The romance genre is a crowded genre. It encompasses a large number of sub-categories: adventure, BDSM, bully/enemies-to-lovers, Christian, comedy, dark, contemporary, mafia, military, motorcycle club, mystery, paranormal, reverse harem, second chance, sci-fi, etc. Many of these categories are truly cross-overs: the addition of a romantic element into a story that is, at its heart, a story about something else, for example, a mafia family’s power struggle or a murder mystery. Authors may add the romantic element in order to attract the huge romance reader market, or because it’s intrinsic to the story they want to tell. Whatever the motivation, as I read these cross-overs, I find myself wondering, what is the core of a romance?
For me, it’s the happy ending. I’ll accept a “happily for now” ending, but I find them less satisfactory than a true happy ending where the main characters commit to forever together (not necessarily a couple because I’ve read some absolutely cracking ménage and reverse harem romances recently and seeing the threesome or five-some or whatever combination the author has made work come together is just as satisfying). Forever comes in a lot of different flavors: collaring, being recognized as a unit by adversarial family members, children, moving in together, marriage, etc. I’m not really picky about the flavor–red velvet tastes just as good as carrot cake–but I do need my cake for a romance novel to be a satisfying meal.
That leads me to ruminate about what I want in a romantic hero. (I’m going to focus on stories where the romantic hero is male, but I’ve read a fabulous lesbian romance recently, Little Love by Siobhan Smile, where the heroic character is a woman and it was just as satisfying–gender doesn’t matter when it comes to romantic heroes.) I want a romantic hero who is in love. Isn’t that what romance is about? Whether he stumbles backwards into love (as in Eris Adderly’s hilarious and moving enemies-to-lovers Bass-Ackwards) or falls hard at the start and has to fight for his love against adversity (as in the adventurous novella The Midnight Bride by Kati Wilde or “The Great Race”-style No Rest for the Wicked by Kresley Cole), I want to see the hero in love. He can be tormented by love or find peace in it. He can struggle against his feelings or jump headlong. Again, the flavor doesn’t matter; everything from vanilla to cardamon can be tasty (I’ve clearly been watching too much of “The Great British Bake-Off” recently), but I want the hero to be in love.
That’s not to say cold heroes are unsatisfying. They can be the most satisfying of all. It’s delightful to watch a cold hero grow all the feels for his beloved–Bass-Ackwards is a great example of this. But a hero who isn’t in love, who doesn’t display any regard/affection/tenderness/passion for his beloved, isn’t really a romantic hero. He can be other things, but a romantic hero he ain’t.
I think this is why I’ve had a string of unsatisfying reads recently (which I’m not going to name here because that’s unkind, but you can find them easily enough if you follow me on Goodreads). I’ve been reading cross-overs in the dark, paranormal, military, mystery, and scifi sub-categories. The heroes (or anti-heroes) have been interesting characters, but they haven’t been romantic heroes. They’ve been possessive and controlling of the heroines. They might even have given the heroines loads of orgasms. But they haven’t given their hearts–black, shrivelled, and stunted as they might be. That’s what defines a romantic hero (or anti-hero) for me, and seeing a romantic hero, who has given everything he has to his love, get his happy ending is what makes reading romance so gratifying.