by Rose Lerner
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, was last week. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, starts tonight at sundown. This is the time of year during which a Jewish person is supposed to look back at the previous year, apologize and make amends to anyone we’ve wronged, and start the new year off fresh, resolving to be better.
Most years, I don’t do it. Oh, I think about it desultorily, but then I’m “too busy” to really sit down and take stock of my life, or I don’t think hard enough to really come up with anyone I should apologize to. Or I do think of someone I should apologize to, but then I don’t do it, because it would be awkward or embarrassing, or because I don’t want to talk to them or because I’m hoping they didn’t notice what a jerk I was and I don’t want to be the one to point it out to them, or because, in the end, I’m not really sorry. Some years I make resolutions, then forget what they were three months later.
Personal growth is hard.
My father never read romances before I started writing them. Now he’s addicted. The last time I was home, he told me, “I love how people really talk to each other and listen to each other in romances. I love how they process what they hear from the other person and really try to make changes. I hardly ever see that.”
And then I realized that all of that advice I’ve heard at writers’ conferences—“At the end of the book, the protagonist should make the choice they couldn’t have made at the beginning of the book,” and “Make sure your character arc mirrors your plot arc,” and “What is your character’s greatest fear? Make sure that happens to them,”—all of those characterization worksheets where you figure out the basic flaws in the way your character sees the world and their relationship to other people, and what in their childhood or their past made them feel that way, so that you can write them realizing over the course of the book how they’ve been limiting themselves and acting out of fear, and make that leap to love openly and trust freely and believe in themselves and have the confidence and courage to live the life they’ve always wanted, or the life they never knew they wanted—all of the times I’ve heard a reader say about a book, “It wasn’t satisfying because the hero/heroine didn’t learn anything”—all of that boils down to one thing:
Romance is a genre built on personal growth. More than any other genre I’ve read, our stories are fundamentally structured around our characters becoming better, fuller people, and healing their relationships not just with their hero or heroine, but with everyone in their lives. A romance where love doesn’t help a character grow and change is an unsatisfying romance.
Romance isn’t just about the fantasy of finding a guy who’s just right for you or having mind-blowing sex (although it is about those things!). It’s about the fantasy of finally learning how to talk to your estranged sibling, or finding the strength to stand up to your mother without crying or losing your temper, or taking the leap of faith to let go of a crappy job you hate and start your own business, or figuring out that you really, truly didn’t deserve the way your ex-husband treated you. It’s about the fantasy of letting go of actions based on fear. It’s about the fantasy of finding a balance between your own need’s and everyone else’s. It’s about the fantasy of learning to believe in your own worth and respecting other people’s. It’s about the fantasy of realizing that just because you’ve been hurt over and over again doesn’t mean you don’t still have all the love in the world left to give, and receive.
Those are wonderful, amazing fantasies to have. Those are wonderful, amazing, important things to long for. In real life, we’ll probably never quite get there. We’ll always hurt people we love and do self-sabotaging things because it’s what our parents taught us. But by reading stories that say, Change is possible. It’s valuable. You can do it, I think we can be inspired to get closer, baby step by baby step. It’s just one more reason I’m proud to be a romance writer and reader.
Tell me a reason you’re proud to read or write romance! I’ll be giving away a copy of A Lily Among Thorns, in which (spoiler!) my hero and heroine learn some valuable lessons about themselves and grow as people, to a random commenter.
Happy new year!
It was him. Serena couldn’t breathe. She’d been looking for him for
years—the man who’d lifted her out of the dregs of London’s
underworld. She remembered that he’d looked like an angel. But either
she’d embellished or he’d grown up. Because he didn’t look like an
angel now. He looked like a man, solid and broad, and taller than
she’d thought. And now he needed her help.
Solomon recognized her as soon as they were alone in the dark. He’d
not forgotten that night five years ago either. But Serena had
changed. She was stronger, fiercely independent and, though it hardly
seemed possible, even more beautiful. She was also neck-deep in
trouble. Yet he’d help cook a feast for the Prince Regent, take on a
ring of spies, love her well into the night—anything to convince her
that this time he was here to stay.