Should Romance Be Realistic?


Welcome to another discussion here on Of Dragons and Hearts. I’m participating in The Discussion Challenge this year, so head over here if you’re craving more debates on books. And if you want to see my old discussion posts, simply scroll to the end of the post and click the “discussion” tab – I’m pretty good with using those, so you’ll get all the discussions in one place. Also, if you’re not up to a discussion on sex, you should probably just… um… skim this? :)

I’ve been thinking about the issue of realism in romance a lot. Cait wrote a similar post a while ago, but hers was centered more on young adult literature and not as specific as mine will be, but go check it out anyway. She’s cool. 

Now, romance, as you well know, is by its definition a genre that deals with fantasy – maybe not in the sense of dragons and fire-throwing wizards, but fantasy of the other kind, where the happening is so idealized and dreamy, it’s completely removed from reality. So if we take all the fantasy out of a romance and portray love relationships as they really are, chances are 90% of romances would be a) boring, b) depressing as hell

Don’t think I’m a cynic, please, you know I’ve found my own happiness and that I’m a hopeless romantic at heart, but most relationships just aren’t whirlwind romances with days of sweaty sex and soulful declarations. You can absolutely disagree with me here but my beliefs are based on years of observation (kidding – kind of). But it’s all the more satisfying when a relationship DOES succeed, when two people who are right for each other find themselves in a joyful, non-toxic union and live happily even after. *sigh* (I told you I was a romantic.)


Anyway. What I’m going to talk about is the fantasy of romance, or rather the extent to which romance should be realistic to still be believable. 

You know when you’re reading a fantasy novel and the worldbuilding just sucks? Or the hero/ine is this exceptionally gifted individual who can do no wrong? And it keeps throwing you out of the story and has you rolling your eyes? Well, I think romances function in a similar fashion. 

You get your fantasy of two attractive people feeling a powerful attraction to each other, they banter and bicker and inevitably end up in a liplock of epic proportions, usually followed by amazing sex, love, and marriage. But there are a million ways of putting these elements together – and their execution is very important for the reader’s immersion in the story. I’m not going to go into the ideology of romance here or gender roles or character traits – this discussion is long enough as it is.


So what I wanted to do, really, was make a list (heh) of three things that throw me out of the story, that have me rolling my eyes and skim reading until the scene is over. Because come on, I know they aren’t possible (or are they?!). 

  1. Exaggerated descriptions of the perfection of the couple’s bodies. I know all romance heroes and heroines are supposed to be attractive. And, you know, I’m aware we can’t have a sex scene without the description of intimate body parts, but can we please hold it with the details? I’m not trying to be a prude, just… don’t even get me started on the expressions used to describe these body parts. If I’m completely honest, the male models featured on romance covers are usually unattractive to me. They kind of look scary. So. Less is more
  2. fifty-shadesExceptional prowess in bed. AGAIN, I know that nobody wants to read about bad sex. It would be completely useless and unsexy and probably embarrassing to read about. But modern erotica, especially, features sex so fantastically, euphorically spectacular it really does make me roll my eyes sometimes. I know multiple orgasms are possible for women and I know men can have stamina. But Fifty Shades of Grey and its successors made both male and female bodies sound like some alien/robotic objects capable of hours, even days of strenuous physical activity, which just puts me off.
  3. Heroes (or heroines – though this is much, much less common) who have had a LOT of sexual partners. This is closely related to the previous point but am I the only one who finds the idea of a guy who has slept with a hundred women unappealing? And does anyone actually know such a creature? Yes, I know I’m being judgy but I can’t imagine that sex would mean anything to a man (or woman?) who has had so many different partners. Is there anything he hasn’t tried yet? Anything he hasn’t seen? I know my experience with such individuals is painfully limited, so I’m basically treating them as a sort of a mythical being, like a construct in a fantasy world.

srcekI will stop here and say that this list could have been a lot longer, but I will ask you for your input now:

What throws you out of the story?

Do you have pet peeves when it comes to realism in romance? 

And should romance be realistic or is it okay if the fantasy is a bit out there?

