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

What We Do in the Shadows: Crossing Lines and Pushing Boundaries in Romance

“It’s not a romance if the hero is mean to the heroine.”

“It’s not a romance if the relationship is toxic.”

“It’s not a romance if one protagonist rapes the other one.”

“It’s not a romance if someone is physically harmed.”

“It’s not a romance if the power differential between the characters is too extreme.”

There is nothing, in any definition of romance, that says that the characters have to have a good relationship. In fact, many great romances feature terrible people doing terrible things, but in a dramatically entertaining way. The broadest definition of the genre says that a romance includes a romantic relationship with a happy, optimistic ending—for the characters. Even if we go by Ingrid’s more narrow definition of what makes a satisfying romance—that the characters grow separately and together—we can see that negative interactions can be a catalyst for growth, as the characters move towards an HEA. 

When we first started on this journey into the question of “What Makes a Romance,” we were spurred on by the seemingly endless debates about whether something was *really* a romance novel—or whether it should be more properly classified as “women’s fiction” (or “chick lit” or just “fiction”). 

But as we started to outline all the intersections of “what counts as a romance,” we found that the conversation is much more expansive than simply “true romance” vs. “women’s fiction with romantic elements,” and today we’re shifting once again to a completely different nexus. These books are not dismissed as “not romance” because the relationship is underdeveloped or doesn’t end happily, but rather because the relationship includes stuff that makes the reader uncomfortable. Invariably, these books are blasted as “problematic,” which is ultimately a term without meaning—it literally means “unresolved” or “posing a problem.” We are pushing back on this discourse here by discussing a range of books deemed “problematic” and exploring what these books actually do.

Continue reading “What We Do in the Shadows: Crossing Lines and Pushing Boundaries in Romance”
Author Spotlight

Author Spotlight: Elizabeth Hoyt

Looking for a new author to try out? Here’s everything you need to know about Elizabeth Hoyt, whose books include The Leopard Prince, The Maiden Lane series, and Not the Duke’s Darling.


What She Writes: 

Historical M/F romances set in the Georgian period (mid- to late-1700s). Frequently occurring tropes include cross-class romance and morality chain.

What Makes Her Unique:

While Hoyt’s books, like many historical romances, feature the British aristocracy, she also writes about London’s underbelly. Many of her characters live and work in the slums of London, so the world she creates in her series feels bigger than those of other historical romance novelists. Within this setting, she writes epic, sweeping romances with utterly ludicrous, tropey plots.

Writing Style:

Dual-POV in the third person, with occasional scenes from the perspective of a secondary character or the villain. Most books include a short fairy tale, told in snippets at the beginning of each chapter, that highlights a theme of the central relationship (The Leopard Prince and The Serpent Prince do not; instead characters tell each other a fairy tale that highlights a theme of the book). The explicit fairy tale connection signals to the reader that the stories play in the realm of fantasy and wish fulfilment, which is underlined by the over-the-top plots and characterizations. Her books lean towards suspense plots, so expect some bloodshed and acts of derring-do. Also expect some gender essentialism: male characters are dark and hard (even the morally upright ones), female characters bring light and softness.

Why We Love Her:

Her books are utterly cracktastic bonkerballs romances. Her plots might be ludicrous and tropey, but she leans all the way in to the nonsense, which makes them so much fun to read.

How we feel when we’re reading:

She Might Not Be For You If:

You find plot-heavy romances tedious, or morally grey protagonists don’t work for you. Avoid these books if you prefer your romances without violence. Also note that a few of the multi-book arcs involve really dumb secret societies (Lords of Chaos in the last few books of Maiden Lane, Wise Women in Greycourt).

Notable Quotation:

“This is who I am, Séraphine. Naked, with blade and blood. I am vengeance. I am hate. I am sin personified. Never mistake me for the hero of this tale, for I am not and shall never be. I am the villain.” 

And he laid his lips over hers and pushed his hot tongue into her mouth and kissed her until she couldn’t breathe and it was only later that she found the bloodstains on her dress.

Duke of Sin

Content Warnings:

Many of her books include sexual violence, bloodshed, child abuse, and the grim realities of poverty. Not to mention some of the worst Bad Dads of Romance we’ve encountered.

The Bottom Line:

If you like your historical romances to have that Old Skool feeling, but without some of the troubling or abusive dynamics between the hero and heroine, Elizabeth Hoyt hits the spot.

Start With:

Wicked Intentions. Just be prepared to immediately read the rest of the twelve-book Maiden Lane series.

Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Archetypes: Blue Collar

Books we’ll be reading this week

Every now and then Erin will send something that captures her attention to the group chat, and for whatever reason when she saw this post from @LadySadieReads on Insta she sent it along…

…which, combined with SuperWendy’s August TBR Challenge, inspired our August buddy read week. Several of the books on Sadie’s list were already on our TBRs, so this was the kick we needed to get reading!

Continue reading “Let’s Talk Archetypes: Blue Collar”
The Great Smut Debate (with debate inked in cursive by a fountain pen)
The Great Smut Debate

The Great Smut Debate: Genre Crossovers

We’ve been discussing the strange space between genre romance and what is typically referred to as Women’s Fiction, but that’s not the only place where we see romance cross over into other genres. In fact, the romance genre is rather famous for having something for everyone. Thrillers? We got ‘em. Outer space? We’ve been there. Elves? Werewolves? Witches? Wizards? Vampires? Necromancers? You name it, there’s romance for it. Wanna take it back in time? We got historical romance, but let us also show you the steampunk, the gaslamp, and the timeslip. There’s monster romance that includes largely bipedal but non-human romantic protagonists. There is even, believe me, horror romance (not to be confused with dark romance, which is a whole other thing). 

