During the 1970s and early 80s, Romance gained a stigma that, while at the time deserved, has been hard to shake. When people who’ve never read a Romance think of the genre, they sadly think of the books jokingly referred to in Romance circles as “bodice rippers” – namely, because the front covers of most of them looked like the heroine was about to rip right out of hers.
These heroines were vapid, empty-headed idiots who believed that the only way to make their lives complete was to snare a man. And the men they chose were probably about the most unsuitable ideals of masculinity out there. I’ve read some of those books (in the name of research and curiosity, back when I believed the books couldn’t POSSIBLY be as bad as the covers made them seem – I was wrong!), and I have to say, if that was my first or only exposure to relationships or Romance, I’d be terrified. As it is, I was appalled by what I read. Stories of what, in the end, amounts to rape, leading to love? As a survivor, I will tell you – not happening!
There is nothing manly or heroic about using one’s strength or larger body mass to intimidate someone else into doing what you want. In fact, that’s the textbook definition of a bully. And yet, in many of the Romances of the 1970s and early 80s, these bullies were somehow the “ideal” man. All I can say is, thank goodness those days are over!
Romance has evolved (in most cases) beyond the “Purple Prose” Era, and the days of fainting heroines and churlish heroes. While you still find a die-hard or two who refuse to alter what’s not-so-lovingly referred to as the “formula Romance,” most Romance novelists would rather die than write that drivel.
Today’s Romance is a different breed entirely. Today’s heroines kick butt all on their own. They’re smart, savvy, sometimes hardened, and often carry a weapon of their own. They’re the sword-toting vampire-hunters, the gun-brandishing detectives and spies… They don’t NEED a man to complete them, and they certainly don’t need one to provide for them.
Likewise, today’s Romance hero is a different breed. He’s still tough. He’s still a bad-ass (or bad boy), and he still has attitude. But in today’s Romance, he doesn’t get away with it. Today’s hero has a softer side, as well. Where heroines have toughened up without losing their feminine hearts and compassion, heroes have gained another dimension of their own, finding the ability to actually treat women and children with respect. They’ve learned to help old ladies across the street, and not be threatened by a woman who’s just as tough as they are. In other words, they’ve finally gained an equal partner, and not a responsibility.
However, though Romance has come out of the shadow of the 1970s and 80s with a new vibe that’s full of energy and sass, there are still some troubling areas.
Romance, as a genre, tends to abhor radical growing pains more than any other genre. It took nearly a decade for the changes I just mentioned to happen, and that wasn’t without a struggle from the dinosaurs who stubbornly dug in and said “this is the way Romance is supposed to be. That new stuff isn’t Romance.”
The same stubborn heel-digging still takes place today. You have your die-hards who believe that EVERY Romance MUST end with a “Happily Ever After” to be qualified as a Romance. You have your fanatics who claim that a couple can’t already be in a relationship or married at the beginning of a Romance, for it to be a Romance. And you still have your writers who ar first to stand up and cry “But this is how it’s always been done. You HAVE to do it this way!”
I’m a rebel, when it comes to Romance. Not only do I not shy away from truly gritty and terrible pasts for my heroes and heroines (especially the latter – statistically, women face a much greater risk of harm in daily life than men), but I don’t shy away from those aspects in the character’s present, either. I refuse to sugar-coat life because people believe Romance should be about escapism. To me, Romance is about finding someone who loves you, warts and all. It’s about finding that one person who gets you, in a world that’s run mad. Romance is about two people finding each other, despite overwhelming odds against them. Without the troubles, terrors, and pains of real life, love loses all its magnificent beauty and awe.
Nor do I believe a Romance needs to end with a “Happily Ever After.” This isn’t a fairy tale. If the characters are meant to be real, if the love is meant to be true, then it’s going to face adversity, both before and AFTER the couple gets together. I tend to write series that focus on the ongoing relationships of the characters – the ups and downs of trying to make a life together work, against the odds.
I also don’t buy the theory that a couple can’t be married or involved before the start of the story. I’ve dealt with couples torn apart by life, in my work. I’ve dealt with couples who are already married at the beginning. I’ve even dealt with couples who’ve been married and divorced (yes, to each other) before the start of the story. Love doesn’t take place in a vacuum, and I believe in the REALITY of love, not the fairy tale. Fairy tales lose their shine, eventually. They may appear so appealing, in the beginning, but when you look beneath the veneer, the traditional modern fairy tale is as vapid and shallow as any 1970s or early 80s Romance.
So, with open arms, I embrace the dawn of another revolution of Romance – an era with no boundaries beyond love. What else, after all, does a Romance really NEED to be about?