Standards for Fictional Romance

I intend to review fictional works on this little blog, but before I do so, I need to thoroughly define some of my standards. My views on fictional romance are the least nuanced, so I’ll start with those.

There are five questions I ask about any particular romance. If the answer is ‘yes’ to all five of the questions, odds are, I will enjoy reading the romance. If the answer is ‘no’ to any of the questions, I probably won’t like the romance. It is as simple as that.

  1. Do both characters fit my main character standards (blog post coming soon)? Are they likable?
  2. Are they logically compatible?
  3. Does the romance add to the overarching plot/conflict?
  4. Does the romance add to the character arc of at least one (but preferably both) of the characters?
  5. Do the characters prioritize the plot/conflict over their relationship?

A few romances that fit this standard (and, coincidentally, are some of my favorites) are: Eowyn and Faramir from Lord of the Rings, Vin and Elend from Mistborn, Remus and Tonks from Harry Potter, Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester from Jane Eyre, and Leia and Han from Star Wars.

I’m going to clarify some of the finer points of these standards.

Likability: Obviously, this is a subjective term. However, I think it is still appropriate to include because I can think of few subjects more subjective than romance. Likability will vary from reader to reader, but likability is actually very easy to achieve with me. The character has to simply be well-written. When I say I like a character, I do not necessarily mean I agree with the character’s actions, beliefs, morality, etc. It simply means that there is something human, something fascinating, about the heart the author transcribed into the character. This standard for likability is a bit odd: I don’t like Katniss or Peeta from The Hunger Games, so their romance did not make the list at all. However, I DO like Heathcliff and Catherine from Wuthering Heights, so their romance MIGHT have made the list, except…

Logically Compatible: Heathcliff and Catherine are not logically compatible- a statement that is almost literally the entirety of the plot of Wuthering Heights. This is, again, a very subjective term, even with the inclusion of “logic” in the defining statement. In this instance, “logic” simply means that it follows naturally to a conclusion. If, in my mind, the personality traits, friendship, and history of the characters follow logically to love, then they will pass this standard. This standard actually rules out quite a few romances. It barred Aragorn and Arwen from Lord of the Rings, Ron and Hermione from Harry Potter, and Gatsby and Daisy from The Great Gatsby. These romances are illogical, which, unfortunately, causes me to lose respect for both characters despite the fact that I do like them. Sometimes, this is the author’s intention, as in the case of Gatsby and Daisy or Heathcliff and Catherine. In those cases, I will probably enjoy the book all the more.*

Overarching Plot: This next paragraph will cover the implications from both 3 and 5. The implication being, of course, that there IS an overarching plot, and that the characters involved in the romance recognize that the plot/conflict is more important than their own relationship/happiness. This bars nearly every couple from a romance novel. Some people might say this is unfair, but bear in mind, these standards are my own and should by no means be the standards for everyone. Personally, I don’t like stories where the main focus is the romance itself- the implications and principles behind that concept trouble me. I will likely expound a bit more on this idea in a later blog post. For now, suffice it to say that it is unlikely I will review any novels from the romance genre on this blog, simply because I have negative presuppositions towards them. My standards for romance are made to fit the romances that are, essentially, subplots.

With that in mind, the implications of standard 5 are that the characters recognize that their feelings are less important than the main plot. This is why I get irritated when characters, such as Spock and Uhura (one of my absolute favorite couples), take time in the middle of an action sequence to talk about their feelings (which they did in Star Trek Into Darkness). It’s. Not. Important.

This seems fairly straightforward, but another implication of standard 5 is that the author recognizes that the romance is less important than the plot. This is the reason I dislike Tauriel and Kili from the movie adaptions of The Hobbit. Peter Jackson ignored LOTR canon in a theme and plot-damaging way, focusing relatively large portions of the film on a romance that adds nothing to the overarching plot and, worse still, minimizes the story of Legolas and Gimli, thus taking away from the overarching plot.

Character Arc: Well, now that I have finished explaining the more complicated standards, allow me to end with a simple definition. The romance has to impact one, but preferably both, of the characters in a profound way. That’s it. Pretty simple, but it is sometimes hard to incorporate into the story. Take Harry and Ginny from Harry Potter, for example. I love both of the characters, they are logically compatible, their romance adds to the story and they both prioritize defeating Voldemort over their relationship. The only reason I feel kind of “meh” about their relationship is because it is difficult to pinpoint any definite changes or growths in their character arcs from it, at least within the narrative. There is evidence of mutual growth post-plot, but within the story, their romance does little to change them.

*If the author’s intention is for readers to dislike the romance between two characters, I will NOT judge the romance based on my romance standards, but on my plot standards. Books like The Great Gatsby and Wuthering Heights do this, and they are two of my favorites.

What do you think, Reader? What are your standards when it comes to fictional romance?

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