Romance means never having to doubt your choices

I ask myself frequently why I like romance so much. Even after running this site for more than five years, I still ask myself what has me enthralled with romance. And it’s a topic we’ve visited before – Candy wrote about genre constraints back in 2008 and asked why romance’s genre constraints are met with such derision when other genres have similar defining constructs.

There is an intricate combination of factors that encourage my return to more romance after I finish reading a novel. Something about the space within those constraints keeps me coming back again and again. What is it about the happy ending, the tension of courtship, the tension in general that I admire? Jane wrote recently at Dear Author (and I cannot find the specific link, dang it) that there is a certain freedom in reading romance, knowing that no matter how painful the anguish, it is going to be ok in the end. I totally agree with the idea that each novel in the romance genre represents a safe space for readers to enjoy without apprehension. To echo Lisa Kleypas’ statements from the Bosoms, there are few things more reassuring than having the hero say, from your happiness to your orgasm, he’s on it.

But it’s more than the safe space and assurance of the happy ending, and the female autonomy and self actualization that I adore, but until I was driving and pondering recently I didn’t have the language to describe what it is that hooks me.

On the website “It made my day,” (which is awesome) someone wrote recently about being told that for health reasons she needed to quit her job – giving her a reason to quit that felt like sweet relief. My first thought was, “Why not look for another job merely because that one was making you sick and unhappy?” But, holy smoke, I could totally relate to the sweet, savage relief of having the unpleasant choice and the responsibility for making that choice removed entirely by external directions from an external authority. It is comforting in a scary situation when facing a terrifying change to give someone else the responsibility for your making a choice that will make you happy – and others unhappy. I think this is due in part to the fact that women, to speak in huge generalization, are not encouraged to choose things that make themselves happy that might otherwise affect others. While everyone else on the plane is putting their own masks on first then assisting others, women are encouraged in a million subtle ways to hold their breath until everyone else is breathing free, THEN put on their own masks (if they’re conscious at that point).

Choosing everyone else first, or placing one’s desires on the side line is not what romance is about. It’s not about shirking choices and being a coward. Reading a book where everything comes easily to the heroine or hero is very frustrating, but so is a book where the hero or heroine don’t actually do anything to acquire what it is that they desire.

But reading a good romance does include certainty, and as a corollary, it includes an absence of regrets as well. It means never doubting that the hero and heroine are meant to be together, believing that they will not ever doubt their choice in one another. Romance means reading in a space where, in that world, whatever world it is for that time with those people, the most important choices are the perfect choices, and they will all work out for the best. Romance means never doubting or second guessing one’s choices at the end. WOW. That is some liberating genre constraint right there.

A hero at the end of a romance leaves no doubt that this is the partner for him. A heroine never looks at the hero and thinks, “I wonder what my life would be like if I’d done something different. I wonder if I’m with the wrong guy.” Romance means never doubting the big life choices – which is a bit of a twist on self actualization. The hero and heroine end up exactly where and with the person they ought to be with.

That’s the other element of romance that continually fascinates me: the role of fate and predestination that appears in romances. From the wang as divining rod to the hardening nipples that point her in the direction of The Perfect Guy, there are always signs of some vague external influence leading the protagonists together. It’s not just attraction, it’s Attraction. Like North-Pole magetized nipples pointing the direction of the uncontrollable hard-on. And it doesn’t have to be nipples, either. It could be the sense that after one meeting she’s known him all her life, or an indescribable feeling that this woman is somehow different. There is a thread of predetermination that appears frequently, in various forms. I remain fascinated by the forms that “a little destiny” appears in different romances, and the way that choices made are never doubted. And so I keep going back for more.

What keeps you returning to romance? Do you think there’s a regular appearance of fate in romances or do you think I’m out of my gourd? Does the certainty ever bore you or do you like the safe space of happiness? Have you ever had a really difficult choice removed by external factors – and was it a relief? Would that make a good romance novel (I’m sure it’s been written already)?

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Random Musings

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  1. 1
    Jeannie says:

    I blame (well, not really) our mothers for reading us Cinderella and Snow White and Sleeping Beauty as children. Deep down inside we all want that prince to ride up on his white horse and save us from the evil queen. The story has been retold and morphed into millions of different variations but it’s still the same story.

    I absolutely choose romances over other genres because of the HEA.

  2. 2
    Kate8 says:

    I think the “difficult choice taken out of your hands by external factors” element is pretty much the backbone of force/arranged marriages trope – a subgenre I adore. Surprisingly I haven’t analysed my own attachment to Romance novels to this extent, I think I’ve spent that time and energy defending it. Huh, something to do on the drive home from work… thanks Sarah.