I’d love to hear from you! :)

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  • I laughed so hard while I was reading this post because it’s just so true! Lovely post! :D

    • Thanks, Kristin! :)

      I’m glad you agree – romance can sometimes really be out there. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Greg Hill

    I always laugh at the terms that are, um, used to describe body parts. There’s such a gamut and often it just… tacky. I don’t know. :) Course I don’t read romances so probably shouldn’t even be commenting on this post lol… but I couldn’t resist. :)

    I think it’s okay to have a little fantasy in there because like you said, we sorta read to escape the real world but a mix of reality and fantasy is best I think. At least for the stuff I read.

    • I know someone (I think at the Cuddlebuggery blog?) collected the really bad ones one time and it was hilarious. I translated a couple of romances with sex scenes and all and it was a process that involved a lot of cursing, blushing and flipping through dictionaries (and also posing friends really awkward questions). :)

      And I think this doesn’t really apply to traditional romances only – there are other genres that include romantic elements and can face the same problems.

  • LOL I think that in every book, and specially if it’s fantasy, there always has to be a realism to it, and even MORE so if it’s romance. I think I didn’t care as much before, but now romances that have these elements just feel kind of ridiculous. I see couples on the streets, and compare them to what I read in books, and if there’s not much similarity, I just can’t enjoy the book. What’s the point if it’s ALL some useless exageration?

    • Yep. You definitely have to have some realistic elements, what is the point of reading something if you can’t relate to it at all? Romances are really just about human relationships so it’s difficult to relate if they are completely exaggerated.

  • Yes…and also no. Though my reasons are probably for different than yours! I think unconvincing romances are cheesy as hell, and when you get a relationship that’s just so idealized I tend to lose all interest. At the same time, I agree with you that you gotta have some kind of fantasy involved. I don’t think you’re a cynic for thinking that! I would add “scary as hell” to your list of descriptions for “real” relationships :P

    • “Scary as hell” would definitely be a good description. Though I’m not sure if you meant that in a good way (as in – you fall for someone and it’s so crazy good it scares you) or bad (when people do really bad stuff to each other in the name of love). :)

      And yeah, too much idealization makes me lose interest, too, it’s just absurd sometimes. I recently read a contemporary romance that was so bad it sparked this post, actually, so I was sort of talking of a specific example, but it certainly isn’t the first one of the kind I’ve encountered.

  • Jolien @ The Fictional Reader

    Great post Kaja! It’s absolutely true though. The romance in a book can be so unrealistic and fantastical that it becomes off putting. Like you said, who finds a guy who has had so many sexual partners appealing? I do agree that romance shouldn’t be 100% realistic. That’s just no fun. But it shouldn’t be over the top either.

    • Thanks! :)

      I think this balance of fantasy and realism is what separates good authors from bad. It’s probably the hardest part to get right when you’re writing! Nobody wants to hear about the awkward stuff but you’ve got to make it REAL somehow.

  • Thanks so much for linking to my discussion, btw!! And I loved your take on the topic. Although, tbh, I am not much of a romance reader and haven’t been in love myself SO I can only judge romance books off what I’ve seen IRL. One of the main things I notice is the time frame. Like people in books seem to be zipping through that witty banter to the smooching VERY fast. Who needs friendship, apparently? *raises eyebrows skeptically* I’m not saying that doesn’t happen IRL, but to fall in love in a matter of weeks or days? I don’t buy it :(

    • Thanks! :)

      I don’t think you have to experience an emotion yourself to be able to write about it (I certainly hope that’s true, because if you think about crime novels … ugh). :) Observation of humans in their natural habitat is the way to go, I think.

      But with the time frame issue: smooching can sometimes be the product of instaLUST, which I find very much believable. But instaLOVE? Not so much. And you’re right, I find it highly doubtful that fierce, everlasting love can develop in a week. Powerful infatuation? Yep, definitely. But I wish sometimes we’d get a glimpse of the couple a decade into their marriage – are they still going at it like bunnies? Or have things mellowed down? :)

  • Love this post! I don’t read a lot of romance, but I’ve read enough in my time (lol) to recognise these things. They’re definitely off-putting for me, too, although I’m slightly more on the indifferent side of the last point. There are some people who’ve slept with that many people, although I doubt there are a lot of them, and while I can’t imagine myself doing that, I don’t really judge them. I’m all you do you on that one :’) It can be quite annoying in romance stories, though, I agree!

