Aug 14 2012 9:30am

Who Put That Romance in My Non-Romance Novel?

Halfway to the Grave by Jeaniene FrostYou put romance in my WHAT?

Imagine this scenario: Your significant other is reading a manly science fiction or epic fantasy novel when he suddenly begins to hyperventilate.

Have the aliens finally obliterated Earth? Have the dragons been rendered extinct by primitive hordes from the Kingdom of N’ai’noth?

No, he’s just come across romance—or even worse, emotion—in his novel. His pure genre has been infiltrated by relationships more than an inch deep.

God forbid.

In publishing circles, these things are called “romantic elements,” and they occur when devious authors slip bits of emotion-driven romance, sometimes entire subplots, into non-romance books, thereby tricking unsuspecting readers. The gall!

One for the Money by Janet EvanovichAs romance readers, most of us enjoy reading other genres that have elements of romance in them. Is Jeaniene Frost’s Night Huntress series urban fantasy, or is it paranormal romance? How about the Sookie Stackhouse series? Stephanie Plum fans might not remember which case Steph solved last, but they can tell you exactly when and why she ran over Joe Morelli in her car, and at which point Ranger stopped being a crush-only. Romance readers love these books, even though they’re technically urban fantasy or mysteries or thrillers with romantic elements.

Genre purists don’t like this pushy intrusion of romance, however, especially in historically male genres like westerns (as opposed to western romance), science fiction and thrillers. “I get this A LOT,” says best-selling author Allison Brennan, who writes thrillers with romantic elements. “From mystery/thriller readers it’s usually something like, ‘I enjoy your books, but I don’t see why you have to include so much sex.’ This is ironic, because my 400-plus-page books usually have less than ten pages of sex.”

Steamrolled by Pauline Baird JonesAuthor Jason Sanford, writing in SF Signal notes, “At one recent convention I attended, a well-known [SF] fan expounded at length about his dislike of paranormal romances and how the subgenre was crowding out quality science fiction and fantasy books. I tried pointing out that his comments sounded like the old arguments people made against romance novels, but he didn’t agree.”

The longstanding stigma of romance is a hard thing to overcome, and might meet its biggest resistance from old-school sci-fi fans—ironic since romantic science fiction is a growing genre. “Science fiction has a hard time (finding readers) because people are intimidated by the idea of science,” says Pauline Baird Jones, an author of romantic science fiction. “I’ve been attending SF cons for several years and the big worry at them all is that the science fiction fan base is declining. But they still go bat-crap crazy (in a bad way) over romance.”

Queenie’s Brigade by Heather MasseySci-fi romance author Heather Massey has written that discrimination against women authors in SF’s early years accounts for some of the issues. On her “Galaxy Express” blog she writes, “If you’re a science fiction fan who purports to dislike romance in SF, you have to ask yourself why. Personal preference is one thing; outright dismissal of a perfectly valid SF-romance blend is another…If you’re afraid to admit the value of a science fiction story powered by a relationship dynamic, then here’s a ladder so you can safely descend from your high horse.”

So, if a science fiction novel with “romantic elements” isn’t real science fiction, and if a thriller with “romantic elements” isn’t a real thriller, does that mean they’re actually romances posing as other genres?

So, a question to romance readers: When you read non-romance genres, do you like a touch of romance in the story? Or is romance better left to, well, romance books?


Suzanne Johnson, who writes urban fantasy with a few pesky romantic elements, is the author of Royal Street, first in the Sentinels of New Orleans series. Book two, River Road, will be released November 13 from Tor Books. You can find Suzanne writing about speculative fiction, with and without romance, at her daily Preternatura blog, as well as hanging around on Twitter.

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Marika Weber
1. Marika25
For me, I could care less if the book has romance in it or not. I read both romance and non-romance books. I could see where the romance would get in the way of a male reader. Men are visual creatures so if it doesn't have pictures *snort* they don't want it in the book.

Great post.

