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What Is Romance?

According to Wikipedia, the top five highest-grossing movies of all time, adjusted for inflation, are Gone with the Wind (1939), Avatar (2009), Star Wars (1977), Titanic (1997), and The Sound of Music (1965).

These movies are in different genres and have wildly different settings and story arcs. But they all have one thing in common, one element with universal and timeless appeal: romance.

Everyone loves a good romance. Women adore love stories openly. Men enjoy love stories more than they're allowed to admit. Children years away from puberty watch the love stories in animated movies over and over and over. Ancient tales the world over revolve around romance: heroes battling men and monsters for the sake of beautiful brides, girls overcoming magical trials to net handsome grooms.

The appeal of romance isn't just animal instinct. Romance is the promise of happiness. Love stories give people the dream of safety and stability with someone who cares.

What Is Not Romance

Sex is not romance.

Like people in real life, writers often confuse lust for love. They write about intoxicating kisses and earth-shattering orgasms and think their stories are romantic, but they're just erotic.

Some writers of romance novels try to show how much the hero loves the heroine by dwelling at length on his desire to ravage her. In every scene, he's dazzled by her curvaceous beauty. He's overwhelmed with the need to possess her, and he struggles valiantly to stop himself from pouncing on her like a wild animal in heat.

This is the same kind of "love" a man feels for actresses in pornographic movies. A man being aroused by a voluptuous woman doesn't mean she's his One True Love, any more than a man being tempted by a Krispy Kreme means that particular glazed confection is the One True Doughnut. The same goes for women, obviously. If a heroine's heart races at the sight of the hero's impressive abs, it's because she's a healthy young woman, not because he's her soulmate.

Sexy scenes are fun and titillating, and they add sizzle to a novel if you're writing for adults. They also stroke the ego, because people like to fantasize about being desired. But they're not romantic, because physical attraction is fleeting. The emotional high of passion fades minutes after it ends. When a fictional relationship consists of nothing but sex, the "romance" doesn't promise eternal happiness.

Dysfunction is not romance.

Since the neo-Gothic days of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, writers have been glorifying dysfunctional relationships in romantic fiction.

In a typical New Adult novel for women, a virginal heroine falls for a poetically dangerous bad boy who's gorgeous on the outside and broken on the inside. He has anger management and substance abuse issues. The angelic heroine is the only person in the world who can understand him. She sees past his drunken rages to the wounded heart underneath, and she heals it with her innocent trust and devotion.

In contemporary books and movies for young men, the hero often crushes on a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who's an emotional wreck. Like a firework in the night sky, she dazzles him with her wild ways and then self-destructs in spectacular fashion.

Like the fantasy of being irresistible, the fantasy of being the martyr who offers salvation to a doomed soul strokes the ego. But there are two reasons it isn't romantic.

First, a proper relationship is between two people, not one person and a paper doll whose only reason for existing is to make the protagonist feel heroic. These tortured bad boys and wild girls are usually caricatures, not characters. They're Damaged Damsels in Distress who have no purpose in their stories other than to be rescued and to shower their saviors with love.

Second, only naive or willfully unrealistic readers will buy that these two characters can live happily ever after. Let's face it, Mr. Rochester is a selfish jerk. He only thinks he loves Jane Eyre because she's clean and sane, unlike the wife he keeps locked up in the attic. And Jane thinks she loves him back because she's 18, she was shut up in a house in the middle of nowhere with him for months, and the only other eligible bachelor in her isolated world is a sanctimonious bore.

What Is Romance

Now that I've ranted about what romance is not, let's define what I believe romance really is. Romance is when two characters overcome the conflicts keeping them apart and find peace and happiness with each other.

Those conflicts have to be real, and they have to be convincingly insurmountable. A misunderstanding is not a real conflict. Noble idiocy is not a real conflict. Secret pasts that He/She Must Never Know is definitely not a real conflict.

These are faux conflicts, the result of character flaws—excessive pride, poor communication skills, trust issues, etc. If the root of the problem isn't addressed, the resolution feels empty, and we don't get that promise of happily ever after.

Here's a hypothetical example. A hero and heroine are in the blushing honeymoon phase of their relationship. The hero visits the heroine after work one day and sees her handsome coworker's car in the driveway. He immediately turns heel and storms off. He sends a single text announcing that they're over and changes his Facebook status back to Single.

Then in an emotional confrontation, the heroine looks tearfully at her shoes while her spunky best friend lights into the hero because the coworker was only there to borrow her laptop. The hero feels awful and apologizes, and they kiss and make up. Conflict resolved!

