Apr 2 2012 4:00pm

Secret Loves: “Guilty Pleasure” Themes in Category Romance

Jim and Pam in The OfficeI read a fair amount of category romance, and what any category romance reader will openly admit is that many themes have a way of routinely cropping up. (The rest of the genre isn’t immune to this; just take a look at all the Regency heroines who need to sell their souls to the hero in order to get their degenerate gambler father, brother, cousin, family dog out of debt. However, I digress.) What I like about category is that it isn’t ashamed of these themes. Their existence is admitted, accepted and embraced.

The entire ball of fun in the category romance world is finding an author who can take the familiar and put their own unique spin on it. Not only is it a comforting feeling, it’s the equivalent of turning that light bulb on that hangs over our heads. It’s an epiphany, it’s magic, it’s what I call the “A-Ha!” moment that makes any book a keeper.

That being said, I am willing to admit that there are plenty of themes that I, intellectually, know I have no business enjoying, but I do anyway. The big one for me is the office romance, specifically the boss/secretary pairing. I always feel like I’m setting feminism and the women’s movement back about 60 years when I read stories like this, but I just cannot seem to help myself. Over the years, I’ve tried to put my finger on exactly why I enjoy these stories, and the closest I’ve come to explaining it is the idea of close proximity. It’s why I also really love cabin romances in historical westerns: Hero and heroine trapped in some cabin in the middle of nowhere during a blizzard with nothing to amuse themselves with, besides each other of course.

Although, presumably, the boss and secretary of the office romance don’t need to worry about starving to death, grizzly bear attacks, or freezing to death.

Then there is my secret love for the Alpha hero, which for years I declared I didn’t really like all that much. OK, I’m admitting it now, I might have been lying just a little bit. I’ve always been fine with your garden-variety Alpha, but the ones that really get to me? The Neanderthals. You know, the guys who are barely housebroken and you wonder why the heroine doesn’t walk around with some rolled up newspaper to swat him on the nose every three seconds. Now that I’ve admitted that, I will clarify that this is a theme that does not universally work for me across the board. It needs to have one important ingredient, and that’s a heroine who won’t back down. I cannot have the Neanderthal paired with the palely drawn heroine, the woman who is scared to utter a sound, the woman who sticks to the shadows hoping not to be noticed. No, I need the heroine who isn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with this sort of jerk-face. I need the heroine who will call him out on his various teeth-grinding shenanigans.

Two themes I always marvel over in the category universe are the secret baby and amnesia. I have yet to meet one reader who will tell me to my face, either in reality or virtually, that they enjoy either of these. Nobody will admit to liking them, mostly because I think they’re convenient punching bags for readers inside, and outside, of the genre. But somebody must like them, or these recurring themes would have died on the vine. Hey, if they didn’t sell, Harlequin would have sent out a flurry of memos by now.

Now that I’ve admitted to enjoying romances about sexual harassment, and books that feature heroes that evolution has forgotten about—what are some of your guilty pleasure themes?


Wendy the Super Librarian also blogs at So dig that library card out of your pocket and head for the stacks.

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Vanessa Ouadi
1. Lafka
Oh, I'm sorry to disappoint Wendy, but I'm so not into secret babies and amnesia ^.^'

I do like the babies plot _ not when they're secret, but when they weren't expected. I think it makes a great background for a growing romance when the heroine is pregnant _ it kinda raises the stakes, you see?

Just like you, I love the Neanderthal hero _ when he's paired with a strong heroine who can put the jerk right into his place!

But my fav is probably the plain jane heroine plot. I have a real real tenderness for the hero who can see beyond the ugly duck/bluestockings appearance and find beauty and worth in the heroine :-) I just have a soft spot for this kind of H/h ^^
2. Vassiliki
I hate to break this to you but I lurrrrve secret baby plots. And I don't mind amnesia plots either.
3. LoriK
FWIW I like the occasional amnesia plot. I don't seek them out, but I enjoy the trope if it's done well. I run screaming from the secret babies though. So much hate.
Wendy the Super Librarian
4. SuperWendy
Lafka: My Mom likes those baby plots too! For her, at least, I think it feeds into her longtime soap opera love. Plus, like you said, pregnancy and babies tend to really alter the landscape of a budding romance.

Vassiliki: Oh yeah! Someone who admits to their love of secret babies!! I knew you existed, and weren't just, like, an urban legend. For me, it boils down to context. I can roll with the secret quite easily in, say, an Intrigue or Harlequin Romantic Suspense read....

