A great romance novel is something that tugs at the heartstrings, yanks on the readers emotions and draws them into the story. It is an escape and, in some cases, a hope that honestly great romances do happen. There are several things that a story needs to have to become a truly great romance novel, essentials that really help connect a reader to the story emotionally. Those essentials are some of the primary aspects that make a real romantic relationship work.
Yes, authors often use secrets and the withholding of information as a way to create tension and drama. As long as you give a strong reason why that honesty isn’t happening, then it can work. It can also work if it is one of the struggles the characters are dealing with and trying to do better at. If it is not present just because, as a whim or because the character is ignorant, oblivious or just completely insecure, you had better do a really good job writing a story that makes those issues work or the integrity of your characters can fall apart and end up seeming stupid or week.
Trust ties in closely with honesty. If your characters can’t be honest with each other, then the trust is going to be really hard to work with. Absolutely, trust should be earned. When you don’t take the time to build and develop that in the relationship, then it doesn’t come across as believable. The characters are either blindly trusting, which can make them seem painfully naive, or they just never trust at all. When you have a character that is so completely unwilling to build that trust or is unbending in their distrust of their romantic partner, no matter the actions or honesty the other has displayed, then that makes your character seem harsh, cold, uncaring or even something of fool.
What is good for the goose is good for the gander. All parties in the romantic relationship should have the same rights and expectations of behavior, otherwise there is a huge double standard allowed and things can get really ugly. If one part of the romantic couple gets upset about the behavior of the other, don’t have that one turn around and do the exact same thing and not allow the same kind of fallout to be addressed or dealt with. All parties should have to compromise and develop or the relationship isn’t balanced and won’t appear very realistic. You cannot have only one person expected to or be making all the changes or taking the difficult steps or having to deal with the difficult decisions. That just isn’t that realistic. Even though we are buying into the fantasy of the story, it still needs to feel possible.
Any good story is going to have some conflict, even in a really lighthearted story. You cannot expect it to all be rainbows and rose petals and utterly, completely perfect. On the other hand, the flawed characters, have to have growth as well. In their situations, their personalities, even how they view the world around them or their belief in how relationships should work. If you get to the end of the book and the characters are still the same as they started, then part of the point of the story got missed. That goes for all characters, that whole equality/balance/compromise thing.
If the issues and conflicts within the relationship are the exact same ones throughout the entire book with zero progress toward improvement or change, the reader is going to get frustrated really quickly. In a real relationship, if one or another of those in that relationship continue to keep making the same mistakes over and over, or continue to hurt their partner over and over again, eventually that relationship is going to break. If it doesn’t, it isn’t a healthy relationship and that kind of defeats the purpose of a good romance. You also cannot have it be the same throughout the entire book to only have the characters have a miraculous epiphany in the last chapter and all those problems are magically resolved. It does take a bit of time to deal with and go through those changes.
Make them flawed. Make them imperfect. Allow them to make mistakes, even big ones. Allow them to feel insecure. Allow them to be a little broken. Give them great personality. Allow them to have emotions. Just don’t make them so much of any one of those things that they are unlikable or that their attitudes and behaviors are just painfully unappealing.
If your character is confident in who they are on page 50, do not make them suddenly, for no reason, feel differently on page 120. Don’t have your characters hate each other in the beginning, then have absolutely nothing change at all but they suddenly have the hots for each other. Have motivations and reasons for the personalities you create and make sure they work together. Back up any changes with specific and clear reasons. It doesn’t work for someone to be a total badass, but is unable to function without someone holding their hand or cries at the drop of a hat. A character can be conflicted, that is fine. Don’t make them seem like they have multiple personalities, unless you are actually writing a multiple personality character.
There are always exceptions. Different scenarios can allow for these aspects to not necessarily all be prominent in a story or allow for exceptions, but you have to have some hint of them. Either that or have a great reason to allow for those exceptions to make a story work well. Sure, you can produce an okay or even a good romantic story without some of those aspects, but chances are you aren’t going to be able to pull off that really great one without them on some levels. The biggest thing that is going to make the difference between okay and great is believability. You don’t want your reader laughing at your characters like they are that bad horror movie actor that does that obviously stupid thing that everyone knows is going to get them killed (because, come on! Everyone knows you don’t look under the bed).
Besides providing entertainment, romantic stories can also often be a launching platform for how expectations begin to form in younger generations. It is something of a peeve of mine for a romance novel to set an extremely bad example of what is okay in a relationship. No, not all romance stories showcase healthy relationships. The ones that are well written make sure it is pretty clear that the story is about a relationship that isn’t healthy. Others that aren’t so well written can send the wrong message altogether, allowing impressionable or inexperienced readers to get the idea that some incredibly unhealthy, even harmful behaviors, attitudes and actions are actually okay. Not much will drop a book onto my Don’t Like list faster than books that don’t make it clear that certain behaviors are unhealthy or worse, promote those ideas and behaviors.
Safe sex falls into that category. I’ve mentioned it before. There is zero excuse for an author to not include safe sex practices in their writing, with a very, very few exceptions like authentic representation of a time period and the rare time when a story warrants it. Most authors are good about making it clear when an unsafe sex situation has occurred that the characters should have been safe/made better choices, but not all authors do this. I personally respect the author and characters a lot more when they take the time to be responsible.
Oh, and for me? A real romance has a happy ending. That can be approached from a lot of different ways. It doesn’t always mean a traditional Cinderella, happily ever after. As long as, in the end, the characters are happier in themselves and/or their relationships or better off overall then it qualifies.