"Is This A Kissing Book?"

Note: This post is *not* about romance novels or subgenres of romance (e.g. paranormal romance, romantic suspense, other genres containing the word romance). Romance, by definition, revolves around two characters getting a happily ever after. This post is about love interests in books that are *not* romance novels.

Despite being a romantic, I’m incredibly bored by actual romance. I don’t represent romance as a genre and it would be difficult to find a love story in books I represent that isn’t at least a little bit nontraditional. Don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of people who love cute, uncomplicated romances (and plenty of agents who represent them). I’m just not one of them. Why am I so heartless? 

Well, I’m not. I just need more convincing that these characters belong together. Romance readers (including the agents and editors who work with romance novels) have the ability to get swept up in the characters’ obvious devotion to each other. When we say “publishing is subjective” we mean it because the same way not everyone can suspend their disbelief for fantasy novels, I find it hard to suspend mine for romance. What I do love, though, is rooting for two characters to get together. Like tiny Fred Savage in The Princess Bride, I need to be tricked into liking romance. But once I’m hooked, I will shout for the main characters to just kiss already!

When I’m reading a novel and it’s clear love interests are starting to form, I prepare myself to ask the following questions:

1. Who are these characters outside of their attraction for each other? Do we see them do other things, have other friends, and have independent lives before the other person enters the picture?

2. Do they maintain that independent life even after the other person enters the picture?

3. Is the main plot of the novel (i.e. not their romance) strong enough to stand on its own?

4. Is it clear why they love each other? Is the writer showing me something deeper than an appreciation for good looks? 

5. Are the characters falling in love while they’re doing other things? Or do they just gaze at each other and call it love? (coughTwilightcoughcough)

Sorry I had something in my throat. Moving on.

If I can’t answer those questions then that type of romance is probably not for me. I don’t want to be happy the main characters got together because I was told I should be. I want to know it’s deserved and that they’ve both experienced life enough to make a real decision in the end. So that when Logan tells Veronica they should have been epic, I melt. Or when Jordan finally holds Angela’s hand, I feel her excitement. And while, yes, both of those scenes involve high school students, let’s not forget how we all feel right before a first kiss with a new person who just might be The Person. We’re all teenagers in that moment, and if you’re not you’re doing it wrong.

I’m a person who loves love, but I hate blind love. Give me two whole people coming together to share something because there’s no one else they can share it with, not because they need a second half. You characters deserve to find happiness on their own terms, and your readers deserve to feel satisfied by their decision.

Realistic Romance

This weekend I had the unfortunate pleasure of overhearing a first date. It was obvious they met online and decided afternoon coffee would be nice and safe. The guy looked in his early/mid-20s. Average looking, kind of wiry, and overly agreeable. The woman was older and better looking than he was, and had one of those unnaturally raspy voices that come with excessive smoking or yelling.

She did most of the talking – a brief monologue about marathons she ran transitioned into her love for the Kardashians because they reminded her of her family. The guy was less than impressed. I could practically see the words “shut up shut up shut up” repeating in his brain. I thought maybe we’d make eye contact so I could offer a sympathetic smile, the way I do to people on the subway who are being accosted by unmedicated schizophrenics. But he was too far gone, focusing all of his energy on keeping eye contact and counting the minutes until he could leave. Still, part of me knew that if she offered, he’d go back to her place.

What this poor, doomed couple didn’t know is that a writer was across from them observing everything they said and did (at least until said writer’s friend came and rescued her). If these people were in a novel, I wasn’t sure which would be our main character. Both had a story that independently led them to each other. Or at least to the same dating website. While our hero seemed to grow bored with our Kardashian-loving heroine, I wanted to know more about her. Why was this woman – blond, pretty, athletic – on a date with this younger man whose story about not crashing his bike disappointed her? Perhaps they weren’t in it to find love, but the pretense of going on a date at all seemed like a waste of time.

Neither of these characters – I mean, real human beings – interested me by themselves (she came off shallow, he too bland), but the fact they were committed to putting in an effort was intriguing. Of course, this made me think of how we write romances. Outside of the Romance genre, we write romances all the time in commercial fiction, literary fiction, YA, and even narrative nonfiction. We try to connect our love interests and convince our readers that they belong together, even if circumstances keep them apart.

