Escape. Fantasy. Passion. True love. Happy endings.
These are the reasons many of us read romance. We want to be whisked away into a world where these things are not only possible but are inevitable.
But for whom are they possible? For whom are they inevitable?
When you think about a romantic heroine or hero, what are they like? Is she feisty lady with a stubborn streak who is, beneath all the bravado, ultimately gentle, kind, and maternal? Is she petite with a trim waist, slim thighs, and generous bosom? Is he the essence of traditional masculinity: rough around the edges but financially solvent, commanding, and protective? Does he have chiseled abs, a strong jawline, and irresistible animal magnetism? Once they overcome their initial misunderstandings or prejudices, do they fit together as neatly as two interlocking pieces of a puzzle?
Over the last several years, heroines of conventional romantic literature have begun to diversify. Now they can be plump, curvaceous, and competent, like Lady Amelia d’Orsay of Tessa Dare’s historical romance One Dance with a Duke, or strong, powerful guardians, like Riley Jenson of Keri Arthur’s paranormal romance Full Moon Rising. They can be tattooed mechanics, like Mercy Thompson, the heroine of Patricia Briggs’s paranormal romance series named after the same character, or a bounty hunter and total, lovable train wreck, like Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum.
But how many heterosexual romantic heroines pursue their love interests the way that heterosexual heroes are supposed to pursue theirs? How many heroines in conventional romance stories – including novels, film, and TV – are LGBTQ, have an STD, experience an unwanted pregnancy, or genuinely don’t want children?
For that matter, how many romantic heroes have love handles or are balding? How many are living paycheck to paycheck, as so many of us out here in the real world do? How many would cry at a sad movie or would pause at a crucial moment because he was uncertain which course of action was the correct one?
How many romance novels take us into the nitty gritty of life in a committed partnership? How many show us models of committed partnership that we can actually aspire to because it acknowledges that people are not neatly interlocking puzzle pieces but rather messy, evolving beings with ever-changing needs and desires?
No way. Romance is fantasy. We come to it to escape our real-life problems. We want to read about women with great bodies because we wish we had great bodies, not the one we have with rosacea and weird little red dots on our upper arms and bad knees and one boob that’s noticeably smaller than the other. We want to read about chiseled, decisive men because we’re already sitting next to a balding one whom we love but who sometimes drives us crazy because it takes him three weeks to decide which salad spinner to buy. We don’t want to read about characters’ money problems; we have enough of our own. We’d rather read about problems that are easily resolved. We don’t want the heroes and heroines of our fantasies to have to worry about STDs or unwanted pregnancies; we want them to skip the awkward condom moment and go straight to skin-against-skin because that’s how we wish it could be for us.
I get it, and I have nothing against us writing our fantasies. But I also think that a cumulative effect manifests over time: once we read so many books and see so many movies about perky-breasted, sexually passive women who end up with muscular, dominating men, we subconsciously come to believe that these are the people for whom romance stories happen. When there’s a lack of people in fiction who look and act like we in the real world do, we start to think that passionate love and happy endings are for them, not for us. We either have to become like them (impossible for many of us), or we have to settle for something else. Something less. Because after all, romance is a fantasy genre, and we live in the real world.
I think we also start to believe that romance stories happen to fictional characters rather than are relationships we can create for ourselves.
What I’d like to see is unconventional romantic fiction that acknowledges that we can be our whole, messy, complex selves – not puzzle pieces meant to fit together – and can still have romance, passion, adventure. Stories that show messy, complex characters having messy, complex issues not easily resolved and working through them, sometimes messily. Romantic fiction that teaches us to aspire to be the heroines and heroes of our own lives and to create fulfilling and passionate relationships. A fantasy that people can relate to. Slice-of-life fantasy. Fantasy for the modern reader.