Except the conflict isn't resolved. The conflict—the primary obstacle to the happiness of these two characters—isn't the stupid misunderstanding, but the hero's jealousy. In order for them to be happy together, he needs to kill the inner demons whispering that his girlfriend is unfaithful. Otherwise he's just going to throw another tantrum the next time he catches the chiseled barista at Starbucks swirling the foam of her cappuccino into a heart shape.

Now here are examples of romance done right, from two of my favorite love stories.

Margaret Hale and John Thornton from North & South

From the beginning of this miniseries (or book, if you have the patience for it), you can see that Margaret and Mr. Thornton are perfect for each other, but they'll have a devil of a time working things out between them.

First they need to overcome cultural differences, which are responsible for poor first impressions of each other. Margaret moves from the southern English countryside to the industrial north. Because she doesn't know the local customs and behaves like the daughter of landed gentry, she gives the self-made Mr. Thornton the impression she's a snob. She also doesn't understand the dangers of the cotton industry, so she thinks Thornton is a monster for beating an employee who was smoking in the mill, which could have burned the whole place down and killed everyone inside.

This incident foreshadows the bigger conflict to come: the strike by the mill workers' union. Margaret stands firmly on the side of the union, because she's become friends with the union leader's daughter and sees how poverty has driven the workers to desperation. But Thornton simply doesn't have the capital to raise wages, and he must bring in migrant workers to break the strike or the business will collapse and take the town down with it. Neither of them are wrong, and neither could possibly make another choice consistent with their codes of ethics.

The final conflict that keeps them apart is a misunderstanding, but it's not a silly misunderstanding caused by foolishness or stubbornness. Years before, Margaret's brother Fred fled to Brazil after participating in a naval mutiny, a capital offense. Fred sneaks back into England to visit their dying mother, and Thornton spots Margaret hugging him at the train station late at night. Because Thornton is a magistrate, Margaret can't endanger her brother's life by telling him the truth. She has to stay quiet, believing she's lost his good opinion forever. But though Thornton is jealous for a moment, he knows her and trusts she wouldn't do anything "unmaidenly." He even uses his position to protect her when an investigation into an accidental death at the station that night could drag her presence there into public light.

This love story is one of my favorites because both the hero and heroine are fully fleshed-out people with their own character arcs. Though they start out on rocky footing, they try to get along and don't abuse each other like in so many modern romances. You can understand why they make the decisions they do, and you can see them grow and repair their flaws individually before they join together. Margaret overcomes her prejudices towards the North in general and towards Thornton in particular, and Thornton overcomes his ego and his disdain of the factory workers' union.

Song Daepung and Kim Bokshil from Sons of Sol Pharmacy House

These two won the KBS Best Couple award in 2009 for good reason. It's hard to explain why if you haven't watched Sons of Sol Pharmacy House, but I'll give it a shot.

Daepung is a pediatrician who's terrified of getting hurt, and who has an almost pathological need to be liked. He acts like a clown to cover up his desperation for affection. If people don't like him, he loiters around them, showers them with compliments, and bribes them with sweets until they fall for his charms.

But though Daepung needs to be liked, he doesn't know how to love. Loving means opening yourself up to getting hurt, and Daepung can't do that. Because he's afraid of being hated, he can't express unpleasant emotions like anger or sadness. He turns every serious thing he says into a big joke and laughs loudest when he wants to cry.

Daepung has a quasi-marital relationship with the mousy nurse at his private practice, Kim Bokshil. She wakes him up in the mornings, helps his mother around the house, takes care of his meals and laundry...and on top of that, she has the face of a movie star and is hopelessly in love with him. However, Daepung takes her for granted and insists he doesn't see her as a woman. He plays hot and cold, acting impishly affectionate with her one second but ignoring her the next.

Eventually Daepung goes too far. He gets drunk, kisses Bokshil, and then brushes her off and keeps joking around like nothing happened. Bokshil finally gets fed up and leaves him. Daepung is heartbroken for the first time in his life, and he can't cope with it at all. He shuts himself in his room for a month, drinking himself into oblivion. His practice goes under and he's forced to take a job at the local hospital...where he finds Kim Bokshil.

Or rather, he finds Jennifer Kim, internationally renowned neurosurgeon.

Mousy Bokshil turns out to be the daughter of a big-shot hospital director, and she isn't mousy at all. When she was young, her father abandoned her mother, a nurse from the slums, to marry the wealthy woman his parents preferred. Bokshil's mother clung all her life to the memory of her ex-husband. On her deathbed, all she wanted was to see him one last time, but Bokshil's father refused to come.

