As I continue to work my way through edits on this novella, I've been thinking a lot about the romances I love to read. I read pretty widely, so it's tough to just boil it why something works for me. Attributing it to "accuracy in historicals" or "really hot sex scenes in contemporaries" kind of falls sort.
Then I realized I know exactly what all of my favorite romances have in common. It all revolves around how the author treats the female character in the context of the relationship. Let me break it down for you:
1) The heroine has a strong sense of who she is.
My close female friends all have one thing in common: they know who they are outside of their relationships. I look for the same thing in a heroine. I wouldn't want to see a friend lose herself in a relationship. Same goes for my heroines. I want to read about women who can define who they are outside of the hero.
2) Female economic independence.
One of the best classes I ever took was called the History of American Women taught by Professor Victoria Brown at Grinnell College. She told me that patriarchy survives when a woman is forced to be economically dependent on a man. It's a simple but powerful idea.
I find myself drawn to heroines who have some degree of economic independence from the hero - even in historicals. It's a tricky line to walk because you never want to be anachronistic, but money complicates relationships. There's nothing wrong with reading books about women who must marry a marquis to save her family, but I'd rather see her come to the relationship with some financial options (even if they aren't great ones). I want her to have a chance at coming to the relationship as an equal.
3) The hero must respect the heroine.
I have no interest in reading books about men who belittle the women in their lives. It's not a show of masculinity. It points to a lack of human decency. This is the reason that I will likely not continue reading certain popular romantic erotica series. Works for some people. Doesn't work for me.
4) The sex is unequivocally consensual.
Consent is a big deal. There are a lot of old school romances that use rape as a device to move a relationship forward (see Sarah Wendell's Beyond Heaving Bosoms for a full breakdown or check out her excellent website). Thankfully these books mostly died off in the 80s. However, there is still a lot of grey area in romance novels. I think that the heroine and hero should both express their mutual consent during sex scenes like in, you know, real life.
I have no interest in writing a sex scene where someone is fearful. I have no interest in reading them either. That's not sexy. What is sexy is trusting your partner enough to ask them to do more adventurous things with you and acknowledging that you are both consenting adults who have had a conversation about boundaries.
My family, friends, and really anyone who has the misfortune of talking to me for long enough knows that I cannot stand it when a heroine gives up her entire life for a hero. I find books where one person blindly abandons life ambitions unrealistic and problematic. It all goes back to respect and maintaining one's identity as I mentioned above. Compromise is a realistic part of every relationship. No matter how crazy pants the book is, the relationship has to ring true.
So that's me. I'm curious to hear your thoughts. Do you have any themes among the books you like to read? Any triggers that set you off and make you want to throw a book against a wall? Comment away!