    • Thanks, Anne!

      Eh, I know, I’m being all sorts of judgemental with that “too many partners” issue. Maybe because I was never really a part of the dating scene as a “mature” adult? I’ve been with my now-husband for 9 years (since I was 20) and this has probably (definitely) coloured my opinion.

      I just … How do I explain this… I always feel weird when the heroine is SO MUCH BETTER than all those women the hero has slept with that he INSTANTLY falls for her, whereas he’s been all unemotional and unattached before, you know? The “she’s not like other girls” trope really gets at me.

  • You know that I adore romance novels. And it’s funny, because I think they can vary so much from book to book and author to author. I love Julie Garwood’s historicals, but her heroines are always gorgeous, but they never realize it. That shows that the book is a bit dated. But I love the stories so much, that it doesn’t really bother me.

    I would say that the heroes and heroines aren’t always gorgeous these days though, and I love that. Have you ever read Romancing Mister Bridgerton by Julia Quinn? Such a wonderful book,and the heroine is decidedly not beautiful. Same with Romancing the Duke by Tessa Dare.

    I think more heroines (not so much heroes, though) are more average, than belles of the ball these days. But there are still lots of GORGEOUS heroines.

    I totally understand what you mean about a hero who has slept with a zillion women. That is not attractive. Although, again, I wouldn’t say that is always the case these days. Did you ever read Never Seduce a Scot by Maya Banks. While the hero is not a virgin, he does talk about never craving sex like his younger brothers and that he lost his virginity after his younger brothers did.

    And I think there are more books out there that do have virgin heroes. It’s still pretty rare though.

    The words authors use for body parts can be pretty hilarious. Some don’t really take me out of the story, but some do. The first time I saw the word “cockstand” I couldn’t stop giggling.

    • Oh, definitely, romances vary so much – and I think that good authors (like Garwood) make you forget about the small issues because the rest of the story is so wonderful. And yep, I’ve read both Quinn’s and Dare’s novels, I know what you’re talking about – and I think this is what really separates good romance authors from bad, this magical balance of realism and fantasy, you know? :)

      I actually read a really bad contemporary romance/erotica novel that sparked this post, because it pushed ALL the wrong buttons without having any redeeming qualities. *sigh*

      I don’t think I’ve read that Maya Banks novel, I have to check it out! And I vaguely remember another historical (regency, perhaps? Maybe by Mary Balogh?) where the hero is actually a virgin! And she’s a former, er, lady of the night, if I remember correctly. But you’re right, they are pretty rare still.

      Haha, that is hilarious! I also cringe whenever it’s described in color (purple? REALLY?) or as “veined” or something, because … while it’s very necessary for a woman’s pleasure, it isn’t necessarily the prettiest part of the body. :) Again, balance is needed, I think, and the best authors just KNOW how much to tell us!

  • Maraia

    Great post, as always!

    I don’t read (m)any romance novels, as you know, and the things you mention here are most of the reasons why. The few romance novels I have read always make me cringe at the terminology, and I have a hard time taking a book seriously after that. I know you have to call body parts something, but I’m thinking back to that list on Cuddlebuggery and laughing to myself.

    I don’t think romance in novels should be 100% realistic—I rarely read non-fiction books for a reason—but they have to at least be based in reality or somewhat relatable to the reader. The thought of a “hero(ine)” with 100+ past sex partners is definitely not something I find appealing, nor do I think it sets realistic expectations for readers. I remember reading that college students think other college students are having way more sex than they actually are. Books, movies, and TV shows are at least partially to blame for this misconception.

    Any time a sex scene lasts for several pages, I’m bound to be thrown out of the story. Same thing with instalove, which is very different from instalust. Instalust is more believable, but it always makes me roll my eyes, particularly in movies and TV shows. I often find myself wishing characters would show a little more self-control, but maybe I’m just being judgy, haha.

