What Makes A Good Romance?
September is drawing to a close, and with it we must say goodbye to the September Sizzlers. 😦
I know, right? We all like a little happy in our cup of coffee when we sit down to read our favorite love stories. However, I’m not letting them go without a proper goodbye send-off.
What is it about love and romance stories that make us happy? Usually there’s some major drama and heart-wrenching upset, but things typically keel over by the end of the novel. We know that’s usually how things go.
But…what are the other components that make up a good romance novel?
When I was thinking about this post, I kept wondering what standard (and which books) we use as our guides to help answer this question. The books I chose to help navigate through the pieces of this question are Outlander by Diana Gabaldon and Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer. Ironically, both of the male love interest characters are named Jaime (spelled Jaimy in Bloody Jack).
First, there is usually a disparity of some sort (even if it is only perceived) between the love interest characters.
In Outlander, Claire came from a totally different time period and everyone thought she was either nuts or a witch. She is also a strong, independent female in a male-domineering society. In Bloody Jack, Jackie is a girl of the London streets, an orphan girl in a street gang, while Jaimy has grown up his entire life privileged in a pretty prominent London family. Like in Outlander, Jackie is a strong female in a patriarchal society where women are seen as mothers and hostesses. This disparity creates an uneven, unmatched playing field for the two love interests.
I have also noticed that sometimes there is a clear power imbalance. When I say power imbalance, I truly mean that in the sense of one character having authority or supervision over the other. This can be in part because of the disparity between the two love interests, or it can be completely unrelated.
In Outlander, Claire is an outsider while Jaime is a leader within his clan. Claire is a nobody, everyone is suspicious of her, and her words fall on deaf ears. Jaime is level headed and uses logic to solve problems and is always heard. The clan may not fall in line with Jaime’s ideas, but there is always value placed on his voiced thoughts, very much unlike Claire (at least for a good portion of the book).
In Bloody Jack, Jackie and Jaimy start out as ships boys together. As the series progresses and they each progress up through the ranks, at various time Jaimy has authority over Jacky, or Jacky seizes authority over Jaimy with her piratical ways.
Something That Must Be Kept Hidden
A.K.A. “A Secret”
I have found time and time again in various romance novels that there exists something from one of the characters that must remain secret until the best possible moment as determined by the secret-keeper. The secret may be something that we as readers feel is very inconsequential, but to the character it is something that is a very real threat to the stability of the relationship.
In a recent read, Bluegrass State of Mind, Kenna is on the run from some very powerful and dangerous men from New York. She can’t share with anyone in Keeneston, KY the true reason she has arrived and applied for the prosecutor position. A danger draws nearer, Kenna continues to keep her secret until she is running out of time and things are about to come to a head.
In Bloody Jack, Jackie’s secret is obvious to readers: she’s a girl, masquerading as a boy on a ship full of men. Yes, eventually her secret does come out, but Jackie works very hard to keep up appearances so that she may experience life and not be stuck working for some pig of a man back in London.
On some occasions, but most definitely not all, there may be a snitch who gives away the secret-keeper’s secret. It may be purely by accident, just a murmur of something that strikes the non-secret-keeper as odd, and thus leading to an investigation. Or the snitch could very well deliberately be dropping intel about the secret-keeper’s secret. Sometimes this may be given out of context, leading the non-secret-keeper to believe only certain aspects and truths about the secret (and consequently, of the secret-keeper). Other times this can be done with only a bare hint of the truth while saturated in outright lies.
Usually the snitch is one of two people. In the first scenario where information given is entirely innocent, the snitch is usually someone the secret-keeper knows well who has good intentions. In the second scenario, the snitch is usually someone who wants revenge on the secret-keeper to keep him/her from happiness (an ex-lover, an ex-spouse, parents/friends of an ex-lover/spouse, etc.).
In Bluegrass State of Mind, the snitch is none other than Will’s ex-wife, who comes parading back into town acting like she is still married to Will. She even goes so far as to try to hire Kenna as her attorney to write up her own prenuptial agreement!
A Grand Adventure
Typically in romance novels there is some kind of adventure. It could be a small as trying new things together, like a cooking class, or big things like a skiing trip or hot air balloon ride. No matter what it is, there is usually some grand adventure that happens.
In Bloody Jack, the ships boys all take an oath to keep Jackie’s secret. In the second book, they all get identical tattoos to represent their brotherhood (which for Jackie later becomes known as “the curse of the blue tattoo”).
And this leads to…
Through some kind of adventure, the two love interest characters bond. This is usually when those arrogant, flat characters reveal some true depth. We learn the reason(s) behind the wearing of the mask, so to speak.
This bonding time furthers the stability of the relationship…except in the secret-keeper’s mind. At this point, the secret-keeper is on Cloud 9, except for the niggling fear that the secret will be revealed. What then?
The thing with secrets is that they are bound to come out, whether by fault of a snitch or just through natural occurrences of life. We all know what happens when we keep a secret from somebody, even if it is with the best of intentions. In romance novels, when the imperfect timing of revealing the secret happens, it’s almost like the perfect imperfect timing, because there IS still time to fully reveal the secret and all of the reasons for it.
I have found in many novels that the secret is revealed in some kind of public forum, so it is embarrassing and also puts the secret-keeper on the spot and gives the non-secret-keeper a leg up in terms of both disparity and balance of power. This is usually when these two components show to be true to their nature. If social standing or money is involved in disparity or power balance, it is made clear that acceptance into a group or family (by way of marriage) is clearly out of the running. The reasons for falling in love are forgotten in this heated moments of betrayal.
Sometimes at this point the secret-keeper reveals the full breadth and depth of the secret, and exactly why he/she kept the secret. Other times, the secret-keeper holds on to the secret, only giving out minimal answers to the non-secret-keeper’s questions because all of the secret-keeper’s fears are becoming a reality.
This is where that heart-wrenching angst comes in, for both the secret-keeper and the non-secret keeper. It’s as if all of the dreams they’ve been having (whether voiced to readers or not) are crumbling down around their ears. Sometimes as readers we can see the non-secret-keeper’s side of things, but I have often found myself with tears streaming because the non-secret-keeper won’t listen and understand the secret-keeper. Heart. Wrenching.
Finally, there is a realization. Now, this realization could occur naturally by the non-secret-keeper alone, or there could be some prodding by other characters in the novel to get the non-secret-keeper to consider the secret-keeper’s dilemma and true merit and get the ball rolling toward this realization.
We know how this typically ends. There is a period of utter depression for both characters until this realization strikes. It’s like a light bulb all of a sudden going off. The non-secret-keeper confronts the secret-keeper, in which usually the secret-keeper visibly looks like complete shit and the non-secret-keeper reveals his/her vulnerabilities and realizations.