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  • Leah E. Welker

My Favorite Things, Part 2.5: Romance (cont.)

Two people standing forehead to forehead with the sun shining through the space between them. Photo credit: Atharva Dharmadhikari on Unsplash.


You just thought the last post was all I had to say on romance, ha. Well, sorry if it's not one of your favorite things too, but if it isn't . . . what are you doing reading my blog/books?

See, the thing is, this was supposed to be a lighthearted blog series about my favorite things, and I know that the last post got a bit heavy and talked more about my ambivalence toward romance than anything. Since I'm treating this blog like a public stream-of-conscious journal, I knew it was important for me to work through that first for my own sake, but I soon realized I couldn't leave it on that note for everyone else.

So, here's a bonus post on romance, full of the happy little specifics I love to read and write! Without further ado. . . .


Like I touched on in the last post, I love the hopefulness of the romance genre: the promise (if the author knows their genre right) that there's a happily ever after or happily for now ending. I have nothing against other people exploring darkness and despair and tragic endings in what they read or write; if that's what helps them navigate life, good! I'm happy for them. However, I discovered long ago that what I need from my fiction is hope, light, and the promise of everything working out in the end, because that's what I need when I return to reality to face the world.

Which is not to say that I always like my romances to be all sunshine and roses. . . . Well, sometimes I do. When I'm emotionally spent and I need sunshine and roses, I'll pick up just one of those sorts of books. But it's a bit like eating a truffle for me: mouthwatering, decadent, and momentarily soothing, but over way too quickly and ultimately lacking something. When there's a total lack of consequences or stakes in a romance, it often leaves me feeling like nothing was ventured and therefore nothing gained.

This is because light is the most striking in the dark. A romance that has nothing but light in it . . . doesn't really have a noticeable light, does it? It doesn't say anything truly meaningful about what it means to be human. It adds yet another layer of unreality to a genre that already is prone to give us unrealistic expectations on life.

Like I said—I myself go for this kind of book when I can't bear anything deeper, so no judgement if that's what you need most or even all the time. I'm just saying that I'm always left with a craving for just a bit more.

The right kind of darkness

My tolerance level for darkness is still fairly low, though. Brandon Sanderson, for example—an author I truly do admire for how well he explores this interplay of light and dark—sometimes inserts more dark than I personally can enjoy. His Stormlight Archive, for example, is both too big and deals with too much of the heavy for me to easily get through—one reason why I'm still stuck on Oathbringer. And, since this is supposed to be a blog post about romance, though his romantic subplots are often meaningful, realistic, and hopeful, they are still very much subplots, and I don't know if I'll ever be able to forgive him for the The Hero of Ages. Talk about way too much doom and gloom (I don't care how "epic" it was supposed to feel—the epic-ness was lost on me in the slog of doom) and an entirely unsatisfying conclusion to the romance. I could see why he did what he did, and how he still tried to make their ending meaningful and hopeful, and I respect his choices as a skilled author, but it did not work for me. After how fond I'd become of the two main characters, I felt a deep sense of betrayal, although perhaps that was my own fault. After all, I knew it wasn't a romance—no happily ever after guarantee.

So, yes, I need a happily ever after, and even though I like some level of danger, some level of global stakes, some thrills and close-calls and perhaps sickness/injury, and even a bit of heartbreak, that's all to make the joy mean something, and I only have a medium-low threshold for all of the darker elements before it overwhelms any enjoyment I get from the book or movie.

And it needs to be a specific kind of heartbreak. I can't abide drama ensuing from the two main characters being jerks to each other: petty lying, immaturity, cheating, wavering between one person or another, grouchiness, jealousy, etc. In other words, I don't like "relationship drama" being the main driver of the plot—probably one reason I like fantasy romances with a villain doing the drama-making, and why I can't abide teen or high school romances. (Can't really abide high-school-focused fiction in general, actually. I was ecstatic to escape high school and never, ever want to go back, thank you. Even in fiction. Shudder.)

