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

The Great Smut Debate: Point of View

When we were coming up with examples of definite romance novels, it was relatively easy to find examples written in both first and third person, as well as single and multiple perspectives. However, when it came time for us to talk about gray area books—books that had many hallmarks for the romance genre but sometimes had readers sardonically raising their brows—we struggled to name any that weren’t single-perspective, first-person POV.

This raises the question: How does POV contribute to whether or not something feels like a romance?

What does point of view do?

Let’s start with some terminology. Point of view is the perspective from which a story is told. First person is narrated from inside a person’s head; a book where the narrator says things like “I walked into the bar” is a first-person narrative. Third person refers to the main characters as he/she/they, as appropriate: “she walked into the bar.” Third person narration can be close, where the reader is privy to all of the character’s thoughts and feelings, or distant, where the reader sees only the character’s actions. Omniscient third refers to an all-knowing narrator who is privy to the thoughts and emotions of all the characters, not just the protagonists. Distant and omniscient third are rarely used in genre romance.

When we talk about single or dual or multiple points of view, we refer to how many characters share their thoughts directly with the reader.

There is no one right perspective from which to write a romance novel. Point of view is a tool, and good writers use the right tool to tell the story they want to tell. We’ll get more into the details of how these different styles work to make a romance better (or worse), but here’s a quick example: When we buddy-read two Beauty and the Beast retellings last fall, we noted that they were both single-perspective narratives. This storytelling choice allowed the authors to make the beast character more mysterious, thereby heightening the tension of the story as the beast was slowly revealed. (Ingrid talked about slow reveals and how that creates tension on Tuesday.) 

So let’s explore how this tool impacts the reader’s perception of a romantic narrative.


How does dual POV prime us to read a story as a romance?

Genre romance is perhaps the only place where dual-perspective storytelling is commonly used. In the current moment, this frequently looks like alternating chapters from the two protagonists’ perspectives, but can also include a more detached 3rd person narration that switches perspective chapter by chapter or in the middle of a scene. 

Dual-POV narration means that we get into the heads of both protagonists, which primes the reader to see them as two equally important characters. This, in turn, makes the story about both characters and their relationship with each other—and if we go back to Ingrid’s definition of a good romance, that’s a crucial ingredient. After all, it is way easier to see each character’s growth and effort when you have the ability to hear directly from the characters involved in the developing romance—no guesswork or assumptions necessary.

Dual POV also creates intimacy. How so? By getting into both characters’ heads, you’re able to see the motivations and fears that guide their actions. The intimacy isn’t just more palpable between the characters, it also creates a layer of intimacy between the reader and the characters—like a close confidant, you’re privy to just exactly how thrilling each lingering look and accidental touch really is.

As an aside, please note that this discussion of dual POV books also applies to ménage or poly romances where each member of the romantic group tells some of the story from their perspective. The uniqueness to romance is not the number of perspectives represented, but that the protagonists are equally central.


Do multi-POV books work as romances?

By multi-POV books, we refer to narratives where the point of view of not only the protagonists is included, but where the reader also sees the perspective of other secondary characters. This can be a great tool for fleshing out a plot particularly in situations where events that protagonists don’t know about really impact the story (this may be why multi-POV narration is so popular in epic fantasy novels). Multi-POV narration also gives authors the opportunity for readers to get an alternate perspective on the romance—how do other characters perceive the burgeoning relationship? And including a few scenes from the perspective of a secondary character can be a great way to set up a sequel.

However, the downside to introducing additional POVs is that it shifts the perspective of the reader away from the main couple. Think of it this way: when you go on a double-date, you’re much less likely to make out with the person you’re on a date with. With more people in the mix, you’re less able to build the same level of intimacy.

Headhopping

Headhopping occurs in 3rd person narration, when the narrator jumps from one character’s perspective to another, usually in the middle of a scene. For example, Mary Lancaster will sometimes tell a scene from a minor character’s perspective; in The Vulgar Heart, secondary character Charlotte breaks in at the absolute PEAK of the plot to connect some dots for the reader and provide some context on how everyone else is perceiving this relationship.

 On her return to Audley Park, Charlotte felt quite please by her intervention. She had not be unsure about going to the Hart in search of Captian Cromarty, but it had seemed vital to discover what sort of a man he truly was.

