Great Fantastical Romantic Expectations

A Bitchery reader named Ellen emailed me to say she’d read The Rest Falls Away and had liked it. Her feedback, though, was slightly different from mine, and she owes her perspective, she says, to the fact that she’s a fantasy reader. Her focus was on world building, and the idea that there can easily be more than one hero, or a lack of clarity on who the primary hero is throughout most of the novel, didn’t bother her at all. Seems that’s rather a common feature of fantasy series.

This intrigued me, because I’d never thought about the different perspectives of romance readers and fantasy/sci fi readers, but as the genres bleed into one another more and more of late, it seems like there’s a lot in common between the expectations of each group, and even more that varies.

Before I start blathering on, though, a caveat: I’m using the term “sci fi/fantasy” broadly. Even though I don’t read a great deal of either genre, I do know that the two terms do not describe identical genres, so please understand that I’m not defining inaccurately; I’m trying to be as inclusive when describing a community of readers with similar expectations from their preferred work of fiction. Also, while The Rest Falls Away was the catalyst for my discussion, when I refer to any plot points or elements of plot, characterization or worldbuilding, I’m not referring specifically or obliquely to any perceived flaw in that particular book. I’m speaking generally, making huge, sweeping assumptions with a double-wide trailer-sized brush! Whee!

Hanyway, my email exchange with Ellen and later with Candy caused my interest in the variations in reaction between romance readers and sci fi/fantasy readers, since each group seems to have very different expectations and tolerates variations on themes in disparate ways. While a fantasy/sci fi reader might be totally ok with the potential for multiple – e.g. more than two – heroes, the buffet o’ manly heroic men is something that I’ve personally only started coming across recently. I’ve seen my share of triangles, but there’s more than a few books I’ve read, particularly fantasy or paranormal romances, that feature a manly man smorgasboard. Is this the influence of one into the other? Perhaps. But a mostly-romance reader might feel dicked around by the author if s/he doesn’t have at least an inkling who the hero will be, or a sense of who the heroine likes best. Yet many fantasy series readers—and I’m going to guess that there are more fantasy series than stand alone books, which isn’t as true for fantasy/paranormal romance to the best of my knowledge—are able to handle multiple heroes as part of the development of the series as a whole, and the development of all the characters involved.

To spin it a different way, historical fiction readers, according to one dude I heard speak at that tea I went to last October, expect a fictional story told in a meticulously researched setting, so that all the peripheral details are 110% factually accurate, but the story itself is not – but COULD be true since everything else is. Fantasy readers seem to expect from authors a meticulous job of world building and within that world a set of consistent rules governing the fantastical – e.g. repercussions for use/abuse of magical power – while romance readers might be more accepting of world building flaws, but often NOT tolerant of historical inaccuracy or forgiving of character deviations in terms of romantic coupling.

There’s a good bit in common between each genre but the readers have such different expectations that it’s fascinating to me: how do fantasy readers react to paranormal and fantasy romance novels, both series and stand-alone issues? How do romance readers react to fantasy and sci-fi? I know many of the readers here enjoy heaping piles of both genres, so I have to ask: do your expectations and evaluative standards change when you enter one genre versus another? Do you examine each genre from a different perspective when you read? Obviously, we’re all looking for quality storytelling without flaws like flimsy motivations or obvious deux ex machina endings, but once you’ve started reading a solid story from either genre, do you look for different things? What are the differences, if any, in your expectations?

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  1. 1
    Chicklet says:

    A very interesting question, Sarah! I’m relatively new to the romance genre, so I have much more experience reading SF/Fantasy, although I have read a couple of fantasy-romance hybrids.

    I like your mention that Fantasy readers often are okay with the possibility of more than one hero, because that’s one of the things I enjoy most about Gail Dayton’s books The Compass Rose and The Barbed Rose: that the social structure of Adara practically requires that Kallista not be paired off with a single hero, but be able to work with (and love) a whole panorama of good, hot dudes. That’s very refreshing to me.

    I will admit, sometimes the generic structure of romance (i.e., the HEA) feels a little confining to me; when I know from reading the back cover exactly who the heroine is going to end up with, unless the prose and characterization are incredible, I lose interest in the story, because I know the ending. With a fantasy novel, the ending may be unpredictable, so I can go along with slightly clunky exposition or ungraceful dialogue much more easily. Often I will alternate between romance and fantasy novels rather than read a whole bunch of one genre, for just this reason.

