The genre of romance encompasses an endless variety of sub-genre. Not just tone, time period and heat levels. Writers can aim to hit anything from dark viking-era cuddling to detective noir futuristic steamy explicit. So when romances can have such variety, what rules really matter?
First, there has to be a happily ever after feeling to the ending. These are so ubiquitous that the requirements on publisher websites often abbreviated as HEA. After all, if the story doesn’t end with happiness then it probably doesn’t qualify as a romance. A story where the couple (Or whatever combo of people are romancing each other. Like I said, there is a lot of variety.) doesn’t end up together would more likely qualify as a tragedy than a romance. And, in a nod to the modern day, there is also the closely-related Happily For Now (HFN) , often reserved for short stories, which ends with a satisfying note but not the assumption of marriage and forever.
Second, most publishers state that they want alpha males. These manly and successful men are also often demanding, argumentative, and controlling. They see what they want, and go after it. Many women wouldn’t want that in real live, but romance publishers strongly suggest using them. Why? I’d guess it’s because any story needs conflict. A man who acquiesces and raises no argument makes for a short story. It’s hard to engage in the push and pull of thwarted desire with someone who is patient and amenable.
So, if you’re wondering why so many romantic novel heroes are often jerks, it’s because publishers demand it. I don’t know whether readers do. For myself, I enjoy stories where the hero has a sense of humor about things, while maintaining a firm sense of self, and who listens to the heroine. Ideally, whatever is keeping them apart is real and not just the two of them never communicating and being generally difficult. Ugh.
This explicit requirement for alpha male men has led to an interesting tension between keeping him strong and acknowledging the changing times. Books are a reflection of society. Just as safe-sex became something discussed during books in the 1980s, present day books contain slightly different ethics. As gender politics evolve, and our definition of consent becomes more codified, it makes sense that romance writers make more effort to be explicit that all parties involved are willing participants. No more being thrown on bed or kissed while protesting — or at least a lot less of it and many more groans of desire and outright statements, even from the heroine. The ladies aren’t as coy, and why should they be?
I appreciate that my current publisher, Meant To Be Press, doesn’t put limitations on the characterizations, heat levels, or sub-genre of romances. Authors have freedom to explore what readers might find truly romantic.
Somehow, though, I’m confident those stories will still find their HEA, or at least HFN.