I’ve been thinking about the romance genre lately, trying to explain what it is that “happens” in a romance story. Obviously, it’s about a couple finding each other (or realizing that they already know each other) and reaching their happily-ever-after moment (whether it does or doesn’t last is another matter entirely, but unless you write tragic romance—and are prepared for nasty reviews—you probably should end it on a positive note).
I think, for the reader, the joy of the romance story is experiencing the “click” that comes when that couple is made and the happiness achieved. Obviously there are high points along the way, and we like experiencing these high points with characters we’ve come to care about or identify with, but primarily, there’s a sense of fulfillment that comes with reading a good romance story. It’s like the satisfaction of slipping your foot into a shoe that fits, finding a perfect chocolate just when you’re most wanting it…it’s an “ahhh” moment of delight.
But there are two overall types that these relationships, and the plots that go with them, look like. I’ve drawn up some illustrations to show how you might visualize them (please forgive my drawing skills, or lack thereof). 🙂
Type 1: You Help Me Grow and Become a Better Person.
This is the type where the plot follows the character arcs and is used in “opposites attract” kinds of plots. Both characters don’t start out “perfect” for each other. They have potential, but there is some reshaping that has to be done. Over the course of the story, they start curving towards each other, not losing who they are as people, but realizing that there’s room for them to grow and improve. At the end, they are still very different people, but they now complement each other, and there is a “click” moment when the two semicircles finally join together to make a perfect circle.
There will be some overlap, as noted in the above illustration, but the overlaps won’t be identical. One character might help another take risks, learning that he enjoys spontaneity, for example. In another romance, it might be about learning to enjoy the simple things in life, where he shows her that everything isn’t about fulfilling your ambitions and winning the “rat race.” In this kind of romance, the characters will grow thanks to the story and thanks to knowing each other.
Some classic examples are Jane Eyre, Pride & Prejudice, and Emma. The characters grow and change because of being in a relationship with the other person, and while one character may do more “curving and changing” over the course of the plot, there is still an adaptation and adjustment going on during the novel. In Pride & Prejudice, both have a lot of changing to do, and if they’d been somehow married at the beginning, they’d have made each other miserable. In Emma, obviously, she does more of the changing than Mr. Knightley, but one sees how he engages more with his neighbors because of her. He learns to see good in Harriet because of her, and he steps out of his comfort zone and becomes willing to live with someone far more tyrannical than he is (namely, her father).
Similarly, in Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester does most of the changing. Jane is herself most of the story, but we see her changing, too. She begins to make friends more readily after being around him and becomes a more self-assertive character, to where she has the strength of execution to run away from him, something I’m not sure she’d have been capable of doing before he fell in love with her.
Overall, in these kinds of stories, the plot is going to be whatever it takes to make them change and bring them to the point of forming that ring and connecting together. Thus, it will be very character-driven. “Random events” will only fit if they directly impact the characters’ growth, like Lydia running off with Wickham in Pride & Prejudice, and even then, they tend to spring from the character’s actions. The author doesn’t usually need to invent obstacles for the couple to overcome because they, themselves, will be generating obstacles as they refuse to change or as their yet-unchanged-selves push the other person away.
Type 2: We’re Perfect For Each Other.
In this kind of romance, the characters can be pretty fixed. They still complement each other in some ways, as they won’t be perfectly identical, but it’s like layering one ring over another. They both already enjoy the same things and have the same interests or attitudes towards life. They don’t need to change—they just need to be brought together.
Examples from classics include Romeo & Juliet, Sense & Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey. In movies, you have Han and Leia in Star Wars and You’ve Got Mail. Some changing will probably occur during the plot, as a character softens or grows in understanding, but the growth isn’t necessarily done to make them fit together. They would’ve already fit together at the beginning of the story, if they’d let themselves admit as much—the plot just had to remove obstacles that stood between them, whether it’s a father who objected to the relationship or an engagement that was made under pressure from a very forceful young lady in a moment of weakness (or one’s stubborn independence or the fact that they owned rival businesses).
In this kind of plot, the author has to come up with reasons why they aren’t together yet. It can be anything from feuding families to being chased by Darth Vader, and it usually has nothing to do with the characters themselves, as they’re perfect for each other—they just don’t realize it yet (or realize it but can’t manage to be together because of social difficulties). Thus, this kind of story can get away with being plot-driven, the various obstacles keeping the couple on their toes until the last pages, and these stories can be much more fast-paced (they don’t have to be, though; it’ll depend on what kinds of obstacles you throw at them).
Note: One could argue that You’ve Got Mail involves him changing to be a better match for her, as he softens and becomes less harsh, but I’d argue that the softening already existed; he just wasn’t willing to show that side of himself to someone he saw as competition. But, if the story started earlier and he truly was a jerk to everyone around him before he met her, then it would’ve been a Type 1 plot, focused on his changing to match her (but with a story like that, you’d want some change on her side to complete it; otherwise, she’ll come off as a saint while he’s the “flawed character” who has to repent of his poor choices in life).
Of course, there can be hybrids, and this is often the case in TV shows, as the couple faces a whole host of outside obstacles while slowly-but-surely changing to form a perfect match for each other (like in Castle and Psyche,where he becomes less of a jerk and she becomes more understanding and sympathetic towards him). The trouble with creating a hybrid in a single novel is that it takes a lot of pages to show characters changing, as they can’t just transform overnight, so there often isn’t time to show they overcoming outside obstacles on top of that.
Most of the time, a story will fall into one category or another, and it helps when editing to know which kind of story you’re dealing with.
What do you think? Do you have a favorite of the two? If you write romance, which kind of Romance Type do you use?
Copyright 2018 Andrea Lundgren