    (Of course, I might also take a detour into mysteries or non-fiction or literary fiction or chicklit or…. Well, you get the picture.)

  2. 2
    Carrie Lofty says:

    A writer in my crit group joined up because, although she writes fantasy, she enjoys historical novels (literary & fantasy) and liked the advice the group gave her. As such, her books stand out with fewer romantic elements, “fade to black” sexual interludes (if any), more setting detail, and—in her current WIP—a childhood friend of the heroine who works as the third part of a love triangle. She didn’t seem to think anything of it, but other critiques mentioned “hey, what’s up with that other guy she seems sweet on, too?” That seems to be the biggest difference in plotting and expectation.

    I see a lot in common with the creation of both historical and scifi/fantasy settings. The author is responsible for maintaining consistent details and for creating a scene outside of our everyday—not to say that contemporary writers don’t build convincing settings, but their base starting level is already assumed to be like ours.

  3. 3
    rebyj says:

    I agree Salome, the environment/world building has to be convincing. The author is inviting us into an unknown place and we have to be able to identify with it someway or at least be able to “see” the book characters fitting in.

    One pet peeve I have about sci fi fantasy novels is that descriptive paragraphs need to have something to do with the story…..if the author spends 14 pages describing the weird flora and fauna and that flora and fauna have nothing to do with the story, they’ve lost me for good.

    Sharon Shinn’s Archangel series was excellent as well as Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiels series and P.C. Casts centaur and goddess novels..I highly recommend them all! Wonderful world building

  4. 4

    I just finished reading The Rest Falls Away and I deliberately did not read any reviews first (or the interview) because I wanted to come at it with an open eye.

    About 1/3 of the way through the book I realized I was reading a fantasy, not a romance, and I wouldn’t even call it a paranormal romance.  And that’s fine, I love a good fantasy or sf novel.  The reason I didn’t think of it as a romance novel is because it was all about the protagonist and her growth and development, where a romance novel is about two people growing and developing together.

    A Sharon Shinn “Samaria” novel falls much more into the paranormal romance slot even though it’s sold as straight fantasy, because there’s a core story about a H&H, and both experience some growth in finding each other and the HEA.

    So, I don’t feel cheated when I buy what’s shelved in romance and find it’s a fantasy, or when I buy a fantasy or sf and find it’s romance.  To me the only question is, did I like the story and would I buy more by this auhor?  And in the Gleason case, the answer is “yes”.

  5. 5
    cassie says:

    I read both (or the three) genres (and the occasional mystery, as well), and I don’t think my expectations of what I consider a good story changes very much, except that I know there’s going to be a HEA in romance novels.  And while I like some sort of HEA, even (or especially) an ambiguous or hopeful one, in most of the books I read, I agree with Chicklet that sometimes the HEA requirement is a bit… unecessary, maybe?  Though I know people will disagree with that because the HEA is such a part of the romance genre.

    As for world-building, I look at it the same way in any book.  Even historicals or contemporaries have to have some sort of world-building, I think, in order to set the story properly.  I don’t like huge amounts of exposition or info-dumps, but that goes for non-SF/F books too. 

    I’m not particularly fond of the multiple partners or wonder who the hero is going to end up with story (arc), for series and stand-alones; I prefer if something else is keeping the tension in the story, but I like watching my heroes work together instead of (or sometimes while) second-guessing each other.

    I read Colleen Gleason’s book and I’m having a little trouble getting past the Buffy similarities and what feels like ever so slightly too much exposition, but I think that’s mostly me and not so much the book.  And, I don’t really know why, but unlike Darlene, this one feels like a romance novel to me, despite there being vampires and Venators (kinda like JR Ward’s series).  It’s not a bad thing, and I’ll probably still pick up the next book in the series (Ward’s, too, now that I’ve gotten past the names); I can’t say I love either series, but I don’t think it has much to do with the genres or subgenres they’re identified as.

    I liked Archangel, too, and Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, Robin McKinley’s books, O.R. Melling, Joss Whedon/John Cassaday’s Astonishing X-Men (not a novel, but close enough :)—highly recommend, by the way, though I’m not banking on (too much of) a HEA), Diana Wynne Jones, Kelley Armstrong, Kim Harrison (though I’ve only read the first three of her series, so far)…  I think most of those end with a HEA, or as happy as the characters can be after what some of them go through.

