Back in high school, you probably hated it when your English teacher asked, “What’s the theme of this novel?”
Theme is the least understood aspect of fiction, perhaps because it’s never explicitly stated in the book. You have to read the story and tease out the theme. It’s what the writer wants you to take away when you’re finished. Some people call it the “moral of the story,” but I see from Wikipedia that this is an “old-fashioned concept.”
So what’s the theme of a romance novel? The healing power of love.
Your characters have been wounded in some way before the story begins—perhaps by each other. Often in my books, it’s the hero who has problems so serious that he could never overcome them on his own. He’s been deeply hurt in the past, which makes him unwilling to risk his emotions in a relationship. But my heroine may also have a background that makes her afraid to trust the hero or allow herself to believe in the relationship they are building.
I spoke about internal conflict last time and how you use it in your story to make it seem impossible for the hero and heroine to work out their differences. What changes everything for them is the deep love they come to feel for each other. In many romances, this starts off as sexual attraction, even lust, but it must morph into strong, positive emotion. Love finally gives them the courage to drop their barriers and admit their true longings. Or to put it another way, love makes them brave enough to reach for what they haven’t been able to admit they want.
Let’s look at some examples of what this means.
In my Harlequin Intrigue, Guarding Grace, the heroine has discovered she’s a clone, adopted by a family who have no idea that she was designed to be used for spare parts if the woman she was cloned from needs her. Imagine how much this makes her feel less than human. Is she brave enough to trust the hero with her secret? And brave enough to believe that a man could love her, even after he finds out what she is.
In the award-winning Meant to Be Married, by Ruth Wind, the hero and heroine ran away to get married when they were eighteen and expecting a baby. Then her father forced her to leave him and give up their baby for adoption. Each thinks the other is at fault. Now, years later, they’re back in the same town and forced to deal with the relationship on a more mature level—and finally admit what they’ve been denying for years, that they love each other.
In my Decorah Security novella, Chained, the heroine, Isabella Flores, is being pursued by killers. When she hides out at her father’s ranch, she encounters what she thinks is the ghost of the man she loved—Matthew Houseman. Matt vows to protect Isabella, even though he thinks he’s dead. At the same time, he knows there’s no way he could have a lasting relationship with her. He must leave her, for her own sake—unless her love for him can convince him that he’s wrong.
In one of my Intrigues, Never too Late, the hero is a documentary filmmaker in the heroine’s dictator-run country, and the heroine was forced to betray him. As a result, he was imprisoned, tortured and deported. He doesn’t know that she did the only thing she could to save his life. Six years later, they’re being chased by her country’s secret police and forced to deal with hard truths from the past.
In Her Baby’s Father, my Intrigue out this month, the heroine is killed in a car crash. Instead of escorting her to heaven, angels send her back in time, giving her a chance to save the life of the man who fathered her child. But he was seriously wounded in Afghanistan, and he’s learned to be suspicious and mistrustful, especially of a woman who seems to be weighing her every word. And how can he credit her crazy claims that she knows someone is going to kill him because it all happened before? The only way he’s going to save his life is if he realizes that she’s acting out of love and desperation to change his destiny.
The novels I’ve described above illustrate the basic theme of all romances. They are about people conquering their fear of intimacy in order to achieve the warm, close relationship that all humans crave. Only if they dare to embrace love can they overcome the internal problems that plague them. This surrender to love is what allows them to live happily ever after. They achieve what has become their mutual goal: to join their lives in a committed relationship.
When someone tells you romance novels are fluff or porn—or whatever else they say when they are uncomfortable with books that focus on relationships—tell them about the theme of a romance novel. Ask them if books full of hope and optimism are worth reading.
Of course, there’s also a variation in the romance novel where the conflict is lighter and diffused with humor, the province of such writers as Jennifer Crusie and Vicki Lewis Thompson. I do like reading humorous romances. And I try to include some humor in my books. But the overall story will not be light because I gravitate toward heavy-duty topics where the characters must trust each other enough to overcome their serious internal problems.
What kind of romance do you write, and why? And what kind do you read?