LoriK: That's me too. I don't actively avoid amensia plots, but I don't g out of my way to read them either. When it's handled well I tend to enjoy them actually.
5. Kaye55
Mine has always been the 'marriage of convience' storyline. Be it be contemporary, historical or western, I like it when for whatever reason the h/h gets together, they work it out and come to repect, value & love one another.
6. Susan Frank
I like the baby ones where the guy is completely clueless but willing to learn. I also like the ones where the guy is terrific with kids -- nothing like a strong guy with a little baby!

Amnesia is okay when it's done well.

I find I like most of the category romances, though I can't get into the Presents stories for some reason. I also don't read too many of the Love Inspired line -- too sweet, not enough heat...
Nicole Leapheart
7. BoxyFrown
I like twins - especially when it's that "how did you know that wasn't me? It must be true love," variety. :)
8. alicet
I like romances involving twins as well. Two of my fave romances featuring twins were Karina Bliss' Stand-in Wife and Susan Crosby's The Forbidden Twin. But my guilty pleasure are romances between step siblings or ex-in laws because they seem too illicit to happen in real life so their HEA could only happen in books. Two of my favorites are Jennifer Crusie's Crazy for you and Jennifer LaBrecque's
Yule Be Mine.
Wendy the Super Librarian
9. SuperWendy
Kaye55: Oooh, I love marriage of conveience too! Especially with historicals...

Susan: I am a total sucker for single fathers in category romance. You can find a lot of those fellas in SuperRomance and Special Edition.

Boxy: One of my online reading buds ADORES twin stories. She snaps them all up!

Alice: Oh heavens, I also am a sucker for the ex-in-laws romances. Or the heroine falls for her ex's BFF. You're right, in real life the baggage would be brain-melting, but there is just something about them in the fictional realm.....
10. Isabel C.
I used to like boss/secretary, until I worked for a dude that I now refer to as Vile Pantsless Ex-Boss. That's sort of tarnished the association for me. But I do like co-workers a lot.

I am a total sucker for the plot where the hero or heroine moves to a quirky small town. I live in a city; I *like* living in a city; but I grew up in a series of small towns and they do have their perks.
11. wsl0612
okay dumb question here - but is that what is meant by category romance - i.e. boss/secretary, secret baby, kidnapped heroine? Also, can anyone explain what the series romance line is all about? It confuses me because how is it different from say the Black Dagger Brotherhood series of books? :-
12. CTomlinson
I love stories where the hero & heroine have been best friends forever but the guy wants more and the heroine doesn't know it. There's just something about a man longing for and worshiping his love in secret that gets to me. And when done right the moment when he gets to show how he really feels and the heroine realizes how perfect he is for her can really bring your emotions into the story.
13. dick
With categories, it all depends on the author, regardless the trope. Secret babies, boss/secretary, or wife for hire, whatever--if the author knows what she's doing, they're all ok.
14. JacquiC
I love the "friends to lovers" trope and absolutely hate "insta-love" where the H/h clap eyes on each other for five minutes and somehow know they're destined to get married/have babies. I am also a huge fan of the cabin romance and the non-secret baby. I really also like the hero who helps the heroine heal from past abuse. And I too am a sucker for the alpha male, as long as he doesn't cross the line into alpa-hole-ness (can't remember whose term this is, but I read it somewhere and can't take credit for it myself), and as long as the heroine is strong enough to stand up to him or tease him about his over-protectiveness. I absolutely cannot read any category romance involving sheikhs or royalty from make-believe countries. I just can't do it. Even if the book is written by one of my usual auto-buy authors (eg. Sarah Morgan). I agree that the author makes a big difference. There are several category authors that I love and will almost always buy (except when they veer into sheikh/royalty territory)... Sarah Morgan, Sarah Mayberry, Kathleen O'Reilly, India Grey, Janice Kay Johnson, Karina Bliss (though I didn't like the twin one) come to mind. Anyone have any others to recommend?
Marian DeVol
15. ladyengineer
I'm on the fence regarding secret babies and amnesia. Some I've liked, some I've hated - a lot depends on context. Why was the baby kept secret, how does the hero/heroine get their memory back, etc.