    • Thanks! :)

      Yep, everyone in college is always having sex. :D I personally know only one woman of whom I KNOW she’s had more that 30 partners (we were kind of worried about her because she didn’t always take precautions and she couldn’t even NAME all the guys she slept with, so ugh), but I don’t know any real “players”. I think the fantasy of a man “who could teach you things” can be appealing, as long as it’s not icky.

      Instalust… yeah. I can get behind that. I mean, hormones do their job and people become rather stupid sometimes but instalove is definitely unbelievable. Instant infatuation? Okay, I can buy that. But love takes time. Well, self control is for real life, I think, it’s safe to read about people losing it on the page, since most people can’t afford to lose it in real life.

      • Maraia

        Several of my friends in college really were always having sex with lots of different guys, but I do think they’re the exception. I also know several people who probably thought of themselves as “players,” but that had more to do with inflated egos than anything else. :P

        That’s true, it is safe to read about people losing it on the page. I just don’t find it particularly believable, haha. Not that people always show self-control in real life, but some TV shows make it seem like any time a man and a woman are in the same room, of course they’re going to go at it. (“Funnily” enough, Trump said something very similar to that. Ugh.) Or that two people of opposite sex who meet are automatically going to be attracted to each other.

        • Oh, inflated egos are definitely something that bothers me – even in books. I always cringe when the hero promises the heroine “a spectacular night in bed” with him even though he’d just met her. How do you know what she likes? Anyway, ugh! :)

          Ah, yes, the dilemma of whether men and women can be friends, right? We discussed this, I think. I certainly didn’t want to sleep with every man of my acquaintance (EW) and I’m reasonably sure most of them never wanted to sleep with me, either. See, my ego is firmly in check! ;)

  • What throws me out of a romantic story faster than anything is the obsession with physical perfection. For me personally, my most meaningful relationships have always started out as friendships – so I have difficulties connecting to the instant lust that a lot of the romantic partnerships in fiction begin with.
    I also dislike the constant notion that the hero can have a lot of sexual partners, but a lot of heroine are virginal. Why such a disparity in experience and power?
    Lovely discussion post, I enjoyed how you discussed it all so frankly XD

    • Physical perfection is never something I enjoy reading about. Besides, it’s SO subjective! What one woman finds attractive in a man (a dimpled chin, for example) can be very off-putting to another (I fall in to the second camp). I prefer it when romances are scarce on details such as these.

      And yeah, I prefer the friends-to-lovers stories, too! Though good enemies-to-lovers can work, but even then some form of a relationship exists before the sex begins!

      Well, as another commenter mentioned, there are a couple of romances with a reversed situation – I remember reading a historical when the hero was a virgin (I forget the reason) and the heroine was a former lady of the night. But they are much, much more rare.

      And thanks, I’ve been trying to talk about these things more (my discussion on safe sex in romances was also very popular) – not to shock but because I find the romance genre genuinely interesting (it’s THE most popular genre in the publishing industry) and such issues are important. :)

  • YES! So much yes! I have thought these things so many times. I agree that we don’t necessarily want our romances to be completely “realistic” – let’s face it, reality isn’t always all that fantastic and it would often make for a boring book – but the things you mention here can sometimes get pushed so far that I’m completely rolling my eyes. I laughed at your descriptions of them, too. You mean, you’re not having multiple orgasms and hours of sex every single night? I thought it was everyone but me! (And, mind you, I’m not complaining about my sex life – it just falls in the realm of reality.)

    And I agree about the guy who’s slept with a hundred women. I get the fantasy of having a more experienced man who can teach you a few things, but it can definitely cross the line into gross pretty fast.

    • *snort* So you and your man don’t break furniture on a regular basis? How odd.
      Seriously, though, I often get the feeling that if I start complaining about the unrealistic sex in romances, people will think my sex life sucks. I like a bit of fantasy but I also think that romances might set unattainable goals for some readers (I always imagine a non-experienced college girl reading a really sexy NA novel and then thinking this is what she’ll get if she hooks up with the quarterback *sigh*).

      Yep, gross is the right word sometimes. And the possibility of encountering all the exes is also unappealing. Eh.