  6. 6
    Robin says:

    I will admit, sometimes the generic structure of romance (i.e., the HEA) feels a little confining to me; when I know from reading the back cover exactly who the heroine is going to end up with, unless the prose and characterization are incredible, I lose interest in the story, because I know the ending.

    I’m a late-to-Romance reader myself who also wishes the HEA ending weren’t so entrenched in the genre, because I don’t like what sometimes feels contrived and forced in the last few pages of some Romance novels.  And ironically, of course, the more challenges you give to a couple to heighten the drama of their story, the more difficult it can be to make their HEA convincing.  Sometimes an ending of not UNhappy is okay is plenty romantic for me.

    But one thing I’ve heard over and over is that for HEA-committed Romance readers, the pleasures in reading are different depending on genre expectations.  And because so many Romance readers seem to be such voracious readers, across and between genres (now THERE would be an interesting follow-up reader survey, IMO), I don’t think it’s so much knowing how it’s going to end as much as enjoying the way there and being able to experience certain emotional pleasures that won’t dissolve in tragedy at the end.  I imagine the same would be true of Mystery readers, because again, you have a puzzle that will always be solved by the end of a book, and I would think that the sense of closure there is relatable to the sense of closure the HEA ending brings for many readers.  Sure you know who ends up together, but for some readers, I think, that heightens the enjoyment gained in reading about everything in between.

    A version of this discussion has been going on for the past few weeks at Dear Author and at the editorial blog at Juno Books (juno-books.com), which is publishing Gail Dayton’s final Rose book and has recently published a volume of “paranormal romance” insisting on the *old* definition of romance as adventure (thus some of the stories don’t have happy endings, which has ticked some Romance readers off).  That’s one of the reasons I tend to capitalize Romance when I’m speaking of the current genre, because even though the capitalized version of the word usually refers to the Romance languages, I don’t know how else to distinguish the genre reference at a time when it seems necessary to.

    While two years ago I would have said that my expectations were the same no matter what genre I read, that is no longer true, and it’s only the genres about which I’m *less* educated or widely read that I have amorphous or ill-formed expectations.  Now, for example, when I pick up a Romance, I know there will be an intense focus on a love relationship, and probably a HEA ending.  And my expectations play a role in choosing a Romance over another type of book.  With S/F it’s often about the social/poolitical commentary for me, and Fantasy is the genre I’m just starting to dabble in and want to understand better.  Lit Fic is a constant staple, and is probably the one un-genre for which I have no explicit expectations.

  7. 7
    L. Francesca says:

    I guess my expectations sort of do change with every genre.

    I don’t expect as much romance in a fantasy or sci-fi novel, because most of the time it needs a notable size of the book to build the world itself, and not the characters. I also am more, uh, I guess open minded when I read something from these genres. It’s a different society with different rules. I don’t expect it to be like the regular books I gaze over.

    If I’m reading a contemporary, then I expect a lot of romance because I live in a similar world. There isn’t as much to build time and universe wise, and that’s not to say it doesn’t need it, but it shouldn’t be as much as a sci-fi world, in my experience.

    But these are vague, and if they’re torn to pieces when I read something, I don’t mind. I like it when authors are able to show that no matter what I think, they can mold a story that I’ll enjoy regardless of the mindset I came in with.

  8. 8
    Bonnie says:

    Curious to come across this discussion, just after spending most of my afternoon cleaning out a few book cases. And what to my wondering eyes did appear but a sci-fi/fantasy trilogy that I read many many years ago and thought that I had lost! They are The Broken Citadel, Castledown, and The Great Wheel, by Joyce Ballou Gregorian. I *loved* these stories and my paperback copies are in tatters from multiple re-reads.

    They tell the story of its heroine as a young girl (The Broken Citadel), as a young woman (Castledown), and as a woman in her 30s (The Great Wheel). AND, there are two love interests in her life that made the story heart-breaking, as well as just a ripping good adventure tale. I read these long before I got interested in romance novels, and it’s curious to note that maybe the fantasy genre was a bit ahead of it’s time in this regard.

    I would heartily recommend these stories if you are lucky to find copies of them.

