The Romantic Novel
Last week I began to outline the requirements of Romantic Fiction. This week is a continuation of those thoughts. If you write Romantic Fiction your readers will almost certainly, though I suspect not exclusively, be female. She might have loved and lost or known a love that has grown cold, or never have loved or been loved at all. It is your business to divert her into a more cheerful scenario for a few hours of her life. In the process be prepared to depict the burgeoning of emotional and sexual awareness. Those stirring sensations need to be expressed boldly.
Sensual or sexual
There is a difference between sensual and sexual writing. The Romantic Novel is not the same as erotic fiction where one writes to excite in a very explicit way. Nevertheless Romantic Fiction cannot be prudish either. So don’t take the attitude of a reluctant maiden but freely enter into descriptive detail. Spare neither your own nor your reader’s blushes but without being pornographic. Be intimate, lyrical, physical, romantic and sentimental.
It is important to be confident in broaching the delicate matter of sex. There is no need to stop at the bedroom door. It is not easy to portray rapture and ecstasy in explicit ways. The hero and heroine might scarcely touch each other but there must be something smouldering in their hearts that will burst into flame when it is fanned by the breath of the writer.
Intimate interactions can be candidly depicted with a reasonable degree of taste and tact. In fact a certain steamy heat is to be positively welcomed but avoid indulging in the blatant portrayal of sexual subject matter for the purpose of lustful gratification. Erotic fiction caters for that market well enough. The Romance category sex-scene will be soft-focus rather than raunchy prose. Sex is never gratuitous in the Romantic Novel. The entwined parties must be destined to end up committed to each other and there must by a wealth of feelings behind their actions. Your discerning reader will suspect that the protagonists will fall in love but should never be quite sure until the end how this is going to happen. The willing participation in the suspense is part of the pleasure.
Contemporary heroines are not the shrinking violets or clinging vines of yesteryear (in fact there are many in the yesteryear time who were not). They will be lively, full of spirit and determination, even if they are superficially shy or introverted. They will be totally modern young women, intelligent, accomplished and independent of mind, if not of situation. The majority these days have jobs, often high-powered careers. The old Cinderella/Jane Eyre plot in which a poor, helpless ragamuffin transformed and lifted from penury by a handsome, strong prince is somewhat passé in these post-feminist days. Although I suspect that a feminist critique of Romantic Fiction might suggest that plots still revolve around this old theme.
Your contemporary heroine can have been married, widowed or divorced or a single-parent. She might have a child (or children) to cause or compound her difficulties. In fact if either the heroine or hero (or both) have offspring it can be an excellent device for bringing them together. If, for example, the single mother got pregnant as a result of a youthful fling with the hero, then a young and irresponsible buck and he returns more mature, wiser (and preferably richer) to find her competently rearing the outcome of their brief encounter, that sets the scene for conflict, resolution and romance. The show-don’t-tell rule applies. Don’t say “she was excited” rather say her breath came faster and faster, warmth spreading through her body.” That is more vivid and engaging!
It is important that your reader can identify with the heroine from start to finish. Whichever point of view is presented it must be the heroine with whom readers sympathise, empathise and suffer. She should be attractive and sexy, even if she is apparently unware of it.
The hero should, ideally, be a few years older than the heroine, mature, charismatic, tough, even macho, but sensitive and tender beneath. Aim to create a man who is dynamic, masculine, virile and self-confident, with a gentler, more vulnerable side. He may have a flaw or frailty but he is never brutal or gratuitously cruel.
The hero in Romantic Fiction is the ultimate female fantasy-figure: a sex symbol. One can’t demand or expect so much from menfolk in real life but the readers of Romantic Fiction expect and demand it from the author. So, godlike, provide them with what they want! Of course there are infinite variations on a theme, depending on your own concept of an ideal man. My advice to female authors is to try (without relinquishing professional control) to abandon yourself to his charms. Dig him up from your own subconscious, so that you are in love with him yourself. Then he will leap energetically off the page into the consciousness of that all-important reader, waiting eagerly to fall in love with him.
