Writing Superversive Romance

Can we have an honest talk about romance in novels?

Now, I’ve done romance before in my books, but mostly as a subplot. As most of us have figured out long ago, most men would rather go see John Wick on Valentine’s Day than the latest Twilight movie. So this isn’t rocket science.

With my novel Codename: Winterborn, for example, there were two romance subplots going on — though not at the same time.  One was between main character Kevin Anderson and his wife. Yes, I know, a romance story between a MARRIED COUPLE– gasp! Shock! Horror! SURELY, THIS IS THE END OF ALL THINGS!!!!!!

… Sorry. Can you tell I’ve been reading Daddy Warpig articles lately?

The second romantic subplot in Winteborn was between with hunter and prey, and even then, it was odd. It was very, … Laura, really.**  Though the main plot is heavy on the action.

[**Laura, a murder mystery in which a detective falls in love with the victim through her portrait. In the case of Codename: Winterborn, it was via files and seeing him in action]

With Codename: Winterborn, however, this took place over the course of months.

But the average romance novel takes, what, days? A week or two? Then the male and female leads jump into bed like sex-starved hyenas during mating season?  I think the longest courting period that I recall in romance fiction was a Sherrilyn Kenyon novel called Fantasy Lover where holding off on sex was a massive plot point, and involved breaking a curse from Geek deities. No, I’m not kidding.

Let’s just say that when I did something similar, it was with my novel A Pius Man. And you have no idea how much effort I put into trying to make that believable.

Then I worked on a Catholic Vampire Romance novel called Honor At Stake …

And that takes place over the course of 9 months. There’s a reason for that. Why?

Because I want a flipping love story. Something that looks real.  Something that feels real. Something that takes time to develop. Because no one — and by “no one” I mean any rational relationship — jumps into bed on the first date and expect the relationship to go anywhere. If you do, please stop kidding yourself.

The next challenge you should be considering is: I’m still a guy. How does a guy write romance? (While not being John C Wright, he can pen whatever novel he wants.)

Anyone who doesn’t know me is probably considering the easy answer: “Well, Declan, you’ve been in love before, right? Use your actual love life.”

To which I must sadly inform them: “Have you read my blogs about my love life? It looks like a train wreck.”

Yeah.  Fun fact: any relationship of mine that survived in real life for any length of time was unreal in so many ways, I can’t even describe it without people calling me a liar. I don’t even believe my own love life. I think if I wrote it up, it would look like fiction.

Besides, I suspect that a love story that is a blow by blow of a real relationship would probably bore the crap out of most people. Granted, I have an unfair advantage in my novels: I have vampires, Vatican Ninjas, and grenade launchers.

However, I was a follower of one of the better romances on television: Castle.

Yes, Castle.  It has character development, a relationship that grows out from mutual attraction, to partnership, to friendship, and then to love. They even get to love long before leaping into bed, and only 1 YEAR of that before engagement.

Which is sadly, an improvement over what we usually see on screen. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve seen: First Date, Sex, Friendship, love, and Marriage, in that order. Just once, I would like to see the order be: friendship, courtship, love, marriage, sex.

To give Castle it’s due, where else do you see friendship actually develop in the romance genre? The phrase “Let’s just be friends” is usually much the end of any romantic relationship — in romance novels, and in my own experience — but shouldn’t a man and a woman at least shoot for being friends before they leap into bed together? Radical notion, I know, but consider it for a moment.

Another technical that pops up in the occasional romance novel, and in in Castle, almost everyone around the main couple sees this relationship coming. This is traditional in the standard Nora Roberts novel, this is usually represented by the “plucky best friend” of the heroine, trying to push her out of her comfort zone to risk enough to actually end up with her heart’s desire.

Yes, risk and romance. If you think that the concept is merely for conflict within fiction, I suggest you reflect on a simple concept: at the end of the day, marriage is all about investing yourself totally and completely in another person. Each spouse belongs to the other, bound by a full commitment– spiritually bound, biologically bound, connected on all levels. Seriously, read Ephesians 5, and I mean all of it, not just the “approved” readings.

