Romance 101: The More Subtle Elements of the Formula

by Moriah Jovan

“The only real requirement of a romance novel is a happily ever after (HEA).” Everybody who reads romance knows this.

Here’s the dirty little secret: That’s not really true.

There are tropes, traits, tableaux, and themes that a vocal majority of readers (if the Amazon and other romance message boards are anything to go by) really don’t care for, most of which involve the heroine and what she should and should not be and do.

So instead of listing what is acceptable in romance (excluding Christian inspirational romance), I shall list a few things that are generally not considered acceptable:

Tropes (things from which no HEA can be derived):
1) Infidelity, sexual or emotional.
2) A love triangle in which both males are sympathetic.
3) Lying about the paternity of one’s child.

1) A heroine who is comfortable with her sexuality and/or has a checkered sexual history of which she is not ashamed.
2) A sexually inexperienced hero.
3) A heroine who makes more money than the hero.
4) Heroines over the age of ~35, and definitely never over 40.

1) The heroine sleeping with anyone not the hero, on page or off, ever, not even before she meets the hero. (It’s pretty okay for the hero to, though.)
2) Hero or heroine sleeping with someone else after they’ve met and sparks have flown.
3) Hero and/or heroine with a huge support network of family and friends. (This is more a writer’s issue than a reader’s. If one has a huge support system, many conflicts would be solved too soon and, given the word-count restrictions [some of them severe], one can’t introduce a whole lot of people into a story.)

1) Religion
2) Politics

I can see you nodding your head and ticking them off as you read; I would expect that. Not because we’re a bunch of Mormons here and we have standards that preclude all that business, but because romance is inherently conservative, especially with regard to what a heroine is and is not allowed to do. Not the hero, but the heroine.

She should be likable and relatable, but not too milquetoast or Mary Sue. She should be as sexually pure as she can be with regard to the time period, her station in life, and her age (which is why older heroines are harder to sell) (it’s also why some writers will go to ridiculous lengths to preserve a contemporary heroine’s purity). She should be unaware of her beauty (and eschew makeup), and insecure about her looks; if she happens to be aware that she is attractive, she should be self-effacing of it and never use her looks to get anything she wants. She should be as stoic as Epictetus and as dry-eyed as the Mona Lisa.

In short, she should be smart (but not smarter than the hero); strong (but not stronger than the hero); generally a better person (morally, ethically, sexually) than anyone else in her milieu and the world (even the hero).

Naturally, there are the exceptions that prove the rules, but of course, publishing houses won’t buy what they think their readers won’t like. And since the readers keep buying what they publish…

I liked these types of heroines when I was younger. They were everything I wanted to be: never petty, always honorable, never upstaging the hero, always justthisclose to Mary Sue but never (okay, sometimes) going over—and I wanted to be that. Worse! I thought it was possible to be that.

But then I grew up. In real life, the women I find most attractive as human beings are the ones with failings and war wounds and stories to tell. I realized that a woman’s true worth is in the mistakes she made (sometimes serious ones) and how she came through (how she’s still coming through), and that what I find attractive about her isn’t her perfection but her flaws.

I still occasionally enjoy the heroines who are young and fresh, the ones with promise, the ones with blank slates they have a chance to never mar, but the writer really has to sell it to me. Now I’m looking for older women with life experience.

All that said, I’m one of a handful of readers I know who read for the heroine as much as the hero. When it all comes down to it, genre romance is usually about the hero.


Next time, I’ll attempt to break down subgenre classifications and their distinctive properties.


Moriah Jovan is the pen name for Elizabeth Beeton, who created B10 Mediaworx to publish herself. Since then, she’s put out two books of her own, The Proviso and Stay, and assisted in the publication of Peculiar Pages titles The Fob Bible and Out of the Mount. Her third book, Magdalene, is now available at all the usual places, and three more Peculiar Pages titles are coming in June, August, and October. At the moment, she’s busy wading through Burke’s Peerage, figuring out the proper address of an Earl, and devouring books on the American Revolution.


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11 Responses to Romance 101: The More Subtle Elements of the Formula

  1. C. M. Malm says:

    Although this list might have been true 20 or 30 years ago, there are items on that list that are decidedly NOT true today. I just read another Jo Beverley romance novel (yeah, I know I whined about the last one, but having plowed through all of Georgette Heyer’s novels in the last couple of years, I’m moderately desperate for Regency romance that 1) isn’t actively *bad*, and 2) is available at the public library). In the novel I just read, A Lady’s Secret, the heroine:
    - is not a virgin and is not particularly ashamed of that fact (despite the novel taking place around 1760)
    - previously slept willingly with the villain (and indeed only rejected him because he married someone else for money and yet wanted her to continue as his mistress)
    - ends up (about 3/4 of the way into the novel) being readily and fully accepted by her birthfather (she was an “unintended consequence” of a brief affair) and his large tribe
    - is Catholic and spends the first 1/3 of the novel pretending to be nun (and the problems of her marriage to the Protestant hero *are* touched upon)

    Admittedly, this book was published in 2008. But I actually remember a Georgette Heyer novel of much earlier vintage (1934), A Convenient Marriage, in which a large part of the plot revolves around the hero figuring out that his longstanding mistress is far less interesting than the heroine, his young wife (who is herself considering the possibility of infidelity to try to get her husband’s attention). In another Heyer novel, A Civil Contract (1961), the hero marries the much wealthier (but less well born) heroine out of financial necessity, in spite of being in love with another woman. Admittedly, by the end of the novel, the “other woman” is revealed as complete brat who would never have made him happy, and he gains a fortune of his own based on his own wits (in the equivalent of the stock market). But what I’m trying to say is that these “rules” aren’t quite as strong as I think you’re suggesting.