The entire purpose of this chapter focusing on Charlotte is to break up the tension, line up some plot complications, and establish to the reader how meant-to-be Henrietta and Sydney’s relationship is. This puts distance between the reader and the protagonists; you’re not in it with the characters, but rather watching them. 

While it sometimes breaks up the action, headhopping can be a profoundly effective tool for shedding light on the central relationship. If it’s well-threaded into the story, the reader might not even notice that it’s happening, but it’s a little bite outside the POV of the protagonists that reinforces what’s happening between the protagonists. Yes, these observations tell us, you can trust your interpretation of the burgeoning romance because these secondary characters can see what you see, even if the protagonists have yet to admit their true feelings to themselves. Jen Prokop tweeted some great examples of this from Lisa Kleypas last year:

Secondary Romances and the Ensemble Cast

Sometimes romance novels don’t just focus on one protagonist, but rather include side adventures with additional characters finding love. 

Often when this happens, it’s a sweet little sub-plot that develops alongside the central romance, typically in ways that connect to the struggles and triumphs of that romance. Seeing another romance develop might provide insight to a protagonist, or it might free a protagonist to pursue their own dreams. Erin recently finished K.J. Charles’s Band Sinister (she read ahead for the July TBR Challenge, so more forthcoming next month), in which one of the reasons that Guy can’t be with Rookwood is that he feels responsible for his sister and won’t leave her. What Guy doesn’t initially know, but the reader is privy to, is that one of Rookwood’s friends has been very busy falling in love with Guy’s sister. Aside from simply granting us the charm of another romance, the secondary romance adds tension because the reader knows that Guy could have the life he wants if these characters would simply talk to each other.

In some cases, the end result is disappointing. We’re thinking of Love Becomes Her by Donna Hill, which we buddy-read earlier this spring—and which only Holly finished. In that case, each of the four women had extensive page time and her own arc, which meant that the central romance (such as it was) was completely undeveloped.

In other cases, the result is a mixed bag. Take Eloisa James’ Desperate Duchesses series. The arc of the series as a whole is consumed with the meaty love triangle between Jemma, Elijah, and Villiers. This is great news for Jemma and Elijah, whose HEA at the end of Book 5 feels so well-deserved. However, this is less great for the main characters of earlier books in the series, especially Desperate Duchesses and An Affair Before Christmas (Books 1 & 2), who are almost reduced to secondary characters in their own love stories in favor of furthering the larger plot. (See Holly’s review of An Affair Before Christmas for more details about how this plays out.)

Sometimes, however, an ensemble cast can be used to reinforce the rightness of the central relationship. The best example we can think of is Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie. The trials and tribulations of the large ensemble cast reinforces the central theme of the book: what it means to fall in love. Secondary characters and their relationships with each other mirror Cal and Min, or push them together, or force them to confront the truth that there’s no outrunning fate.

The Villain Scene

The villain scene is in a class of its own when it comes to multi-POV narration. It’s a jarring, tension-building plot device, meant to ratchet up the stakes facing the protagonists. Unlike other multi-POV perspectives, the villain chapter is not meant to build intimacy, because the reader isn’t invested in the villain’s thoughts and fears and feelings. (Unless that villain is Kaleb Krychek.)

Not surprisingly, the villain chapter is most commonly found in romantic suspense novels, or romance novels with significant suspense plot elements. Any time Ming LeBon (or Henry or Shoshanna Scott, for that matter) shows up in any of Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling books, the reader knows that something threatening is in the works that the protagonists know nothing about. The reader is left waiting for the other shoe to drop as the danger closes in on the characters we’ve been rooting for.

There are times that the generic expectations of these scenes can be used by the author to manipulate reader expectations. The villain scenes in Adriana Anders’s Uncharted are not quite what they seem, yet they still serve the purpose of enhancing the sense that the protagonists are being hunted, and the reader is still left waiting to see just what foul play is going to come out of left field when everyone finally comes face to face. 

Because genre romance readers are keyed in to the dual-protagonist, romance-centric construction of a genre romance, the cutaway to the villain scene can often feel like a distraction from the narrative as opposed to a fundamental building block that pushes the plot forward, so while it certainly has its uses, the villain scene isn’t often something that thrills romance readers when it pulls them away from the protagonists.


