The Great Smut Debate (with debate inked in cursive by a fountain pen)
The Great Smut Debate

What Makes a Romance? Defining the Genre

The Romance Writers of America (and many readers of romance) defines a genre romance as a book that 1) focuses on a romantic relationship and 2) has a happy, optimistic ending (also known as the HEA). Within those parameters, there’s a lot of space to tell many different kinds of stories. Our goal in this series is to try and drill down on what makes a great romance really successful…and what makes us say, “Eh, that book was kinda smut adjacent.” In other words, it’s not so much about what we need to have a romance, but it is what we need to get the high we’re looking for in a romance. And it all started when Ingrid proposed her own definition of a good romance novel.

Ingrid’s Definition of Romance 

The main characters struggle against some issue, whether interpersonal or an external force (or both!). In order to overcome that obstacle they have to grow and develop as people individually and together in order to reach their HEA (as determined by the people in the relationship). The most satisfying romances balances these three components. 

*In case you were wondering, Erin’s and Holly’s brains immediately exploded as they tried to poke holes in Ingrid’s theory. Here are some highlights from our conversation.*

Let’s Break It Down

As we see it, there are three components to this definition. We’ll expand on each of them.

1. Characters must overcome an obstacle

The point is, there’s got to be something going on in the book, otherwise there’s no tension. 

This is essentially the role of the trope. The trope is the framework for the obstacle. Enemies to lovers? Our struggle is that we hate each other! Best friends’ sibling? Our struggle is that we’re not sure how we feel about the change in our relationship—and what that change might mean for our other valued relationships. Conspiracy theory? Our struggle is that someone is trying to frame me for a murder I didn’t commit, and you are the only person who sorta maybe believes me, oh and by the way, we’re running for our lives!

Sometimes, the obstacle isn’t in the trope defining the relationship between the characters, but in the individuals’ circumstances. The struggling small-business owner who is trying to keep her twee cupcakery in the black. The musician who can’t commit because they’re always touring. The combat veteran who is learning to manage his PTSD.

2. Characters must both develop as people, individually

This is critical to the genre. The characters have to develop separately because this defines who they are as individuals and highlights why they’re compatible. It’s often a tool used to create intimacy—when you see a character growing, it shows who they are and what they value. Then, as a reader, you see how the characters interact based on that compatibility, and it’s satisfying. Romance novels that are well done don’t skimp on this kind of development.

Obviously, some characters undergo more pointed growth arcs than others, but just because it’s not overt doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Sometimes the change is subtle; sometimes just holding firm and not giving up is growth.

When the change is hard for a character, this growth is more profound. If we take a messy character in need of a morality chain, it’s not always that that character becomes a good person—it’s that they were willing to concede a point. 

If the change is too profound, then it’s unrealistic. A vampire doesn’t just decide to become vegan. You don’t want the person to change completely, but rather to be dynamic—preferably thanks to new insights courtesy of the romantic journey (be they ups or downs).

Example of this: Take Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase. The scene where Jessica shoots Dain is pivotal in showing who they are at the beginning of their marriage. Jessica’s growth is in maintaining her boundaries; Dain gets the transformative emotional development, such that he no longer deserves shooting at the end of the book.

3. Characters must develop together as they become a romantic unit

What we’re experiencing when we read a romance is the decision for these specific people to choose each other—intentionally, passionately, tenderly—whatever. But the point is the choice. And to get to the point where the choice must happen because it’s inevitable (again, it’s romance so it’s a mandatory HEA), we have to see the characters become something more together than they were apart. Otherwise, what’s the point? Being single is great, too. So the characters have to progress together as well as separately. 

There has to be some dynamic of working together to overcome the obstacle because otherwise the focus of the plot is going to shift to one or the other character. And if the shift turns to only one character, we get into either Women’s Lit territory, or, we get into self-sacrifice territory, where one character changes themself completely in service to someone else.

Same Idea, Different Words 

Ingrid’s not the only one to argue parts of this definition. She built her definition from an article by the NY Public Library, which argued the origin of the genre stemmed from the heroine struggling against a complication in order to overcome it and find her happiness. Others in romancelandia have also touched upon pieces of Ingrid’s rubric in exploring what makes a romance satisfying.

Here’s Talia Hibbert talking to Vox about her view on chemistry: 

For me, a lot of how I think about my characters’ compatibility stems from a book called Romancing the Beat by Gwen Hayes, which is about the structure of romance novels. She talks about characters who start off hole-hearted, as in with a hole in their hearts. Then over the course of this story, they become whole-hearted, as in complete. I love that so much, and I always think of it in terms of, I give each character something that they’re missing or something that is affecting them, that they need to overcome. I do make their emotional journey about them overcoming it themselves, but when I’m crafting their partner, I’m also thinking, “Who is going to support them in this journey?”

Each character has something to overcome—which they have to do both themselves, but also with the support of their new partner.

In their episode on Hurts to Love You by Alisha Rai, Morgan and Isabeau over at the Whoamance podcast offered a critique that resonates with Ingrid’s argument: the characters do a lot of struggling separately, but don’t struggle together at all, which led to a less satisfying romance-reading experience (Holly’s take on this book was that it was too angsty: in other words, they struggled too much in their heads, and not enough with each other.)

In short: if these other smart romance readers are noticing it too, maybe Ingrid is on to something. 

*Holly and Erin are still in the land of denial, but are coming to accept that Ingrid might be right.*

Counterpoint: What about single-POV stories with opaque love interests?

An opaque, non-POV love interest may change over the course of the book! Even if the reader doesn’t know that character’s mind, actions can speak volumes. And the change does not need to be significant. For example, in Lick by Kylie Scott, David goes from sharing nothing at all to sharing something but still putting the band first, to opening himself to Evelyn and putting their marriage first. And the lack of David’s POV creates a more interesting story because we’re surprised by his secrets being revealed as the book goes on. 

However, we acknowledge that single-POV books are more likely to fall into the category of grey, not-quite-as-satisfying, maybe-it’s-women’s-fic, romance. These books may be interesting reads, but they may not hit us in the romance feels in the same way. The central part of the story in these instances focuses in on the POV character (usually, but not always, the female main character), and the main part of the book is that character’s journey—then the journey together is not as important and the journey alone.

We’ll explore single-POV romances more later in this series.

Counterpoint: What about “no plot, just vibes” romances?

It’s not just the relationship, it’s building the relationship, it’s how it comes to be. Even if the characters are spending time together (with or without sex) without a lot of external plot, there’s some kind of tension there where the characters move towards each other.

Closing Thoughts

To be clear: our goal is not to gatekeep what “counts” as a romance—the genre is capacious! Rather, we’re trying to think of ways to more thoughtfully identify what works and what doesn’t. It’s about growing as romance critics: if we take our roles not only as smut enthusiasts and evangelists seriously, but also our role as smut scholars, then it’s time to dig into the weeds. 

What do you all think of Ingrid’s definition? Can you think of a great romance novel that doesn’t follow this rubric?

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