Stuff of Romance: The New Face of Romance

At first I was going to entitle this blog Why I Like Romance, but as I started considering the subject, I realized that there are many varieties of romance today, some relatively new on the scene, and I only like some of them.

Years ago, popular romance novels portrayed weak, beautiful, innocent, young women who were rescued by older, experienced, domineering men. In the course of the novel, these men would often kidnap, take advantage, even rape the heroine, but by the end of the predictable storyline, he would win her heart and give her a happily-ever-after ending.

No wonder people thought romance readers weren’t intelligent.

Despite these poor plots, old romances delivered something that is still appreciated by romance readers today: a happy ending, an emotional connection, and hope. Yes, a mental escape every bit as enjoyable as watching a game or going to see a movie.

Yet in other ways romance novels have changed completely. Well, perhaps not completely, as we still have some “Cinderella” stories with helpless protagonists, but for the most part the female characters are confident and strong, or become such—and not because a man makes them that way. Additionally, there are many subcategories of romance, anywhere from straight romance to chick lit (which some argue is women’s fiction and not romance at all), to paranormal and the newer urban fantasies.

I personally dislike straight romances, where the relationship is the sole purpose of the novel and other plot elements, setting, and minor characters are lacking entirely or are poorly written and superficial to the relationship. Generally, these novels are very short and to the point. Many of the national romances seem to fall into this category for me.

But there are numerous romances in the subgenres that have complex plot elements and deeper characterization. As a whole, I believe writers in the LDS market have succeeded in progressing along these lines as well. We have chick lit, historical, inspirational, mystery, and many more subgenres that aren’t what I call straight romance. While romance is a key element in these novels, it is not nearly the focus that it is in most national novels, where the physical element often takes the place of a real plot. Even in LDS novels where romance is the strongest plotline, there is often some deeper element—learning to love again after the death of a spouse, saving a child from drugs, dealing with illness or suicide. These novels would still be able to exist in some form, though changed, without the romance.

Yes, romance has evolved over the years. We have stories with smart, savvy, powerful heroines, who don’t expect to be saved by rich, arrogant heros. The heroines aren’t necessarily young or beautiful and often have a serious past and complex challenges. These heroines are in charge, and they determine their own destinies. They are no longer the rescued, but often the rescuers (or at least they rescue at least as much as they are rescued). Heros are multi-faceted—they now need a lot more than money, good looks, and a domineering attitude to even begin to attract a heroine’s attention. The plots are also more complex (straight, short romances excepted).

Another twist we see in the urban fantasy romance genre is that the main character doesn’t necessarily end up with the guy in the end, or if she does, the relationship may not last more than a book or two. A prime example of this are the Sookie Stackhouse novels, which are undeniable vampire romances, but in which the main character in the course of ten novels has three major romances. There is also a lot of world building, and each of the mythological races has a detailed history.

Or maybe the hero and heroine don’t end up together at all until three or four books later like in the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs. Many of these novels are published by Ace Science Fiction or similar imprints and have just as many male readers as female. Some could say these aren’t romance at all. They would be wrong. The romantic element is strong and continuous, and though the plot could stand without the romance, it wouldn’t feel the same or have such appeal.

I decided to put my own work up to the test, using my paranormal novel, Imprints, due to be released any day now (see revised cover). As in most modern paranormal romances, the heroine does end up with the hero (at least in this book). However, if you removed the romantic element, my plot would still be intact, though not without some loss of romantic tension. The heroine is smart, resourceful, determined, and talented. She isn’t perfectly beautiful and is in fact rather strange—she doesn’t wear shoes or believe in using microwaves. She also has a past. She isn’t saved by the hero at any time in the book, though she is, after saving herself and others several times, helped during a struggle for her life by another man who cares for her. Which means, of course, that in the sequel, I’m going to make sure she saves him just to get even. Interesting. It seems I’m on the same path as everyone else, which is a good thing for sales—and it’s a lot of fun to write.

Romance is in nearly every book, movie, play, or song ever written, and it remains a driving motive in almost everything people do. The way I see it, it’s just the level of romance people disagree about. I believe this new breed of romance novel, with female characters who make their own decisions, will actually empower women instead of victimizing them as one might argue some of the earlier novels did. Regardless, romance novels in all their types should continue to enjoy a wide appeal.

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