  9. 9
    Jackie L. says:

    With so many cross genre novels being written, I think the hard and fast definitions are becoming obsolete.  For instance, while Bujold writes excellent fantasy, I consider her Vorkosigan saga to be sci fi.  So I think the definitions are less static than in the 70’s.  Romance was Georgette Heyer and Harlequin back then, and sci fi was Asimov and Heinlein.  Huge stylistic differences.  Much more blurred now.  However, I do have some expectations depending on the shelf I buy the book from.  If both the hero and heroine wind up dying writhing in agony, that book better not be on the romance shelf.  And if at the end of the book, I don’t know who dunnit, that better not be on the mystery shelf.  My only real expectation from any of the reading that I do is that somebody should tell me a story.  An engaging story where I don’t have to suspend ALL disbelief, where I care about some of the characters at least, where the setting is believable.  Oh yeah, just well-written.  Oh, and no scary, don’t do scary.  Hate scary.

  10. 10
    Charlene says:

    I have completely different expectations for science fiction stories than I do for fantasy stories. I don’t see them as even remotely similar genres, let alone being in the same category. I’m not sure why bookstores and reviewers lump them together.

    The setting of a fantasy story quite literally *cannot be possible*. Whether it’s a land where a king can use a magic sword, a city populated by weredragons, or whatever, the aspect must not just be impossible right now but must *never be possible*. Not now, not a thousand years in the past, not a thousand years in the future, not ever.

    Science fiction (for the most part) deals with things that are not possible *right now* but which may be plausible at some other time. Whether it’s folding space to make faster-than-light travel possible or ocean-covered planets being used to farm plankton for food use, the settings have to be plausible. (There are science fiction stories set in the past, but even then the settings – Leonardo’s studio, the Roman Empire – and the events have to still be plausible.)

    As to my expectations…I expect that a book I buy will be properly labelled. There is a difference between a romantic science fiction novel and a science fiction romance. If the story is primarily a romance, I expect a HEA, but I wouldn’t be shocked by a HEA in any other genre. This even though I’m not a great fan of HEAs unless they make sense in the story. It seems to me that too many romance readers are overly set on the HEA even when it doesn’t make sense, to the point that they’d rather have a poorly thought out book with an HEA than a well-conceived book without one. If the HEA doesn’t fit, the book should either be rewritten or not marketed as a romance novel. Preferably the former.

    I expect that any book that deals with the present or future will be properly researched. Nothing takes me out of a book faster than historical or scientific inaccuracies, especially ones based on conventional wisdom. Not every writer has to educate, but they certainly shouldn’t mis-educate.

  11. 11
    BevQB says:

    I’m a Romance book junkie (and I also capitalize it), but I have also read and enjoyed some Sci-Fi/Fantasy with romantic elements. My usual genres though are Paranormal Romance and Historical Romance hopefully with at least a bit of spice.

    I read “The Rest Falls Away” thanks to the SB’s review and I enjoyed it. Interestingly enough, this follows shortly after reading another Paranormal Romance that did not end with a traditional HEA- Cameron Dean’s Candace Steele Vampire Hunter trilogy.

    These books had the same type of bittersweet sticks-in-your-mind ending that most of the few SF/F books/trilogies I’ve read also had.

    Would I want a steady diet of non-HEA Romance? Nope! I love the journey to the HEA, but the fact that a book doesn’t have the HEA actually makes it more memorable.

    It’s starting to seem that a new genre is evolving- Paranormal Romance as a separate genre where everything and anything goes. I like that this new genre is not so predictable!

  12. 12
    Molly says:

    I don’t like romances without a HEA or with multiple heroes, because I pick up a romance novel when I’m in the mood for a love story. If it’s in the romance section, I expect the story to be about two people falling in love and triumphing over whatever to end up together. I like plenty of other kinds of books, including really edgy ones, but as a reader I don’t like feeling tricked.

    When I read SciFi or Fantasy I have no expectations like that and it wouldn’t occur to me to be bothered by breaking of Romance genre ‘rules.’ But, honestly, if the book isn’t ultimately about interesting characters and the relationships between them (family, friendships, enemies, anything) then I probably won’t bother to finish. Wars and quests just aren’t really interesting to me.