If something truly tests the couple's relationship (as something generally should, otherwise it will feel unrealistic or unproven) I much prefer it be external forces, human misunderstandings, or truly human, relatable weaknesses that the character is striving to overcome. So I like romances in which the main characters are kind, dedicated, and decently communicative, establishing their relationship on the basis of trust, respect, and emotional intimacy.

Emotional vs. physical intimacy

The last one—emotional intimacy—gets its own section, because it's the quality I find most satisfying in a romance. A romance that is built primarily on physical attraction and intimacy is OK. I'll probably still enjoy it, because I do enjoy the physical aspect to some degree, but it will leave me almost as unsatisfied as the sunshine-and-roses ones, and I'll usually end up rolling my eyes.

I repeat: I like all the warm-fuzzies, butterflies, and whirl of emotions, and all the other descriptions and metaphors we come up with to try to capture how love, attraction, and intimate touch make us feel. Perhaps no other feelings are so nuanced, complex, tangled, and powerful, ones that have to be lived to be understood, and trying to put words to it anyway is an art form unto itself, with almost a language of its own that I am always studying with fascination. So, yes, I definitely enjoy reading about attraction and touch. Yet if the characters haven't had time to build up emotional intimacy first, I'll enjoy it, but I won't believe it, and I'll be left unsatisfied. And the more the basis for their relationship is on the physical, the less satisfied I'll be.

This is a preference that along with my own personality: touch is one of my lowest-ranked love languages (only gifts beats it to the bottom), and I'm very cerebral by nature. My head is the gateway to my emotions—something has to convince my head before it can convince my heart. I don't fall in love easily, and I don't any have physical reactions toward males until we've first established trust, respect, and emotional intimacy. Seeing a cute guy pass by? Does zilch to me. Establishing rapport, trust, service, kindness, a feeling of kindred spirits? Now we're getting somewhere physically. But that can take time. (Can, but . . . I get a feeling for people pretty quickly. However, I've found that guys generally need much more time to figure me out. Though honestly, I'm such an enigma to even my own family, I don't blame them.)

Length, characterization, and development

That leads me to another reason I like fantasy romance: length. To someone who grew up reading epic fantasy as I did, the contemporary romance genre is astonishingly short—sometimes aggravatingly so. I can understand how that's actually one of the draws for some people—even I sometimes want something quick, not having time to invest in a book that will suck me in for an entire weekend and spit me only half-way back in reality for days after (even those are the best books). But the traditional length of a contemporary romance novel leaves so little room for character depth and relationship development. You have so little time to even get to know the characters, let alone convincingly put two of them together. By the time I'm starting to get invested in them . . . the book is over. Done. Few romance author's I've read so far have been skilled enough in characterization to really make the characters come alive to me in that span of time.

Nora Roberts is one, though; she's a master at characterization, actually, one I take mental from every time I pick up one of her books. Then again . . . I've only read her fantasy romances. I haven't thought to keep track of the lengths of those verses contemporary, but maybe the publisher gives her a bit more length for the fantasy aspect? (Even though it is always fantasy-light, with minimal worldbuilding.) Even so, I usually can get a good grasp of her characters within a chapter or two. But the fantasy romances I've read of hers are one of those no-stakes truffles that I reach for when I don't want anything bad to happen. Because, yes, despite the fights against evil in those books, nothing truly bad ever happens. Except to unnamed redshirts that justify defeating the evil villain, of course.

But I digress. Ahem. Anyway, I feel like the established greater length of the fantasy genre gives a lot more runway to a romance, not only making the relationship development a lot more believable to me . . . but also adding in a lot more opportunities for those all those delightful romantic elements I just described! It's a win-win, really. (For the reader, at least. For the writer, it is also a win, but . . . also so much more work.)