Suzanne Johnson
2. suzannej3523
@Marika25...LOL. I think guys are okay with sex scenes; it's the emotion that makes them squirm.
Marika Weber
3. Marika25
True. I know that my husband won't read it. He likes to see it. :) He doesn't want, say Jack Ryan waxing emotion in his story.

For that, he will read Sports Illustrated.

If men don't like the emotion in books, then why do they watch James Bond?
Lori K
4. LoriK
I read across a lot of genres and I can say for a fact that plenty of "guy books" have romance in them. With emotion and everything. It tends to be presented in a little different way than it is in romance novels and it's not the focus of the story, but it's there and often a significant driving force in the action.

If SF/F-reading guys are really that freaked out by a bit of romance I suspect it says more about the history of the genre than it does about men in general being upset by having lurv cooties all over their books.
Suzanne Johnson
5. suzannej3523
@LoriK...The interesting thing to me about the sci-fi backlash is that there have long been SF novels that have some relationships in them. I think Connie Willis's books? But I do think as more women are writing and publishing SF, the amount of "romantic elements" is increasing, and that might be causing the backlash.

An interesting thing I didn't get in the post was that some authors of so-called "women's fiction" also get criticized if they have too much romance in their stories, because the "women's fiction" writers want to be considered literary rather than genre.
Mary Roya
6. Mary Roya
Yes, yes and yes! I enjoy SF with romantic elements. I read SF as soon as I could read. And I always added my own romantic element into the story. But don't tell the authors. (smile). Life isn't without romantice elements....and sooooo like it in the books I read.
Mary Roya
7. kvdc
Jim Butcher wrote one very steamy scene involving Haarry, a vampire & some bondage. My husband was so shocked, he just about died. Then he went back & read it again, happily!
Suzanne Johnson
8. suzannej3523
@kvdc....Ha! I know exactly which scene you're talking about--definitely the most explicit thing ever in the Dresdenverse (and it really was far from explicit). I'd forgotten about that scene. I wonder if any other of JB's male readers had that reaction. (laughing over here)
Mary Roya
9. Danni T
I like all my books to have some romance. It doesn't have to be the main point of the story but it does have to be included. To me it makes it more realistic if there is a love interest.
Carmen Pinzon
10. bungluna
I too will rather read a story that includes some romantic elements. I understand that this is not the main plot of the story, nor am I guaranteed a hea, but a book that lacks interpersonal relationships as well as a thrilling action plot is unreadable to me.

As for the naysayers, the best revenge is good sales. If traditional 'male' genres' sales are declining and hybrids with romantic elements are on the rise, tough luck. That just means more books for me!
11. wsl0612
I don't necessarily have to have romance in the novels I read, but I always gravitate towards relationship/character driven fiction. For example, when I read mystery I enjoy police procedurals such as Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels because I loved to read about the relationships between the officers in the Precinct and looked forward to learning about the changes that occurred in each one's lives.
Mary Roya
12. Roger Simmons 1

I like a touch of romance in the story. The protagonist/heroine deserves a little something, if not a HEA. H&H describes your Sentinals of New Orleans books as Urban Fantasy with a few pesky romantic elements. Think that is a good description of what I like. Heck, I even bought a romance book this year!
Suzanne Johnson
13. suzannej3523
LOL, Roger. You did buy a romance book this year--we're leading you over to the dark side!

I agree with you and @wsl0612 in that I like a litle romance in my non-romance books...usually. I've been reading Stephen King's Dark Tower series over at tor.com, and I've bristled every single time "romance" rears its head. I'm not sure if I don't like the way SK (one of my all-time favorite authors) writes romantic elements, or if there are just some authors I want more purity of genre from. Also, I gotta say, I can't imagine a zombie romance I'd want to read, although I know there are some.
Lana Baker
14. lanalucy
A zombie romance is the first zombie book I read, and probably a huge part of why that particular paranormal doesn't appeal to me at all. The whole idea of loving a zombie just squicks me.

As for reading, as with my television, I read for the relationships, but not necessarily the romantic relationships. I love some romantic elements in my stories, but as long as the interpersonal relationships are solidly written, I can live without the outright romance.
Suzanne Johnson
15. suzannej3523
@lanalucy...Agree. I love the romance in the Black Dagger Brotherhood series, for example, but I REALLY love the interplay between the guys. A well-written friendship is good reading, all romance aside. (Well, we won't get into Butch and V here.)

