I don’t need to like the characters or the story to enjoy reading a romance novel

This post started its life as a comment over at the blog Something More but it morphed and took on a life of its own but is still tangentially related to @Liz_Mc2‘s piece.

When I was 15, my friend (who was 17) came to my home with her fiance (who was in his 30s) with wedding invites. It was an arranged marriage as her parents felt that their daughters must marry young otherwise they will stray from God’s path. I recall my dad asking my friend if she was going to continue her studies to which her fiance answered that she will not need to complete studying as her task will be to take care of their children and home and it was his job to provide for the family. He then said to my father “If women are equals to men then why is it the man who is on top in the marital bed”. She giggled while the rest of us were stunned. At 15 I knew that there was more than missionary yet this smarmy, arrogant man at 30 had not imagined a life beyond it,  but also felt missionary was a divine sign of man’s superiority to women and that he expected a wife that submitted to his patriarchal needs. At 15, I recognised that this man was controlling, possessive and dismissive of his wife-to-be’s capacity to think. However, she accepted and married him (and is still married to him) and is always smiling and happy when I see her and their many children.

They have a romance story which I don’t particularly like. But it is theirs. And there are many dysfunctional marriages and relationships that I see around me daily that creep me out – but it is their story.

And that is why I read romances. Romances, for the most part, are character driven. They are about the slow reveals of humanity, vulnerability, conflict, anger, humour, the struggle of deciding whether to compromise personal values in order to accept someone who may not have the same values as oneself. Romances are reflections of that most personal interpersonal decision – finding a life partner.

Some romances are wonderful and I truly believe that the couple will be happy together for a long time. And other romances are awful. Not awful as in poorly written – but awful in the portrayal of the abhorrent characters. I may not like who the main characters are, I may not like the way they came together or why they came together but I revel in their engaging story. As a reader, I have never felt the need to like the characters I read about. I need to gain some understanding of why people who think differently to me, whose values and ideas are polar to mine, function the way that they do and how they find themselves in the situation that they are in. I can believe their story is likely without liking their story.

And there are many romances that when I finish reading them I mentally create my own epilogue in which I calculate the date of the divorce and how that divorce came about (was it an SMS, was it an amicable separation, was it a covert project that involved fleeing to a women’s refuge after finally getting that beating he felt she deserved). There are other romances that upon finishing them I imagine a miserable life of two bitter and angry people, one submitting, the other over-bearing (let us not be gender biased here – I have often seen the male submitting to a horrid female). For some it is a long life filled with regret for staying within a relationship that only occasionally raised some hope and for others it is a life that they are happy within because it is in line with their life values (and it is my problem not theirs if it is not in line with my values). And there are just as many romances that upon finishing reading I imagine the joyous life the couple have together, travelling, working, building a home, creating a family, dancing, smiling and laughing together until they die.

As a reader, I relish being engaged by the characters in all these different romance stories but I don’t necessarily like them. I do not think that the relationships I am reading end with the Happily Ever After the author has provided me. The romance is just a snapshot in the life of these characters who live on in readers’ minds. The sign of an amazing romance novel is one in which the book gives me a structured beginning which then informs the rest of the story that grows in my mind.

Postscript: It is a good thing my friend’s fiance had never heard of the reverse cowgirl because who knows how he would have reasoned that it was a position of submission.

3 thoughts on “I don’t need to like the characters or the story to enjoy reading a romance novel

  1. I need to believe the protagonist’s story; that the endpoint we leave them at is a natural one arising from who they are as a couple/menage not simply a plotting device to round out the novel. I don’t need it to be about me or my particular likes and preferences cos it isn’t my story on the page. A book isn’t a re-read or a keeper if I can’t believe in the characters I have been shown. This means that If I doubt the HEA/HFN and find myself considering the divorce that awaits them down the road or the imbalance in the menage, the original story is undermined for me. I like seeing how things are possible for them. I am reading for those possibilities to be explored and opened up into a hopeful future for them NOT me.

    A good example is KA Mitchell’s ‘Not Knowing Jack’ an m/m where the eponymous hero is a bit of a prick. He remains that through out the story and you can see that the decisions he makes and some events come about in part because of that. At the very end of the novel the little family leave town to start a new life and he makes all the decisions to do this and make it happen. So there is an HEA but one built on Jack’s habit of doing things without talking to other people first. I believed in the HEA and the story because the characterisation of the ending was utterly congruent with the people we meet along the way. It doesn’t matter that his little tendency would drive me batty IRL.

    • I think that liking a character is very different to believing in a character. For example, Anne Stuart’s Ice Storm protagonists are dark and cold.It begins with Isobel shooting and leaving for dead the man that she loves. As the reader you know the two will get an HEA but even that is questionable due to their history together. Do I believe in the characters? Absolutely! Do I like them? No. Do I believe in their HEA? Only with the caveat that these 2 will be looking over their shoulder forever but that too is fine as they do work for a covert mercenary organisation. Do I like their story? Eeek! How do you like the story of people who shoot and leave each other for dead?! But do I believe in their story? Absolutely yes! I loved the book and it is a keeper for me.

      I think we all read romances, and all fiction at that, differently. I wish I could believe every HEA lasts but my headspace doesn’t allow me to do this.

  2. […] a great post, which began as a response to my Overdetermined Hero post, about how she doesn’t “need to like the characters or story to enjoy reading a romance novel.” It reminded me of when I wrote about whether romance is feminist and Vacuous Minx responded […]

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