It is a truth universally acknowledged that romance is a hugely important aspect of novels.

And, if Goodreads reviews are any indication, it’s also often a make-or-break aspect for readers. Genuine and powerful romances pull readers in. Insta-love with no basis in character development turns readers off.

I, personally, have never been a reader of the romance genre because I like my romance subtle and slow-burning*. My favorite classical romance is Pride and Prejudice, because Lizzie falls in love with Darcy on her own terms, because she comes to understand him and refuses to submit to either Darcy or Collins when she knows she feels no affection for them.

For me, love is internal, not external. Love directs our actions (and those of our characters), but it’s a human emotion just like hate or fear. It comes from within, informed by temperament and past experience as much as by biological impulses, and everyone experiences it differently. As writers, we need to be deliberate and aware of what motivates our characters no matter what they’re doing, and it’s especially important when writing romances.

I find that romances written as though love is a force that one character can impose on another, or an external force that pulls two or more characters along, something they’re a slave to, is inauthentic, particularly when they don’t end badly. Love as an external force imposed by the universe or by one of the partners is a recipe for disaster and should be represented as such. Romeo and Juliet anyone? Venus in Furs? Fifty Shades of Grey??

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This is why I personally find “true” or fated love boring, and enjoy plots that subvert it. That idea of love minimizes personal agency–it limits the ability of those involved to make sure their romantic needs are being met.

(Obviously, I’m speaking in general terms here. I’m sure there are some true/fated love stories that are still well-developed and fulfilling. Feel free to drop names in the comments.)

In another vein, reluctant love (or “they hate each other til they love each other”) is, I find, really difficult to do well; and writers who write it need to be especially aware of what that says about their story and their characters. I will admit that some of my favorite [relation]ships involve characters who deny their feelings for each other and channel that emotion into inexplicable jealousy and protectiveness: see Inara and Mal from Firefly.

But it must be noted that Inara leaves Mal because he refuses to treat her with respect before they ever acknowledge their feelings, and even in Serenity when she returns to the ship, there’s no grand declaration of love, only a tacit understanding of everything they’ve previously left unsaid. I can only hope (having not read the continuing comics) that Mal has to change the way he treats her before Inara allows any open romantic involvement.

Writers who employ this hate-to-love plot must work extra hard to ensure that bad behavior isn’t automatically forgiven as soon as smoochies commence, because that is another recipe for disaster.

Do you agree, disagree? Civil discussion and book recommendations encouraged in the comments. 

*My experience with the romance genre has primarily set up the two romantic protags right away and included lots of blatant sexual hijinks, which are not to my taste.

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5 thoughts on “True Love is Boring, and Other Musings on the Subject

  1. YES. I absolutely loathe both instalove and the whole idea of “soul mates” or “fated attraction” – I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a book which involves either of those things! I think reluctant love can work, but only if it’s written well and is believable. That said, I’m not much of a romance reader – I’m all for romance as a sub-plot, but only if it actually fits!

  2. Wholly agreed. The best romances I’ve read had the two characters getting to know each other and sort of stumbling their way into realizing they had feelings for each other, and both halves of the eventual couples reacted to that in totally different ways. That’s what made those stories seem real – it seemed like how people would actually deal with that sort of thing.

    1. Exactly! This is especially true of teen romances. I read something the other day about how love grows out of hundreds of little things falling into place, not out of a handful of grander moments. To paraphrase poorly, haha. I can’t seem to find where it was I read that. But I loved it, I think that’s so true, and relevant to writing romances.

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