Someone mentioned Jim Butcher earlier. I love the way he portrays the friendships between Harry and his brother Thomas, and between Harry and Michael, the Knight of the Cross. Just great relationship-building, sans romance.
Lindsay Beeson
16. lindsayb
I want romantic elements in pretty much everything.. from movies to books. This doesn't have to include descriptions of sex acts.. but I enjoy a good love interest. Jim Butcher does it well in the Harry Dresden series, Kim Paffenroth does it very well in his Dying to Live series- especially in Last Rites with the relationship between Lucy and Truman and Will and Rachel. As far as I'm concerned when you have humans, or humanoids I suppose.. involved in a story together you're bound to have intimate relationships develop. It just doesn't seem natural if they don't. Romance and horror are my favorite genres, if they can be mixed together then awesome, if not that's totally ok, but I still want some sort of romantic relationship or tension involved.. even if it isn't descriptive.
17. wsl0612
@lanalucy - I agree with your comment on Zombie "romance", shudder! I am hung up on the original depiction of zombie's, aka George Romeros (sp?) and cannot imagine them EVER in a romantic way.
Mary Roya
18. Meyghan
I love non-romance genres with romance in them! In fact, sometimes I prefer them. I don't to read tradition romance novels all the time. Mostly because a lot of them lack true content; the relationship is the focus of the story. And while I enjoy reading those books also, I also want something with more substance. I want a real mystery that has me guessing til the very end; not a weak, easily-solved puzzle that has been added to try to enhance the plot. I want a thriller that gives me chills down my spine; not a poorly contrived kidnapping plot that tries to cover up the lack of anything actually occuring in the novel besides the progressing of a relationship. Of course, some romance in non-romance genres seems forced. To include a romance, not matter how small, out of its "traditional" form has to be done with great care. Some authors seem to feel the desperate need to put a romance sub-plot in their books and it ends up feeling forced and awkward and the book would have been much better without it, no matter how much you want the romance to be included. I enjoy romance in non-romance genres, but it has to be done well.
Suzanne Johnson
19. suzannej3523
Well said, Meyghan...I agree too many romances sacrifice some of the external plot elements to accommodate the romance. And some non-romances seem to throw it in just to have it there. I guess the reader is the ultimate arbiter of whether or not it works!
Alma Katsu
20. AlmaKatsu
Suzanne, great article. As you and Heather pointed out, it's all about personal preference. Any genre is a wide playing field: can't there be many flavors of books within the genre? Isn't it all about finding the author whose books hit your particular sweet spot? And the funny thing is, a reader may dismiss an author's work one day only to find, down the road, that hey, they really do like the books after all (tastes do change).
Suzanne Johnson
21. suzannej3523
Thanks, Alma! Definitely personal preference, and there's room for everything, but for some reason romance seems to be a divisive subject in genre fiction...except among romance readers :-)
Mary Roya
22. Pauline Baird Jones
You did a great job with article, Suzanne! thanks for letting me comment on something of great interest to those of us who mix romance into our action and science. My son read my book The Key, and he told me he liked it, but he added, "Mom, men don't think that much." LOL!

I do have male readers of my books and have been surprised by which ones they prefer--and grateful to them for giving my stuff a try. I think its a pity that pundits believe that men won't read books by girls. And that some guys won't at least try some girl books. Yes, there is personal taste, but I can't tell you how often I've had a guy pitch their book to me AT book signings, and not even glance at mine. They could at least pretend interest, but if is often as if they don't have to pretend because guys don't read girl books. LOL!
Suzanne Johnson
23. suzannej3523
Thanks, Pauline! I still think it's the old romance stigma that guys fear--some other guy might catch them reading a "chick book." I wonder if some of that will die down as more people use e-readers and no one can see what you're reading anymore.
Mary Roya
24. Pauline B Jones
That is the hope, Suzanne! I had a friend who made her son read some romance before he got married. Though wasn't is Susan Mallery who had a hero read a romance and process all the wrong lessons? I rather think it was. LOL
Mary Roya
25. Margaret L. Carter
Most novels of all genres tend to have some sort of "love interest" in the background, e.g. the romances among secondary characters in Agatha Christie's mysteries. And, yes, James Bond!