  13. 13
    Katie Ann says:

    Interesting timing of this discussion, I’ve just finished Robin McKinley’s “Sunshine” which I got off the Romance shelf, and was thus expecting a lovely HEA.  I had never read a fantasy/SF novel before and was left feeling a little hollow afterwards when that never happened.  A rough devirginizing into the genre to say the least.  The book was absolutely amazing, the characters were wonderful and the world building was unlike anything I’ve ever read, but I can’t say yet whether I will dive into fantasy or sci-fi now.  I may check out some of the author’s other books but at least then I can brace myself for it and enter with different expectations.

  14. 14
    cassie says:

    I *love* Robin McKinley.  I highly recommend all her books, especially Beauty and The Blue Sword if you’re looking for a HEA.  But none of her other books end as ambiguously as Sunshine, except maybe Deerskin, though I’d say it’s more hopeful than ambiguous.

    I wonder if Sunshine was mis-shelved.  I’ve only ever seen it in the Horror section of the Borders and Barnes.  The rest of hers are usually shelved in the YA or Children’s or SF/F sections (and sometimes in all three in some stores).

  15. 15
    Darla says:

    You started me thinking, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m a wee bit hypocritical.  Thanks loads, Sarah. 

    In straight fantasy, I don’t care if the romantic elements get a HEA or if there are a dozen or none, as long as it makes sense with the story.  I do, of course, expect thorough and consistent worldbuilding.

    However, fantasy romance doesn’t get a pass from me on the worldbuilding just because it says “romance” on the spine and gives me a HEA.  There are some paranormal romances out there that irritate the heck out of me because of sloppy or virtually non-existent worldbuilding.  The romance needs to have the worldbuilding and the HEA (HEA being the definition of romance).

    Historical innacuracy doesn’t bug me a bit, unless it’s so egregious that even someone as history-challenged as I can notice it, like electric lights in a medieval castle.  But throw in nonsensical magical powers, and I get testy.  Yes, I read sf/f before I read romance.

  16. 16
    canadacole says:

    Great discussion!

    When I read, any genre, I read to escape reality for a little while.  I like to read lots of different genres, but romance is my safety net.  I hate, in any genre, when it turns out the hero, who I and the heroine have fallen in love with, is actually the evil killer.  I also hate having protaganists killed off at the end of the story.  A book labelled Romance promises me that that won’t happen.  When I read other genres I can get some fabulous stories, but I’m never quite sure where the author is going to take me in the end.  That, in and of itself, adds a level of tension for me. 

    For pure comfort, I trust Romance not to slap me at the end.  Even with that said, I’m fine with a Hopeful Ever After instead of a Happy Ever After.

  17. 17
    canadacole says:

    I wanted to add that as far as world-building, description, narrative, editing, etc., I expect the same basic level of quality no matter what genre the book is labelled.

  18. 18

    I think that romance fans can be the least willing to give up their personal expectations and surrender to the author’s unique vision—which is to me part of the fun of having someone tell me a story.

    I prefer a happy ending to almost any book or movie, although I’m looking for a happy ending consistent with the characters and the plot, not a generic wedded bliss sort of situation.

    This is why I become so frustrated with modern horror. I find no redemptive value in “and then they all die” endings, when there is usually so much more emotional impact to imagining the characters surviving and going on after the horror changed them, if that makes sense.

    I had a writing coach in my youth who said that letting your characters die in the end isn’t cool or hip or tragic. Most of the time it’s just authorial laziness, a cop-out ending to avoid properly tying up your characters, plot and theme.

    So I guess in all genres (and I am a voracious fan of anything with a monster in it), I’m looking for character and plot consistency as my #1 expectation. And #2—be original in the speculative element. For example, if I read or watch another angsty brooding vampire, I’m going to puke.

  19. 19
    Marianne McA says:

    The main difference would be that I expect the main characters to be likeable in a romance. That doesn’t mean they can’t be complex, or have failings, or must love their mothers – but if I dislike them, and don’t care whether they are happy, the book won’t work as a romance for me – however good the writing, however well drawn the characters. 

    I’m not sure about other genres – I often read books that end happily: but perhaps most genre books do. Murder mysteries are solved, quests are completed and the first XI always win the Schools Cup.