A secondary character by the end of an ER short story I read recently (a successful business woman in her early 30's) was "dating" a college senior who had been accepted to medical school (specifically to get pregnant). She had no intention of telling him about it so as not to interfere with the direction and success of his life and to avoid interference from him -- she wanted a kid before she was too old, not a husband. I can understand where she was coming from and think her solution was better and more personal than going to a sperm bank. Plus, she could get more personal assurance of his genetic superiority. It may seem a bit cold, but had I wanted a child, I could see me consider doing something similar. By the end of the story, she was not yet pregnant but stated plans to end things as soon as she was.
Rachel Hyland
16. RachelHyland
Marriage of Convenience and Forced to Marry are always big winners with me, especially if a sibling has offered themselves up as a sacrifice so that a more favored elder can marry their true love. I don't mind some Boss/Assistant action (which also extends to Boss/Governess in Historicals), I totally dig any form of Girl Next Door angle, and I LOVE Amnesia as a plot device. LOVE IT.

Another favorite trope is the Big Man on Campus, when our unassuming heroine just can't believe her luck that this incredible guy, whom everyone wants, wants her. (We should name that one the "Bella Swan".)

What I hate more than anything is Secret Baby, unless a truly excellent reason is given... like AMNESIA. Otherwise, the heroine is just a stone cold bitch and can never be forgiven. Also not a fan of our hero or heroine being the sibling of the opposite number's dead spouse, fiance or girl/boyfriend. I just find that creepy.

@ wsl0612

Now, see, those are excellent questions, that no doubt have been covered at H&H previously, but I shall attempt to answer for you anyway.

When we refer to "Category Romance" we mean those pulp romance novels released monthly under various different imprints, like Harlequin, Sillhouette, Mills & Boon and the like. Then, under each larger publishing umbrella come all the many lines -- your Harlequin Sweet Romances, your Sillhouette Desires, your Mills & Boon Medicals, etc. Then within each line there may very well be a series or two, these basically being a group of novels written by either one author or in concert with others, all at least loosely tying together and following themes like Men of Mysteries Past or Long, Tall Texans.

The differences, then, between these and a series like the BDB basically amount to a) price; b) quality -- or, at least, percieved quality; and c) as Wendy points out, the fact that recurring plots in Category Romance are not only acceptable but actively encouraged.

Hope this helps!

@ Jacqui C.

Now, see, I quite like the Fake Royalty/Sheik thing. Especially when the countries are given truly ridiculous names. I recall one Barbara Cartland where our hero (or villain, possibly) was a prince (or King, possibly) of a place called Klaklov. What is not to love about that?
Wendy the Super Librarian
17. SuperWendy
Isabel: OMG! Vile Pantless Ex-Boss! I know it probably wasn't funny going through through something like that - but that description is seriously LOL!

wsl0612: Looks like Rachel gives some info further down the line, but I've always liked the definition on the Romance Wiki site. Here it goes: "
Category romance is also known as "Series" romance, depending on who's doing the talking. The term "category romance" derives from the fact that the books are published in clearly delineated categories, with a certain number of books being published in each category every month. Their alternative name, series romances, came from the sequential numbers sometimes printed on the books' spines. Category romances are short (usually no more than 250 pages), and have a low purchase price compared to other fiction books. These series or category books are also often considered to be one of the many romance genres."
18. wsl0612
@RachelHyland, thank you for the explanation, most appreciated. Maybe we need a FAQ section now? :-)
Wendy the Super Librarian
19. SuperWendy
CT: Oh man, I love those unrequited themes too! The hero pining after the heroine for years, and she's totally oblivious.....

Dick: Agreed. A "good" author can make any theme readable.

Jacqui: I love Janice Kay Johnson! I'd also recommend Molly O'Keefe (HSR) and Karen Templeton (HSE).

Lady: I can read secret baby plots - but yeah, context is everything for me. Which is why I think they're "easier" for me take in suspense stories. That whole heroine-in-peril thing.
Wendy the Super Librarian
20. SuperWendy
Rachel: I love the Big Man On Campus when it's paired with the Plain Jane heroine. She doesn't think she's "all that" - but the hero is completely entranced with her!

And count me in as another one not wild about royalty. I'll read ones by fave authors, but that's about it.
Marian DeVol
21. ladyengineer
Wendy, I share your guilty pleasure involving Neanderthalic alpha heroes who hook up with heroines with spinal fortitude or who develop a backbone during the tale. However if the heroine is a mouse, the relationship can come across as abusive and kill my interest completely.

