Romance: Formulas, Models, & Lists

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Wonder of wonders, I have somehow turned into the group’s authority on the Romance genre. Hence, Kate periodically sends me articles about Romance in order to send me into a riot. Why? One, she’s sometimes as easily amused as I am. Two, she likes when I get on my English high horse. And three, other topics that usually get my goat aren’t always readily available.

Did you ask how I became the authority? Well, Romance is my number one reading genre and has been for many years. I don’t think there’s a subgenre I haven’t delved into –please test me if you I’m wrong, I’d love some new reading material! And now I have the opportunity to finally write in the genre, so I’m studying it from that perspective as well. No, I’m not an “expert” by any means, but I’m comfortable calling myself an authority as I think I’ve got a strong understanding of the hunks and beauties that make their lives in Romance.

Today I’m responding to two articles because I think my reactions to them overlap nicely and I disagreed largely with both of them (at least the core of what they’re attempting to do anyway). On to the first!

This article from the Huffington Post provides an author’s opinion about what makes a great romance. I’m taking the article down to the bare bones but this is the basic formula provided:

 tension + story – too much story + sex (which the author of the article backtracks to mean the sexual tension but doesn’t say so) + sensitivity to modern readers (targeted at historical romances for some reason).

The article was originally sparked by a bumper sticker the author encountered: ‘“Your body is a temple. Mine is an amusement park.” … [W]hat makes a truly fantastic romance? Do readers want to gain entrance to a temple or buy a ticket to an amusement park?’ She’s on the temple side. I, however, am on the amusement park side because if I am not entertained I’m leaving. Simple as that. That’s not to say that I’m getting on any shoddily constructed rides either. Just because romance has been snubbed by the literary community at large doesn’t mean I don’t expect great work from romance authors, or myself.

Before I can move on I have to bring in article two or my words are not going to make any sense and I’m going to end up repeating myself. This article is also from the Huffington Post and written by a romance author, but it concerns itself with alpha males. Boy is this a favourite topic of mine!

I think there is a misconception of the ideal alpha male (and female). For me, there’s nothing more enticing than a good alpha character I can sink my teeth into –only figuratively, sadly. I think the two main characters of a Romance are the most important part, as are their back-stories and chemistry. I also think that they both need to be alphas, nothing annoys me more than a guy or gal who fall in love with a strong character but they have no back bone of their own. Yawn. Anyway, the rest of the story is merely a vehicle that transports these necessary elements. Sure, the really fantastic, timeless romances have amazing plotlines, side characters, and setting (story), but they also have stellar fundamentals (character).

You know that adage that says: “character is story?” –Yeah, note that down.

I really do think character is everything when it comes to story, especially Romance. In my experience, readers are more likely to remember people than anything else years down the line. Thinking about all my favourite romantic characters out there, I think of these characteristics when I imagine them:

  • considerate,
  • knowledgeable,
  • leader when needed,
  • strong enough to step back,
  • teacher,
  • protective,
  • not emotionally empty or stilted –at least by the end,
  • fun and funny –they have to be with their special someone if they’re not with anyone else

Of course, there are negatives to correlate:

  • stubborn,
  • know-it-all,
  • overprotective,
  • obnoxious,
  • a-type personality,
  • deaf (not literally),
  • needs to make mistakes to learn a lesson

This is not an extensive list or a list of the only characteristics an alpha does or should have, and it’s perfectly ok for a guy or gal to grow into, or out of, these traits. Remember, Romance is fantasy at its core. I can take a lot more macho/testosterone BS from a character than I can from men or women in real life, so the stakes can always be amped. This list is just to get character ideas flowing.

On this note, mainly in regard to article two: DO NOT MAKE AN ALPHA LIKE HEATHCLIFF –Heathcliff is not romantic or sweet or tragic or waiting to be saved. Talk about him with any Victorian Scholars you know, I have, and he’s monstrous and breaks every mold you try to put him in. Brontë didn’t write him to be sympathized with, he’s a monstrous creation. If you leave your hero or heroine with a Heathcliff in the end it would be merciful if one of them died. Take Cathy for example, the ultimate brat and twisted companion for Heathcliff, who died before they could ever really be together in life. They deserved each other, and not for good reasons! Wuthering Heights is one of my favourite books, but I don’t reread it for the titillating love story between Heathcliff and Cathy. Yikes.

One of my main rules for writing is read what you want to write. No one is John Keats; if you get that reference I applaud your English Lit knowledge! Keats isolated himself from all the writing of his time so that his own work would remain pure –don’t do that. Please please please don’t do that.

Why is my first urban fantasy novel taking me so long to write? I’m trying to read as many of the names in the genre as I can get my hands on. It’s part of the research. How does this point tie into the beginning of my post? I think that, as a writer, you’re more than capable of compiling “a formula” that works for you. And, as a reader, you’re more than capable of compiling a list of your Top 10 favourite books in whatever genre you want to write and using those as models. You can have really experienced or respected people help you, but don’t limit yourself. And I recommend the list of models over any formula.

Ultimately, there is no how-to to tell you a failsafe way to write, regardless of what you write. Write what you want and see where it takes you. Trust your instincts. But if you want a romance formula from me (since I pulled apart other people’s I suppose it’s only fair I open myself up to criticism as well), here:

tension + plot + chemistry + high stakes + romance/sex + characters.

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