  3. 3
    Brooks*belle says:

    Reading romance novels has seriously improved mine and my husband’s sex life.  :D

    And reading my HEA stories is truly my “me” time.  Romance is calorie-free chocolate.

  4. 4
    AngP says:

    The pilot episode of Lie to Me summed up why I read romance novels:

    Dr. Gillian Foster: You think I’m naive just because I don’t share your twisted view of the world.
    Dr. Cal Lightman: That and you read romance novels.
    Dr. Foster: Yes I do, because they make me happy. A pursuit I highly recommend to you.

    They make me happy.  They allow me to escape from work stress.  For that brief moment in time I’m transported.  It’s a nice break.

  5. 5
    CourtneyLee says:

    I agree about the lack of regret and the confidence that one’s choices were the right choices that led to the best possible outcome. I adore that, as I read an angsty book where the world throws one obstacle after another at the couple, I never have to worry whether or not all their effort to be together will be in vain. That lack of anxiety, and that element of control I have when it comes to choosing how the books I read will end, is both freeing and comforting.

    And while I do agree that women are, in general, not encouraged to make choices that will make them happy whether or not those choices affect others, the airline metaphor is problematic—every airplane safety briefing I’ve ever had told me to put my mask on first before helping anyone else, up to and including my own children.

    Great blog post. I’m absolutely borrowing from it for my “this is my response to you calling my books smut” comments. And thank you for linking to Candy’s Genre Constraints post—tons of win in there, too. :)

  6. 6
    Carin says:

    I read romance for the escape of it and the certainty of a happy ending.  (ha-ha)  I love escaping to other worlds, and with a romance I can be sure that the heroine won’t be killed off or suffer horrible tragedy she can’t recover from.

    I get enough uncertainty and pain in real life.  A romance novel is my escape and stress relief!

  7. 7
    Sarah W says:

    Our library defines romance as a story with a definite HEA.  The two (or more, depending on your taste, so to speak) lovers must seal the deal as a couple (triple, etc.) everlasting, or it’s a fiction (or other genre) serial.  Calamity Jane I’m looking at you (huge fight with the Mystery selector last year).

    I think Jennifer Crusie explored destined love beautifully in Bet Me—when Min and Cal were dumb enough to deny their inevitable love out loud, Fate responded by smacking the backs of their heads (actually, Min got a glas cut and Cal dumped a kitchen drawer on his foot, but still).

    I can just see authors shaking their heads over a stubborn character: “Love always finds a way!  Suck it up, kid, you’re going down!”

    I imagine romance writing (any writing) can be a lot like this.

  8. 8

    First I read adventure, the male equivalent (not porn, porn is only about sex, sex is central to romance and adventure but it’s not the whole story).  I need to escape into a place where it’s the important things that matter, love, life, courage, destiny and get away from my real life which is overwhelmingly ruled by bean counting and nit picking. Broken cars, dentist bills, pain in the ass customers, oblivious kids who trash their rooms and another letter from their teacher; I could go on for a really long time(a really long time)

  9. 9

    I love the constraints of Romance. Knowing, no matter what, that in the end the hero and heroine will be together and be happy allows me to sit back and enjoy the journey without fear of disappointment.

    I totally agree that that the idea of never second guessing each other at the end is very appealing. I mean we all have to make decisions every day where you have to wonder if you made the right one. Being able to feel that way about the person you choose to spend the rest of your life with is priceless. Let’s face it, we are all human and none of us are perfect! Great article. :D

  10. 10
    Mama Nice says:

    I love that Kleypas quote from your book – when I first read it I was like, YES! That “handle-everything” aspect of the hero is def. a part of the escapist angle of romance novels for me.

    But then I also love the angsty/damaged Kinsale men – so I guess my hero taste is a tad eclectic.

  11. 11

    The HEA is a given, yes, but I got a sneakin’ suspicion that Romance Could Save the World.

    You scoff?

    Think about this: since the invention of the alphabet Learn-ed men have controlled the information flow, and the Very First Thing they did with their new tech was write down Rules that said Women were the Root of All Evil (see Hammurabi’s Code and The Seven Tablets of Creation) they are Property, and they and their children belong to the Strongest Wang in the village.

    Thousands of years later, after long hard struggles to survive and to learn that fookin’ tech that no one believed women were smart enough to understand, we use that tech to sell more books about LOVE than any other kind of personal choice reading material.