  • I’m not a big romance reader and I’ve never read any kind of erotica, so I haven’t really been exposed to too many “graphic” sex scenes. I know all the cliches and that people love to make fun of the way the male anatomy is described in romance novels. I personally am not a big “sex reader”, what I mean by that is it’s not something I necessarily need in my novels, but that being said, I do think that a certain kind of reader desires this exaggerated ideal of wild, fantastic sex which is why novels like Fifty Shades sells. I totally agree with you by the way (let’s be judgy together), but the idea of a partner having a unrealistic amount of experience makes me want to get them to take an STD test, not hop into bed with them.

    • Heh, I think you might be one of those exceptions among young women today. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, I just thought EVERYONE has tried erotica. :D I understand your reluctance, though, if I wasn’t as curious (and a romance reader before I tried it), it would put me off, too. I often want to wash my eyeballs if I read something particularly icky (and it’s often hard to tell if the book will be icky until you read it. They can really be surprising). I had a weird moment at Easter when my younger brother (he’s 26), my cousin (she’s 20) and I discussed 50 Shades in a living room full of other relatives who just looked at us like we’d grown another head each.

      Oh and it’s not just the MALE anatomy that gets funny descriptions, oh no! :)

      Yep, I’d be worried about whether the guy is “clean”, too. I mean, not that people who’ve had fewer partners can’t get diseases, but the chances are just that much lower. *ick*

  • I’m not generally a romance genre reader, but I don’t mind romance as a subplot if it’s done well. My biggest pet peeves there usually have to do with love triangles, insta-love, lust-love (called love, but is really just hormones), and obsessive behavior. You ID’d three more perfectly. The ridiculous descriptions usually do more harm than good, and the million-previous-partners thing is especially off-putting. (I’m curious. How often in real life does a serial player meet “the one” and suddenly give up years of conditioned behavior?) Great post, Kaja!

    • Ha, love triangles aren’t actually that common in adult romances and/or erotica, you know. It’s more of a YA thing (at least as far as I’ve seen). And I agree, it’s such a cliche. They are so rarely done well.

      And you raise a good point. I mean, the woman who finally “catches” and “tames” (hate that expression) the player would have to be some sort of superwoman to keep his attentions or something. Ugh.

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  • Haha ok, yes, I totally have some things to say about this topic because I so agree.

    First of all, the descriptions. One of my favorite series actually didn’t ever *describe* any intimate body parts, and, in fact, they were always mentioned in rather subtle, indirect ways. It was FANTASTIC though. Like, the sex scenes were so beautiful and definitely sexy, but never vulgar. So yeah, less is more, at least in terms of concrete details.

    Second, “fantastically, euphorically spectacular” is cracking me up because I’m so tired of that too. I don’t want to read about bad sex either, but my favorite scenes are the ones that are still kind of unrealistic lol but at least not completely out of this world, mindblowingly, earth-shatteringly perfect.

    As for the men who’ve slept around, they do exist lol. I’ve known a few. But I would definitely feel like I wasn’t very special if I was just one out of a hundred partners.

    Great discussion :-)

    • I hate it when romance crosses the line and becomes vulgar. I’ve read my share of erotica and I HAVE found examples of it that can pull off explicit without being crass, but both descriptions of actual sex and the dirty talk can be really weird sometimes. I guess I need my romance to be ROMANTIC as well as sexy? (Call me old-fashioned…)

      Yep, I expect both parties to enjoy sex (I mean, it can be a beautiful thing that occurs between two willing adults) because without enjoyment, I don’t really see a point to it (except if you’re making babies but even then enjoyment is vastly preferred). But sometimes I just want to say: “Stop. You’ve had enough for one night. Just – sleep.”

      And yeeeaahhh I know that both men and women sleep around, it’s a free society after all, but I just haven’t met a man whom I would consider sleeping with (if I wasn’t married) that has slept with like 50 women. I don’t make a habit of asking people “how many sex partners have you had”, so I may actually know such folk without knowing this bit about them, though. :)

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  • ALL OF THIS and also–birth control? Hello?