What IS the Fantasy of Romance Novels?

To clarify: is the fantasy of the romance genre the story of two people finding true love? Or is the fantasy something more, something like the characters themselves, or the setting, or the story (not the result)?

Maybe this is a question that every reader has to answer for themselves. Maybe the answer for someone looking at the genre as a whole is the same as what “a man with two penises says when his tailor asks him if he dresses to the right or the left”–yes.*

I had this question shoved in my face a couple weeks ago when I was reading a discussion on some romance forum/blog or another. I don’t remember the context of the discussion, but rather the number of women who opined that OF COURSE the point of romance is the hot studly man you don’t have in real life.  OF COURSE the point is some exotic or fantastic locale you cannot live in as your normal life.  OF COURSE the point is some crazy story that would never actually happen to you.  All of which made me cringe away from the discussion and wonder if I am some kind of anomolous freak in the population of romance readers, that all of those things they list as being the point are turn-offs to me (at least in a general sense–I’m not saying a novel couldn’t overcome them, just that I would not read a book because of them and might, in fact, avoid books that have them).

Then I calmed myself with thoughts of the various romances I have read and loved over the years that have not been like that, that have been the kind I like–quieter stories about two people who fall into a love I can actually believe in (versus a panting lust). Obviously both types have an audience.

As a writer I thought back to this question the other day, when I was contemplating basing a (future) hero off my Parliament crush, who is starting to bald and not notably tall and while trim enough to look healthy, certainly not a six-pack ab type of man.  I could not think of a single romance hero with any of those traits.  I have  seen discussions complaining about the lack of “realistic” men in the genre on romance sites, as well, but I have to wonder…is the reason books never got published with that kind of hero because of NY editorial taste, or what NY editors perceived as the taste of the “average” romance reader, OR because readers don’t actually want less than perfect heroes?

Then there is another problem with “perfect” heroes, and that is the lowest-common-denominator vision of perfection.  My personal complaint about much of the romance I read is that the characters are, essentially, interchangeable. This phenomenon is similiar to that of rom-com movies, where you can almost predict the “personality” of characters because they are always the same. The books that are memorable for me are memorable because the characters are so uniquely suited to one another that you could not picture them happy with anyone else…

…the books where it’s obvious the two characters are not just two equitably good-looking and socally-positioned people who decide to marry.  I mean, let’s be honest, that is what most romance is…characters who discover how “sweet/smart/funny” each other are and have never found that with anyone else (mostly because they’ve never had a real relationship with anyone else), so they decide it must be twue luv. But you leave the book with the impression that any person with the same traits would have come to the same place with the character. I suppose in that sense all that’s left for a reader to hang onto IS the fantasy of super-attractive physicality or interesting setting or crazy story.

But I prefer my characters to be more unique and therefore memorable than that.  I mean, put any typical rom-com in contrast to a movie like Secretary, which shows two people who probably could not be with anyone else. THAT is a memorable love story.

So what part of romance is the fantasy–do readers want to be able to project themselves into it, in which case most of the characters need to be kind of generic, OR do they want a story of a love that could not happen between two different people than the ones in the story, even if it means they could not see themselves in it?


*Yes, I cribbed that from Lucky Number Slevin. That movie is my happy place.



Filed under Reflections on Romance

5 responses to “What IS the Fantasy of Romance Novels?

  1. *hand raised*

    I have a hard time with generic characters in romance. They’re boring, no matter the fantastic setting, and they make me want to shoot the book. I do not want to be them; I may, in fact, end up wanting to turn the gun on myself by the time I’m finished. IF I finish. Perhaps this is why I don’t write romance.

    “Mary Sue” in the old definition was making a character out of yourself. In the new definition, it’s something like the too perfect person. Either way, kill them with fire. I don’t want to read it.

    Give me a Pride and Prejudice, no-one-for-Lizzie-but-Darcy, any day.

    • I think the Mary Sue as author-avatar still exists, but much more prevalant is the too-perfect type. The utterly generic anyone-can-project-herself-onto-it type.

      “You could never be happy with a husband you did not look up to, Lizzie. Are you sure?” YES.

  2. That said, most of the romance novels I’ve bothered to read have been generic and I understand that’s what the “audience” wants.

    I do not for the life of me understand why.

    • I don’t mind generic when I am in the mood for something that’s as mindless to read as watching a sitcom on TV would be. But I find that I don’t REMEMBER them later. Sometimes even like an hour after I finish, I’m left scratching my head wondering what that story had been about, again? Maybe that’s a function of weak stories as much as it is of weak characters…maybe most books have generic characters but we don’t notice as much if the story is strong?

      But the books I find myself going back to and reading over and over again are the ones with memorable characters, even if I don’t want to be that woman or be with that man. As long as I can see why she does, it’s fine.

      • Well said. When purging paperbacks I find myself staring at books and wondering where they came from, when it’s obvious I’ve read them because the spine is cracked. A case of not being memorable… and a case of being shared on to the next person instead of finding a permanent home on my shelf.

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