    And in the process, we’ve made monsters acceptable (Frankenstein et al) and even lovable (thank you Majorie Liu) and in fact, are trying to Unite the two halves of humanity that were separated when right and left hemispheres of the brain were unbalanced because male, left brain analytical one-thing-at-a-time thinking became dominant and the inclusive, cross-over, intuitive, emotional female half was repressed, denied and even slaughtered cuz that kind of thinking upset that ol’ apple cart.

    Even Angry Boner Man can be Enlightened by Love.

    I like to think that reading a romance is like saying a prayer of Love for the good of the whole world and all its parts.

  12. 12
    Pam Regis says:

    Many thanks for this post, and for the idea about predestination/fate/inevitablility/predetermination in the genre’s DNA, as it were.

    Hmmmmm.

  13. 13

    Another thoughtful post.  I’m with the “they make me happy” crowd.  I first started reading romance when my husband had a massive heart attack .  I needed a break, something that would take me away from the hovering fear of being a widow raising two fatherless little boys.

    My dear husband survived, our sons are grown, but I still read—and now write—romance because I not only want to keep having that experience of smiling when I finish the book, but I want to share it with others.  Nothing makes me happier than when readers tell me my stories helped them escape from their worries for a few hours.  I know just how they feel.

  14. 14
    NV says:

    I believe the real fantasy of romance is Being Understood (Being Married is totally secondary and/or unnecessary these days). It’s such an amazingly widespread trope that it’s hard to think of a book that fits into the genre without it. Being Understood explains a lot about the appeal of paranormals—telepathy, supernatural pair bonding, etc. Not to mention the suspiciously telepathic abilities of most heroes when it comes to making their ladies happy in bed. The path to the HEA is usually through misunderstandings; the resolution of the plot (kidnapping mechanics aside) is about removing the barriers to emotional communion, not social or practical barriers. So it’s not just the HEA we fantasize about, but a relationship that’s beyond misunderstanding and confusion.

  15. 15

    Having a choice made for you can be an incredible relief. I had a job once that I wanted to quit (but had been dragging my feet about the decision). I heard there were layoffs coming, so decided to stick around for the axe. It felt fabulous to have the decision made for me…although the layoffs never came, and I ended up quitting. Which felt good enough, but there was still an element of regret—had I done the “right thing”?

  16. 16
    KimberlyD says:

    First and foremost, I read to escape. If I’m having a bad day or a blah day, I read to totally forget about my world and become engrossed in someone else’s world. But I need the HEA or my escape becomes no better than what I’m dealing with in my real life. (I do tend to read a little less when I’m having a good day because I’m too busy enjoying and savoring that day.) I read other genres besides romance but there almost always must be a romance within the book. I think its part of that whole “if life can work out well for them, it can for me” kind of thing. Through whatever obstacles and misunderstandings that come their way, our hero and heroine always end up together and HAPPY, which means I can too.

    Sometimes I like the “soulmates” thing (like literally being forced by whatever mystical powers that be to be together.) Its comforting to know that the person you are bonded to will always be there for you and will always HAVE to be there for you. I don’t have any sort of abandonment issues or anything, but there is always the tiniest doubt in my mind about whether the people I love will always stick around and be there for me. When fate steps in during a romance novel, I KNOW the hero will always be there for the heroine. Its a cozy feeling.

  17. 17

    I’ve only been reading romance novels for a few months (and this site has been AMAZING for pointing me in the right direction of awesome books and authors), so take this as you will:

    Yeah.  They make me happy.

    I’m the first to tell you I’m not a romantic.  I don’t see myself ever getting married because I don’t think it’s right for me.  I think that’s the reason I eschewed romance novels for a really long time—that and I believed all the “smut” talk I’d heard for so long—until a friend sent me an ARC of her book and asked me to review it for my blog.

    I have to say, I love a good sex scene.  It’s damn hard (ha ha) to write one, so I really appreciate reading them.  And some of my favorite novels have been chock-full of these scenes, but they’re not just about the act itself.  They’re about the foreplay, the tease, the gestures, looks, and words leading up to the act.

    I also love what a commenter said about Being Understood.  Because, not just as women but as human beings, that’s really what we want in life.  Someone who gets us, and who has our back.  In romance novels, that just happens to be a good-looking dude who’s great in bed.  Who doesn’t love that?

    I wrote about Zooey Deschanel on my blog this week, how I couldn’t stand her for so long.  It was partly because I felt like I SHOULD snark on her, and snarkiness is kind of my default nature.  Then I really watched some of her movies, listened to her music, saw her on Top Chef Masters.  And I realized: she made me happy.  She’s pretty, talented, seems to have a genuine sense of self.  All things I admire.  Why was I resisting so hard before?

