Love, Romance and Escape

If you happen to watch TV at home during the holiday season, you will notice that along with festive tunes, shades of red and green, bells, parties, food, mall sales and lights, your thoughts will turn to another seasonal item on display in our culture: the romance fantasy.

Whether it’s Hallmark or Lifeline or trailers for new movie releases during Christmas and New Year’s, there’s always the stories with the light touch on love in a home-and-hearth setting. Love moves towards family and tradition during the holidays getting away from the loneliness of modern, individualistic lives.

At other times, stories of romance move in a reverse direction. You get away from familiar people and circumstances and lose yourself in tales of adventure. You read about striking out on your own and meeting someone new in a kind of performance of individualism in a perfect escape fantasy for people mired in the daily duties and obligations and mundaneness of modern family life. You are able to get your own mental space in a life crowded with caregiving, chores, tests, bills, anxieties and dissatisfactory family relationships.

And if, like me,  your culture of imaginary romance has been weirdly eclectic, meaning that you’ve grown up with Bollywood on the one hand and some old, British Victorian novels on the other with a good measure of Mills and Boons, Harlequin Romances and old B&W Bengali movies thrown into the mix, you’ve seen romance fantasy at work from so many different perspectives of time, place and geography (and of course, class) that it has bound to make you speculate on what people think of as escape fantasy and love.

What I wasn’t exposed to as a young adult was romancing creatures of fantasy and myth, of being involved with vampires, unicorns, and so many others creatures who, it turns out, do have an active love life.  I intend to make make the acquaintance soon.

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1930s Dreaming Cowboy, Romance Artist Signed LH Duda Larsen Card No10 10089 from flickr.com

But what intrigues me today is a question regarding the nature of these fantasies, not from the critic’s point of view but from the point of view of romance writers. Romance writers have to understand the nature of desires of people reading their fiction before they can forge characters and situations. This is a very practical concern for them if they want to be read.

Firstly, is all romance fiction escape fantasy? I mean, are we all reading these romance novels in order to escape to a world which is different from what it is now? If so, how different must different be? 

A lot of historical romance fiction I find is certainly different in that the books change place and time to a past era but retain characters who act curiously like our present day men and women. For fantasy romances too, the mythical creatures act like people.

Make place and character too different and they cease to be vehicles of imagination with which the mind can identify enough to escape and make them too similar and we’re bogged down by the concerns of our real lives. So too much realism regarding details of historicity or creature attributes is not only not required, but not desired either. The reader has to identify with the protagonists and yet move beyond the shackles of his/her present life.

So for writers of romance fiction then, the question remains, how different would place, time and character have to be for readers to escape and yet how similar to be able to have readers recognize themselves in those characters? How similar or different do the desires of the protagonists have to be from the desires of the person reading it?

For romances set in our current context, neither fantasy fiction nor historic fiction, the degree of difference to be presented becomes especially tricky. This holiday season, I chanced upon a romance specifically made for the TV channel I was watching. In it, a woman from New York City, in a managerial position in a huge corporation run by her father, goes to a snowy, sleepy town during the holidays. Her job is to acquire a bed-and-breakfast in the town and turn it into a very soulless hospitality establishment. The place is owned by an elderly couple whose son helps out at the B&B. He turns out to be the hero of the movie. The woman falls in love, learns about baking, decorating and community life, loses her ruthless side and discovers a sensitive one and so the story ends.

Having been programmed by similar romance novels, I kept waiting for the twist when the hero would turn out to be really the CEO of the rival conglomerate hiding in the sleepy New England town during the holidays just for a lark. However, that particular twist did not come.

When the movie was over, I wondered if this gender reversal meant that desires had indeed changed, whether the escape fantasy looked different now in romances or whether the target audience for this particular channel was different.

In other words, was the movie simply aimed at professional women indulging in fantasies of “homely” guys or was it a case where being homely itself had become a desirable quality in men good enough to be represented in romance fiction?

Were lonely women mired in their high-profile careers trapped in big cities going to spend their holidays watching this movie or was it that all women had started desiring caring men with low-profile careers? I didn’t worry that the binary of career vs. caring still remained strong in both men and women. It is a trope established too long in the romance genre but had the “career” woman with long, scarlet painted nails, who had indeed shifted from the position of the romance heroine’s rival to the heroine herself for a decade or so now become confident enough in her position to desire a homely man for herself, albeit in her fantasy?

I mean, do romance writers need to churn out more sensitive, less ruthless, more homely, less adventurous, more exploratory and less controlling men as heroes simply to be read?

So what kind of romance fiction do you like to read? What kind of characters fascinate you?

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16 thoughts on “Love, Romance and Escape”

  1. The feminist in me sees that movie as backlash. At the end, it probably turns out that all she really wants is to move to the country and bake cookies at her little B&B while taking care of her man. Message: Women shouldn’t want corporate careers or be ambitious because they’ll end up right where they’re supposed to be anyway.

    I admit that I’m kind of a cynic. I’ll bet if I were watching it, I would’ve gotten all wrapped up in the romance and stuff.

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  2. I saw that movie you described (I was visiting my parents and they Hallmark channel was on almost nonstop!) I’m not much of a romance novel reader, but I’m not a fan of the weak woman who has to be protected/saved by the man. I like to see the woman can hold her own!

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  3. I like strong characters (on both sides) who struggle with each other and with the world around them, and I like romance taking place in a realistic environment with all its hassles, not in a happily-ever-after ivory tower.

    It can still be an escape, even if there’s no happy ending. And I must confess, *writing* romance is just as much an escape mechanism as reading.

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  4. Romance in a novel has to be part of something much bigger to keep my attention. I don’t necessarily want to escape into a good book as much as I want to go on a journey of discovery and hopefully find some nugget of wisdom to carry back to my own life. As long as the romance is a believable part of a character’s story arc, I’m good with it. I just want those characters to have made some valuable discoveries of their own by the end of the book.

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  5. To start, I think all fiction is escapist when the reader chooses a subject they don’t normally experience.

    With romance novels, I don’t have much experience, so I consider all of it to be pure fantasy. However, I’m sure lots of people think about love all the time and tailor their romances (when they’re in a modern setting) to reflect some part of their lives so they can easily imagine themselves in the heroine’s/hero’s shoes.

    In all honesty, though, I think everyone would like a caring man. =D

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  6. I love to read realistic romance fiction where there is friction and maybe not so happy endings or unexpected endings. I agree with mrs. fringe that there has to be a story beyond the romance. I like strong women in my romance stories.

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  7. Romance novels, readers and writers have changed with the times. Yes, creatures of the night have become popular heroes (and heroines), but there’s room for more variety than there was in the old romance novels. The heroine can be single and (gasp) thirty ;) he can be a “beta” male, as opposed to “alpha,” she can be a power player on her own, there has to be a story beyond the romance. Because in order for it to be defined as a romance novel, the focus must be on the relationship, and there must be a HEA (happily ever after), or at least HFN (happy for now).

    The heroes and heroines have to be relatable, likable–even if they sport a pelt, or fangs or wings, but at its core, romance is still fantasy, escapism.

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  8. Good thought provoking post. I don’t read much romance but do enjoy a romcom on the television. In fact my husband would say it is the only film genre that I will watch on the television. I guess the principle would be the same for me. They have to be realistic characters that I like as people. I don’t like fantasy, teenage or unbelievable stories. I have to be able to relate.

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  9. I like to read good, well-written stories with strong characters that I can relate to. A dash of humor in the writing is fun, too. Examples are Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb, Debbie Macomber, Diana Palmer and Mary Balogh.

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