What Makes a Novel a Romance?

What Makes a Novel a Romance Novel?

There are as many definitions of romance as there are dictionaries. The most common definition, and the most widely accepted, is a “feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love.” But all of the definitions digress quickly, adding statements like “remoteness from every day life” or “baseless, made up story usually full of exaggeration or fanciful invention” or my personal favorite “talk about something in a way that makes it seem better than it is.”

Despite efforts by modern romance authors to create more realistic and contemporary plots and situations for their characters, some element of the elusive and unattainable, still creeps into the most popular romances. And I like it that way.

Why? What makes that element of the elusive or fanciful so important to romance readers? Why are heroes always so handsome and rich, so brilliant and powerful? How often, despite the rise of the women’s movement, is the hero still – well – the hero. Why is the US, a country where more women than men graduate from college, also the top selling country – by far – for romance books?

This is worthy of study. Me, I am just curious. So here is my take on romance and romance novels in the modern era – in 800 words or less.

Escape is just the easy way out

It might be generational. Perhaps older women, raised on fairy tale princesses might want something completely different in a romance than a woman born and raised after 1960. Data suggests otherwise. Maybe the romance reader is just seeking escape from their own life. I would be wrong there too, Authors tackle tough subjects in their novels today from mental illness to income inequality, from neglect to abuse and everything in between. These would keep stories from being pure escape.

Critics, who look down their noses at romance writers and readers while ignoring the complex topics and incredible writing they bring to these novels just to focus on escape are taking the easy way out. I could and would argue that we, as readers, escape whenever we pick up a novel – we go to a different place, a different time, a different galaxy. It Is not the escape that makes it a romance.

History and Chivalry

Romance as we know it today descends from the “Chevaliers”, or knights at court in the middle ages. What they represented was courtly love, full of elaborate rituals. Their actions were steeped in tradition and represented specific displays of etiquette. Courtiers carried a ladies handkerchief when the jousted, and presented the winnings to said lady. It was all manners and show. I would make the case that this historic show of love is the model for our image and definition of romance in a traditional romance novel, regardless of genre.

We have seen the films depicting that time, read the novels too. Courtly love demonstrated through dining, dancing, strolling in highly public venues with, perhaps, a stolen chaste kiss. Courtiers had their role to play and their ladies knew how to behave in return. Roles are certainly less clear today.

Then versus Now

Now, women often take control of their destiny – fortunately. They might take the lead by asking a man for a date, paying the check, or making the first move. The sense of being romanced has shifted. Maybe the woman is doing the wooing and winning. Or perhaps the man still takes the traditional role but our culture puts less emphasis on the manners and etiquette of wooing.

Some form of courtliness is what we get from romance novels in one way or another. A sweet romance will be full of manners and moments, a stolen kiss, a glance across the room that communicates so much and perhaps a lovely bouquet of roses. A paranormal romance might have our hero jumping through hoops to forge a bond across the boundaries of shifter and human, while in a steamy erotic romance the sex is used as a form of wooing, and the sex will always be hot and satisfying, very satisfying.

These are the manners, the etiquette and the traditions of our times. Our heroes are modern day Chevaliers, winning our hearts and giving us the ‘aah’ moment of a happy ending.

“A baseless, made up story, usually full of exaggerations or fanciful invention”? Maybe, but if so, here is what I say – give me more.

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