The Elements of Romance by Sarah Waldock

Today, I am delighted to welcome Sarah Waldock, fellow Regency author and researcher, as my very first guest at Kathryn Kane — Romance. Sarah’s essay on the elements of romance can be appreciated not only by writers of romance, but also by romance readers as well. I think you will enjoy Sarah’s take on what makes a real romance, not to mention that understanding what makes a good romance novel, you will relish them all the more.

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The elements of a romance are, not necessarily in order of importance:

  1. A heroine
  2. A hero
  3. A villain
  4. Tension
  5. A plot
  6. Attraction

It may sound obvious, but the first things a romance needs are a hero, and a heroine.
It’s not as obvious as it sounds.

1. The Heroine has to be attractive, and, since most readers [though not all] tend to be women, someone with whom the reader can identify. This means that she needs to be at least one and preferably two or three from a combination of:
Beautiful; clever; feisty; full of common sense; rich; socially well-connected; compassionate; or popular.
It is important that she should not be all of these, or even too many, because that heads towards the realms of the dreaded ‘Mary Sue’ whom everyone wants to slap upside of the head. This removes, for the reader, the designation of ‘popular’. A heroine must have a flaw, and preferably one which will get her into trouble [see point 4, tension] such as being terribly innocent in the ways of the wicked world and easily manipulated by the villain [see point 3]. Compassion can be a flaw as well as a virtue, if her compassion leads her to rescue mongrels, climbing boys or Covent Garden whores, and involving any gentleman with whom she is associated willy-nilly into such endeavours.
The heroine must, however, be someone the reader can love.
It is entirely possible to have a heroine who is not beautiful, nor especially feisty; Heyer manages it brilliantly with Drusilla in ‘The Quiet Gentleman’, a plot which may appeal more to the older reader than to the younger, but then, the heroine of any romance will always appeal more to some than others. A good writer will manage to present a selection of heroines whose appeal varies. So long as they are matched by their respective heroes, the story should be enjoyable even if each person has their favourites. And these may change; as a teenager, I enjoyed Heyer’s ‘These Old Shades’ with the effervescent Leonie and her demonic Duke of Avon; being officially middle aged now, I can take it or leave it, and prefer Miss Heyer’s more thought-provoking stories like ‘A Civil Contract’ which, in my youth, I disliked intensely.

2. The Hero should be swoonworthy. This can be difficult as the tastes of all women do differ; I, for example, consider Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester more in need of kicking than kissing because he’s a liar. However, the general consensus appears to be that a hero is best if tall, dark and handsome, ‘in possession of a good fortune’, not easy to get to know, witty, humorous and a leader of fashion.
This tends to fill me with feelings of perversity when writing since I rather object to the idea of filling the world with Mr Darcy clones. There are enough out there.
Some people feel that a hero must be a rake; a true rake is not actually a very admirable or satisfactory person, but a hero might have got the reputation either unfairly or when, released onto the town with too much money, he sowed his wild oats rather too freely. As convention tends to dictate a virginal heroine, it is wise for the hero to be at least experienced. A girl wants to feel that she is kissed masterfully and successfully, not be engaged in a clumsy bout of nose hockey.
The main point of a hero is to be heroic; to be someone who is there for the heroine when she needs him. Whether this is knocking down the villain as he attempts an abduction, or merely being able to obtain a hackney carriage in the rain, he should impress by his ability. This can be quiet competence; or a flamboyant approach. The hero may be a sportsman, even a Corinthian, or he may be a scholar. It is much, much harder to make a hero of a dandy, though so long as he does not love his appearance more than he is capable of loving others, not impossible. It is my contention that the most successful hero has some combination of the main qualities of sportsman, scholar, dandy or man-about-town. A Corinthian namely mostly for his ability to drive to an inch who is also knowledgeable about the running of his lands, and has picked up some eclectic nursing knowledge when serving on the Peninsula, like my own Gervase, in ‘Cousin Prudence’ for example.
As the heroine has virtues, so too does the hero:
Good with the ladies; sportsman; clever; humorous; stylish; handsome; rich; well-connected. Pick three and stir thoroughly.