  20. 20
    Estelle Chauvelin says:

    I read a little bit of almost everything (I think the only genre I don’t touch at all is Western, more from lack of motivation than any real dislike) and I expect any author to play by the rules of the setting.  That means historical accuracy for contemporary/historical settings, and consistancy within the world the author creates for science fiction and fantasy settings.  If it’s fantasy, you don’t suddenly have magic able to break limitations that were placed on it earlier, with no reason for it to have changed, just because it’s the simplest way to solve a problem.  Your fantasy creatures don’t develop convienient abilities they never had earlier, either.  (Can you tell I find Superman a bit ridiculous?)  If it’s science fiction, your sf technology is consistant.  And people need motivation no matter what world they are living in: authors are not allowed to have somebody turn 180 degrees from villain to all around good guy without some kind of logical explanation just because they are the authors and they said so, even if they invented not only the characters but the entire planet on which they live.

    Of course, I would have a hard time defining different expectations for different genres, because so many of the books I read qualify for at least two.  Most of the romance I read is also fantasy (I’m thinking of P.C. Cast and Gail Dayton, here) and much of the fantasy also features strong romantic themes and usually a HEA.  Most of the mysteries I read are also historical fiction: one series customarily gets shelved with the general fiction instead of mystery because of this, even though it’s a detective series.  The only genre-based distinction I can really make is that a book ought to be shelved in the area where it most closely complies with the genre conventions.

  21. 21
    Sarah F. says:

    I stay away from most everything but romance because I’ve figured out that what I want to read about is building a romantic, sexual relationship.  So if a book is labeled romance but is mostly mystery with a dash of romance thrown in (NR’s Northern Lights, IMO), then I’m disappointed in the book even WITH the happy ending because it’s much more a mystery to me and I just couldn’t care less.  So, I imagine if I’ve read most of a book before I realize the ending isn’t happy, I’d be pretty pissed.  But then, I read the ending first, and usually don’t pick up those books anyway.

  22. 22
    Miri says:

    The book(s) that popped into my head while reading this post are “The Dragon Prince” series by Melanie Rawn.
    The world building was very good.
    What I remember most is the relationships/romantic and not. I think that this particular series hooked me was because of the romantic relationships, and that is probably because I was a romance reader first.
    Are the reason the two genres are right next to each other at the book store because of their similarities?

  23. 23
    Robin says:

    I think that romance fans can be the least willing to give up their personal expectations and surrender to the author’s unique vision—which is to me part of the fun of having someone tell me a story.

    Do you mean with Romance or with other genres?  The only prejudice I’ve run up against pretty consistently is that against literary fiction as pretentious/depressing/obscure.

  24. 24

    Do you mean with Romance or with other genres?  The only prejudice I’ve run up against pretty consistently is that against literary fiction as pretentious/depressing/obscure.

    I wasn’t talking about prejudice. That has negative connotations. I said expectations, and there’s no judgment about expectations.

    I mean that romance fans have very clear and not especially flexible expectations from their reading experiences. This is neither a bad nor a good thing. I think that flexibility in expectations is growing, thanks in part to other genres blending in: sf/f/h, erotica and suspense.

    From my point of view as a reader, I think this is a strength and a weakness. Romance fans are consistently satisfied, or one would assume so by sales numbers, by having clear expectations that authors meet. But those clear expectations do limit the kinds of rides you can take with a romance novel. The growing paranormal romances and to a degree romantic suspenses and erotic romances, too, are meeting the needs of other types of readers, like me, who do not have as clearly defined requirements from a reading experience.

    Neither way of reading is “better.” Just different, and I like to see everyone satisfied. Don’t you?

    Veriword: head73

  25. 25

    I chewed on this post for a while (sorry about the teeth-marks) because I’m really one of the outsiders here; I read and write fantasy, not romance, and stick around mostly because I think it’s interesting and educational to think about things from a different genre angle than the one I live in.

    There are a lot of reasons I don’t read romance, some of which I recognize as not entirely valid; the florid, man-titty ridden clinch covers put me off, as does the notion of heroines who are too stupid to breathe without instructions, etc.  And while I know there’s good romance out there, the thought of wading around trying to find it is daunting. (Especially when my TBR list is already long enough, thank you.)  But I’m highly considering picking up The Rest Falls Away, and not just because it’s been recommended.