    This is my first comment on this site, which I love, by the way.  But yeah, that’s what I love about romance novels: they make me happy.  (And I really want a Cal Morrisey of my own.)

  18. 18
    meoskop says:

    I think romance attracts me because it’s safe. Not safe in an easy way, but safe in terms of ‘safe space’. Even though Gidget has pressure from society to conform and is the despair of her father’s life, she seeks out her own needs and she isn’t destroyed in the process. Mainstream fiction is all about punishing women. Moondoggie, not matter what kind of an ass he might be on a given day, sees how important Gidget’s dreams are and begins seeing her as a person first, and a woman second. Ultimately, he realizes he loves her for all the things society tried to break in her.

    Romance says women are people too, and not objects to be punished for their hubris for not embracing the yoke or kissing the whip. My reading romance for this reason is probably a huge part of why the sexy ones bore me silly.

    As far as The Big Choice – I was living in a very violent situation, but I thought I had to stay, I thought that high school degree was the most important thing. They passed a new rule that meant all my work was futile, I would not graduate (potentially ever) no matter how I struggled. I thought it was my failure, but the relief I felt when I gave up on it and ran halfway across the country was amazing. And I did just fine in life as a dropout, thankyouverymuch.

  19. 19
    Lyssa says:

    I think the one thing I dislike about the trend of ‘Cosmic Attraction” in a romance novel is that it leads to what I call “stinking thinking’. I do pre-marital counseling and divorce counseling on a regular basis, and the idea of “I JUST KNEW” gets pulled out in both types sessions.

    I think a better criteria for ‘Romance” but harder to write would be the following: a relationship that develops. Started by a healthy physical attraction, but secured by common interests, and values. I found that books that have those elements I end up re-reading over and over. A Civil Campaign by Bujold, Suzanne Brockmann novels, Nora Roberts novels, the Molly Blume Mysteries by Rochelle Krich, Jane Austin, all have these elements in the featured romance. And they stand the test of rereading over and over, because they point to a type of love that is about the whole person not just the physical attraction.

    And yes, I believe that couples that come together for those reasons last, and have healthy relationships…or so my experience shows. The people who come with that attitude to the first type of session, I rarely see in the second type. It is the constant re-affirmation of that type of love that brings me back to romance novels again and again.

  20. 20
    Jean says:

    Carin said:

    <

    >

    KimberlyD said: <

    >

    Yes and yes. Real life is hard. If I’m going to read for pleasure, I want something totally different, something with an HEA.

    peace32, y’all

  21. 21
    Jean says:

    Sigh—darned html …

    Carin said:

    I read romance for the escape of it and the certainty of a happy ending.

    KimberlyD said:

    First and foremost, I read to escape.

    Yes and yes. Real life is hard. If I’m going to read for pleasure, I want something totally different, something with an HEA.

    peace32, y’all

  22. 22
    BearHoney says:

    I love this article!

    Particularly because I was just musing about this very thing:  In general, the “predetermination” factor of the Romance genre does not seem to dissuade me at all.  However, a novel is still a story and requires the build up and the denoument(?) and the resolution.  My favorite novels have been those where, even though you KNOW there’s an HEA at the end, when it happens its still incredibly powerful.

    This is precisely what bothers me about most paranormals—nearly every “the one true mate” story not only has a HEA predetermined, but so is a major part of the story.  Its kind a cop out. 

    This certainly is not true for all paranormal romances, but for example, Lora Leigh’s Breed (please note, I LOVE LOVE LOVE Lora Leigh, her books are my crack: her release dates are on my Outlook calendar, and my executive assistance, who is male, send me funny little emails when he happens to calendar something on a release date, for example, and most recently ‘Are you sure you want to schedule this deposition on the day Lion’s Heat comes out?”…no, I’m not kidding…but I digress…)

    Going back to my original, if convoluted point: this whole preselected “mate” thing allows for a whole oversimplification of the courting aspect of relationships and gives authors license to gloss over how personality, cultural, political differences are worked out between two individuals.