Romance readers’ frustrations with those books that fade into the WF space tends to stem from the expectation of a dual* protagonist story arc that has strong romantic elements and an HEA or HFN ending, and the reality of the story not meeting the expectation. But that can happen in these other crossover spaces, too! And, depending on where those crossover books fall on their own gray area spectrums, they also may receive mixed responses from romance readers. 

Continue reading “The Great Smut Debate: Genre Crossovers”
Hearts and Crafts

Hearts and Crafts: Character Development and the Black Moment

My LEAST favorite part of being in a writer’s group is when you’re sitting there and watching everyone pick apart your latest work, and someone points out that whatever you made your character do is…out of character. And then they look very sanctimonious and shrug and say, “So when this happens…so what?” 

I absolutely hate it. Those two words make me want to toss the table. I hate it because whenever someone asks that question, it’s usually for a really darn good reason. SO. WHAT. So why does that matter to the character? Why does it direct their choices? So it happens. So what?

It matters because everything the main characters do in a book needs to be directed by two things, and lead to one thing. Altogether, these factors impact how the readers are going to be able to invest themselves into the story and buy into the plot. 

Why?

All main character behavior is driven by two things: their greatest fear, and their greatest desire. It’s not always spelled out, but if it’s done right, you can see it. Take for example my recent review For Butter or for Worse. Leo’s inherited his father’s line of comfortable Italian eateries but isn’t himself a chef or a restauranteur. He’s also suffered from panic attacks since his father’s death. His greatest fear is being exposed, both as a fraud and as being weak. His greatest desire is to find a place he belongs. Ultimately, he gets what he most desires, but only after facing his greatest fears. By making sure Leo’s shaped with that in mind, the author is able to create character depth, tension (will he ever get what he needs?), and an emotional connection with the reader.

What about externally driven plots? Well, that is an EXCELLENT question. I’m so glad I asked it. 

Even if the main characters are captured by a band of pirates and their relationship is strong (so the plot is driven by what’s happening TO them and not BETWEEN them), we the readers still need to know what motivates these characters. What are they able to see that others can’t? What chances will they be willing to take to win? And really, just how awful can things get for these characters? We need to know these things–it can be subtle, but it has to be there.

What For?

Ultimately, trying to avoid the things they are most afraid of leads to the black moment. This moment in the plot has different names, and it can hit at different points in the story. Often it’s where the second and third acts meet, or around 75-80% of the way through the plot.

The Black Moment has to involve the characters facing those fears they tried so hard to avoid. So essentially, the author has to take these characters they’ve lovingly crafted and put them through hell. (Mua ha ha…)

And in romance, THIS is super important–by this time in the story, we’ve seen them grow together, but in a limited way. The Black Moment is the moment we need to see them grappling with the realization that they might not make it, or that they ultimately should not be together. 

And what about books with the Fated Mate trope? Well, that gets a lot more interesting and multi-faceted, but it could be that they’re looking at facing the rest of their lives (or forever, if they’re immortal) miserable together, or one of them could face death. 

So what, though? Well, we say that in romance, the characters need to grow separately and together in the end. Their relationship has to stir transformation, and that transformation ultimately needs to bring them through what they’ve been fearing and lead them to what they most want. 

The books I’ve found that are most satisfying tend to avoid making another person be their greatest desire. I think deep down it’s not really that satisfying to see someone go through hell exclusively to be with another flawed, raw person. But it COULD be that a character’s greatest desire is to find a home, and they find that in someone else. Or, to be seen and loved as they are. To fully open themselves up to another person. Those are valid things to want, to sacrifice for and to work towards. 

When we see this executed poorly in books, it can run from being very obvious (a character feels flat and boring, and you don’t care what happens to them) to being very subtle. Sometimes we’ll feel like a decision or action taken doesn’t fit the character we’ve come to know and love. Or we’ll feel like the couple shouldn’t actually end up together. My favorite is the “unreliable narrator”–if the characters show no self awareness, and that’s not a deliberately written flaw they need to overcome in the Black Moment, we can’t trust the story at all. And that can feel very frustrating. Erin really can’t stand it when characters write off love forever after one bad relationship–that’s not necessarily poor character development, but she’s probably sensing some weakness in the character development. After all, there’s a huge difference between “my last boyfriend broke my heart and so I’ll never love again” and “I grew up in a perfect home with loving parents and never expected someone to betray me like my last boyfriend did, so it’s made me question my ability to trust and read people and I don’t know what to do with these feelings.” Same basic idea, but with a lot more vulnerability and backstory.

How does this impact what reviewers are looking for in books? I think it varies from reviewer to reviewer, but just because we know what’s coming doesn’t mean we can’t squee with joy over how it’s being executed. I always try to figure out what’s driving the characters, because it helps me impartially dissect the plotline better. I’ve read a lot of books I didn’t personally care for, but I knew that the book was well executed and that my personal preferences needed to take a back seat in the review. The characters have well-planned motivators, those motivators (the fears and desires) bump along together to generate tension, the tension leads to a satisfying Black Moment, and then the resolution is solid.  Being able to pinpoint these factors can also help me specify where other things are going wrong with the characters, and if you’re going to criticize something an author has painfully birthed and is willing to share with the world for all to judge, it’s important to be specific and provide evidence that your criticisms are fair. 

So, essentially, I try to do precisely what ground my gears in the writer’s groups–I ask, “so what?” I just try really hard not to sound sanctimonious and gleeful when I do it. 


Previously in Hearts and Crafts: