And why, if you choose to ignore the difference, you should invest in fireproof underpants.
By Sela Carsen
Wuthering Heights is not a Romance. Literary theory may classify it as a romance, but that is not the same thing as Romance.
See the difference there?
That capital R indicates genre Romance, as opposed to the entire movement of literature that gets categorized as romance (did you know that Robert Burns’ poem about lice in a pretty girl’s hair is “romantic” because it’s about nature?), or millennia’s worth of love stories that fall under the same label, though the vast majority of them end miserably.
But here we are in the 21st century, and people still can’t quite wrap their head around the difference between the variations. I mean, it’s clear enough if you send your spouse to the grocery store to get “cheese,” then grind your teeth if they come back with cheddar instead of cotija, because those are clearly different things… that both use the same word.
For today’s exercise, let’s discard the stories that get labeled “romance” simply because they were written in the “romantic” era of the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Europe. According to Wikipedia, “Romanticism was characterized by its emphasis on emotion and individualism as well as glorification of all the past and nature….”
Nothing in that statement specifies tales about relationships, so let’s stick with stories that focus on romantic love.
Part of the trouble we have with defining our terms comes from the archetypical “romantic hero” who became popular during this era. Whether the stories involved a romantic relationship or not, they centered around certain types of characters. Either the brooding, solitary hero who rejects love because he’s somehow unworthy, or his counterpart, the waif-like, long-suffering heroine whose life is dictated by the harshness of her rational, patriarchal family. Because extreme emotion was the hallmark of the movement, those archetypes have stuck with the label of “romantic,” which isn’t necessarily a match for writing a Romance.
Capital-R Romance, however, is a very specific genre of literature that doesn’t concern itself with glorification of all the past and nature. Instead, it has two main focuses: the “Rules of Romance,” if you will.
A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.
An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love. (Romance Writers of America)
Nothing there about staring across the windswept moors or digging up your dead lover’s grave to beg her to haunt you so you can make everyone in a ten-mile radius miserable for the rest of your life. (I’m lookin’ at you, Heathcliff!)
There’s also nothing there about having one half of the relationship die tragically of cancer or in a car wreck or in childbirth or anything else. *coughNicholasSparkscough* No one cheats, no one gets bored, no one leaves.
And before you snort disdainfully and go, “That’s not realistic,” I ask you if zombies are realistic. Or demons that bubble up from cracks in the earth. Or whether you’ve ever actually encountered a hard-smoking, hard-drinking, hard-boiled detective who referred to women’s legs as “gams” in real life.
It’s. Fiction. People.
Love stories often get the first part right, the main focus on the relationship, but then take a left turn before getting to the part about the optimistic, satisfying ending with the lovers together. You can write a beautiful story where the relationship doesn’t work out, but the main character moves on happily. But if the lovers aren’t together happily, then it’s a love story, not a Romance.
Two people.* Together. Happy Ending. That’s a Romance.
Capital R Romance is about making readers end a book with a smile and a happy sigh, rather than a bewildered, horrified, and tear-drenched, “WTF did I just read?!? What is wrong with these people?!? Did no one learn anything?!?!?”
Whether it’s filled with sexy bits or not (my best-sellers have zero touchy-time on the page), whether it’s set in ancient Rome or in a galaxy far, far away, or in some fictional midwestern small farming town, whether it has vampires or werebears, or billionaires who are suddenly single fathers and down-on-their-luck waitresses/nannies, all Romances follow the above two rules.
Want to write a gorgeous novel that focuses on two people in a zombie apocalypse finding each other and struggling to make their relationship work… then one of them dies (like, all the way dies, doesn’t come back to life with a craving for human flesh), leaving the other a lone, tragic figure?
That’s awesome! Do it! But it’s not a Romance. It’s a love story.
Want to write a beautiful novel that focuses on two teens, but the boy is a zombie who eats the brains (and memories) of his girlfriend’s dead ex-boyfriend, and even though he stays a zombie, he sort of gets much better, and even though her zombie-hunting dad wants to kill him, the boy and girl overcome their human/zombie differences and stay together?
Don’t write that. Someone already did, it’s called Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion, and it’s freaking adorable.
But you could write your own zombie Romance as long as it ends with the two happily getting together and staying together!
Now let’s put on our author hats. The business hat, not the creative one.
Romance is a marketing term. It’s designed to let readers know what they’re picking up in much the same way that the terms mystery and thriller signal certain expectations to readers.
Romance readers are a savvy bunch of (mostly) women who drop billions of dollars a year on those Happy Ever Afters. They’re socially connected, they belong to vast communities of other readers, and they do not like getting tricked because you think you’re going to “turn romance on its head,” or you don’t like genre limitations, like that daft rule about how you always have to reveal whodunnit at the end of a mystery novel.
You’re an artiste! No one can tell you what to do! And those silly Romance-reading women with all that disposable income should appreciate your avant-garde approach to educating them and teaching them to read “better books.”
Try it. I’ve got a bag of marshmallows to roast on the bonfire they’ll light around your flaming literary oeuvre and the ashes of your career. Or, as they call it in the Romancelandia territory of Twitter, “every other Tuesday.”
That attitude is not special, or unique, or clever. It IS however, probably some combination of pretentious, ignorant, and/or misogynistic.
Labeling a book as a Romance has meaning, and mislabeling shows that the author either doesn’t know what they’ve written, or they’re deliberately trying to mislead potential readers. Because I can absolutely guarantee that Romance readers understand their genre, and they read it specifically for that Happy Ever After satisfaction. They can get misery anywhere, but they pick up a Romance to get that happy sigh at the end. If the author doesn’t deliver, they have wildly misjudged their readership.
Note: Romance isn’t limited to just two people. There are entire niches filled with polyamorous but committed groupings. Romance has also become very open to non-het, non-cis, non-binary characters and relationships. Love is love.
Writing a Romance and labeling it correctly not only ensures that you’re going to hit your target market correctly, thereby putting you in a position to sell well, but it also indicates a basic level of respect for the readers.
So if you choose to write a relationship-based story, know that the conclusion dictates the marketing, and it’s up to you to understand the differences in how they’ll hit the readership.
Sela Carsen is an award-winning author of paranormal and sci-fi romance — with or without sex and dead bodies. Your pick. She also writes steamy contemporary romance as Silke Campion. Check out many of her titles on The Literary Underworld.