Intellectual romance

I love romances in which a point-of-view character is as cerebral, is matured enough to have a solid conceptual understanding of love, and yet for whatever reason hasn't yet encountered it . . . until now.

More than just the usual interplay between logic and emotion, I get a giggle out of watching the characters flounder around, trying to figure out what all these feelings mean. To my surprise, examples that come most readily to mind somehow end up mostly being Stephenie Meyer characters: Edward Cullen from Midnight Sun, Alex from The Chemist, and Wanderer from The Host. (Hmm, maybe she's a fan of that trope too?) I know there are much more, but I can't think of them all at the moment. But I thought of at least one non-Meyer character: Lance from the visual novel Gilded Shadows, which I mentioned in the magic post. I can't get into why Lance is such an interesting and yet adorable character, especially in a intellectual-romantic sense, without some major spoilers for a lot of the routes (he's the route recommended to do last for a reason), but let me just say that they save the best for last.

Oh, I just thought of another: Beatrice and Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing. Also amusing in that respect, and you get the bonus of both of them being baffled in that way at the same time.

Mature men

Years ago I noticed with some amusement at myself at another favored trope of mine: mature, yet still fit and handsome men falling for women much younger than them—as long as it's done in a respectful, appropriate way, with the affection being completely mutual. What comes immediately to mind is Mr. Knightley from Emma (Knightley is the best Austen male lead, and I will argue with anyone who says otherwise), Numair Salmalin from Tamora Pierce's The Immortals quartet (Numair and Daine have always been my favorite Pierce couple), or Sarkan ("the Dragon") from Naomi Novik's Uprooted.

I figure it's because I was born thirty years old, and for a while, boys got further behind me every year. I laughingly thought during my teen years that when I married one day, I'd have to marry a man much older than me to have us be at the same emotional and intellectual level. Males have started catching up, though, so there's hope yet. ;)


My favorite, favorite trope in romance is self-sacrificing love: the kind of love so full and pure, the person feeling it is willing to sacrifice their own happiness and chances with the other person to give the other happiness. A well-written scenario with that kind of love and agonizing decision-making gets me every time. Nothing brings me quicker to cathartic tears. I just read the cutesiest, most lighthearted romance that had some brief elements of this and it still made me cry in the best way.

(Side note, the fiction thing that will make me cry the fastest in the worst way is a dog movie. Doesn't even matter if it's a happy dog movie. I cried almost to the sobbing point at the opening sequence of Clifford, the part where the poor puppy Clifford accidentally gets left behind in the warehouse while his stray mother and litter are taken away. Needless to say . . . I don't watch sad dog movies—those would destroy me.)

Cue Mr. Knightley and Emma once again, because it's their self-sacrificing romance scenes at the end that have stuck with me as no other Austen ones have (nope, not even those of Lizzy and Darcy). Without giving away too much (in the off chance you somehow haven't read it or don't know the plot) at the climax of the book, book Knightley and Emma are convinced the other person is in love with someone else, and both are resolved to put their own feelings aside to help the other person cope or find success. Ah—a beautiful stab to my heart every time.

Yes, sure, Darcy does some heroic things for Lizzy with no expectation of reward (or even wanting her to know about it), which is great, and yes, yes, Wentworth's letter in Persuasion is very romantic, but somehow neither of those men can wrench first place from Knightley, who is intelligent, observant, and kind to everyone from page one and cares enough about Emma to be the person striving hardest throughout the entire book for her own good, even if that means striving against her or risking their relationship. And their poignant feelings of wishing nothing but the best for each other at the end, no matter what it takes, just cap it all off.

Wanderer from The Host, once again, is another example of this kind of self-sacrificing love, and not just for her romantic interest(s) but for her entire new, human family. Her poignant, selfless climax is also one that wrenches my gut in the best way, every time.

Wanderer will get some more limelight in future posts, so I won't go more into why I love her so much now, but let's just end by saying that Wanderer's capacity for selfless love is one of the reasons The Host is my favorite books of all time.


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