I mean, we all need friends. But when I’m reading a romance, I want the characters to have friends. As with any broad statement I make about romance, I can certainly be proven wrong. I’ll go ahead and prove myself wrong right now. It’s not important, for instance, to include friends in a gothic romance. Those characters can be alone in their spooky manor with only ghosts for company; it’s fine. And perhaps an action-driven romance with characters on the run doesn’t really need to show me the rich social lives of our protagonists. But for most romances, both contemporary and historical, I want to meet some friends!
I fully admit this is a matter of taste, and I’ll elaborate on that further. The world of romance is so broad. It shouldn’t be too terribly hard to find things that cater to my tastes. Still, I’m picky. And when I read a romance that falls short for me, my fix-it instinct often tells me that a friend’s presence in the novel could have solved at least some of my issues.
For my purposes, a friend can also be a family member, as long as they are indeed a friend! With so many villainous family members throwing plot twists at beleaguered romance characters, it’s worthwhile to clarify. I’m talking about a character who likes and supports the protagonist, whom the protagonist trusts, and who is looking out for the protagonist. You know, friends. They aren’t always easy to come across in real life, but luckily authors can create them out of whole cloth. And why should they? I’m glad you asked!
All readers are different, but as a rule I don’t like an info dump. My favorite writers build worlds and characters seamlessly and naturally. I’m less annoyed by lengthy stretches of writing that represent someone’s internal monologue, but I know those do irk some readers. Romance characters having friends can help avoid these storytelling pitfalls.
A conversation with a friend can convey information and develop character while pushing the plot forward. These kinds of conversations let protagonists process their feelings verbally, while friends can offer their own insights. Seeing how people are around their friends tells us a lot about them.
Plus, if we are so lucky as to get two perspectives in a romance, we might experience an event first in one POV, then witness an explanation of it in another POV, showing us some conflict or difference in perspective. Just imagine: a historical romance in which a female main character meets her friend for tea. She dishes out all the gossip about the events of the night before. I live for anything that feels like gossip. And maybe her account differs from the account as narrated by another character. I definitely live for a little unreliable narration.
To me, one of the most interesting things about romance is that what people find romantic is so highly individual. Some people love to read about a grand gesture; others hate it. I know there are people who are really into the “I hate everyone but you” trope, but I am not one of those people. I love a good care-taking scene; I love a cherished memento of the good times (Indigo by Beverly Jenkins has the all-timer in this category). And I love characters who offer grace to their love interest who really bungled it but for understandable reasons. There are other circumstances in a romance I rarely find romantic. And one of those is a character with absolutely no friends.
For me to buy a HEA, I want to believe each character in the romance is more-or-less set up for happiness, both individually and in their relationship. I’ve come across contemporary romances with a storyline featuring a woman starting over from scratch for reasons that might be tragic or might just be a quirk of that person’s chaotic character. And in her new life, she becomes completely consumed by her romantic relationship. That all-consuming love is not really a complaint; that’s what I like to read. Still, these can be the HEAs I have a hard time actually finding romantic, even if the story was compelling. A character with no nearby support network apart from their romantic partner(s) seems so vulnerable to me.
Maybe that makes me a party pooper or a cynic. But I would rather see over the course of the romance that a character in a new situation makes a friend alongside finding love. I promise I don’t need much from that storyline (although I love a really good friendship storyline. Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn has my favorite.) But when a character has been tossed ashore after a rough sea journey, I want to see more than one rope tethering them to safety. It’s really a Whole Thing how often safety, a baseline human need separate from romantic love, is intrinsic to what love interests have to offer, isn’t it?
As a romance reader who is neither asexual nor aromantic, I am really interested in reading critiques of romance as a genre from ace and aro readers. The vast majority of romances do posit that some combination of sex and romance have a really outsized effect on people’s happiness and wellbeing. The genre props itself up on being the literature of hope. It promotes the kind of love portrayed in romance as what gets people through the hard times. And I can certainly imagine how isolating it would feel to receive this message over and over if the kind of love in most romance novels isn’t the kind of love you’re after.
Romances that showcase romantic love as but one flower in a gorgeous bouquet are the ones I personally find most hopeful. I’ve been using friendship as a catch-all term here, but I love romances that give me friendship love, community love, self love, familial love. Give me all of that! That’s the truly life-affirming stuff for me. Casey McQuiston’s One Last Stop and Alexis Daria’s A Lot Like Adios have those vibes to me, for example.
Keep Your Friends Close
Yes, I love a very sunny romance bursting with love. I also really love romances with messy characters who are put through the wringer. So I can imagine enjoying a romance that starts with someone incredibly closed off and friendless, someone who needs to come around on the idea of joining humanity. I rankle against the idea that romances ought to present love as a prize won by characters who’ve proven themselves worthy through some kind of moral improvement over the course of a story. So I don’t think there needs to be a lesson learned from the making of friends. I’m just eager to see genuine points of connection. The world can be a dark and scary place, but there’s no need to be stingy with the points of light.