Today we have with us paranormal romance author, Sela Carsen! She’s here to educate us on romance. No, you can’t have her number. No, you can’t have mine either. We are not the romance you are looking for. Move along.
Sela Carsen was born into a traveling family, then married a military man to continue her gypsy lifestyle. With her husband of 20 years, their two teens, her mother, the dog, and the cat, she’s finally (temporarily) settled in the Midwest. Between bouts of packing and unpacking, she writes paranormal romances, with or without dead bodies. Your pick.
HC and I met for the first time recently at MidSouthCon, which was a fun and eye-opening experience for me, as it was also my first full con experience. People are cool. Weird and cool.
Upon our return to our regularly scheduled lives, she asked if I’d come and write a blog post for her on Romance. Big R, genre romance.
I’m guessing y’all aren’t romance readers.
[HC here! I read romance, among other things, and I’ve found if you stick a romance plot in a book with explosions guys read it and think it’s AWESOME.]
Which is actually kind of neat for me. I spend a lot of my days surrounded (online) by romance writers and readers, and it’s wonderfully comforting to have that touch-point in common. We speak the same language, as it were. One of the most enlightening experiences I ever had was going to a Pop Culture Association conference, and sitting down to dinner with people who looked at genre romance from the perspective of serious literary criticism. My inner nerd nearly exploded in joy.
But it’s good to get out of my comfort zone, too.
Crafting a Romance – Fiction vs. Reality
Today, we’ll start with the basics. The rules, as it were, of romance. There are two.
Yes, just two. According to Romance Writers of America, the only elements necessary for writing genre romance are:
- 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.
That’s it. No, there are no rules about sex scenes. I know plenty of great – and popular – romance writers who don’t write sex on the page at all. I also know writers who write things that’ll fry the circuits on your Kindle.
Also, no, there’s no machine at the Harlequin headquarters that cranks out plots and characters for a mix-and-match game. I’ll tell you something about the folks who have made HQ the top individual publisher of romance in the world – “110 titles a month in 34 languages in 110 international markets on six continents.”: these people know their audience.
They know who their readers are, and they understand what their readers are after.
The readers are after the fantasy.
Kelly Faircloth at Jezebel wrote a fantastic piece about a year ago that goes into the history of HQ, but my favorite part of the article is this:
“There’s a persistent tendency to assume that romance fans read only on a single level. Either we’re housewives fluttering against the confinement of the patriarchy like moths at a kitchen window, or we’re deluded foot soldiers in the backlash to the feminist movement, or we’re dowds somehow simultaneously repressed and sex-crazed. What so many critics miss is that it’s perfectly possible to roll your eyes at yet another hero with [a] jet, an island and an over inflated sense of his own authority; arch your brow at the fucked-up gender politics of a particular scene; cheer when the heroine reads the hero the riot act; and swoon at the emotional climax.”
Why do you think this one genre accounts for $1.08 billion in annual sales?
We’re writing the fantasy.
That’s what it really comes down to. Whether there are wizards slinging spells, aliens shooting ray guns, cowboys throwing lassos, or billionaires taking over yet another family-run business (but taking the owner’s daughter instead, a la Beauty and the Beast), it’s all a fantasy.
In real life, we’re just ordinary folks. We’re self-actualized, we’re busy, we’ve got a lot going on in our lives. We do the job thing, we do the family thing. We come home at night, make dinner, do the dishes, put the kids to bed, and binge watch NCIS and/or Supernatural.
Raise your hand if you want to read about that.
I didn’t think so.
So instead, we fantasize. We lose ourselves in worlds where there never seem to be dirty dishes in the sink. Instead, we want to read about a Russian mob enforcer who kidnaps the heroine – leaving behind her dishes – because she accidentally witnessed a hit, but instead of killing her, he falls in love with her.
That’s not so different from the hacker who follows the White Rabbit to a club, and gets asked if he wants a red pill or a blue pill.
The biggest difference is that romance – whether it’s contemporary, paranormal, SFF, or any of a thousand sub-genres and niches – is focused on the development of the relationship between the main characters. There can be world building to rival George R.R. Martin, there can be plot twists to out-do Gone Girl, there can be characters who start out as old men but turn green and go to war, but the focus isn’t primarily on the plot or the world. The story is the relationship.
And, of course, all that plotting and world building and sticky relationship stuff leads to the Happy Ever After. These days, romance readers are better about the Happy For Now ending, something you frequently see in series, but what you don’t do…what you never, ever do at the risk of pissing off thousands of readers who will then burn you in effigy on a flaming pile of your books – is you don’t cheat your reader out of a happy ending.
Romance readers don’t think it’s clever. When we pick up a romance novel, we have certain expectations. We don’t think killing off your MC is a neat twist. We think we just invested our time, our money, and our emotions on characters we came to embrace and love…and then you screwed us over.
But if you can give us that fantasy, and end it with a contented sigh, everyone is happy. Readers, as well as writers, because readers will pay us real money to make them happy again.
Now, by fantasy, some writers think that women all have the same fantasy. That it’s all the same domineering alpha male towering over a submissive female without a thought in her Fifty Shades of Gray Matter.
I’m not going to say it doesn’t happen. And I’m not going to say that alpha males aren’t a huge seller. They are. They totally are.
But a lot of the alpha males of romance fantasies aren’t the same as they were back in the 70s and 80s. Yes, they’re take charge leaders who have very, very pretty chesticles, but when they screw up (when, not if), they’re smart enough to admit it and change, rather than lose the woman who would walk away, rather than put up with his crap. And if they’re broken-hearted heroes, they know – or they learn – to lean on their heroines for emotional support.
The heroines, especially, have changed. Where Kathleen Woodiwiss and Barbara Cartland made romance writing history with their sweet, naïve, ingénue heroines, those gals are much harder to find these days. Heroines, like real women, come in every shape and size, every degree of character from nurturing mama to hard-ass billionaire. And just like real women, the extremes aren’t mutually exclusive.
Crafting a romance comes with the truth that people are people. It can be tough to figure out where fiction and reality separate. There are romances out there – sweet, happy romances – that are about the bill paying and the dish washing and the diaper changing. The fantasy is having a partner to share those experiences in a way that can seem like a dream sometimes. Just as much as there are stories where the hero is such an asshole that you want to scream “Run!” at the heroine. And there are readers for all of them.
Romance lets you roll with the fantasy, no matter what kind of characters you like.
Want a charming rogue of a space pirate falling in love with a nerdy archaeologist, looking for remnants of old Earth? Got it.
Want a drug-addicted bi doctor in love with his charismatic boyfriend, and a former prostitute, and her rock-star girlfriend, all working to bring down a shining city with a rotten core in a dystopian future? Yup, that’s out there, too.
Alien Viking wolf shifters protecting the Earth from other alien invaders, and falling in love with humans? Totally. I should know. I write them. 😉
There are billionaires and bear shifters, cowboys and virgins, boys next door and tough female cops out there for every taste.
As long as the relationship is front and center, and we all get our happy sighs at the end, it’s all good. And that’s the reality of romance.