Bokshil was furious. She quit her job and went into hiding, rejecting everything about her father. Everything. She changed her name from the English one her father gave her, Jennifer, to the Korean one her mother gave her, Bokshil. She deliberately lives in a tiny apartment and wears cheap clothes. She pretends she has no family and mimics her mother, slaving away as a nurse while pining for a man who doesn't treat her well.

Then when she's angry with Daepung, she swings to the opposite extreme. Bokshil dies and Jennifer is resurrected. She quits her job in Daepung's office, moves back into her father's fancy mansion, throws away the tacky outfits and the timid personality, and turns into an ice queen.

Bokshil is more mature than Daepung in most ways, but she's equally dishonest about her emotions. She lies to her father that she'll never forgive him, and she lies to Daepung that she has no lingering feelings for him. She accepts a job in the US and tells people it's for the sake of her career, but she's really just dealing with her complex feelings towards the men in her life in her usual way: by disappearing and reinventing herself.

The relationship between these two held my interest through the entire series because (a) their interactions are hilarious, (b) you can feel how much each one cares about the other even as they vehemently deny it, and (c) the biggest obstacles to their relationship are their own character faults, not the typical weak K-drama conflicts of irrational parents and clingy first loves. Daepung has to overcome his adolescent way of expressing himself, and Bokshil has to overcome her stubborn pride and anger, before they can be honest with each other and happy together.

How to Write Romance

Writing romance is a lot harder than analyzing it. Therefore, instead of deciding to write a romance and then creating the characters by certain rules, it may be better to think up the story first and then ask yourself whether it delivers the romance you want.

Are both characters likeable?

If you want readers to get sucked into a love story, they have to sympathize with both of the characters involved. Otherwise they won't get the emotional high of seeing them solve their problems and be happy together.

Do they have a positive intellectual and/or emotional connection?

Many people who write novels and screenplays think bickering is cute and sexy. I don't. If two characters fight like cats and dogs, I don't see how they could possibly be attracted to each other or happy together.

For a love story to feel romantic to me, I need to see the characters give each other what they need, and not just in bed. I need to see John Thornton show Margaret Hale that morality isn't black and white, and Margaret to show Thornton that he can't control everything and everyone. I need Bokshil to teach Daepung to treat people with respect, and Daepung to convince Bokshil to express her anger instead of shutting people out. They might fight a little in the beginning, but I need to see through the actions of the characters that they understand and care for each other by the end.

Are there unavoidable conflicts keeping them apart?

External conflicts are fine. Internal conflicts are great. Either way, they have to be real conflicts that make the readers root for these imaginary people, not roll their eyes at them.

Do they resolve these conflicts?

I mean really resolve them, not glaze over them in one heart-to-heart conversation.

For example, this is how I would fix the hypothetical story about the jealous boyfriend, to make sure the conflict is truly resolved.

First, I'd make sure the hero is actually prone to jealousy, and I'm not just throwing in a random misunderstanding to keep the lovers apart. The jealousy should be a simmering issue from the beginning, shown through the hero's aggression when other men flirt with the heroine, through his reaction when they watch The Notebook together, and through his back story, when he refers to an ex who two-timed him.

Second, there need to be tough consequences for his tantrum. In real life, it might be enough for a man to apologize, but this isn't real life. In fiction, every change in character needs to be shown through the story. The heroine can't forgive the hero as soon as he says "oops." She needs to tell him that their relationship won't work if he can't trust her. (Bonus points if the heroine has to overcome her own issues to say this. Perhaps she's always been a doormat who's terrified of confrontation, and it takes all of her courage to tell him she deserves respect.)

Third, the hero needs to struggle to address the root of his problem. He can't just say, "Gosh, I guess I've been a jerk," and that's that. Maybe he needs to meet the two-timing ex and sew up old wounds. Maybe he needs to go on walkabout and sort himself out, like Song Daepung does at the end of Sons of Sol Pharmacy House. Or maybe he needs to have a talk with grandpa or a good ol' brush with death to realize he's wasting precious time by letting the past ruin his future.

Finally, the hero should prove to the heroine and the reader that he's matured. For example, he shows up to a party the heroine's attending and sees her laughing with the handsome coworker, and he makes an effort to be civil to his rival. This shows that the conflict is resolved, and the reader will be happy to see the two make up and kiss under the stars.

The key point is that a romance is the story of two people overcoming obstacles to their happiness. It is not simply the story of two people who feel a lot of feelings. It is not the story of two people who meet and want to have sex, and then they do have sex, and then they continue having sex for the rest of their lives. Of course they should feel feelings, and they can have sex, but those things alone are not a love story.


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