If this concept doesn’t even remotely scare you, please reflect on it some more. It should come to you shortly.

There is also another problem that comes in occasionally in fiction, that is, surprisingly enough, a factor in some actual relationship considerations. This is a belief by some people have that they are unloveable — “Seriously, what sane person could possibly love a creature like me? Only some broken psycho would express any interest — only the psychos have expressed an interest. And why would any “normal” person give me the time of day?”  If you think this is only reserved for fictional characters on angsty CW shows, then I applaud your confidence in how perfect you are.

In my execution of it, with my Love at First Bite series, my leads are Marco Catalano and Amanda Colt. And oy, these two have got relationships baggage that look like Samsonite, or maybe a Haliburton. One is a blood thirsty killer, the other’s a vampire. So you have two creatures of the night — would would rather be feared rather than loved, and one who eats people.

Now, I’m not going to say that this is the most unlikely duo I’ve ever created. The main couple in my Pius novels were pretty much the most opposite I could design two people while still making them human.

But when it comes to writing romance, I like little things. Little details. Little innocent things that can be taken the right way if characters looked at them really hard, but don’t because neither one thinks the other wants to go there. Little looks and touches, and smells and “if she hugs me any closer she’s going to realize I’m having a not-so-innocent reaction,” and “stay calm, or the increased heartbeat will give the game away.”

You know, things like that.  I’m told I do that well.

The short version is that in all things, there is a proper order. For a romance to be truly romance, sex should come last, and commitment should be more important than the sex. Because if two people aren’t joined in a blessed union, it just becomes one more carnal relationship, and what romance comes from that?

If you want to see a guy write not-bad romance, try the  Love At First Bite Series
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  • In the hook-up culture where sex has replaced romance, and marriage is only something we advocate for same-sex couples, is anyone really surprised that sex comes first?

    • DeclanFinn

      Surprised, no.
      Happy about it? Hello no.

      • I write space opera with driving romantic sub-plots and I was told that having the characters hold off on sex was not ‘realistic.’ Cause, you know, self-control is so yesterday. I’m not happy about this newthink either, especially when I went out of my way to create a milieu that demands it. We can be not happy together. 😉

        • DeclanFinn

          I was once told by a female editor to add a sex scene because my female lead would “use” my male lead “for comfort.” “Women will go to sex for comfort. No man, of course, is going to say no to this.”

          I think it shocked me into incoherence so bad, I didn’t reply until her follow up email to me pedaled back a little. And I’m not sure which part shocked me worse: the casual sex for comfort, or the “no man will say no” part.

          • Robert Blume

            It’s probably your editor’s feeling that women can only get the comfort they crave by giving the man sex first. Unless a woman is feeling sexual inferiority, sex isn’t what she wants.

  • Nate Winchester

    Something I’ve noticed from life that I think may work for stories (but I need more people to read and judge before confirming).

    Emotions do not work when directly looked at by the mind. It’s been amazing at times how fast rage can fizzle if you can get yourself to ask, “why am I angry?”

    So usually my rule of thumb both when writing on my own and to others who ask, “what do you mean I need more emotion?” is: see how close you can get to saying it, without actually saying it. Go to example: Innuendo is much sexier than “let’s have sex.” Likewise, don’t just say, “Bob was angry/furious/enraged” but describe what he was doing as if you were playing charades or Pictionary. That’s at least my usual trick.

    Obligatory reference:

  • A Diabolical Bargain takes place over months. At the end of which, the Love Interest feels it incumbent on herself to alert the Hero that she had promised her guardian not to even betroth herself until she finished her studies, which will take another two years.

  • Karl Gallagher

    I like having romance in stories because it keeps the characters real. Most folks I know have at least some interest in forming bonds.