Single POV

Single POV books are told from the perspective of only one protagonist. These romances are almost always narrated in first person; Tramps and Vagabonds by Aster Glenn Gray, the Will Darling trilogy by KJ Charles, and Unwritten Rules by KD Casey are a few good examples of single third POV. In M-F romance novels, the narrator is almost always the female protagonist (one exception is Priest by Sierra Simone).

The result of single-POV narration, especially as told in first person, is that the reader gets all the first-hand excitement and butterflies of not knowing exactly what is going on with the love interest. Opaque love interests are great for adding tension to a story! 

The reader also has a much closer perspective when following the protagonist’s journey. Many gray area romances have a heroine’s journey of self-discovery plot, in which she becomes a fully realized person. The romance is one part of the larger context of personal development. This may be why Priest was narrated by Father Bell and not Poppy: he was the one who had the bigger journey to go on. For us, this is a key boundary with books that might be described as “women’s fiction.” The journey of self-discovery may involve falling in love, but when we read a genre romance, what are we really looking for? Is it enough for the main character to say, “Ok, I’m coupled off” at the end, or do we want something more? 

With successful single-POV books, you can still see the growth between the characters as they build a relationship. If the focus is on the heroine’s journey, it doesn’t mean that her love interest isn’t also growing. Just because it’s not overt doesn’t mean it’s not there. However, the danger of single-POV books is failing at precisely this dynamic: the reader is so inside of one character’s head that there’s not growth between two people. The two characters are not equally important to the story, so it can be harder to buy into their love story.

In order to really explore how single-POV stories work (or fail) as romance novels, we want to dig into the books of two authors who write (almost) exclusively single-POV stories: Alexis Hall and Mariana Zapata. (A Lady for a Duke did break the mold for Hall and is dual-POV.)

Alexis Hall: Boyfriend Material vs. Rosaline Palmer

We do not believe that anyone would argue that Boyfriend Material is not a romance. Luc is forced to save his job by being in a respectable relationship, so his friend suggests that he try to date Oliver, a more than respectable barrister. The date absolutely tanks, but in a moment of honesty, the two men agree to a mutually beneficial fake relationship. As the story continues, the reader slowly learns that Luc might not be the only train wreck in this fake relationship and that Luc and Oliver might actually be absolutely perfect real boyfriend material for each other. Boyfriend Material was Erin’s favorite romance of 2020: she read it multiple times and tried to convince anyone who would listen to read it, too. 

Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake, on the other hand, is dinged in some circles for not being a “true romance.” In Rosaline Palmer, Harry (the love interest) doesn’t really undergo growth. All of the growth is about the titular Rosaline. She has to get over her snobbery, figure out her relationship with her parents, come to terms with her own self-worth. When Holly read the book, she found it a satisfying romance because Rosaline ends up with a nice guy, rather than the wanker she starts off with. You see their courtship (and Harry’s growing three-dimensionality) as they become friends and they develop into a relationship even though she’s dating something else. But it’s hard to argue that Rosaline and Harry are equally important characters, especially since Rosaline spends most of the book dating someone else.

The key difference is in the setup. Even as personal problems abound, Luc and Oliver’s fake relationship makes their growing intimacy and understanding of each other central to the story of Boyfriend Material, but Rosaline’s journey, and Harry’s involvement in that journey, centers on dismantling Rosaline’s internalized biases so that she’s free to finally see Harry for the man he really is. Harry is the object onto which Rosaline projects her growth, not an equally important character who grows with her as their relationship flourishes.

Mariana Zapata: The Wall of Winnipeg and Me vs. Kulti

We might be hard pressed to name an author who has a more consistent writing style than Mariana Zapata. The single-POV is well suited to a slow burn, which is Zapata’s hallmark, but even here, we can see how the construction of these stories can push them into the gray area between genre romance and women’s fiction.