I’m a fan of love. Reading it, watching it, experiencing it. It’s fascinating. Love is the scariest thing you can let yourself feel for another person. I think that’s the appeal. It’s a fear to be conquered, and not everyone is worth the risk. But when they are, it makes taking that risk all the more rewarding. So what does this have to do with writing? Everything.

Make your character take risks! It’s a phrase writers hear a lot, and it’s one every writer should follow. But risks are meaningless unless we know what the main character is fighting for. So while you’re writing, remember the second part of risk-taking: Give your character a worthy reward.

While I’m a fan of 1st person – the POV of choice in YA – I admit it comes with a price. We see everything through the main character’s eyes so that when it comes time to meet the love interest, we’re presented with only one view. Usually, what we see is the archetype – best friend who’s secretly hot and perfect, hot and perfect crush who’s secretly horrible, the stranger from nowhere who wins the main character’s heart (and therefore ours too). We root for the love interest based on those archetypes, but other than a few personality quirks, we hardly ever get to know who they are outside of their designated role.

The type of YA love I’ve been seeing in my submission pile is like fairytale love. When they aren’t consumed by hormones or in a literal fight for their lives, the characters rarely take the time to get to know each other. You never see Cinderella go on a date because if she did, she’ll realize the Prince is kind of lame (and probably has an awful story about riding a bicycle). If readers can see the love interest has nothing else going for him (or her), it’s less likely they will respect and connect with your main character.

For all the Gale vs. Peeta, Angel vs. Spike, Stefan vs. Damon, and Team Edward/Team Jacob debates, they can be boiled down to the same concept: “Good Guy vs. Bad Boy.” Sure, the bad boys end up caring for the girl and the good guys have some darkness in them, but essentially the same love triangles are happening over and over. Yet consider how different the main characters who’ve faced these choices have been. Katniss, Buffy, Elena, and Bella are all leaders of very different cliques (fighters, geeks with skills, popular/socially accepted, and, um, people who bump into things sometimes?); yet their choices in men are, more of less, interchangeable.

The lack of realistic romance doesn’t stop with YA. Teens who rarely consider who they’re risking heartache for grow up to be the adults I read about in too many commercial and literary submissions when the plot is independent from the state of their relationship. Couples seem to hate each other, or at best, are indifferent. How, then, can I like or trust them enough to care about their story? These characters aren’t real to me. Love exists over the age of twenty. If you’re writing these characters, give me a reason why they need to still be together; make me understand why they are still married. Then, perhaps, I’ll follow them to other parts of their lives.

When I say I’m a fan of love, I don’t mean either of these extremes. The type of love that lasts – whether in novels or in real life – is the kind that’s present and real and remains constant. Teen romances won’t have the emotional complexities of adult relationships, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know who our main character is falling in love with. Likewise, mature adults won’t even use the word “epic,” let alone think of their relationship as such. But passion and true affection doesn’t need to die after high school.

We all might be attracted to certain “types,” but no one falls in love with types. We fall in love with people. And it’s terrifying. Your job as a writer is to make your readers feel just as scared and just as willing to take those risks, and to let them know that it will be worth it long after the story ends.

Happy Valentine’s Day, friends.

Literary Dates

Valentine’s Day is on Monday, but for those celebrating, love will be in the air this weekend. (Mondays will never be romantic, no matter what holiday happens to fall on them.) So I thought I’d lead you all into your  weekends – whether full of flowers & candy or spent with a box of white wine & Jagged Little Pill – with a literary fantasy:

What would be your ideal date with any literary character?

Concert and mix-tape swap with Rob Gordon? Trip to the Natural History Museum with Holden Caulfield? European rendezvous with Jake Barnes? Or a Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist-style epic night with the “Nick” or “Norah” of your choice? (I think I’d go with that one.)

Possibilities are endless, and things like logistics, legal ages (hello YA crushes!), and time constraints don’t matter here. Happy planning!

Enjoy your weekend, no matter what you end up doing 🙂