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

What Makes a Romance? Examples

As part of our ongoing series exploring what makes a great romance, we decided that doing a deep dive into a few books that are *undeniably* romance novels was necessary to set the groundwork for our later conversations. Our goal here is to describe with specific details what indisputably makes a romance. 

For this detailed deep dive, we’ve chosen three novels, covering multiple subgenres, writing styles, and gendered relationship, as well as a range of publication dates. None of these books is perfect (in fact, the two older books have some old-school elements that some readers today may find cringe-worthy). However, none of these books has, to our knowledge, inspired debate about whether they should better be categorized as “women’s fiction.” (As a bonus feature, these are also all books that we reviewed as a group.) 

Last month, Ingrid posited that a key feature of a satisfying romance novel was dynamic characters, who grow separately and together. In other words, each main character must have a growth arc, and there must be some growth in the relationship as well.

Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase (1995)

The Details: Lord of Scoundrels is frequently cited as a “canon” romance. It’s a bonkers historical romance set during the Regency period, featuring a bluestocking and a Lord who get married after being publicly compromised. It’s narrated by an omniscient third POV outside the story; this voice comments on the interior life of Dain and Jessica, and knows more about them (especially Dain) than the characters do themselves. The story ends with a happily ever after that includes not just marriage, but Dain and Jessica formally taking charge of Dain’s illegitimate son.

The Growth Arc: Of the two main characters, Dain undergoes the more significant growth arc, going from emotionally-constipated man-baby woman-hating-rake to some who learns not only to love his partner, but to love himself. Jessica starts out stronger and more self-aware, but she transitions from wanting to avoid marriage and relationships to finding herself stuck in a marriage with Dain because she’s compromised to understanding that her initial goal was more of a reasonable way for her to function in society than because it would really make her happy. Together Dain and Jessica go from horny adversaries to reluctant spouses to true partners. 

Why It’s So Satisfying: I mean, they start off just so incredibly at odds with each other that he attempts to ruin her and she SHOOTS HIM…and they somehow turn it into a deep and tender romance. It’s satisfying because in order for them to achieve that they have to churn through an incredible amount of work both separately and together and come out the other side without losing the reader’s buy in that they should be together.

 A Hunger Like No Other by Kresley Cole (2006)

The Details: What we have here is an epic paranormal romance between a werewolf and a vampire that kicks off an extremely epic series of books. Like Lord of Scoundrels, A Hunger Like No Other has some distinctly old-school beats, not least of which is a very innocent virgin heroine. Told in alternating 3rd POV chapters from the perspectives of Emma (the vampire) and Lachlan (the werewolf), the story plays around with the fated mates trope and the dichotomy of evil and innocence. 

The Growth Arc: Emma undergoes significant changes due to her interactions with Lachlan. She starts as an extremely sheltered young vampire, but through their relationship, she comes into her own power as her family’s disapproval of their mating forces her to set some much-needed boundaries for herself now that she’s an adult. Lachlan is hell-bent on revenge after being imprisoned underground for centuries by the vampire king—who happens to be Emma’s father. In terms of their relationship, Lachlan knows that it’s fate from the beginning (Emma’s the reason he escapes from his interminable torture), but, of course, things are complicated by a bunch of inter-species paranormal warring going on. Lachlan and Emma face some cosmic nonsense standing between them an their happy ending, but once they start working together, they are able to come up with (at least the start of) a solution.

Why It’s So Satisfying: This one is satisfying in two ways. One, we see Emma coming into her own strength and Lachlan learning to relinquish control. We see the fated couple come to terms with their OWN relationship—not what they think their relationship has to be, and we see them choose it. That’s very satisfying. It’s also satisfying to see this happen in the context of the trope itself—as we see the characters grow and change, we’re also seeing their struggles play against the trope and that creates a kind of secondary tension.

Glitterland by Alexis Hall (2013)

The Details: Glitterland is a contemporary M/M romance set in London, between a snobby depressed writer and a glitter pirate with a spray tan who he meets at a bar. This is a sex-first, feelings-later romance with high heat, such that it might be best characterized as erotic romance. It’s told from a single perspective—Ash’s (the snobby depressed writer)—in a close first person narrative. Darian (the glitter pirate) remains somewhat opaque, in that we never hear what he’s thinking, though it’s clear from early on that he definitely fancies Ash. The story ends Happily For Now; after Ash treats Darian terribly and properly apologizes, the men agree to give dating a shot. As Darian says at the end of the book:

“So, lemme get this right. We’re gonna make a go of it. You and me? Togevver? Even though I’m orange and you’re mental?”

The Growth Arc: As one might expect given the single POV narration, Ash undergoes a much more obvious growth arc, as he comes to accept that it’s ok to be happy—and more importantly in terms of the romance, that it’s ok to be happy with Darian, who is not the “right kind” of person. His personal change is intrinsically tied to his relationship with Darian. While one could argue that Darian doesn’t grow here, he is still a dynamic character because of the way he is revealed. He goes from being a one-night hookup to the person who accepts Ash as he is without fuss to a three-dimensional person in his own right with his own emotions and needs—something Ash doesn’t fully see until he’s insulted Darian horribly. 

Why It’s So Satisfying: In this one we have a delightful, delicious mismatch—the tension comes from the differences that should divide them, but ultimately result in their freedom to be who they are, together. The key to the success of this book is that the characters have to walk a tightrope to their happy ending: if they change too much for the other person, the very things that draw them “togevver” will be lost and the spark will be smothered. But if they don’t grow enough to accommodate the things that are causing the friction, they won’t make it either. It’s deeply satisfying to reach the end of that successful tension.

Chase, Cole, and Hall all approach romance storytelling in different ways. Things like narrative style, a romance’s ending, and amount of sex all impact our interpretations of romance, but even though these three books all include different stylistic choices in all of those categories, they are all indisputably romances. There are other stories that use some of the exact same narrative choices as the authors chose for these books, and they may straddle the gray area between romance and romantic fiction or women’s fiction. The puzzle of how all of these pieces fit together impacts the narrative and the reader’s interpretation of the narrative as a genre romance, and we’ll explore each of these topics in more detail in future posts. 

Next month, for context on the other side of the line, we’ll discuss some romances we’ve read that definitely fall in the gray area of genre romance. 

4 thoughts on “What Makes a Romance? Examples”

  1. Wonderful analysis of three different books and the underlying elements that unites them as romances. This is what I admire so much about the genre: the variety of stories that can be told.

    An outsider to the genre may think HEA means predictability. The 3 examples you’ve highlighted show how divergent the plot can be, but thematically, love is love!

    Liked by 1 person

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