    The difference with that one, and the more fundamental reason I don’t read romance, is that I want there to be something else at the center of the story besides the romantic relationship.  That can share the spotlight, but if it’s the only thing there, I tend to lose interest.  Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer’s Sorcery and Cecelia (or The Enchanted Chocolate-Pot, depending on the version) has a strong focus on romance and two HEAs you can see a mile off, but it’s also got mortal peril and evil magicians and plot that has to do with things other than the main relationships.  My experience with fantasy conditions me to expect the protagonists to be doing something important while they’re falling in love.  I can do without the love (and sometimes appreciate writers avoiding romantic implications), but I can’t really do without the plot.

  26. 26
    Marta Acosta says:

    Joyce said, “I mean that romance fans have very clear and not especially flexible expectations from their reading experiences. This is neither a bad nor a good thing. I think that flexibility in expectations is growing, thanks in part to other genres blending in: sf/f/h, erotica and suspense.”

    I’m not a genre reader.  I come to this site because I think Sarah and Candy are two of the funniest chicks on the web and because I appreciate the lively, intelligent forums.  I wrote a novel that I considered a comedy with a paranormal element.  But since it doesn’t fit neatly into a category and since women writers must be put in categories, it has sometimes been listed as a paranormal romance.  This confuses readers who have firm expectations of how the characters are “supposed” to behave.

    And the readers confused me when they talked about the “hero,” when I’d never thought about a hero while writing it.  My main character, a young woman, is the hero if there is one.  Readers were also annoyed with my book for breaking conventions of an HEA—I had to google to find out what the heck “HEA” meant.

    There is some pleasure of a formula where you know the destination and the fun is how you get there.  (I hope that is true with my romantic comedy.)  But, like Joyce, I enjoy reading books where the destination is not determined by mere convention, and I agree that some flexibility will offer new delights.

  27. 27
    --E says:

    Ditto my background to Marie Brennan, above. I’m an SF/F reader, not a Romance reader, but I hang out here because I love kickin’ with smart bitches. Also, I have every intention of attending some major RWA convention-type-thingy, because Romance writers have got their shit together when it comes to working the business end of the gig. SF/F writers are catching up, but we’re miles behind the Romance people.

    Also, I work for a major publisher, and our bread and butter is Romance. When I first started in publishing 13 years ago, I decided I had to read at least a handful of Romance novels, if only to see what was paying my rent. I chose books by BNAs, and focused on Historicals, because I felt those would appeal to me most.

    My objection was what’s been echoed above: the prescripted ending. I would be reading this really good book, with compelling characters and an exciting plot full of tension, hot sex scenes that usually made sense (more about this anon), villians with a motivation beyond “because I’m jealous and hateful” (more about this anon, too), and subplots galore.

    Yum.

    Except.

    Then I would get about 20 or 40 pages from the end, and I would think, “How are they going to wrap up all this in so little time?” And the author would sort of quickly pull it all together, usually with the hero killing the villain, and then spend the last 6 or 8 pages on an epilogue in which the H&H experience the birth of their first child.

    I felt so gypped. I don’t mind that it’s a happy ending, but don’t tease me with a juicy, juicy plot and then quickly blow through the payoff just so you can get to the HEA. (For my money, I love the ending of Gone With the Wind, which is, let’s be honest, a romance novel. Except it doesn’t have an HEA.)

    With a fantasy novel, when I get 20 pages from the end and realize it can’t be wrapped up in that short time, I at least know it will continue in the next book. That’s annoying too, but I can live with it, since I write the things and I am totally guilty of the same.

    Over the years, I’ve read several dozen more romance novels, if only because they cross my desk and a writer with fair prosody chops will suck me in. I fare better with Contemporarys in regard to plots, but I generally don’t like the characters—the percentage of neurotic heroines makes it hard to find a good one. This is particularly true in ChickLit.  (Meg Cabot, however, entertains me. Her heroines are just screwball enough that the neuroses are charming, and I love her heroes.)

    About the sex scenes: I much prefer them when they have something to do with the story. Too many writers seem to say, “Oh, time for a sex scene” and just stick one in (I cannot avoid bad puns!). Better writers give me some reason why this scene is here—character development is standard, but I prefer when it’s unusual character development, and not a round of “I think I love you, and whoa damn you made me come and I am now totally, totally IN LOVE with you!”