The Wall of Winnipeg and Me is one of Zapata’s most popular books. Van was Aiden’s personal assistant who had planned to leave to work for herself, only to rage quit when Aiden didn’t stand up for her. For reasons known only to himself, Aiden isn’t quite willing to let Van go, and he also isn’t willing to go back to Canada, so he proposes a green card marriage in exchange for paying off Van’s mortgage-level student debt. They were already close, but the marriage of equals changes their relationship just enough that both Van and Aiden see each other and reveal themselves in unexpected ways, making them emotionally close instead of just close in proximity. Aiden never gives much away, but there are enough clues that their marriage means more to both of them than originally intended that, when the acknowledgement happens, it’s extremely satisfying.

Speaking of satisfying confessions, Ingrid and Erin would be hard pressed to choose one better than the one in Kulti. When the taciturn eponymous Kulti finally fully reveals his hand…Oof. And the reader can understand why more hasn’t been revealed earlier—Kulti is, after all, Sal’s coach. That said, Kulti is a really long book (570 pages), and 90% of it does seem to more closely follow Sal’s life career as a professional soccer player than any sort of romance between Sal and Kulti. Kulti’s arrival to her team really bumps Sal out of her comfortable existence and forces her to examine what’s really best for her, but most of the time he’s completely opaque–and a fairly hefty percentage of the plot revolves around Sal’s career taking a sudden turn. With Kulti’s perspective, the plot likely would have been more relationship-based and less about Sal’s journey, but the juxtaposition of Sal the up and comer and Kulti the king of soccer is an important part of their relationship building.  If this book had been a dual POV story, there probably wouldn’t be any gray area about its being considered a romance…but also such a construction would have taken all the punch out of the tension between Kulti and Sal and it would have reduced the impact of the ending. As it is, we’re left hanging by a thread of hope that Kulti’s inexplicable actions toward Sal are leading where we hope they are.

At the end of the day, we’re again looking at the setup of the books. Even though Aiden might be the most opaque of all these heroes, Winnipeg is probably the least likely to be categorized as “not really romance” because the story centers on Van navigating her new life in this marriage of convenience. By contrast, Kulti’s romantic tension stems from breadcrumbs that the reader gathers from this relationship that is increasingly important to Sal, but that relationship isn’t the through line of the story. 


Final Thoughts

Whew. That was a lot. Did we come to a firm conclusion? Of course not! As we said, POV is a tool, and there’s no right way to write a romance. (If you want more nerding out on POV in romance, check out the post on Close Reading Romance about two books written in third person present POV.)

BUT, we have to say, if you’re trying to navigate the murky world of “is this actually a romance?” then you’ll probably be safest avoiding any gray area books that might not work for you if you find a dual-POV story. The books that tend to veer into gray areas are more often single POV. Or multi-POV, but that’s more related to genre crossover than POV specifically, and we’ll be talking about that next month.


Previous Posts in The Great Smut Debate:


Books we mentioned in this discussion:

5 thoughts on “The Great Smut Debate: Point of View”

  1. Excellent breakdown of all the POV trends in romance. So much great info here!

    I’m an old school girl, so I actually like single POV from the heroines perspective, maybe with just a little bit of insight into the hero’s head. I like my heroes to be mysterious. 3rd person omniscient is fine. though. Love secondary couples and getting into the villain’s head, too.

    I’m not much of a fan of getting the 1st person’s POV from a male perspective. The only book where that worked for me was Shay Savage’s Transcendence, and that book was so unique.

    I couldn’t finish Desperate Duchesses, as the ensemble cast made me not care about the main couple–or any of the characters. The ensemble is great for fantasy, sci-fi, thrillers, and potboilers, but not so much for romance.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Interesting! I did my first romance reading with the early 2000s single-title romances, which was firmly in the 3rd-person dual POV camp (or maybe omniscient 3rd? I didn’t pay attention to such things then). I remember very distinctly reading my first single-1st book, a Catherine Coulter that was also closed door, and not liking it because it didn’t fit the romance beats that I had come to expect. Even today, while I’ll happily read different POVs, I still prefer dual or omniscient 3rd for romance novels.

      Desperate Duchesses holds a special place in my heart; I love love love the 4th book in the series and I can’t even tell you why, but the ensemble cast has calmed down a bit by then. I do remember the first time I read an Eloisa James book, and was like, “Why are we getting the POV of the maid right now? This is weird.” I think that if you can get past the ensemble stuff, her early books are really good, but that could be nostalgia speaking.

      I’ll definitely have to check out Transcendence!

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s