I enjoy reading outside my usual genres from time to time. Left to my own devices, I’ll read mysteries and sci-fi, mainstream bestsellers and an occasional thriller. I’ve been pushing myself to read more literary fiction, horror, and romance. Even when I don’t love the genre, there’s a lot of learn and appreciate.
But the genre I’ve had the hardest time with is romance.
It’s been my observation (fair or not) that most romance heroines are whiny, thinly-drawn stand-ins for the reader. They’re beautiful enough to make all the men swoon around them (we’re told) and mostly they’re horny for the handsome man’s lifestyle. He’s rich, and she’s pretty. They feel horny for each other, push the feelings away, have some cute dates, fight over something trivial, then fall back into each other’s arms. Happily ever after.
Now, you could just as easily diss a murder mystery. Oh? ANOTHER dead body? Oh ANOTHER quirky nosy sleuth persistently asking questions until they come at the truth, while some dim-brained cop drools and does all the wrong things in the periphery?
We all have the stories that scratch our itches. As a writer, the knack is to meet expectations for the genre (give em what they want!) but to also make it fresh and interesting. Usually this happens with characters, setting, tone, or twists on old familiar tropes.
Beach Read by Emily Henry followed the romance formula. Yes, the heroine was a bit whiny and immature at times. (So was the hero.) But the story took the time to explore how these characters had landed at those attitudes, and we saw them helping one another break free from their baggage. That was nice!
I usually can’t relate to a romance heroine. She comes across as hopelessly shallow to me, a cardboard cutout with tits. This time, both leads were immediately relatable:
Her, a romance writer who’d just been dumped.
Him, a dark literary fiction author with an attitude problem.
Their banter was pretty funny!
“Anyway,” I said, still fighting a blush. “You never told me what you write, Everett. I’m sure it’s something really groundbreaking and important. Totally new and fresh. Like a story about a disillusioned white guy, wandering the world, misunderstood and coldly horny.”
A laugh barked out of him. “Coldly horny? As opposed to the very artfully handled sexual proclivities of your genre? Tell me, which do you find more fascinating to write: love-struck pirates or love-struck werewolves?”
The book also benefits from a smart premise, they challenge each other to a “bet”, agreeing write books in each other’s genres, and to teach one another to do research. She takes him dancing. He takes her to interview families of suicide cult victims.
When I pick up a romance, I’m not usually expecting a suicide cult. And I do enjoy being surprised!
They gradually become comfortable enough to share their life stories with one another. And it’s both painful and real. Not shallow at all.
Right there, that’s what I enjoy best about a romance novel done well. The emotional intimacy that changes both character’s lives. That’s the good stuff.
I was amused to peek at the reviews and see that while the book was very successful, there were plenty of romance readers who didn’t care for it. Too dark! Too deep! Too much time talking about feelings! Not enough sex! Not “lighthearted” enough!
And hey, there’s nothing wrong with liking what you like. The reasons they didn’t like the book were precisely the reasons I did. But I also liked it because for once (and this is a rarity) there were elements of both hero and heroine I could relate to.
It wasn’t just “he’s sexy and grouchy” and “she’s beautiful and headstrong.”
Writerly Lessons Learned
- Genre fiction “formulas” need not be a recipe for boring if the characters are unique, fun, and relatable.
- Switching up the emotional tone of a genre (darker, lighter) can make it enjoyable to readers who might otherwise not be into that story.
- A fun “premise” (aka: writing each other’s genres as a bet) can make a familiar storyline feel fresh and exciting.
I’ll add one more. Right up front, the heroine made a bunch of immature stupid choices in a row, and I almost put the book down. You know, the “I could have solved all my problems in five minutes but I chose to be dumb” kind of choices.
Much like the dumb memory-loss subplot in Hail Mary, that single chapter of idiocy set up a nice structure for the rest of the book. So I’ll add:
- Characters need room to grow, and sometimes that makes them a little stupid at the start. Just make sure they don’t stay there.
If a character is too obtuse, I lose all interest in following them. But it’s still a good reminder that in some genres, romance being a big one, the character arc goes from “broken” to “healed” and so you gotta start things out messy.
Perhaps this is why there are shallow, whiny, immature heroines in so many romances these days. Many romance writers, unwilling to go “dark or deep” enough to explore why a character is broken, default their heroines to “asshole.” Beach Read followed the “broken” to “healed” arc without falling into those pitfalls, and it was nice see it.
Anyway, those are my writerly thoughts about Beach Read. If you’re curious about romance but don’t really like romance, you might enjoy this one.