    About the villains: I’m really sick of the “because I’m jealous” motivation. Just sayin’. That’s as bad as a fantasy novel with a Big Bad who wants to take over the world because he’s eeeeeevil. “Cardboard” should never apply to characters who spend more than ten pages onscreen.  (For the record, I also hate Fantasy of the “find the magic maguffin” variety. In short: I want something new and different in every book, not rehashed plots and stock characters.)

    As for the blending of genres… I love a splash of romance in an SF/F novel. But for me the balance must go to the SF/F tropes and expectations. I read a paranormal romance (author redacted because my company published the book) where, in the middle of a fight scene, the heroine was stopping to check out the hero’s form. WTF? Pay attention, woman, you’re about to get killed! That book definitely sucked in my eyes because of all the Romancy stuff. The worldbuilding was good (it’s contemporary, but I liked the premise behind the supernatural elements), while the characters were kind of…thinly drawn. The hero was a stock Broody Vampire guy, but had appeal, and his broodiness made sense with the worldbuilding.

    The heroine, however, had apparently hit every branch as she fell out of the Stupid Tree. The only reason I could think for her still being alive was because the Author Said So.

    And therein sums up why, though I have read and enjoyed many romance novels, I cannot call myself a Romance reader: I hate about 50% of all heroines with the burning passion of a thousand suns. Insipid, illogical dimwits who luck their way through problems. Even many of the “plucky” ones are idiots, and constantly need rescuing from their own quixotic pluckiness. Argh!

    Where are the romance novels with the down-to-earth, practical, omnicompetent heroines?

  28. 28
    harthad says:

    I too am not a romance reader; I stick mainly to fantasy/SF, and I hang out here because the Smatch Bitches are so much fun. Plus, the cover snarkage sometimes makes me laugh so hard I have to shut my office door….

    I read Dayton’s “Compass Rose” on the basis of the review here. Although I liked it, I confess that as a non-romance reader, I was a little surprised by how much sex there was. Not that I’m opposed to the hawt secks, but I reached the point where I thought, “Dang, there’s another sex scene interrupting the plot again.” Which is not to say that there are no sex-laden fantasy/SF novels—I’ve read quite a few of them—but the “fade to black” encounter that someone mentioned above is somewhat more the norm.

    I find the various comments about Romance requiring an HEA interesting, because one feature of the classic fantasy quest tale is its near-insistence on the HEA. Even if there have been horrific losses along the way, good almost always triumphs in the end. (For example, the end of the Lord of the Rings isn’t “happy” in the conventional sense, because Frodo is so damaged by his experiences that he is no longer able to live in his workaday world, but still, evil was defeated.) I suspect it’s the influence of other types of modern fiction that has made fantasy more open to ambiguous endings, which is a good development for story-telling. But personally, I still feel disappointed by fantasy novels that feature consistently bleak moral landscapes.

  29. 29

    I feel like the nature of the HEA can be more flexibile in a fantasy novel than in a romance—though of course I’m talking out of my ass here, since my survey of romance is pretty much nonexistent.  That is, because the central plots can be about a wider variety of things, the endings are a little less predictable; you may spend the first half of the book learning what the central conflict is, let alone how it will be resolved.  (Cover copy does not always make this clear, nor should it.)  So yeah, I go into most fantasies with a fair certainty that the good guys will win, but not only do I not know how, I may not know right off the bat what “winning” means in this situation.

  30. 30
    Nancy Gee says:

    Well, I’m not exactly a true Romance reader, either. Part of my disinterest in Romance novels is the predictable ending (that darn HEA). I like to be in doubt as to the ending when I read.

    I also have a hard time overcoming my imbedded cynicism to buy into the classic HEA, or indeed, even to enjoy the exclusive focus on a developing romantic relationship. At my curmudgeonly age, I’ve seen very little evidence that Twu Wuv really can conquer all. When up against a romance plot, and I start muttering, “Yeah, right! What guy would really do that?”, I need to distract myself with other things in the plot, and allow the romance-y stuff to slide in under the radar. True confession: It’s easier for me to suspend disbelief about wizards, aliens, reincarnation, or time travel, than to believe in soul mates or love-lasts-forever.

    So I read mostly literary and fantasy fiction, a surprising amount of which has romantic subplots. It’s like shredding veggies into the spaghetti sauce so the kids will eat ‘em.

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