As a teenager, Isaac Asimov hated seeing women in an SF story -- but the reason was that the female characters were usually thrown in as poorly developed "love interest" figures to be rescued, extraneous to the plot.
Mary Roya
26. EC Spurlock
@#25 margaret, interesting comment as Asimov wrote some stellar female characters himself, notably Susan Calvin. However it's also interesting that Calvin had to divorce herself from her emotions, and from her very female-ness, in order to become a success; her one attempt at a romance turns out badly, and she eventually gives up any idea of marriage and family to in effect create her own robotic "children".

My experience in the hard SF community is that it is all about the brain, about proving that you are smarter than everybody else. Emotion is percieved as distorting and weakening reasoning ability, and, as in comics, relationships make you vulnerable. Therefore women, who are open about their emotions and crave relationship, are clearly intellectually inferior. You can be a card-carrying member of MENSA but if you are female you are inherently less intelligent than men with an IQ number identical to or less than yours. Of course, I see it as rationalizing their own inability to form meaningful relationships, but what do I know - I'm just a stupid woman...
Mary Roya
27. kreads4fun
I read a book a day, maybe 50% romance, 40% mystery, 10% other. A lot of my favorite mystery authors use romantic situations or romantic hero archetypes. Check out my favorites: Dana Stabenow, Karin Slaughter, Louise Penny, Julia Spencer Fleming, Elizabeth George. And one of the most romantic heros of all time, despite his love'em and leave'em attitude is Lee Child's Jack Reacher.
Mary Roya
28. Lake Meme
I devoured SF/F and action adventure as a teenager (Asimov to Norton, to Deighton and LeCarre) and didn't get the romance bug until much later. Funny that so many people point out James Bond, since I've always thought the books contained a kind of masochistic romantic element that never made it into the films (Bond always seemed to fall hard for women who betrayed him, either by choice or circumstance). Except of course, in his short-lived marriage, a relationship which (big surprise) ended tragically until Fleming resurrected Bond in You Only Live Twice.

I'm now getting into both genres again (Lois McMaster Bujold sucked me back in). I think what many men have trouble with the #1 romance rating category Julianne MacLean just posted about - devotion to the girl. I suspect they tend to see that devotion as a betrayal of the heroism (especially if it in any influence the hero's decision making process, which is probably what romance lovers appreciate the most).
Mary Roya
29. SassyT
Depends on the book. Sometimes it makes sense for there to be a "romantic element" in a non-romance novel (people do have relationships and/or sex in real life). Shoot, even Rambo (I'm talking about the movie not the book) had a romance element (see the second movie). So, if it's in action/sci-fi movies and guys are okay with it I don't see why they aren't okay with it in books. Now what I don't like is when an author just seems to throw it in when it makes no sense (like they are throwing it in for the sake of just having it in there). If it doesn't flow along with the story, don't put it in. To be honest, in some romance novels I've felt the author just threw it in just because they figured they needed to put x number of sex scenes in even though it didn't really fit the story. One of the best romance novels I ever read had no sex scenes (the story was that good that it didn't need it). I think, as with all elements of a story, you ought to put in what makes sense in the world of the story you are telling. Don't just throw crap in for the hell of it.
Suzanne Johnson
30. suzannej3523
Really good points, everyone. Romance has to fit the story and be a natural progression for the characters in order to work. If it's forced, it's really obvious.

I hadn't thought about a hero changing a course of action out of emotion or because of a romantic relationship as being a weakness, but I can see how some readers might interpret it that way.
Ellen Hutchings
31. shadowmaster13
I personally loathe romance in my non-romance reads because when I get romantic elements I want the payoff of a HEA and in a non-romance I rarely get that.
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