  23. 23
    bri says:

    escape, fun, fantasy in the ho hum busy stressed everyday world that I inhabit.  Its nice to sink into a world, sometimes very far from my own, where there are issues but you know they are going to work out and everyone will be happy.

    and sometimes the ideas you can get from the sex scenes…. (as someone else said, its the whole scene, not just the one act)

  24. 24
    Jarant says:

    I’m going to riff on what Jeannie and KimberlyD said. I think the satisfaction we experience at the HEA comes from the affirmation that the system works: be a Good person and you will be Rewarded. It’s the same satisfaction we feel when we’re watching movies and the Bad Guy gets blown up, and the Snobby Antagonist gets humiliated, and the Silent Hero(ine) finally gets the recognition (s)he deserves. These scenarios all reassure us that the values we buy into are all true and we can keep buying into them: good behavior is eventually rewarded (Cinderella’s saintly behavior is recognized and rewarded by the Prince) and bad behavior is eventually punished (Ugly Step Sisters are either not invited to the wedding, or they are invited and birds peck out their eyes, depending on if you go Disney or Grimm.)  I mean, a story about an Ass who lives a long life filled with riches attained through cruelty and abuse might be realistic (*cough* Goldman Sachs *cough*,) but who the hell would want to read it.

  25. 25
    Liz says:

    in my first year of college, i had a poli sci professor, who looked down on romance novels because he saw them as Utopian.  He literally said that smart people do not need to see the Utopian side of life because they know that it does not exist.  That was the moment I lost all respect for him.  I wonder what he would say about the women (and men) that visit this site daily, and I imagine that he would consider us all deluded in the truest sense of the word.  What he cannot understand is that while we know that happily ever after in the real world is harder to find than in a romance novel, we read romances anyway as a way to escape from the vagaries of the real world.

    I read romance novels because it is like falling in love several times a week.  Each time the h/h meet its different, but we know that in the end they will love each other.  Nothing else matters.

  26. 26
    SB Sarah says:

    I love the idea of Being Understood. It’s akin to the idea that true love and true affection means accepting someone, flaws and all, exactly as they are. Which is so, so liberating and fuzzy to think about.

  27. 27
    Tina C. says:

    NV wrote:

    I believe the real fantasy of romance is Being Understood

    I didn’t realize this until I read it, but you’re absolutely right.  No matter how anti-social, odd, paranormal, or how great a misfit either the hero or the heroine is, for whatever reason; whatever secret depths either is hiding from the world; whatever True Self exists under the facade that he/she shows the world—the other is the one that absolutely “gets” him/her.

    What keeps you returning to romance?

      Like everyone else, they make me happy.  After reading how NV put it, I now know why they make me happy a little better.  If there is any fantasy that I could ever get behind, it is one of someone (ie, a Hero) who understands exactly who I am—all of who I am—and loves me because of who I am, not in spite of it.  It definitely explains why I still read and love romance, but I don’t read as much “straight-up romance” (as opposed to romantic suspense and urban fantasy and other stuff that has a romantic element, but isn’t all about the romance itself) now that I have that sense of understanding in my life as when I didn’t.

    Do you think there’s a regular appearance of fate in romances or do you think I’m out of my gourd?

    I think you’re right that it is usually all about The One.  It’s certainly more overt in the paranormal-“You’re destined to be MINE”-type books, but that’s why I don’t tend to read those.  I guess I prefer my messaging to be more subliminal.

    Does the certainty ever bore you or do you like the safe space of happiness?

    It doesn’t bore me, ever.  Sometimes, however, when I really can’t stand either the hero or, less often, the heroine, it pisses me off.  If I don’t think one doesn’t deserve the other, I’m annoyed.  I usually don’t finish those books, though.

  28. 28

    The first thing that got me about romance was that after years of reading sci fi and fantasy, finally I had not just a book but loads of them within which the woman was just as important as the man – sometimes more so!

    Strong women, hot men, knowing they’ll be happy forever – what’s not to love?

  29. 29
    orangehands says:

    I read the romance genre because they – more often than not – get the romance right, and place the heroine and relationship as just as important as saving the world or discovering the killer or creating the perfect meal. In romance, it’s not just about the climax but creating something that lasts beyond the climax. We – at least in the US – were raised on reading about “him” and “he” and “his”; while its not necessarily as true now, romance at one time was the only genre going, actually, asshole, “she” is just as f-ing important, if not more. It’s saying emotions matter. Its saying love matters, which still feels like a really subversive message. Because hey, while saving the day matters, and it also matters that there’s someone (or someones) to walk in the door and remind you why saving the day was so important.

    Or, as NV said, having someone understand you.

    Also, some of the best written books are romance so WTH wouldn’t I read them? Books make me happy, and romance especially makes me happy, and making me happy is the best thing I can do for myself.

  30. 30
    orangehands says:

    Also, I find romance in general talks much more about reality – issues like alcoholism and abandonment and rape and abuse and learning to put yourself first and dead kids and poverty and all these other issues – than any other genre.

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