perspectives.
      While I understand the urge to "encourage" readers by implying that average-looking people are actually drop-dead gorgeous somewhere underneath—the right people just haven't seen it yet—we do not all conform to modern standards of beauty (i.e. the ones to be photographed for fashion magazines) which does not make us less beautiful! So implying that in order to be beautiful we do have to at least "secretly" match that standard is actually insulting, and why would you want to insult your reader?
I'm certain there are many other frequent issues which pop up in books by new (or sloppy) romance writers, so I may expand this list in the future. Chances are if an author has only one of these elements I, personally, will forgive him/her. If, however, more than half are in the novel, I'm unlikely to finish reading it, and even less likely to read another work by that author, especially if I have to expend my hard-earned money to buy it.

What about you? What are your pet peeves in the romance genre?


  1. Very insightful post. I dislike it when characters all have movie star good looks, but my biggest pet peeve is the all too familiar predictable plot.

    1. So true! Although, with romance the plot has a certain element of predictability – it's not a question of if the couple will get together, but how and why, though those twists and turns should be unpredictable.

  2. I would definitely agree with all of these :)

  3. Great information. I don't write romances, because I embarrass myself writing love scenes. Molly Campbell

    1. It definitely requires breaking through some layers of that wall of shame. :-)