Realism in Romance Novels?

Romance novels are escapist fare. We read them to be entertained. Or to have a few delicious moments of tingling. Is it a contradiction, then, to inject realism in romance novels?

Someone more in the know than I told me recently that to describe my novels as romance from a realist’s perspective may turn romance readers off. She says “realism”—to most romance readers—often means depressing content. Who needs that, if you read for pleasure?

I am a realist. That means I prefer “facts” I get from what I see, taste, feel, smell, or hear. My “facts” are probably quite different from yours. We may see or experience the same thing but we never do so in quite the same way. That’s because we all have our own unique histories.

English: Looking north at Heinz Hall on a sunn...
English: Looking north at Heinz Hall on a sunny early afternoon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
If you’re a people watcher, like I am, you pick up a lot of material for a story from what you experience day-to-day. For instance, in Hello Agnieszka, Book 2 in my series Between Two Worlds, I endowed a male character with a pony tail because I saw some guy at a concert sporting one and thought the pony tail fits that character. I also culled much material from stories my husband told me about living in Pittsburgh (the setting for much of the novel) when he was working on his graduate degree. I used his description of his apartment and where it was located for the home Agnieszka grew up in. References to Gimbels department store and Heinz Hall also came from him.

But more than the places where scenes in the novel occur, I chose to make my main character Polish because my husband is himself Polish and his stories inspired me to create Agnieszka, the main protagonist. But Agnieszka is a composite, whose characterization owes at least as much to my imagination and other people I’ve met.

young agnieszka_1sm

 

Is that kind of realism unacceptable in a romance novel? Is it also unacceptable to focus on the emotional upheavals (or emotional angst, according to some readers) the heroines go through as they encounter adversities?

Is realism in novels, in general, passé? The kind of stories most young people like to read nowadays (according to my son and my nephews) belongs to the realm of alternate universes—fantasies, science fiction, paranormal. Even thrillers straddle the boundaries between fantasy and realism. It’s easy to understand why this is so. We now live largely in a virtual world. We usually connect to the outside via a small handheld gizmo that tells us most things we want to know. Video games are now many people’s idea of entertainment.

Many of us honed our tastes in romance novels by reading Jane Austen. Victorian art critic John Ruskin said of her that she could:

“ …see straight and then report accurately. …It … came natural to her to tell the truth about average humanity as she saw it;”

In other words, Ms. Austen is a realist in her approach to story-telling.

Other female writers of the 19th century infused their romance novels with realism. Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South focuses as much on the problems of industrializing England as it does on the love between John Thornton and Margaret Hale. My first novel (Margaret of the North) about these characters’ married lives tries to preserve that realism.

I like heroes and heroines of romance novels to be more like people you meet every day.Strong and sympathetic people who also have to deal with the messiness of everyday life. Flawed people whose strengths may not surface until they meet adversity.

Since many romance readers may be turned off by that kind of realism, and since all three novels in Between Two Worlds have those elements, I’ve classified them as Women’s Fiction, a broad genre often missing in book sites. They may target a different audience. These novels are, at their core, love stories. But apparently they have elements that violate the tenets of romance novels.

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