I do not read much category romance, or at least not since I got over my Barbara Cartland addiction (were her historicals category? they were certainly formulaic). ;-> That being said, I can handle most tropes as long as they are well written.

@JacquiC, I can even like the ones involving royalty, but that could be a holdover from my childhood love of fairy tales LOL. Or it could stem from a claim Dad's aunt always made to our being related to the Dutch House of Orange. ;->
22. JacquiC
I've always wondered whether there are a lot of people out there who like the royalty ones. I figure there must be since there are so many category romances with this theme. I am a huge fan of the medical line, though there are a few authors there who I refuse to buy because the writing is so mediocre. But there was one example recently where there was an attempt to mix the medical and the royalty themes (the local vet was a princess of some made-up tiny realm somewhere and the conflict supposedly had to do with whether she should go back and do her duty to the throne or stay the local vet in made-up small town Cornwall, married to one of the local doctors). I thought the royalty plot was beyond ridiculous and basically couldn't finish it, despite the fact that it was written by one of my usual medical favourite authors and had the medical themes in it... Though I also agree that "Klaklov" is sublime as a country name... And thanks for the recommendations, @wendycrutcher.
Blue Jaypeg
23. Blue Jaypeg
I dislike Amnesia, because it's an excuse for lazy plotting, like pre-destined lovers. I love Secret Baby, Re-United, Marriage of Convenience, and Arranged Marriage.

But I hate HATE HATE when the heroine --either drunk or drugged--is intimate with the Hero "accidently." I cringe when Melanie Griffith, out her mind on Valium + tequila, tells Harrison Ford that she has "a head for business and a body for sin." "Under the influence" plotlines are down-trending, but you find them in the older HP's.

I don't like Royalty or Sheikh plots. There is something evolutionary in our makeup that causes us to admire and crave those who possess higher status. Celebrities, star athletes, billionaires, and nobility. Category romance panders to hero worship with aspirational stories of the "ordinary girl" who is chosen out of the herd by the apex predator-- the owner of the company. Meh.

I like older category romance. Lynne Graham is somewhat uneven, but when she's on fire she's the best. Robyn Donald's older HPs are beautifully written and paced, although her more recent books are set in a fictitious kingdom. Susan Napier writes hilarious over the top character-driven romance.
24. willaful
You need to hook up with folks on GoodReads! I am a devoted fan of the amnesia story -- have a shelf for it! -- and I'm certainly not alone. Secret babies I can take or leave.
Wendy the Super Librarian
25. SuperWendy
Lady: I forgot to mention something else about the Neanderthal hero - yes, I need that heroine with back-bone, but I also almost always need a really good grovel from the guy. I mean, bloody knees across broken glass grovel. Oh how I love me a good grovel!

Jacqui: My guess is that, as others have already stated, those royalty themes just fit so nicely into a fairy tale box. Looking at Hollywood's output alone, it seems many of us can't seem to get enough fairy tales! I'm not immune to this. One theme I haven't mentioned - Beauty & The Beast. I LOVE the B&B theme in category romances. OMG! LOVE!

Blue: And then after the heroine does the deed while under the influence she realizes they didn't use protection. Hate that! Just really, really HATE that!

Willaful: I've been resisting! Although more and more people have been nagging asking me about joining. At this point the sheer volume of books I'd have to input over there has me scared....
Jessica O'Brien
26. JLOBrien
I am putting my vote in for the Alpha Male/Female with Backbone. I have always had a not-so-secret place in my heart for this combo. For some reason (because I am not one I guess) I have never appreciated the helpless, sniveling female. I don't mind the "holy crap this is scary" moments in a book (I mean I am badass, but if I find myself in a situation that is in a falling plane, I won't pretend I am cool with that) but I can't relate to "I am swooning please save me!"

I also vote for the friends to lovers...and I think I missed out on having some guy friend pine for me (lol) so for me it's an unrequited desire :)
27. Janga
I've been forced to eat my words so often after saying, "I hate X" and "I'll never read Y" that I try to avoid making such statements. I generally avoid adultery plots, and I'm not fond of love triangles, especially those involving siblings. I could list a half dozen other tropes that don't appeal to me. But for every one, I can also name books I love that use that trope. Everything depends on the writer.