3. The Villain should be truly villainous, though some saving grace in him is permitted. It also leaves openings for him to reform and be the hero of a sequel. He may be a rival for the hand of the heroine, or a wicked uncle, or he might even be a female, the hero’s ex-mistress, a cruel mother/stepmother, a designing hussy or any person who opposes the romance between the Hero and the Heroine for whatever reason. The Villain can even be dead, and it is his will which is the bone of contention, preventing the Heroine from marrying where she wishes, for example, by only leaving her his money if she is betrothed to a certain person. Who might, or might not, turn out to be the Hero. The Villain can be a plot device to show the Hero as heroic in opposing him, or not succumbing to her wiles; or as a red herring to lead the Heroine astray and cause trouble between her and the Hero.

4. Tension is needed to play on the feelings of the Hero and Heroine. There are many plot devices to introduce tension, of which the Villain is one. They tend to include a secret which is not told, causing suspicion; doubt regarding identity or the truth surrounding one of the protagonist’s backgrounds; jealousy arising from an overheard or glimpsed encounter which appears to be more than it truly is; lies sown by a third party to cause trouble; lies sown by a third party with the best of possible intentions; the well-meaning intervention without understanding of a third party; and misunderstandings where both Hero and Heroine are talking at crossed-purposes. Tension may also arise from the embarrassing behaviour of friends or relatives, including having to bail them out of debt, and keep it secret; the open or concealed hostility of one or more associates; and of course the sexual tension between the characters that may even manifest initially as hostility.

5. A Plot is necessary. Boy being meets Girl being, they suffer tribulations and kiss under the silvery moon is not enough. [with apologies to Douglas Adams.]
It has been said that there are only seven original plots, but it’s the twists on them that make the differences. Your star-crossed lovers might not be named Montague and Capulet, but they might love across class or, if you feel brave enough to tackle it across religion or colour. It happened! Plagiarism is a dirty word, but revamping a plot with a new twist is what is generally called research, and Shakespeare is dead and can’t sue. However, there are plenty of ideas to be found in the very act of research for temporal authenticity; I can’t recall offhand how many plot bunnies Kat Kane has sparked for me, with her excellent blog ‘The Regency Redingote’, qv. However, the point is that there needs to be a reason for the main protagonists to meet; some point of interest which keeps them meeting; adversity within that to give them Tension; and a resolution of both plot, and love, with all ends tied up neatly, even if only by implication, and the Hero and Heroine smooch their way into the last page, roll credits, organ music, reader sighs with satisfied delight and realises her coffee has got cold because she was too interested in the denouement.
And yes, some plots are a little weak and contrived, but so long as they exist AND the characters and dialogue are strong, you can get away with it. Even Heyer had her off days; I find both ‘Charity Girl’ and ‘Sprig Muslin’ rather too much alike and somewhat trite, especially compared to some of her stronger works. However any Heyer is worth reading for her wonderful secondary characters and her witty dialogue.

6. Attraction has to exist between the Hero and the Heroine. This might easily be displaced into self-destructive behaviour out of perversity, or through a misunderstanding of feelings, but it has to exist. The initial misunderstanding and the arguments, which both may find as exciting as they find it exasperating, can be a good way of building up their knowledge of each other and discovery of self as well as each other, and to demonstrate an initial physical but antagonistic attraction growing into something greater.
Equally, the characters may have no conflict between themselves, unless engineered by a third party, but still have to come to know each other, and move from being strangers to a gradually warmer friendship and beyond. This can be harder to demonstrate, but when done well is very rewarding. The example that springs immediately to mind is Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ where Emma’s mental transition to adulthood through the book brings with it her awareness that Mr Knightley is a man she cares for as more than an old family friend. Here, the protagonists are already known to each other, but the Heroine still has much to learn about the Hero – and herself.
If your characters are engaging in insipid dialogue and do not create sparks from each other, you might as well go back and rewrite each with a different lover. They are not going to get it on with each other. Now I like my romance without any hard biology, though I don’t object to well-written, well-placed erotic passages where the plot is strong enough to merit it, but even in a gentle romance, you should be able to sense the sexual tension seething under the surface. Which is to say, the reader with the imagination that wishes to go that far, should be able to picture the Hero and Heroine going to bed together, rather than finding their greatest thrill in writing elegiac poetry together.
It is also about more than the sex; because they should be sufficiently perfectly suited to be envisioned, in a quarter of a century, playing with their grandchildren, or taking tea and toast together in their wrap and banyan with their hair still tousled from the night. That’s the difference between romance and bodice-rippers. The sex early on is implied but the attraction of personalities lasts a lifetime.

I’ve been married 31 years and my husband and I are still in love, so I claim that as a qualification to lecture.

Sarah, to be found on and author of Renaissance murder mysteries and Regency murder mysteries, also to be found at for tales of cats.