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      That may be true. I’m going on what I see on the romance message boards and some of the romance review blogs. There is a disproportionate amount of…dislike…for such.

      I will say this: I know that there has been a slow build of rule-breakers the last couple of years, but they get a dubious reception (and some don’t get reviewed or talked about at all and fade away).

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      Also (and I should’ve written this) this is a snapshot in time (I think which is what you were saying) of, say, ~1990 to present. Earlier romance was far broader and more groundbreaking. The ones you listed other than the Beverley are all way earlier than 1990 when romance turned more conservative.

  2. Jonathan Langford says:


    Your response makes me wonder: Is it possible that there’s (at least a slight) disconnect between what the online groups are saying and what’s actually going on among the larger body of readers and writers? It’s been my experience that sometimes online communities can develop a dynamic of their own that may be out of sync with the larger universe. (I ask this without any particular knowledge of romance blogs et al., just based on my more general sense of online community dynamics.)

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      Jonathan, I’m absolutely sure there is; however, there is no way to measure it other than sales figures, and other things can impact those anyway. Editors around the mid 90s got very risk-averse, so stuff they bought in the late 80s and 90s (some of which are now beloved books) stopped being bought.

      There are a few old-timers who can get away with breaking some of the taboos. Jo Beverley is one of them. And, as CMM says, lately (last couple-three years) there has been some venturing forth, but some of these efforts are just not well written or the first novel’s good, but the followups are meh, so that dilutes the effort.

      Another thing at work here is visibility. For instance, readers were complaining about lack of people of color, but when a big blog wrote an opinion piece on that, it came out that there were, but they didn’t sell well, so the author who wrote those was not able to sell another one. Why? Nobody in the thread had ever heard of those titles, but who knows? Sales is the only data that counts in corporate publishing, so it doesn’t really matter WHY.

  3. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    “When it all comes down to it, genre romance is usually about the hero. ”

    Agreed. And wow. So how much does it really matter what the heroine is like? How interesting that women readers get uppity about this on message boards and review blogs. I mean, why not pick on the hero? Even in make-believe, we are catty! (Pardon my sexist attitude about my own gender.)

    Aside: I noticed moons ago when watching Disney’s Cinderella that the entire purpose of the movie, the motivating force behind everything every female did, was the prince, who was on screen something like 5 seconds total–and not in one 5 second snatch, but repeat quickies. I actually timed his screen time, turned it into a grad school paper. Fun. But I do find it unsettling that romance readers (women) are spending time trashing the heroine and accepting the faults of the hero. I haven’t read tons of romances, but in all I’ve read, the reader spends a lot more time with the heroine than with the hero. And yet, she reads for him?

    I’m shaking my head. I’m grateful women’s fiction has grown legs.

    • Julie Wright says:

      I would love to read that paper on cinderella. And women are catty! Why do we pick each other apart like that–even fictionally? When my daughter moved on to high school and girl world, I felt absurdly sorry for the child. Girl world is a mean scary lonely place where you spend more time under the bus someone threw you under than doing anything else. I’m glad to report that it got better with time–at least for me. But I pity the teenagers!

  4. Moriah Jovan says:

    Lisa, what you said.

    I’m always puzzled by people who need a heroine to be LIKEABLE and RELATABLE. There are some readers who don’t care as long as the characters are interesting. There are a few readers who read for the heroine, but the theory is that the heroine is a placeholder for the reader.

    I’ve broken (or intend to break) all but 2 of these, and one of those I’m flirting with. I can’t tell you how much flak one of my heroines has gotten for a) having a lover on the page (and continuing to sleep with him after meeting the hero and sparks flying) and b) her making a lot more money than the hero and c) she’s posed for a semi-nude portrait and been on the covers of two men’s magazines and d) her refusal to give up her career for his (he’s a politician with the White House as his ultimate goal and she is not interested in being a politician’s wife). I also got a lot of flak over another heroine who is, apparently, flat unlikeable–but amongst my male readers she is by far the favorite.

    Re women’s fiction: I read a lot of it when I was a teenager, only I didn’t know what it was because they had romance and happy endings. So I’m sure my puzzlement and preferences are shaped by that.

    I hope that CMM is right that that’s changing, but with the changing publishing landscape, it may be up to the authors who decide to go out on their own. On the one hand, they’ll be harder to find than ever; on the other, those books have a long shelf life during which to be found.

    Heroes do catch some heat, but at the core, yes, “we” are much more judgmental of and hard on our heroines.

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      BTW, I was 15 when I learned it was okay to hate a heroine but love the story, and to be shocked/disgusted by an act the protagonist committed but still be able to ponder the concept and grow.

      Gone With the Wind and “The Mist” by Stephen King.

  5. Mark Brown says:

    I find it interesting how our appreciation for certain kinds of characters evolves over time. Books and films that would have offended my sensibilities fifteen or twenty years ago are now among my favorites. Age has a way of making us appreciate complexity, darkness, and contradiction.

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      Books and films that would have offended my sensibilities fifteen or twenty years ago are now among my favorites.

      Also, films that meant one thing to me years ago mean and entirely different thing to me now that I’m older and my circumstance has changed. For instance, when I saw EYES WIDE SHUT as a single person, it was interesting. When I saw it as a married person, it was disturbing.

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