I think Karina Bliss, Sarah Mayberry, Janice Kay Johnson, Molly O'Keefe, Karen Templeton, and Kathleen O'Reilly have already been mentioned as recommended category authors. I'll ditto all of them and add Jean Brashear, Beth Andrews, Trish Milburn, Kathleen Eagle, and too many Harlequin Historical writers to list, beginning with Carla Kelly.
28. Libratini
Janga: I REALLY enjoyed my first few Kathleen Eagle books, but after a while they got to be too much the same.

I HATE the 'I can force you' trope. Why would anyone trust a second time someone who is so clearly untrustworthy? Very much a trigger for me, and not in a good way. As part of that, the TSTL characters (and why are those characters so often fenale?)

I enjoy the friends to lovers trope, though. I figure friendship will take over when the lust fades.

Nearly a requirement for me is the woman doing some of the saving; think Patricia Briggs' paranormals. Even-steven is fine, but she must be an equal-though-not-same-as partner. Or if not actually spelled out, at least capable of. I want partnerships, not one-down romance.
Ellen Hutchings
29. shadowmaster13
I like the secretary/boss thing, even though most of them throw in a marriage of convience for a will or something. Most of the time though it's pretty much the author.

I really dislike secret baby, because I rarely agree with the heroine that she had a good reason to keep the baby secret. And I get more annoyed the older that the kid is when the hero comes back into her life. Also often to make up for the heroine's idiocy the hero has to act like a dickhead for the first half of the book. That said I have enjoyed a few books with that theme anyway.

@Libratini, agree with the equal though not same as partner one of my pet hates is when the heroine is a complete doormat and the hero would be a billion times better of without her, but on the flipside I hate heroines who make the heroes skills seem unneccessary
30. Shark with Lasers
I'm glad you described the "ah-ha!" moment that designates a keeper, because there is a setting in category romance that I always like, but there's only one variation on that setting that I put on the keeper shelf. I like small town romances. I really like prodigal daughter romances, but what I like even more than prodigal daughter small town romances, the ones that I hold onto until the covers start falling apart, are runaway heiress small town romances. The ones where a priveleged but stifled heroine escapes from her reality and finds her hard working hero in a more familiar setting. I completely agree that it's hard to explain the love for the favored theme, because I am nothing like a runaway heiress, and while I like small town living, I can't deny the benefits of living in a big metro area. Earlier reading favorites might be playing into this. One of my favorite childhood books was Captains Courageous, which works with a somewhat similar theme of an escape from empty values by way of a more hardbitten reality. I suspect behind the love of any category trope is that it pushes a particular button that is usually held in the subconscious.
Wendy the Super Librarian
31. SuperWendy
JLOBrien: I too really adore the friends-to-lovers theme, pretty much universally across all spectrums of the romance genre. You see it a lot in category, simply because of the sheer volume of books published every month - but man, I also really love it in historicals.

Janga: I've really, really enjoyed the Trish Milburn books I've read. She hadn't had any categories out in a while, and she's had like 2 or 3 in the past few months. All of which are buried on my e-reader as I type this....

Libratini: That's me too - I need to see that "partnership." I don't need the heroine to kick butt from here to eternity, but I need to know she's a capable woman. Nothing worse than a heroine who can't take care of herself and it's only by the sheer act of the hero showing up that she doesn't curl up into a little ball and die.

Shadowmaster: As evidenced by this post, I'm a completely sucker for the secretary/boss storyline. I can't seem to help myself.

Shark: I like those stories too - and you hit on the keyword "stifled." I cannot tolerate the small town romances where the Big City Gal is "happy" with her life before arriving in the Small Town and voila! Just decides to chuck it all because the hero gives her screaming orgasms. Without so much as a by-your-leave for her life back in the Big City. So yeah, in this case "stifled" or "unhappy" at the outset of the story is a very good thing for me.
32. minnie
I love old tropes, such as secret baby, terminal illness and cinderella turned princess. But I hate certain themes with all my heart too, Boss/Secretary thing, no, dislike office setting. Marriage of conveniance,no, find it very forced. Best friends become lovers, no, feel no chemistry.I ESPECIALLY dislike reformed rake, but cannot resist lonely, spoiled rich guy, sigh.
33. minnie
I love old tropes, such as secret baby, terminal illness and cinderella turned princess. But I hate certain themes with all my heart too, Boss/Secretary thing, no, dislike office setting. Marriage of conveniance,no, find it very forced. Best friends become lovers, no, feel no chemistry.I ESPECIALLY dislike reformed rake, but cannot resist lonely, spoiled rich guy, sigh.
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