The physical appearance of the hero depends very much on how you envisage him. Don’t try to squeeze him into a preconceived mould. Tall, dark and handsome is the classic type but feel free to diverge from this ideal. As in real life he should be taller than the heroine – she might want to wear high heels on occasions so he should be still taller than her when she does. He does not have to be 6’4” – he can be 5’10” if she is 5’4”. He can be dark or fair with straight or curly hair, bearded or moustachioed or clean-shaven, bespectacled, smart, scruffy. Be specific rather than general. Don’t talk of the man’s “strong body.” Write about his small firm hips and muscular thighs. He does not have to be powerful but he should be clever. He can be an artist, a professor, a poet, a musician (especially a rock, guitarist or lead vocalist), a barrister, an architect or an archaeologist; it depends on what professions you find interesting. It’s a matter of personal inclination. Be aware of the more rigid conventions of the genre but listen to your own instincts.
Your novel can be set anywhere but whatever the context remember the cardinal rules and make your background details as accurate as possible. But be sure these details are not intrusive. They ought to be convincing but not overly conspicuous. Keep your hero and heroine together throughout as much as possible. Perhaps a good way to achieve this is by making them work together.
A Romance novel can be set in any historical period. This is a long and honoured tradition. They can be ancient, medieval or early modern sagas. You will have to undertake research if your leanings lie that way.
Whatever the setting, your novel should be compelling and exciting. Characters must be well-defined and drive the plot. There should be a high level of sexual tension. Aim for adventurous heroes and headstrong heroines. A Romance can also be a suspense, murder mystery, psychological thriller, espionage tale where the woman is in jeopardy. It can also focus on the lighter side of love – comedy that is strong on sexual tension is interesting.
But do not use your story to educate readers about safe-sex, law and order, political reform – unless it has the subtlety of allegory and the sensitivity of very gifted writing. The purpose of Romantic Fiction is to entertain. One school of thought might suggest that agenda-driven material – political, feminist, socialist etc. should be left to prose writers, who do a great job in presenting these and a host of other issues. Another way of thinking is that there is a need (especially in children’s literature) to have ethnically diverse characters of underrepresented groups. This latter view would also take into account the need for protagonists of diverse sexual orientation.
The omnipotent (all-knowing) viewpoint has its place in literature but one of the drawbacks is that it makes it difficult for the reader to identify with any one character. Usually you will write in the third person as it avoids overusing the word “I”. For example, not the self-conscious “I undressed myself” but “Jane undressed herself.”
If you are male and want to write Romance you might want to consider using a female pen-name. Women readers seem to prefer this close bond with female authors, while exploring such sensitive inner emotional and psychological layers. Thus the female viewpoint is the more popular one. You may give a few chapters from the man’s viewpoint as this can help keep the story fresh and exciting but his perceptions rarely predominate.
Simple but not simplistic
Plots are simple but not simplistic. The characters should have genuine problems to which the reader can relate. Try to avoid social concerns, such as abortion, incest etc. The key word to keep in mind is escapism – not to be confused with fantasy. Bearing this in mind, locations could be more romantic rather than realistic: the Greek Islands, a cruise liner, or Paris, Rome…Remember your reader does not want the kitchen sink; that is precisely what the reader is trying to get away from. However, dreaming of love does not necessitate some foreign land, so the choice is yours.
Kieran Beville is a former teacher of English (literature and language) and History and lecturer in Biblical Studies (Hermeneutics). He is author of the novel, Bohemian Fire (pen-name Austen K. Blake, Bohemian Books, 2017). In addition he has published fourteen non-fiction books and he recently completed a book of poetry – Songs of Sorrow. He has had a substantial number of articles published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in the UK, USA, Ireland and India. He was a tutor in the Irish History Department in UCC for a couple of years in the 1980s. More recently Kieran served for several years as Professor in the Intercultural Studies Department of Tyndale Theological Seminary, Amsterdam, where he taught Master classes. He has lectured on Leadership Training Programmes in Eastern Europe (Serbia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova) and Hermeneutics courses in the Middle-East (Amman, Jordan) and India (Kolkata and Assam). He has also spoken at conferences in Ireland, the UK and India (New Delhi and Nagaland). Furthermore, he has co-ordinated youth-work programmes and managed educational programmes for the disadvantaged in Cork and worked in Community Development. Separated with three adult children, Kieran currently lives alone in West Cork but has plans to relocate to Limerick city, his native place, in the near future. He plays guitar and paints, using various mediums – oils, acrylics.