Do Romance Novels set Unrealistic Expectations? By Melissa Cutler

I’m super excited to have my friend Melissa Cutler on the blog today! I first met Melissa about a year ago at the San Diego RWA meeting. I was new to the chapter and Melissa was one of the first people to greet me and make sure I felt welcome. I’ve been smitten with her ever since.

When I asked her to do a guest post for the blog, I had no idea what she’d write about, but since I have loved every book she’s written, I knew it would be fabulous ~ and it is! She’s talking about love, conflict, and, well why don’t you read what she wrote…

Do Romance Novels set Unrealistic Expectations? By Melissa Cutler

After my mom read my debut release, The Trouble with Cowboys, she called me. One of her comments was:

“who would’ve guessed you knew so much about resolving conflicts?”

I’d never considered that angle before, and it got me thinking about writers and how conflict resolution is a huge part of storytelling. We create characters who are often so at odds with each other that the reader wonders if resolving their differences is even possible, then make them do exactly that by the end of the book.

The trick is making the resolution feel realistic. If a historical heroine has decided she can’t marry the hero because it will leave her younger siblings at the mercy of their evil step-mother, you can’t just insert a random grizzly bear into the story to take out the step-mother while she takes her morning constitutional stroll through the gardens. That’s an extreme example, of course, but my point is that making conflict resolution in a story too easy or fast or unnatural isn’t satisfying to readers.

The irony is that while an author’s job is to make conflict resolution believable and realistic, often times in real life, conflicts don’t get resolved. Last week, one of my editors commented on Twitter:

“I have a feeling most dating complications are misunderstandings, so why can’t they be more like novels and talked through?”

I agree with him to a certain extent about real world complications stemming from a lack of communication, but I would add lack of effort to the list of causes. I see that all the time with people I know—one or both parties don’t fight for the relationship, for whatever reason, so it fizzles (or flames) out.

This would never happen in a romance novel, would it?

In romance, both the hero and heroine, or at least one of them at first, has to care enough to fight. Otherwise we wouldn’t have a book, right? The characters must overcome their conflicts. They must endeavor to talk things through. To make it work in the name of love, come hell or high water. One of the reasons I love reading and writing romance is the pleasure I get from experiencing people fighting passionately for who they want in their lives, what they believe in, and what they want their future to look like. By “fighting”, I mean doing whatever it takes—talking, changing their beliefs or habits, overcoming external obstacles, and evolving into better people.

Does fiction—particularly romance fiction with its happy endings—give us unrealistic expectations in our real life relationships?

No way, at least not for this optimist. In great books, the conflict resolution isn’t easy or pain free; it’s messy and hard won and full of lessons on how to handle relationships in our real lives. Experiencing how fictional characters resolve their conflicts empowers us and encourages us to fight for what and who we want, to evolve into better, more authentic versions of ourselves, and give our all in the name of love. Books remind us to talk to each other and resolve our differences because relationships are worth it—we’re worth it.

Rather than setting up unrealistic expectations, the relationships in romance novels inspire us to overcome our insecurities, be bold in the pursuit of love and happiness, and to not settle for anything less than our best, authentic selves and the best, authentic selves of the people in our lives. Does everyone in the world subscribe to this way of thinking? Not even close. But here’s my advice:

don’t waste your precious time with people who are less than authentic, who don’t try to communicate, or who aren’t bold. Life’s too short to settle.

My thanks to Tameri for having me on her blog today and thanks to you for indulging in my rambling meditation. I wish you an unending well of love, passion, and happiness—both in your real life and in the books you read. You deserve nothing less.

Melissa Cutler Author PhotoBio: Melissa Cutler knows she has the best job in the world, dividing her time between her dual passions for writing sexy contemporary romances for Kensington Books and edge-of-your-seat romantic suspense for Harlequin. She was struck at an early age by an unrelenting travel bug and is probably planning her next vacation as you read this. When she’s not globetrotting, she’s enjoying Southern California’s flip-flop wearing weather and wrangling two rambunctious kids.

Tempted into Danger coverHer current release, Tempted into Danger, is in stores now.






Thank YOU Melissa for stopping by the blog! I love, absolutely love your advice. Don’t settle. Ever. Being a fan of happily-ever-afters I share your enthusiasm for people fighting for what they believe in and love.

What do you readers think? Do romance novels set unrealistic expectations? Do you prefer happy-ever-afters or are you more into gritty endings?


38 thoughts on “Do Romance Novels set Unrealistic Expectations? By Melissa Cutler

  1. Thanks for hosting me, Tameri. I love your blog and was so honored to be asked to guest post with you. It was your positive, optimistic energy that drew me to you the first time we met. I make a policy of surrounding myself with happy people such as yourself.

    Thanks again!


