I started reading romance novels last December. I was in the middle of a bad reading slump. A month of delicious, funny, happily-ever-after romance novels is what got me out of it. I am chagrined to admit how long it took me to finally give romance the attention it deserves. Happily, I am now a romance reader, and not just when I’m trying to slide out of a reading slump. Romance novels are a constant part of my varied and eclectic reading life.
There are countless reasons to read romance novels and much to love about the genre. But ten months into my journey as a newbie romance reader, I’ve finally realized what I personally love so deeply and completely about romance: I always know what the character wants, and I know they’re going to get it.
Character desire drives fiction. Anyone who’s ever tried to write a novel or a story knows this. If you don’t know what your character wants, it is nearly impossible to write a decent work of fiction. Our desires—be they petty, serious, unconscious, or critical to survival—guide our actions. Even when you can’t pinpoint what a character wants, a good writer seamlessly guides you toward the climax, that moment when the character achieves or doesn’t achieve their desire.
Characters in romance novels can be just as deep and nuanced as any other characters in fiction. They can want complicated or contradictory things; they can make mistakes; they can spend a hundred pages pining over the wrong person before finally realizing that it’s someone else who will make them happy. But unlike other kinds of fiction, the underlying current of desire, the thing that drives the plot, the mechanism that makes you turn pages—is never, ever a surprise. In every romance novel I’ve read so far, I know what’s going to happen: two (or more) people want to be together, and in the end, they will be.
Sometimes there’s two hundred pages of obstacles they have to wade through before they can settle happily in each other’s arms. Sometimes they’re in denial. Sometimes the world gets in the way, or another person, or their own fears and insecurities. Sometimes they’re confused about what they want, but as a reader, I never am.
This does not make reading romance novels boring. Just the opposite—reading romance is not only fun, but deeply calming. I enjoy fiction that keeps me turning pages, wondering what will happen next. Romance is not devoid of that wonderful suspense. It’s just that all of the suspense is in the journey—the how and the why, the where and the when—rather than the outcome.
Lack of surprise is such a common criticism in books and movies. Scroll through Amazon reviews of rom coms, and you’ll see it over and over again: but I knew what was going to happen at the end! I am the kind of person who reads the Wikipedia article for TV season finales before watching them, just to prepare myself for death/disaster/cliffhangers, so I probably should have realized years ago that romance is for me. I am never, ever, ever disappointed in a romance novel with a predictable plot. It’s the details that make reading romance so wonderful and engaging. Not what happens at the end—duh! happy togetherness!—but the specifics of how the protagonists get there.
Here’s the thing: life is surprising. You find out your partner of ten years has been having an affair. Your best friend’s mother dies suddenly in a car crash. Your husband gets laid off; your girlfriend breaks up with you in an email; your kid decides to move halfway across the world with your grandchildren. Most of the surprises we deal with in our daily lives are not parties and love notes—they’re devastating. The world is a harsh and unkind place, and so little is in our control.
Romance isn’t all fluffy kittens and rainbows. Some of the best romance I’ve read deals with serious themes and doesn’t shy away from suffering. But it is pretty damn awesome to be able to pick up a love story and not spend any mental energy wondering if it’s going to end up okay in the end. There’s enough of that in real life.
I read for hundreds of different reasons. To escape, to engage, to learn. Romance is often good escapist fun, but what I love most about it is that clear and unsubtle character desire. Knowing exactly what the characters want makes for surprise that doesn’t hurt, gentle suspense, and, yes—glorious, varied, creative, satisfying predicability.