  2. I’d be totally okay if the grizzly bear showed up at the wedding. Just saying. But yes, we do resolve conflicts in our stories that would probably go on in real life for years. It’s fiction, folks! Plus, I like to think it gives readers the hope that they, too, can muddle through things and talk it out with their loved ones, etc.

    • You would be okay with the grizzly! I can see that going into one of your books… what would Peri do if a grizzly showed up at her wedding? I’d love to read that. 😉

      That’s a great way of looking at it, Gayle. We’re helping people figure out how to deal with relationships. So, writers are also love doctors. Sweet.

  3. To a certain extent, I do think they can set unrealistic expectations — we can’t all be married to a wealthy billionaire or a gorgeous twenty five year old cowboy when we’re 40! But I think when you dig a little deeper, you find yourself longing for more than just the physical aspect of the story and that is achievable. Romance novels are about unconditional love — and unconditional love exists!

    • Thanks for stopping by the blog. I totally agree that unconditional love exists and is worth fighting for, though I must respectfully disagree about another point. I’d wager that the vast majority of people who read romance novels don’t “expect” to marry wealthy, gorgeous partners just because they enjoy that fantasy aspect in books any more than people who enjoy action-adventure spy movies expect to have the opportunity to save the world from evil villains.

      • I see novels, all genres, as fantasy. When you pick up a book you’re entering a fantasy world created by the writer. It might be contemporary New York, but it’s fictional and therefore fantasy. By reading fiction we agree that what we’re reading won’t necessarily happen to us, but we can dream. When I read about billionaires I totally want to be that hot 25 year-old that he’s lusting after. Same with thrillers. I wanted to be John Rain (from Barry Eisler’s thrillers), for two years! I’ll never be a middle-aged Japanese man with bad knees, but that didn’t stop me from fantasizing I was totally kickass!

        Books allow us to escape, not expect.

  4. Melissa- I was just having this conversation last night. Creating that level of conflict is the hardest part of writing for me. I don’t want to hurt my characters that way. But why else would they need to change and evolve into better people and partners? Almost every real life relationship I know that works now, went through some pretty tough growing pains in the beginning. Mine included. In Romance, those growing pains are romanticized but aren’t usually unrealistic. I love the happy endings, that’s why I read Romance.

    Tameri- I, too, love your energy and verve! Glad I found your blog. Gonna go read through it and catch up. 🙂

    • Hello my darling Rachael! I’m so glad you found the blog. Isn’t it fabulous that Melissa’s here? Someday your book will be here, too. But first, you have to hurt your characters. Be evil. Make it painful. Then make it all gooey with love. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

  5. They do when you’re young, I think. I remember reading L.J. Smith’s Night World series when I was a teenager and wondering why all the boys my own age in real life were such idiots. 🙂

      • That’s exactly what I was thinking! Oh, those dreamy boys from our books. That’s why we read and write, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but my heroes never burp or scratch or fart. At least not on the page. They are my idea of perfection, even with their flaws. Bless them for being hot, too.

  6. I do think everyone wants a happy ending, whether in a romance novel or real life. A novel’s happy ending gives us hope for our own life. If the conflict resolution is realistic, though maybe faster paced than real life, it can give the reader ideas on how to work at her own relationship issues. Excellent post, Melissa! Thanks, Tameri for inviting Melissa to post.
    This post and a couple of others I’ve read this week have served as a guideline to keep in mind as I write. Thanks for adding to my list of things to remember for my characters!

  7. Great post! For me, I think the part that may have initially set unrealistic expectations was thinking that being in love always felt like it did in the beginning. Anyone who’s been in a long term relationship knows that those initial pangs ebb and flow, but hard work, friendship and communication help maintain the love. Lust/infatuation burns very hot, but has a tendency to peter out without a solid base.

    • Ohmigosh, you’re so right! I think for a long time I was addicted to the lust thing and all my relationships were short. But then I met my husband and actually put in the time and hard work to make our marriage last and it’s been 17 years! I love him way more than ever, but even more importantly, I LIKE him. So, so much. Thanks for your comment! You’ve got me wanting to do something nice for my husband now. Poor dear has to put up with a lot being married to me. 🙂

      • Heh! You know, he may appreciate you doing something nice TO him more than FOR him…LOL! 😉

        But seriously, the liking is so much more important than we often realize in our younger years. When there’s no one you’d rather spend your time with…that’s when you know it’s good.

        There’s a reason they say “a successful marriage takes falling in love over and over again with the same person.”

      • Kitt wrote what I was thinking, about having to fall in love with your partner over and over again as the years go on. I’ve been with my husband for sixteen years and our relationship has gone through so many different phases, and in each one, we’ve worked to fall in love with each other all over again.

        One of my favorite romance tropes is people who were in love, fell out of love for whatever reason, then fight to get back together. My dear friend Laura Drake has a book out right now like that called The Sweet Spot. The husband and wife suffered the loss of a child, grew apart and divorced before the book opened, and the book is the story of how they decided to fight for their relationship.

        I think people who don’t reach much romance aren’t aware of how prevalent “reunion romance” is as a theme. Sustaining love definitely takes work!

        Thanks for stopping by the blog, Kitt.

  8. Excellent Blog. I prefer books that have the HEA, but I like them to be realistic in what happens to get them there. Love your books Melissa!

  9. Great post Melissa!

    I read to escape and it certainly doesn’t lead me to expect a hard body vampire…. Do I fantasize about one? You betcha! LOL

    But that doesn’t make me sad that real life doesn’t parallel that immortal dream! LOL I’m actually really happy with a man who loves me for who I am and supports and believes in me even more than I do at times… That’s my version of a superhero! 🙂


  10. Great and thought-provoking post, Melissa.

    My challenge is to suspend my own belief when I’m writing about conflict. I hate making my heroine experience emotional trauma, or take action that’s ill-advised, dangerous, or in the how-could-she-do-that-horrid-thing category. Paraphrasing Donald Maass’ advice to “think of the worst thing that could happen to (or be done by) your protagonist, and make that happen; then make it even worse.”

    If I’m in the proper mindset for writing — that is to say — writing through my character’s eyes, I’m riddled with angst over how in the heck she/he is going to get out of this mess.

    But, that’s what creates spit-lick-page-flip novels.

    Off now to scratch the scene with the bear attacking my villain. Hey! It’s a mountain setting. It could happen. 😉

    • Hi Gloria,

      It’s so damn hard to hurt our characters, isn’t it? I’m a huge Donal Maass fan and am glad you referenced that quote because it revolutionized the way I write. When I set out to write a new book, I first have to figure out who my characters are on a deep level, then I figure out what their worse fears are, then I figure out how to make those fears come true in an unexpected way that involves the other main character. When I figure that out, the basic structure for my book is done.

      Best of luck with your writing! Watch out for those bears 🙂


  11. Love the article. Do I think romance novels set unrealistic expectations. I think they can, yes. We look at the sensitive, tender, romantic, passionate, mostly perfect man in a story…and then we look at what we have – or had…and he is/was nothing like the man we just spent hours drooling over.

    Mostly I think they make readers wish. I think they highlight what’s missing in our lives, which is why romance novels are probably so popular. We wish we had what the heroine has, so we escape into her life for a day or two because it fills needs that aren’t being met in real life.

    I also believe that they can be a carrot though – motivation to go after what it is we need and want. Well, as long as what we think we need isn’t a buff, handsome, sexy, romantic, billionaire…who would also qualify as the world’s best lover/husband/friend/father rolled into one. If that’s our goal when we finish the story then yeah, our expectations might be a little unrealistic. 🙂

      • I’m baaaack!

        Kristy’s comment was another angle I first thought of when I read the title of your post. In romance novels (those that don’t slam the bedroom door on me, IYKWIM), the female seldom has issues and Alpha Male knows how to ring her bell every time. Even virgins.

        Then, the female romance reader hits her own bed still undereducated about female sensuality and how to communicate what we want from our partner.

        I’m not going to give away the sex scenes in my novel, but suffice to say, readers will learn some lessons I picked up in the early Girl Boner days.

        That is all. 😉

  12. There’s a great discussion going on here. I believe all that’s being said about the romance genre can be applied to almost any genre. Most of us read fiction to escape and move into ‘that other world for a bit of time.’ The other world might not be much better than the one we find ourselves living in at the moment, but at least, we escape our own problems. We also know within the genre of romance we’ll see a HEA and often the same is true in women’s fiction, especially if the growth arch has been completed successfully. I additionally like what I see in all genres I read. In about 95% of the novels, the cast of characters are becoming more mature and with real world experience. For me, this has led to more believable conflict resolution.

    Now, if someone would only insist that our congress and supreme court have real world experience before they are elected or appointed to the bench. They haven’t a clue when it comes to conflict resolution.

  13. I feel like one of the Monkees when I say that I’m a believer! I believe in happily-ever-afters! I know. I’m a sap, but I’m a girl, so I love romance. I ditto Gloria’s comment about your comment Melissa, “books allow us to escape, not to expect.” So glad I had a chance to meet you here on Tameri’s blog. I really did enjoy your post. And thank you Tameri for sharing Melissa with us! 🙂

    • Now I’ve got that song in my head! That’s not such a bad thing, though. I loved the Monkees. Ah, Davey Jones…

      I’m so pleased you enjoyed Mellissa’s visit. She totally rocks!

  14. Pingback: My Weekly Updates – The Thrill of it All Blogfest | Sydney Aaliyah

  15. Pingback: Page not found | Tameri Etherton

I'd love to hear from you!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s